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Grown-up action/suspense score from Elfman is full of thrills
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
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Album cover copyright (c) 1996 Paramount Pictures; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
The first Mission: Impossible movie was unusually gifted with creative talent, with the screenwriters of Jurassic Park, Schindler's List and Chinatown sharing the credits and one of the few reasonably well-respected directors also able to produce big box office receipts being behind the camera. While the film did a lot of business, critical reaction was somewhat muted, which seems as bizarre to me now as it did back then: serious critics forever pour scorn on summer blockbusters for being dumb and featuring cardboard cut-out characters, so finally a mega-budget movie comes along which features a plot that requires an element of thought on the part of the audience (shock! horror!) and characters who actually seem to have reasonable motivations for doing the things they are doing, and those same critics say it's over-complex and difficuly for audiences to understand. Such is life. Personally, I found it to be one of the best popcorn action movies in a long time.
Originally Alan Silvestri was down to score but his music was rejected and Danny Elfman brought in quite late in the day. For once, those who have heard the rejected score report that its removal was justified, and I have to say that it was one of Silvestri's weakest efforts, coming off as a bland retread of John Williams's Nixon (of all things) - the decision to employ Elfman was a wise one.
Elfman's score pretty much polarised opinion when it was first heard, with many of his old fans unhappy with the direction his career was heading (he had developed tremendously since his much simpler, and more obviously crowd-pleasing early days) but others embracing the new Elfman. Over time though it is clear that it marked something of a turning point in the composer's career, with him deciding to concentrate on writing far more "adult" (for want of a better word) music thereafter. In common with what was to come, Elfman's score is not based around big themes, but instead clever, minute motifs which combine, separate, play over one another and morph in completely unexpected directions over the course of the score. Of course, Elfman also incorporates Lalo Schifrin's immortal theme from the television series into his score. Heard both over the opening titles and in the action-packed finale, it's wonderful to hear such a wonderful piece of film music being updated so well. The other main (obvious) thematic device used by Elfman is Schifrin's "The Plot" theme from the original series which appears in much of the action music.
If the action music is what gets the crowd on their feet, credit must be given to Elfman for his suspense music, which is fantastic. As I write regularly, suspense music is the most difficult thing for a film composer to write in a musically-interesting way, and Elfman's work here is a model. The (literally) bells-and-whistles approach he takes to a cue like "The Disc", with both conventional and unconventional percussion flying in from everywhere, is highly-reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, with that composer's The Untouchables (another excellent de Palma blockbuster) seemingly having had an influence here; also, "Betrayal", in which a choir is added to the mix, is another strong piece.
The score continues to divide opinion, but I imagine that many who dismissed it upon its initial release would be in for a surprise were they to revisit it today, ten years later. The music might not (apart from the stunning final action track, "Zoom B") be obviously crowdpleasing, but it is brilliantly-constructed, and the disc impresses from start to finish.