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Comments about the soundtrack for Instinct (Danny Elfman)

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Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review
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• Posted by: Mike Dougherty   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Sunday, August 3, 2008, at 6:46 p.m.
• IP Address:

(The following donated review by Mike Dougherty was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in August, 2008)

Instinct: (Danny Elfman) It seems like most musicians go through a transitional stage in their careers -- a movement towards a more mature and artistic take on music. Pop musicians of the 80s seem to be endlessly re-inventing themselves for the 90s. There comes a point where the artist strays from writing the usual material for which his/her fans are most familiar, and turns towards writing music in a more thought-provoking and reflective manner. As for film composers, Danny Elfman is one who has recently taken up this trend. At age 46, Elfman must feel the hankering to mature, musically speaking. True, Elfman did mature greatly when he made the big leap into film scoring after his Oingo Boingo days. What's more is Elfman's changeover from scoring tremendously orchestral, thematic scores in the early 1990s to composing more dramatic, eerie scores in the late 90s. With every new project, Elfman takes a more mystical, dark, and withdrawn approach to film scoring. Take a look at Elfman's recent dramatic scores: Good Will Hunting, A Civil Action, and A Simple Plan. As for Instinct, this score makes the orchestral grandeur of Batman, Dick Tracy, and Edward Scissorhands seem more distant than ever.

Instinct falls short in that Elfman creates no theme(s) to tie the score together. Cohesion is at a loss. It's times like these when the listener misses those days when Elfman created strong, unforgettable themes. (The main titles from Beetlejuice or even Pee Wee's Big Adventure might be a good cure after listening to Instinct.) At best, the lack of theme does create a mysterious score for a mysterious movie. It emphasizes the film's basis on struggle for the truth and the certainty. The average listener will probably get the impression that Elfman is holding back on melody development for a grand finale. The score is a seemingly short 38 minutes, and suddenly ends without achieving that satisfying finale. The coda in "End Credits" seems to lead to a pleasant Williams-esque closing from the violin and harp. The coda cuts out before achieving closure, and the listener will probably think 'is that it?'. It's hard to feel satisfied.

The publicity on Instinct suggests that this score is also Elfman's greatest. Instinct seems to have all the right moves: a performance from a large orchestra and choir, flavored by a wide array of exotic, African instruments. Surprisingly, Instinct is not as African-influenced as expected; it1s a far cry from the African spirit that Jerry Goldsmith created in The Ghost and the Darkness or John Williams in Amistad. Rather, Elfman most frequently uses the piano, similar to Williams' Presumed Innocent. This is perfect, bearing in mind that Instinct is also a mystery-suspense film. The piano offers no solid melody; the single key strokes seem to be hiding a melody as if it were an ominous secret -- so does Anthony Hopkins' character in the film. (Hopkins plays a primatologist accused of murders that occurred in the jungles of Rwanda, where his character spent years living among mountain gorillas.) This is why the withdrawn piano playing is so effective. As for the African instruments, Elfman uses them frugally. Momentary bursts from the African percussion instruments indicate Hopkin's memory of life in the jungle and his dependence on instinct. Elfman uses this to the effect of the echoing trumpet triplets in Goldsmith's Patton, indicating the general's religious undertones.

Steve Bartek's orchestrations are very strong in the score; there's frequent use of electronic bass and various electronic noises straight out of Elfman's Mission: Impossible. It's an odd and sometimes unsettling mix -- African percussion and electronic bass/sounds. On the lighter side, these elements do give Instinct a style all it's own and they make it a distinct Elfman score. Instinct does offer another Elfman trademark -- the eerie voices of the Edward Scissorhands-esque choir. Contrary to speculation, the choir does not receive a major role in the score. Unlike Edward Scissorhands, the choir here performs no solid melody and makes scattered, brief appearances without hitting an emotional climax. The choir is like a sign that says 'Danny Elfman was here.'

Instinct is a perfect example of a score written for the film and not for film score fan. It functions well in its purpose; Elfman's score emphasizes the film's dark and mysterious tones. Standing alone, Instinct does not make for a memorable listening experience. One can only look forward to Elfman's score to the upcoming Sleepy Hollow. It's been three years since Elfman scored a film for director Tim Burton. Here's hoping that Elfman will return to scoring films the way he did in the early 90s -- orchestral and thematic. **

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