CD Review: The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus – Original Soundtrack

By • January 4, 2010

Composers: Mychael and Jeff Danna
Label: Lionsgate
Suggested Retail Price: $13.98
Grade: A


Terry Gilliam might have started off using hilariously portentous library music for his first two features MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and JABBERWOCKY. But since Mike Moran unleashed the delightful (and lamentably still unreleased) score for TIME BANDITS, Gilliam has gone with wholly original soundtracks to encompass such uniquely twisted visions as armored angels, fiery knights, diseased future worlds and a ravenous witch- images which have addled the imaginations of composers like Michael Kamen (BRAZIL), George Fenton (THE FISHER KING), Paul Buckmaster (TWELVE MONKEYS) and Dario Marianelli (THE BOTHERS GRIMM). And if their soundtracks had something in common, it was an ironic, overstuffed orchestral voice- all the better to be heard over the brilliantly chaotic din of Gilliam’s imagination.

Now it looks as if the Pythonite may have permanently hitched two brothers to his company of players after having Mychael and Jeff Danna score TIDELAND and his newest film THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS. It’s an image that suggests two manacled Siamese twins bounding across a Baroque stage, a violin in each hand. But while the wholly normal-looking Dannas might disappoint on that account, their ability to compose uniquely singular scores with THE ICE STORM and GIRL, INTERRUPTED (Mychael) and O and BOONDOCK SAINTS (Jeff), then seamlessly meld their melodic ideas for FRACTURE is a musical trick to be admired. It was certainly was no easy task jumping into one of Gilliam’s more frenetic, and intriguingly mystifying movies with the barely-seen TIDELAND, which saw them play an abandoned child’s dreams with grand heartland darkness. Though Gilliam’s new IMAGINARIUM may have had an unfortunately tragic production, the Dannas have helped unveil this even more confounding fantasy with impressive flair, showing that any tone can happen when entering Gilliam’s twisted fantasyland.

Said place in IMAGINARIUM belongs to wizened mystic-cum-actor, whose audience has a habit of walking behind his stage’s mystic mirror to the peril of their souls and sanity. Then one stormy night, Parnassus’ troop rescue an amnesiac, a man who becomes a pawn in the game between the Doctor and The Devil, with the performer’s virginal daughter at stake. Though the brief description doesn’t begin to encompass the twisting madness of the film’s “plot,” the Dannas’ hellzapoppin’ score does the best it can to follow PARNASSUS’ surreal escapades, changing visages and devilish sense of morality.

But if Gilliam’s strenuous efforts are respectable for him just being able to pull this madness off in the first place, the Dannas’ work is unreservedly enjoyable. They’re right in tune with the film’s bizarrro theatricality, a sense of the vainglorious that’s played with both flourish and intelligence. And they’ve wrapped it into a seemingly traditional fairytale score sound of tinkerbells, lilting violins, soaring symphonies and Eastern European instruments. Except musically here it’s a sexy, LSD-influenced Grimm’s fable, preying on adult precepts of what “fairy tale” music is supposed to sound like. It’s a score that’s also brash, boastful, and always melody-driven, with a distinctively dark theme that tells us Parnassus isn’t some simple, likeably doddering master thespian. Even the film’s romantic theme gives you a sense of trouble for what’s up its young hero’s sleeve. And when your devil is played here by Tom Waits, then you’ve also got to have some Bertold Brecht-ian sounds at hand, from sinisterly sexy brass to the accordion and tangos of the Three Penny Opera damned (there’s even a cute raspberry ditty called “We Love Violence” to cement the allusion).

When the orchestra takes over with full resonance in such thundering, exotic cues as “The Tack” and “Escape From the Pub,” it’s hard not to draw deliberately florid comparisons for how Michael Kamen scored the equally theatrical ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN for Gilliam. Perhaps the similarity is inescapable given the idea of a trickster putting on a big show, and there’s no doubt that Kamen would applaud from the clouds at one of the most vital scores that Gilliam’s gotten since then.

Beyond their bigger efforts, the Dannas are also two of the reigning champs of the indie / art scoring scene. Having composing feet in two worlds allows them to make IMAGINARIUM’s score as epic as it can be intimately unique- often both at the same time as accordions and a rampaging orchestra gobble up some Russian mafia goons, or as a soaring orchestra settles on “A Tango in the Lilies.” If you didn’t know the Dannas were Canadian, you could easily assume they hailed from the European bloodlines of an Alexandre Desplat (FANTASIC MR. FOX) or Bruno Coulais (CORALINE), given this score’s daring melodic panache. But then again, IMAGINARIUM’s American-born filmmaker never seemed to be a Yank to begin with, given the kind of outré smarts that Hollywood seems so desperate to stamp out.

As a director who thrives on adversity whether he wants to or not, Gilliam throws his color palette at PARNASSUS’ world for better and worse. And it’s easy to see how this messily imaginative film has inspired the Dannas for a score that’s all about hallucinatory brights and darks. They’re Alice through the melodic looking glass here, joining their already unique visions into a true musical imaginarium that’s worth visiting, at the least for the visions it will conjure in your own, somewhat depraved head.

Reflect on PARNASSUS with Mychael and Jeff Danna here

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