Spider-Man 2 (Danny Elfman)

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After the stunning success of 2002’s Spider-Man, the question confronting director Sam Raimi wasn’t if but when a sequel would be made. Spider-Man 2 duly followed in 2004, and it broke the mold of many contemporary superhero sequels by refusing to add additional superfluous villains to the mix, instead focusing on a single adversary for the web-slinger while painting a stark portrait of how difficult the life of a superhero could be. The mood of the country had changed somewhat since 2002, and Spider-Man 2 didn’t meet or exceed its predecessor’s box-office take, but it remains the best-reviewed Spider-Man movie to date, even earning an admirer in as unlikely a figure as Roger Ebert.

As most of the behind-the-scenes talent from Spider-Man returned for the sequel, here was no reason to expect that Danny Elfman would not return as well. His score for the first movie had been an exhilarating and highly thematic merger of the two different styles in which the composer had been dabbling for years, expertly balancing acoustic and electronic elements. All was not smooth sailing, though: Spider-Man 2 somewhat notoriously became the subject of a rift between Elfman and Raimi after the director insisted on an unusually close following of the film’s temporary music (a melange of cues from the original Spider-Man and Hellraiser II, among others). Calling Raimi a “pod person,” Elfman bitterly split from the director and saw substantial portions of his music removed from the film, with contributions from John Debney and Christopher Young (who had written Hellraiser II and collaborated with Raimi on The Gift) replacing them.

The Spider-Man 2 album contains only Danny Elfman’s material originally composed for the film. Debney’s contributions, most notably for the pizza-delivery scene, and Young’s substantial rewrites, for the Doc Ock origin scene and the climactic train battle, have never been released despite featuring prominently in the film. It’s also quite evident that Raimi clashed with Elfman early on in the production, as substantial parts of Spider-Man are re-used, almost verbatim, by Elfman in his sequel score (“I couldn’t even adapt my own music,” the composer said at the time. “I couldn’t get close enough to me”). So, while Elfman’s powerful theme for Spider-Man, his love theme, and a host of smaller motifs return for the sequel, they are often sapped of their power by being essentially rerecords of earlier material.

And that is the most glaring weakness of Elfman’s Spider-Man 2: its note-for-note repetition of passages of music from the original film. “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” is, aside from a few additional electronic swooshes, identical to the main title from the original film. The menacing Green Goblin theme from the prequel is inelegantly replaced with the pounding Doc Ock motif, but the change is awkward and the seams are almost literally visible (a similar problem would beset Christopher Young in transitioning between adapted Elfman material and his own music in Spider-Man 3). “At Long Last, Love,” the final score cue, also cribs heavily from Spider-Man‘s “Finale,” and smaller fragments of regurgitation are scattered throughout the album. While Elfman was under intense pressure to do this, obviously, that can’t alter the fact that this reuse is extremely noticeable and distracting when it appears. Also missing from most of Elfman’s new score material is the contemporary electronic mix that helped make the original Spider-Man such a fun melding of Elfman old and new.

That said, Elfman does provide a major and highly satisfying new theme for the Doc Ock character, an eight-note (naturally) melody that slashes violently up and down the scale in a way that perfectly encapsulates the villain’s powerful, herky-jerky movement. Its awkward shoehorning into “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” aside, the theme is tremendous fun and, when Elfman gives it interplay with his existing theme for Spidey in action set-pieces like “The Bank” or “Armageddon.” It’s especially effective in the unused “Train,” which was replaced wholesale by a Christopher Young piece of comparable complexity and quality but which featured only a muted reference to the Ock theme; the piece as Elfman intended is a first-rate piece of action scoring much like “Final Confrontation” from the first album, the composer letting his themes battle even as the characters on screen do the same.

The composer is able to do some interesting things with his themes in places. Elfman’s love theme has plenty of mileage and development throughout cues like the first part of “Spidus Interruptus” and “A Really Big Web!” and it is, if anything, more lovely when it’s allowed to breathe away from the director’s influence. Also, somewhat surprisingly, the menacing Green Goblin villain theme from the first movie is given a dark reprise in “The Goblin Returns,” foreshadowing Christopher Young’s extensive use and adaptation of that theme in the third and final film of the Raimi trilogy.

Raimi and Elfman’s acrimonious split, with the composer declaring that he’d rather wait tables than have another Spider-Man 2 experience, meant that Spider-Man 3 was composed entirely by Christopher Young with substantial adaptations of Elfman’s themes. Young himself saw much of his work tinkered with or replaced by material written by Deborah Lurie or tracked in from the first two films, and it was never released in any form. The (relative) disaster of Spider-Man 3 in 2007 soured virtually the entire cast and crew on the series, leading to a risible series of remakes a few years later. Elfman and Raimi, much like Elfman and Burton in the mid-90s, eventually made amends and would work together again on Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. As for Elfman’s Spider-Man 2, the strong original material and some clever adaptations of material from the previous film are enough to recommend it on album, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of repetition and needledropping that so frustrated the composer during the scoring process. One can sense the score Elfman wanted to write struggling to escape from the one he was allowed to write.

