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Fifty Shades of Grey
  • Composed by Danny Elfman
  • Republic Records / 2015 / 46m

E.L. James’s unbelievably successful, critic-proof novel Fifty Shades of Grey was bound to make its way to the big screen before long.  It was bound to get savaged by critics and bound to be tremendously successful.  In fact, lots of things about it were bound.  It was slightly surprising when acclaimed artist and occasional filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson signed on direct it – a touch of unexpected class?  Slightly surprising also was her choice of composer – Danny Elfman.

Elfman’s been mixing his now very familiar Tim Burton shtick with kids’ movies and the occasional light drama for a few years now and I have to say that I’ve been becoming less interested in his new music as this period of his career has gone on.  There hasn’t been anything particularly wrong with it – it’s just become very safe and dare I say predictable, that famous musical personality seeing its edges sanded down a little bit more with each passing year.  Film music’s one-time wild child has become one of its elder statesmen now so it’s very understandable, but I’d be lying if I said I particularly looked forward to new music by Danny Elfman these days and lying most of all if I said I was particularly looking forward to hearing his take on Fifty Shades of Grey, a film it was hard to imagine him doing because he saw a genuine opportunity to write fascinating music.

Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman

All of which goes to show that sometimes one’s prejudices are entirely ill-founded – because this is his most enjoyable new dramatic film music in five years, since Alice in Wonderland.  What it is resolutely not is another to add to the list of steamy, erotically-charged film music for similar films (Body Heat, Basic Instinct and so on) – indeed it is the slightly detached, somewhat passionless feel which is one of the things that makes it so interesting.  There is a certain erotic intensiveness here and an undoubted intimacy without any hint of love or romance or even emotion – and the composer pulls it off (if you pardon the expression) very impressively.

The relatively small ensemble features strings, piano, percussion, guitars and synths and is used largely to provide colour and texture – not feeling.  That means that when a melody does come through, it has a hypnotic effect – like the gorgeous “Going for Coffee”, a spunky outburst from a sea of atmosphere; or the delicate piano and later violin of “Clean You Up”; or the slightly playful “The Art of War”, which seems to contain a few knowing nods and winks towards the audience.  Elsewhere the composer uses a drum kit at times and in those moments it becomes like million dollar porn music (in a good way!)

Two cues are worthy of particular note (and they’re not the two that appear on the song-based soundtrack album and will therefore probably pay for a new private jet for the composer, should he want one).  Out of nowhere comes “Bliss”, a piece of religioso choral music which is unlike anything I’ve heard from this composer before – and outstanding.  Then there’s the longest cue, the concluding “Variations on a Shade”, with just a hint of Thomas Newman about it in its micro variations on a rhythmic pattern which prove to be truly hypnotic.

This is something quite different from Elfman’s norm.  It’s intimate but not stuck up in an endless parade of drum loops and synth pads.  Somehow he has crafted something with genuine class for Fifty Shades of Grey, consistently interesting and worthy of considerable exploration and praise.  Don’t be put off by the film it was written for – this is inspired music, interesting music,intelligent music – definitely worth investing in.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Irons (Reply) on Monday 23 February, 2015 at 00:17

    “An endless parade of drum loops and synth pads” > Which score(s) are you referring to ? Though I, like you, have been less consistently taken with Elfman’s scores these past years, it seems strange to describe the Elfman norm as “an endless parade of drum loops and synth pads”…

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Monday 23 February, 2015 at 00:20

    None, really. I wasn’t suggesting that was the norm for Elfman, just clarifying that because this score isn’t a Body Heat or Basic Instinct doesn’t mean it’s like that.

  3. Irons (Reply) on Monday 23 February, 2015 at 00:39

    Ah I understand, thanks for the clarification.