Sharps & Flats

Creepy and romantic, subtle and strange, the music from "Being John Malkovich" is good enough to stand on its own.

Published December 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Though you've probably never heard of him, Carter Burwell is the man behind the creepy whimsy of the Coen brothers' best films. It was his Danny Elfman-meets-Bernard Herrmann scores that helped the directors sustain their alternating moods of farce and suspense in "Blood Simple" and "Fargo," and his disquietingly cheerful music mirrored the malfeasance beneath the affluent gloss of Los Angeles in "Barton Fink." Burwell has also scored such movies as "Gods and Monsters," "The Jackal" and "Conspiracy Theory," but for originality and accomplishment, film score buffs tend to divide his music into two categories: Coen soundtracks, and others.

His captivating music for "Being John Malkovich," though, surpasses everything he's done for the Coens. Like Elfman's music for Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands," "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), the "Being John Malkovich" score is creepy and romantic at the same time, but, in keeping with the film's deadpan tone, it's also subtle and restrained. Hearing it now, fans of the film may be surprised by how much it conjures the movie's currents of longing and absurdity, because it worked its spell so quietly in the theater.

The soundtrack album begins and ends with different mixes of "Amphibian," a gorgeous, gauzy new song by Bjvrk that, with its chiming bells and watercolor layers, sets the record's skewed fairy-tale mood perfectly. There's also a beguiling collage called "Malkovich Masterpiece Remix," which consists of suave elevator jazz rolling beneath samples of "Malkovich's" film dialogue, including the freakish lounge singer who croons "Malkovich" over and over.

But aside from these tracks and Bila Bartsk's "Allegro," the soundtrack consists entirely of 17 selections from Burwell's score. Made up largely of a piano tiptoeing over mournful, swooping strings, Burwell's music balances a sense of otherworldly wonder and weirdness with a delicate acuity. The score feels compact and tight, rather than sprawling and grandiose like Elfman's work, with a chamber-music quality that echoes the gothic miniaturism of the main character's use of puppets in the film. The tinkling piano in "Puppet Love" is like a tune from a haunted music box.

While the same themes repeat themselves throughout the record, the music builds in drama and intensity. "Craig Plots" switches between frantic, staccato builds reminiscent of Herrmann's "Psycho" prelude and brooding, melodramatic orchestrations to evoke two sides of obsession: depressed paralysis and mania. There are also moments of expansive joy in the score, particularly "Love on the Phone" and "Lotte Makes Love," both of which bloom with sweet warmth and satisfaction. The moments add up to Burwell's finest score, with passions swirling throughout the entire album, resonating even without reference to the film.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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