Rating: starstarstar

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Spider-Man (Danny Elfman)

Cover

Few comic book properties went though as tortuous a route from pulp to screen as Spider-Man. Dozens of directors, screenwriters, and stars were attached to various cinematic incarnations of the popular superhero following his 1962 debut, including such industry luminaries as Roger Corman and James Cameron, before cult director Sam Raimi was given the reins and a substantial budget for a 2002 release. Raimi’s slick direction, some clever scripting, and an appealing cast turned out to be the perfect recipe for audiences looking for a feel-good hero in the wake of 9/11, and his Spider-Man was a smash hit with both moviegoers and critics. Its $400 million haul at the US box office ($500 million adjusted for inflation) set the benchmark for cinematic superheroes until overturned by The Dark Knight, and it remains the highest-grossing Spider-Man film by any metric.

In 2002, Danny Elfman was at the undisputed pinnacle of the superhero genre. His toweringly gothic Batman (1989) had redefined the expected sound for comic book films, shattering the John Williams mode of major-key heroics that had previously prevailed, and Elfman had followed it up with a string of comic book/superhero successes from Batman Returns to Dick Tracy to Men in Black. Elfman also enjoyed a previous relationship with Raimi, having scored the director’s indie faux-comic-book hit Darkman in 1990, portions of the riotous undead caper Army of Darkness, and the grim A Simple Plan. With his past pulpy success on the big screen and a solid foundation with the director, it was no surprise that Elfman was attached to the 2002 Spider-Man almost from its inception.

Since Mission Impossible in 1996, Elfman’s style and his choice of scoring assignments had been undergoing an evolution of sorts. He had sharply turned away from grand symphonic works like Batman or Edward Scissorhands and begun experimenting with a much more contemporary, electronic, and fragmented sound. Projects like A Civil Action, Proof of Life, or Planet of the Apes were innovative but alienated many of the composer’s fans with their distinctly different sound. Though Elfman occasionally returned to his melodic or hugely orchestral roots with projects like The Family Man or Sleepy Hollow, the tension between the two styles was palpable. It wasn’t until Spider-Man that the composer was able to merge his experiments with hip, contemporary electronics and his older style of immense orchestral power, and it was the resulting fusion that would define his style for the next decade.

Elfman’s “Main Title” opens the film with a propulsive, electronics-enhanced performance of his primary thematic idea. As with the earlier Batman, Elfman constructs a malleable theme for the hero, one that can play out at length or be quickly referenced by a few notes. Listeners at the time complained that they couldn’t hear a theme, which is a testament to how skillfully Elfman works it into his overall musical tapestry and the fact that the theme isn’t presented as a grand gothic march as it was for the Caped Crusader. Nevertheless, it’s a bold and clever idea, one that is at home among the quirky contemporary stylings of “Costume Montage” as it is in the desperate “Final Confrontation” or rousing “Finale.”

Elfman introduces a strong villain theme as a counterpoint to his Spider-Man theme by cutting it in as an interlude in “Main Title,” and his growling idea for the Green Goblin is likewise easily deconstructed so that it can be referenced in full or with just a few notes and often includes synths and other modern effects for emphasis. The Goblin theme is given full outings in “Something’s Different” and “Specter of the Goblin,” but it is at its most effective when doing sonic battle with Elfman’s theme for the hero. Both “Parade Attack” and “Final Confrontation” intermingle the Spidey and Goblin themes to great effect, the latter especially being a masterclass in setting two very distinct but equally malleable themes against one another (with a few bars of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” mixed in for laughs).

The score’s tender side for the nerdy Peter Parker’s interactions with his impossible flame-headed dream girl provide the basis for Elfman’s third and theme, a tender love melody informed by Edward Scissorhands and, to an extent, Batman. “Revelation” and the penultimate “Farewell” both feature the theme extensively, the latter beginning with a particularly lovely and tragic rendition led by woodwinds before segueing into a powerful statement of the main Spider-Man theme. The love theme is often intertwined with a troubled brass motif that often serves as a sort of transition between Spider-Man’s heroics and Peter Parker’s human concerns or vice versa.

Spider-Man stands as one of Danny Elfman’s most accomplished scores because it creatively combines all the best parts of a big thematic superhero score–multiple themes that are developed and woven throughout the music–with the composer’s expertise in electronics, rhythm, and other elements from his other career as a band leader. Perfectly supporting the spectacle of the film, it remains the best and most satisfying score of the entire series. As was the practice at the time, Spider-Man‘s score was released on a separate album with 45 minutes of highlights some time after the “music from and inspired by” disc which contained only two tracks of score. Elfman would return for the first sequel, but a sour experience led him to abandon the franchise; later installments would be scored by Christopher Young, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer, who differed greatly in how much of Elfman’s approach they emulated.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar