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STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
Powerful documentary music sees Elfman branch out, stretch himself, fully deliver
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Sony Pictures Entertainment; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall
Errol Morris's latest documentary, Standard Operating Procedure looks into the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and considers the use of evil to combat evil. The incidents were brought to the world's attention after the publication of the infamous photos showing prisoners made to climb on top of each other to form a naked human pyramid, to urinate on each other, and other unbelievable acts, and I'm sure few people came away from it with much to feel proud about. Morris has worked most frequently with composer Philip Glass in the past (most recently on The Fog of War) but this time round Danny Elfman gets one of his most intriguing assignments in years.
That Elfman's music here does have a touch of Philip Glass about it is perhaps not that surprising; more surprising is how natural a sound this seems for Elfman - I would never have considered the two composers to be similar in any way - and ultimately you would never mistake this music for anyone other than Elfman. I suppose one might go into a score like this expecting an ambient, textural approach from the composer, but his music is melodic and orchestral (augmented by synths and samples) throughout.
Of course, it isn't full of cheery tunes, but there are one or two really very fine themes which recur, including the compelling "SOP Theme #1" which opens the album and features in a number of other cues, including the riveting "Saddam's Egg". Some of the music is actually adapted from Elfman's concert piece "Serenada Schizophrena", including the brilliant main title, and while only a couple of tracks are credited as being such, actually a lot of it is like an extension of that piece (the more straight-faced sections of it, anyway). Much of the music is slightly distant, not necessarily offering an opinion on the visuals, merely accompanying them in a compelling way, but occasionally Elfman goes beyond that, such as in the strained anguish of "Gilligan", a cracking piece.
I don't think music for documentaries is going to become anyone's favourite genre of film music, but there is something in the way that each of the nineteen cues here is a self-contained real piece of music that is very appealing. For sure, there's a little repetition, but you could take any of these pieces in isolation and it would make sense as a piece of music - Elfman has adapted very well to the requirements of this film, which are very different from the requirements of anything else he's scored. He's at the stage in his career now (55 years old, well-respected, I can't believe he needs the money any more) where he can really pick and choose his projects, and if he picks well then he'll only cement his reputation as one of the finest film composers of his generation - and Standard Operating Procedure is certainly picking well, offering him a chance to do something he's never done before, and do it as well as this. Highly recommended.