If one was to segment Danny Elfman's composing career it started with rock as the lead singer of Oingo Boingo, then moved into comic book film scoring, then a more sombre and introspective phase then going almostly completely off the wall in recent scores. Black Beauty falls squarely in the sombre and introspective phase. Perhaps calling it sombre is a bit daft - Elfman isn't renowned for ultra cheerful music, more devillishly playful. However, the mid 90s saw Elfman shy away from many of his usual mannerisms to write in what might be described as a more normal idiom. Eschewing flashiness for solid drama and the overtly macabre for a more introspective mode that yielded such wonderful scores as Sommersby, Dolores Claiborne and Black Beauty.
There have been some outstanding scores for live action family films of recent years, Doyle's A Little Princess, Kamen's 101 Dalmations, Rachel Portman's Pinocchio, Williams' Home Alone and Hook, together with almost any of Joel McNeely's Williams inspired efforts. Black Beauty is certainly one of, if not the finest of these scores and perhaps the main reason it is so good is because it has plenty of childlike innocence, but is almost completely devoid of sentimentality and cutesiness that often plague more generic efforts in the genre. The folksy main theme a is bittersweet fiddle melody used throughout the score to great effect. Sometimes in a very simple presentation, but occasionally whipped up into a large orchestral frenzy. Elfman also uses the piano beyonds its usual role as either low end bass line for action or twinkling piano for soppiness. Here it is often used in burlesque scherzoes that play off the rest of the orchestra or provide a complex, but almost subliminal backing to a smoother string melody.
While the overall tone is innocent and melancholic, there are a few moments of wild orchestral hysteria. I cannot decide if they are a little too much for the fragile majority of the score to handle. However, they do seem completely appropriate in context with the film; Jump for Joy and Wild Ride being the most chaotic of these fleeting interludes. The more typical Elfman sound does come across most strongly in these moments, but is generally kept in check with only modest hints of the composer's more famous style. There are many instances when a composer adopts a very different style that results in an outstanding score that often eclipses many other more typical efforts. Black Beauty is undoubtedly one of those scores and to my mind one of those most accomplished scores that Elfman has written to date. The album is unfortunately out of print, or at least extremely difficult to find and such if you stumble across a copy, purchase it immediately. In the unlikely event that you don't find it completely beguiling, there are plenty of people who will.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad