Black Beauty (Danny Elfman)

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In the liner notes to his Music for a Darkened Theater compilation, Danny Elfman describes Black Beauty as his chance to “really turn on the sentimental valve to maximum,” with music that was “happy and sad to the extreme.” It’s an accurate representation of the score, perhaps due to being written for his then-girlfriend Caroline Thompson, the film’s director; thanks to its scarcity it is one of the composer’s most seldom-heard works. It’s also one of his best, with elements that will appeal to fans of James Horner and Georges Delerue in a distinctly Elfmanesque style.

The joyous and upbeat music, which comprises the first half of the album, is among Danny Elfman’s most accomplished scoring, combining a gorgeous and lush main theme with a playful spirit. Tracks like “Baby Beauty” and the triumphant “Gang on the Run” are literally bursting with energy and movement, sweeping listeners along into an aural world of rich green pastures and wide-open spaces. This beginning music is remarkable in that while it is light-years away from brooding masterpieces like Batman or Edward Scissorhands, the musical vernacular is the same.

Black Beauty turns more downbeat in its second half, but the melodic sensibilities of the first are never far off: “Wild Ride/Dream” begins with the score’s most brutal music, a brassy perversion of the main theme, before becoming gentle and lyrical again. That malleable theme is also the basis for many of the more understated tracks in the latter part of the CD as well. The music is never anything but emotional and passionate, even at its darkest ebb, and for all its occasional darkness (and Elfman’s comments to the contrary) it never approaches the bleakness of Elfman’s harshest work.

If there’s a flaw to the album, it’s that the tracks are segregated by emotion, with the happy ones weighted toward the front, the sad ones toward the end. The music isn’t schizophrentic–even at its most polar extremes it is still of the same basic musical palette–but a case could be made for rearranging the tracks to even things out.

The original 1994 album is a rare find these days thanks to the demise of its record label at the time of its printing, and long commanded respectable prices on eBay; a 2013 limited edition by La La Land Records which expanded the previous album’s 45 minutes to over 70 will hopefully lead to more exposure for the music by returning it to retail availability. In any form, Black Beauty is well worth seeking out, either in full or as a suite on the readily available Music for a Darkened Theater Volume 2. Elfman has never written another score quite like it, and the music is a charming testament to the composer’s range. Highly recommended for anyone interested in hearing what is arguably Danny Elfman’s finest score, and certainly his most lyrical and sentimental.

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