Sleepy Hollow: Music from the Motion Picture Composed by Danny Elfman (Hollywood Records, 1999)

By D. M. Mitchell

Danny Elfman's music for the film "Sleepy Hollow" seems to rise from some dark place in the unconscious like nightmare images gathering behind closed eyelids. The score is one of Elfman's best to date, creating an evocative soundscape for director Tim Burton's latest film. A lush string section becomes the wind sweeping dried leaves and the solo voices of an English boys choir sound like lost souls haunting the graveyard. "Sleepy Hollow" is also unusually rich in wind and percussion elements, including church bells, an eerie distant organ and flute, teeth chattering tambourines and kettle drums that pound like galloping hooves.

Elfman's music has always been a perfect match for Tim Burton's visual sense. Together they are the Brothers Grimm of movie-making, complementing each other's talents to weave the most beautiful nightmares. In fact much of "Sleepy Hollow" is literally a score for the film characters' dreams. Track titles include: "Sweet Dreams," "More Dreams" and "Bad Dream/Tender Moment." The music accurately catches the feeling of being trapped in the arms of Morpheus; of being unable to wake, scream or escape from the coming horror. This is just the right effect for telling "The Legend of "Sleepy Hollow"" a tale about the rational self (Ichabod Crane) battling the unconscious self (The Headless Horseman).

Maybe Elfman learned the trick of orchestrating dreamscapes from his two most obvious influences: Nino Rota (Fellini's composer) and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (who wrote perhaps the most famous "dream score" of all time: "The Nutcracker"). From his first major soundtrack for Tim Burton ("Pee Wee's Big Adventure"), Elfman has found imaginative uses for Nino Rota's surreal carnival dances. And many of Elfman's other compositions for Burton have been inspired by Tchaikovsky's ballets. "Edward Scissorhands" evoked "The Nutcracker" and "Ed Wood" found a guiding spirit in "Swan Lake."

In "Sleepy Hollow," Elfman offers a brilliant new variation on his usual classical reference. This time he's inspired by another Russian composer who worked with fairy tales, Sergei Prokofiev. The tension and dissonance in tracks like "The Windmill" and "The Chase" bring to mind the fight music from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," and the melodic underpinnings of "Into the Woods" and "Lost Love" hint at "Peter and the Wolf."

But this is no knock-off score. As always in Danny Elfman's best work, he transcends his influences to produce something unique, and in this case, utterly bewitching. Although it's not exactly easy-to-listen-to, "Sleepy Hollow," is a complex and powerful achievement in film music. Fine orchestrations by Conrad Pope, David Slonaker and Albert Olson add to the enchantment.