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CD Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

by Luke Goljan



Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ****

DANNY ELFMAN

Warner Bros. 72264

21 tracks - 54:07

Danny Elfman is one of a the precious few films composers working today who has an instantly recognizable style. You don't have to even see Elfman's name pop up on screen to know he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- and what a treat it is! Drawing on his many years of experience, Elfman has created a score with a traceable genesis all throughout his career. Ideas kicked around in the background of other scores come to the forefront here, and new twists are put on familiar sounds. He even manages to work Oingo Boingo into the mix.

The album kicks off with a deceptively annoying start: the obviously "It's a Small World"-inspired "Wonka's Welcome Song." It's damn catchy and it sets the tone for the rest of the score. Someone cleverly thought to stick all the vocal work up front so those that wanted only the songs can hear them without skipping, and those that just want score can skip to track six and dive in -- so all four Oompa Loompa songs follow in succession. If you thought the "Welcome Song" stuck in your head, you'll be in a lot of trouble with these other songs. Each is done in a different pop music style and blends Elfman's orchestral zaniness with Oingo Boingo, featuring Elfman singing, yipping, growling day-o-ing and humming all the parts by himself.

"Augustus Gloop," the longest of the four (because it introduces the Oompa Loompas), features a big band blasting over Elfman's low chanting and loud yodels. "Violet Beauregarde" gets a '70s treatment with porno guitar licks and a beat lovingly recycled from Forbidden Zone (track 7). "Veruca Salt" turns the material into '60s folk, with woodwinds and guitars, along with the least augmented vocals of the bunch -- if you didn't listen to what the lyrics are actually saying you might actually mistake this for an actual pop song. The final song, "Mike Teavee," is a full-on orchestra' rock-out a la Queen. And though it's the shortest of the songs and sounds a lot like it could actually BE a Boingo song, it does the best job of summing up the events on-screen, teaching a lesson and being funny all at once. All these songs have a similar shape to the vocal line (all finding their genesis in "Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka, He's a famous chocolatier!" and share another theme used as a bridging device.

The album would be worth picking up for these four songs alone (and I'm sure plenty of parents will actually have to do this). Though Elfman intended the Oompa Loompa songs to come completely out of the blue and not be thematically connected to the rest of the film, they don't feel completely separate from it. As soon as the Main Titles begin, the general weirdness of the songs again rears its head. Sly strings and a chiming music box style theme (oddly similar to David Arnold's Elfman rip-off stuff "Dawning of the Species" from Godzilla, if anyone else remembers that) give way to loud chanting and what maybe kazoos mixed in. A wavering theremin-like theme surfaces and dances about for a while while voices "ooh" and bells chime. It's a less abrasive take on Mars Attacks, melded with Sleepy Hollow and even a friendlier Red Dragon. It's half childlike wonder, half sinister factory.

Elfman's Charlie theme is probably the weakest part of the score, largely because it keeps going in the Edward Scissorhands direction, but never actually capturing the same amount of emotion. Thankfully, it's not the focus of the score, which shifts into high gear every time it deals with Wonka's factory and mythos. "Wonka's First Shop," "The Indian Palace" and the latter half of "Wheels in Motion" are so much more fun to listen to with their introduction of an organ, "spy" guitar and percussion, sitar, crazy brass for a Middle Eastern marketplace and To Die For chanting. "Wheels in Motion" is particularly interesting in that it blows through a variety of different sounds, from a pensive beginning for Charlie at home to the absolute craziness of the world reacting to Wonka's golden tickets. The style of music changes with each shift in location but retains an overall cohesiveness.

Track 11 gets some Batman Returns harp plucking and strings underscoring the slow walk up to Wonka's front door, while Track 12 brings back the electronic wailing from the Main Titles, introducing us to the indoor candy forest. You would almost expect this moment to be a huge choral piece, but Elfman instead goes for drippy strings and melting electronics to understated, but excellent effect. Towards the end of the track, the tribal flavor of the Oompa Loompas begins to become apparent. "Loompa Land" erupts from the speakers in full glory, hinting at the songs to come with little chanting voices and electric guitar. The Oompa Loompa music is obviously where Elfman had the most fun, mixing in some Forbidden Zone electronics with Planet of the Apes percussion and little buzzing Loompa voices.

"First Candy" captures all the magic of Wonka indulging in his first forbidden treat with a vibrant and playful dance of chorus, celesta and strings; it goes to show that a little more of this approach in the Charlie Bucket music would have helped remove some of the saccharine Burton heaped on. "Up and Out" brings back the electronic wailing for the last time and it dances all over joyously as the characters leave the factory. The second half of "The River Cruise" appears briefly, oddly split off from tracks 14 and 15, which bleed together, providing once last visit to the Oompa Loompa sound before the music makes a pitstop in gooey-ness.

The subplot about Wonka's father is unnecessarily crowbarred into the film and this is gets reflected in the score when the music has to try and wrap up the story with the sad Charlie music, largely ignoring the fun Wonka themes set up in the beginning. Ideally, "Up and Out" would be the last track before the credits and would be allowed to address these themes, but the movie's odd pacing dictates that Elfman drop the fun music and return to the pensive one last time. The big emotional swelling of "Finale" loses something because it hasn't been the focus of the film up until that point. The entire score is built around the Wonka music and themes and to abandon it at the end hurts it.

However, Elfman has one last trick up his sleeve. The credits suite closes the album with the tone it deserves, playing all five Wonka and Oompa Loompa songs minus their vocals. Not only do the songs work just fine this way, they live well alongside each other and get back inside your head once again in case you had somehow forgotten them while listening to the rest of the score. Much like in Flubber, it's fun to hear Elfman jump across pop music sensibilities and filter his style through these four very different voices. No matter how you play it, it's always Danny Elfman. The track ends with the echoes of mischievous Oompa Loompa laughter in what is perhaps a nod to Jerry Goldmsith's Poltergeist.

Besides the overly sweet Charlie Bucket music, the score's other weakness is that parts of the main title music (which also appears in "Wheels in Motion") is similar to John Williams' Witches of Eastwick and some of his Hook string work, both of which are often played under trailers for fantasy films such as this. While I can't envision Elfman having to work from a temp track in a Burton film, it's a similarity that's hard to ignore. This far into his incredibly respectable career, sound-alikes should be pretty few and far between and largely accidental, which is probably the case here, though casual score fans may be less forgiving. Overall, it doesn't hurt the score one bit, though. Elfman has turned in a solid effort with enough great material to provide multiple listens. It couldn't exist without all the experience he's garnered over the years and it's that much better because of it. For those who have been yearning for Elfman to return to more overtly melodic work...rejoice! And buy this CD. Now.

MailBag@filmscoremonthly.com

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