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The Girl on the Train
  • 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.

Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman

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.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Addie (Reply) on Monday 10 October, 2016 at 22:52

    James,knowing that I would be seeing this movie today, I didn’t want to read your review yesterday. Now that I have sat through this rather that rather confusing movie, I think your review was spot on! First off, I read this book when it was first released because “i like trains” and have such wonderful memories of frequently riding the train when I was a child. (I know that’s a.silly reason to read a book!) But the book is beside the point, and I figured out the who the meanie was close to the beginning! While watching the movie, I started thinking that maybe I only imagined reading the book since it was so confusing! As with the book, there was not much to it until the end.
    HOWEVER, your review was spot-on!!! I prefer a beautiful melody, but that’s not the only thing that’s important. I think this score did support the movie very well. I think the score made it a BETTER movie. The only time I ground my teeth was in the section with the “out of tune piano”, and maybe that was electronic. I always look forward to a new Elfman score because there are others of his that I love – but just the ones with lush melodic tracks! But he certainly understood what would work with this movie!

  2. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Friday 14 October, 2016 at 00:04

    Both ‘Girl on the Train’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ premiered last Friday. I presume ELFMAN was so occupied with scoring duties for ‘Girl….’ that he couldn’t collaborate with Burton–and without ELFMAN’S music to highlight the oddball kids, their eccentricities, the manipulation of timeframes, phenomenal shape-shifting and other weird happenings, the film falls flat. It’s only because of his music’s absence from this Burton production, that I realize the enormity of ELFMAN’S contribution to their many partnerships. Two composers, MICHAEL HIGHAM and MATTHEW MARGESON, worked on the Burton movie…their music, unfortunately, lacked the sense of ‘camp’ that ElFMAN was so effortlessly able to infuse his scores with–the jaunty melodies, the choruses with marvellous percussive rhythms and the many sonic indulgences. Every review I’ve read of ‘The Girl on the Train’ lavishes the same praise, that you did James, for ELFMAN’S score that is “the lone creative element to command coercive interest…his music makes the film seem good from time to time.” I’ll view it next week, just to hear ELFMAN’S departure from his Burton tropes.