Written by UTG critic Grace Duffy, Scene & Heard takes a look at the music that makes our favorite films so memorable. Whether it’s the 400-piece orchestra Christopher Nolan used for The Dark Knight, or the dozen or so bands that contributed to the soundtrack of Top Gun, there is no denying the impact music has on movies and this column hopes to highlight the best of the best.
There’s something rather quaint about the fact that Tim Burton’s upcoming Frankenweenie is a remake of his own 1984 short. The director has been repeating the same format in live action for so long now that many of his films come across as templates, with the casting and aesthetics readily familiar before they’re even begun. There is warmth and even comfort to be found in consistency, but when one sticks too slavishly to a particular formula it necessarily removes a great deal of excitement and anticipation. However, Burton’s upcoming opus may buck this trend. For starters, it’s a return to the glorious world of stop motion animation, a format that has been uniquely kind to the director’s distinctive vision and delightfully bizarre stories. The tale itself may be well-trodden, but the themes of friendship, childhood, and isolation from one’s peers as well as the relocation to a discoloured little town ensures that this is something very particularly Burton-esque. Victor, the protagonist, is a bright and curious boy who uses his scientific prowess to bring his beloved pet dog back to life when the latter is run over by a car. Sparky’s inevitable escape leads to all manner of bedlam as the film progresses but, as elsewhere in Burton’s work, the heart and charm of the story really lies in its simple yet nostalgic evocation of childhood bonds and affection.
Frankenweenie Unleashed is the artists’ soundtrack for the film; the score itself being delivered, as ever, by the great Danny Elfman. It takes its cues from the traditional accompaniments to Burton’s films in that the songs directly riff and reference upon the storyline and the subject matter, addressing imaginary friends, loneliness, and attachment. Most overt of all is a cover of the Ramones’ “Pet Sematary,” which is also – surprisingly – one of the finest contributions on the album. It’s a surprisingly stark and mature collection of songs for a film of this ilk, with the atmosphere distinctly deadpan and ravenous and a bleak, sinister streak inhabiting much of the music. True, the subject matter is dark, but considering the target audience and the youthful age of the lead character, some of this is very grimly adult. In this regard, Imagine Dragons stand out for their harangued and nightmarish “Lost Cause.” It’s a stirring song, spectral and intimate and unsightly, but it also noticeably alters and dims the album’s tone and brings something withered and despairing to it. “My Mechanical Friend” by Grace Potter and the Flaming Lips is similar in tone and effect. The song’s heavy repetition links it with fanaticism or obsession and its framing in bare, emotionless terms makes for a decidedly more twisted and unsettling listen. It is true that Frankenweenie Unleashed becomes more sobering as it evolves, perhaps to reflect hidden complexities in the story or the more visceral implications of Victor’s handiwork, but choices such as these and Frank Iero’s savagely beautiful “This Song is a Curse” put a markedly sombre spin on a story that seems rooted in cutesy nostalgia.
Plain White T’s delivery of “Pet Sematary” is also solemn, but energetic enough to have a lighter effect on proceedings. It mixes bleakly involving symbols of mourning and the funereal – such as a church bell – with the boyish vocals of Tom Higgenson for something that perfectly captures both the shadowy undertones of the story and its precocious heart. Others stand out for their sublime evocation of childlike wonder and fascination. Karen O’s dulcet voice is ideal for inclusion in a Burton film, and her rendition of “Strange Love” is light, vacant, and dreamlike. She has the same piercingly glassy quality that Catherine O’Hara brought to “Sally’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the colourful array of instruments that accompany her make this song a breathtaking opener. “Almost There” by Passion Pit exudes magic and excitement, with the spiralling sound effects doing much to capture the poignancy inherent in the story.
Kerli’s cover of “Immortal” (which she originally co-wrote as “I Feel Immortal” for Tarja Turunen) is gorgeously vulnerable. Ghostly and haunting, her pithy vocal performance frames a powerful, bombastic musical sound so that the track is at once tender and resolute. This is one of the more human tracks on the album, mirroring grace and solid, dignified strength. Robert Smith provides a deliciously slow-tempo, jazzed version of “Witchcraft” which is possibly too sultry for the story at hand, but an exquisite listen.
Frankenweenie Unleashed is a stellar and involving collection of tracks, beautifully detailed and tailored to match the film’s storyline. Its darkness is surprisingly compelling, though it will be interesting to see how some of the songs fit into the narrative. With accompaniments such as these, Burton has all the ingredients to deliver – including a delightfully deranged Winona Ryder a cappella track – so here’s hoping the movie itself proves as sweet and endearing.