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Warm, beautiful drama score from Elfman

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Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Focus Features; review copyright (c) 2009 James Southall.

2008 was an excellent year for Danny Elfman.  His first score was for Errol Morris's Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure, for which he provided a compelling score, something very different from what he had written before; next came the forgettable action film Wanted, but its score was anything but forgettable - indeed, perhaps the most entertaining action score of the year.  He was a rather controversial choice to score Hellboy 2, given the popularity (and quality) of Marco Beltrami's score for the first film, but the controversy soon died down after people actually heard his music, a colourful collection of many of the little quirks and styles he has employed in the last decade or so.

His final score of 2008 is Milk.  It's also the one which has been nominated for an Oscar, and while musically any of the foursome would have made worthy nominees, this film's subject matter made it by far the most likely.  A biopic of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, featuring what many people consider to be the finest performance of Sean Penn's career, it's the kind of serious fare that many of us would love to see Elfman tackling more regularly.  He opens with "Harvey's Theme 1", a noble, flowing piece of Americana which is one of the year's warmest and most memorable themes.

In the main titles piece, he introduces a version of it with saxophone, which is a great variation.  "Politics is Theatre" is a wonderful little piece, the second half of which is a bit of slapstick scoring integrated so well into music which is otherwise certainly not slapstick, one can only stand back and admire Elfman's technique.  There's a large number of very short cues here, but Elfman has taken a Thomas Newman-like approach and each is a satisfying little vignette - to write 35 minutes of music in 22 tracks and not have it end up sounding frustratingly bitty and piecemeal is not easy, but Elfman pulls it off very well, and there are some terrific little bursts here, such as the blustery "Harvey Wins" or the very witty "Dog Poo" (easily the year's finest track title).

There's real energy in "Gay Rights Now!" with choppy strings reminding me of another late-year score, Hans Zimmer's Frost/Nixon, though there's more depth to Elfman's version.  Another thing which isn't easy is scoring wordy drama with captivating music like this - so well done Mr Elfman, showing that he is certainly a heavyweight film composer when the need arises (as if we needed showing).  I never thought I'd hear a piece by Elfman and be reminded of John Williams - but that's what happens in the terrific "Vote Passes", highly reminiscent of the warmest moments of Williams's scores for Oliver Stone.

A couple of lengthier cues appear towards the end of the album, and while I hesitate to call them more substantial (the shorter cues aren't really insubstantial to begin with - they're just short) it is nice that Elfman had the opportunity to flesh out one or two of his ideas.  "Harvey's Last Day" and "Give 'Em Hope" are somewhat "homely" pieces, with piano and guitars, but there's certainly a bit of an edge to them (not surprising if you know how the film ends) to go along with the beautiful sentiment.  Milk is a really fine score from Elfman, certainly deserving of the plaudits it's attracted; and if he continues into 2009 in the kind of form he found himself during 2008, then we're in for a real treat.


  1. Queen Bitch David Bowie (3:14)
  2. Everyday People Sly and the Family Stone (2:21)
  3. Rock the Boat Hues Corporation (3:18)
  4. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) Sylvester (6:34)
  5. Hello, Hello Sopwith Camel (2:24)
  6. Bach: Prelude No 7 in E Flat The Swingle Sisters (2:39)
  7. Harvey's Theme 1 (1:11)
  8. Main Titles (3:06)
  9. Harvey's Will (1:41)
  10. The Castro (:59)
  11. The Kiss (:45)
  12. Politics is Theatre (3:15)
  13. New Hope (1:46)
  14. Harvey Wins (:31)
  15. Proposition 6 (1:25)
  16. Repealed Rights (1:03)
  17. Gay Rights Now! (2:20)
  18. Dog Poo (:25)
  19. Vote Passes (:53)
  20. Briggs Pushing (:44)
  21. The Debates (2:48)
  22. Weepy Donuts (:52)
  23. Harvey's Last Day (3:11)
  24. Give 'Em Hope (4:42)
  25. Postscript (2:03)
  26. Harvey's Theme 2 (1:00)
  27. Anita's Theme (:52)
  28. Main Titles Sax Solo (2:32)