50 Shades of Grey is one of the laziest blockbusters of all time, to the point where I would consider it the very antithesis of art. Very few films get so many things wrong; from casting, to writing, to production design and even basic story structure, and yet this dross still remains a critic-proof hit. Everyone involved with the project ought to be ashamed of themselves, especially composer Danny Elfman, who really should have known better.
The weird thing is, Elfman is such an illogical fit for this film in the first place. Why on earth would anyone think his signature, quirky style would suit this ‘erotic’ love story? It’s insane! Of course, musicians are absolutely free to experiment with different styles and genres, but Elfman is one of the most idiosyncratic composers around. Even people who know nothing about film scoring can identify his tracks in a heartbeat, because they’re so distinctly him! So why hire the man if you’re going to stifle his voice and have him work outside of his comfort zone? It just makes no sense; this score is obviously the work of someone who had no idea what they were doing, or why they were even doing it.
To be completely fair, things start off semi-promisingly, with the title track ‘50 Shades of Grey’. For a moment here, it seems like Elfman might actually be able to adapt his sound to this radically different material, as he employs timbres that have an uncharacteristically cold and distant feel. From ethereal, dark synth, to low frequency, brooding piano notes, it all sounds very moody and foreboding, almost as if it was ripped straight out of a David Fincher film. Exactly why Elfman thought this was appropriate for the subject matter is unclear, however, it is at least interesting to listen to on its own merit. ‘The Red Room’ continues in this same vein, seemingly implying that there is something dark lurking beneath the surface of this fractured relationship, via the use of a prominent and unsettling synth line that is a little reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. The piece incorporates several Reznor-esque dissonant sounds- with weird reverb effects and implacable electronic noises- and then adds a layer of staccato strings to the mix towards the end. Again, if this were used to accompany a taut or chilling thriller, it might actually be decent, but it’s so at odds with the content of the film that it is really intended for.
Things get even less coherent as the album progress, as Elfman seems to throw everything and the kitchen sink at us in an attempt to find a style that sticks. As a result, we get a score that’s all over the place, with no artistic unity or singular vision. The tracks vary wildly in terms of mood, tone and colour, meaning that we have inclusions like ‘Then Don’t’, which abruptly introduces electric guitar and a rock flavor into what has thus far been primarily classical. Immediately following this is ‘A Spanking’, which is confusingly going for a more playful, almost magical tone. ‘Going for Coffee’ then sees Elfman revert to his usual quirky tendencies, with a cartoonish and upbeat string section.
I just cannot get a handle on what he was going for here.The initial pieces are haunting and distant, as if Elfman was trying to channel the mysterious spirit of the permanently angsty Christian Grey, however, if we skip forward only a few tracks, that intention seems to have fallen to the wayside in favour of something much more saccharine and sweet. The darker timbres are suddenly replaced by lyrical guitars and more intimate colours, whilst the cold and reserved nature of the orchestration gives way to a more traditionally energetic Elfman style.
The album continues to unfold in this inconsistent fashion, with ‘Clean You Up’ committing to an inexplicably sentimental tone, through the use of a delicate and melodic piano movement. Of course, this could well be an intentional juxtaposition. Perhaps this erratic oscillation in tone has an artistic purpose, maybe it’s supposed to communicate something about the characters; but if that’s the case, it’s totally lost on the listener. In reality, this feels more like a case of a composer not receiving any clear direction whatsoever.
The organization of the album doesn’t exactly help to hide this problem either. As aforementioned, each track seems to totally contradict the one that preceded it, and seeing as there’s no kind of gradual change or thematic development here, we just go from one totally isolated piece to the next. It thus makes for a very jarring listening experience.
Things reach peak stupidity however, with the risible ‘The Art of War’, which sounds like a parody of one the composer’s works, all twinkly, childish and obnoxiously fantastical. Was he even taking it seriously at this point, or did he just send in the wrong score by mistake? I’m inclined to think that he was really just phoning it in. Either way, it’s truly baffling and I’ve sat replaying it over and over again, puzzling over why anyone would think that this belongs in a supposedly erotic drama. ‘Bliss’ takes things one step further, and actually features Elfman’s signature spooky choir, which is almost comical, until there’s another sudden tonal shift and everything starts to take on a quasi religious quality. Introducing such a noticeably out of place element (the choir) right at the very end of an album is downright bizarre. How any of this is supposed to form a cohesive whole is beyond me.
Elfman seems to be out of his depth with this one, not that I can blame him, as I’m not sure what he could have done given the vapid material he was writing for. Despite showing initial promise, this soundtrack is just a total mess, comprised of a mish-mash of ideas that go absolutely nowhere. Some of the tracks don’t even feel like they belong in the same film as each other. There’s also no hint of Elfman’s usual clarity either, as all of the converging timbres are constantly smothering each other, often resulting in a mass of unintelligible noise. If I cared more about the film, I might get a bit more angry about it, but as it stands, I’m basically just confused.
RATING: 3/10- A total misfire from Danny Elfman.