- Composed by Danny Elfman
- Sony Classical / 2016 / 52m
While often not literary masterpieces, it’s usually not hard to see what makes any particular year’s publishing phenomenon so popular. 2015’s was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and it’s the exception: I’m absolutely baffled as to why anyone thought this story about unpleasant, emotionally bereft simpletons doing stupid things, leading up to the most obvious “twist” was any good. Anyway, lots of people read it so it’s become a film, shifted from London to New York and starring Emily Blunt and Rebecca Ferguson.
Tate Taylor’s film provides Danny Elfman with another opportunity to score something that will almost certainly be savaged by critics but make lots of money following last year’s Fifty Shades of Grey. While the film might be puerile (unless it tells a different story from the book), it seems the composer has managed to get some inspiration from it, because he’s written a serious, compelling work that for the first time in a while (in film) has taken him out of his comfort zone and into some new territory.
In fact, Elfman has managed something which has eluded most professional film composers for many years now – mainstream film critics have enthusiastically praised his score. Such praise is usually reserved only for visiting dignitaries from the world of rock music. It does give you an idea of the style of music – introspective, textural – indeed in some ways this is like a proper film composer writing a Reznor/Ross-style score, and showing how to do it in a more musically-interesting way, with real dramatic weight behind it.
There’s percussion everywhere, guitars, synths, a small orchestra too but only for support. The opening “Riding the Train” is typical – there’s momentum, but also an ambient haze over it, cleverly capturing the unreliable narrator (fuelled by alcoholism) at the heart of the story. Then come the processed piano and strings in “Something’s Not Right” – again it’s got a rhythmic base which propels it along, but again there’s a distinctly unsettled feel to it, not just because of the abrasive electronic effects but also the off-kilter sounds – there’s always something slightly on edge. Then, “Megan” is a gorgeous piece of multi-layered electronica, brief but so memorable.
The bulk of the score draws from and extends upon those opening cues. The dominant feeling is certainly tension but Elfman keeps things moving along at pace so it doesn’t every become overbearing. There are dramatic highs along the way – “3 Women”, the brilliant vocal effects of “Missing Time”, the incessant hum of “Uncertainty” – but the real star here is the way everything holds together so coherently. The same little colours fade in and out of nearly every cue, rhythmic pods link everything together. It’s in “Memory” – track 18, and at six minutes the longest – that the first signs of release (and relief) come, repeating musical effects rising to a cacophony and then falling back again – it’s a modern take on how Ennio Morricone used to score thrillers forty years ago and it’s very impressive. When the ironic heavenly voices appear in “Self Defence”, it’s unexpected and beautiful; then comes the first properly-developed melody of the whole score in “Resolution”, the piano solo (for the first time, unprocessed) quite beautiful.
The Girl on the Train will absolutely not be for everyone: it’s textural, unmelodic, ambient, mostly electronic and at times it’s distinctly uncomfortable. I think it was Robert Townson who once said “film music isn’t a type of music – it’s all types of music” which I think is a great quote but it’s also true, and what links the best film music is the dramatic undercurrent – finding different musical ways of solving dramatic problems. This musical way is just as valid as any other but it’s rarely done as interestingly as this – Danny Elfman’s pulled it off beautifully. The whole score is like a trip through a damaged mind, little fragments placed early on being recalled and developed later, real clarity saved for the very last. Very impressive.