Errol Morris likes to stir the pot. Most of his documentaries tackle some really interesting subjects, spanning from Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time); to the pet cemetary business (Gates To Heaven); and the Abu Ghraib prison picture scandal (Standard Operating Procedure). The most amazing of them all is perhaps The Thin Blue Line - the story of a man sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit, which created such a commotion that the man in question was released from prison not long after the release. The latest entry into this rather impressive filmography is The Unknown Known, a documentary/interview with infamous US politician Donald Rumsfeld, which is also Morris' second collaboration with composer Danny Elfman.
A trio of Morris’ films were previously scored by Philip Glass, a musical idol of Elfman, so it’s not surprising that both Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known lean heavily towards minimalistic tendencies. The latter is perhaps less mechanical than the former, which sounded almost like a literal hybrid of both composers, all of which resulted in one of Elfman’s finest works to date. And perhaps the most obscure in his modern repertoire.
There is something unique about Elfman tackling documentaries where he doesn’t take the obvious route. While the subject matter is serious and often touches on controversial events, the score remains breezy, light, energetic and… happy. The end result creates an interesting contrast between image and sound, one that some people might find a bit too jarring but one that is a testament of the composer’s wit and intelligence. He doesn’t try to underline the horror, but, instead addresses the absurdity of the subject. His music is sardonic, and as a result probably even more disturbing than the otherwise more dramatic approach.
Just as in 2012's (very good) Promised Land, Elfman employs marimbas to great effect (in the self-explanatory ‘Marimba Foghorn’). The children voices of Philharmonischer Kinderchor Dresden bring a disturbingly chilling quality to the mix in ‘Rummy’s Theme’, and that track also introduces the main “character’s” theme from the film, which often comes back in different variations and is hinted at in other moments. It’s not exactly the most memorable of ideas, but serves the film well. There is also another melody, more central to the whole documentary, which Elfman makes a long introduction to in the opening piece.
The music is constantly in perpetual motion, again bringing back the mechanical minimalism of Standard Operating Procedure to mind, as well as the similar passages from Elfman’s excellent Serenada Schizophrana. The occasional darker passages are few and far between, one such cue being the haunting ‘Drones’, which employs the orchestra in its lower registers, augmented with voices and darker synthesizers. The absolutely gorgeous middle passage for chamber string ensemble and Glass-like organ is one of the album’s highlights, while in ‘The Haynes Memo’, the evocative glass harmonica is used.
The middle portion of the album might be slightly more anonymous in its content, largely dependent on the already established ideas, but towards the end things pick up some excitement again. In ‘Detainees’, Elfman makes a great use of the main theme, while ‘Better to Not Go’ is an almost Herrmann-esque piece for strings, in which the score takes a decidedly more dramatic and weighty tone. ‘Joyce’, on the other hand, is very lighthearted, employing acoustic guitars and synths. Both ‘Main Titles’ and ‘Unknown - Piano Solo’ form a coda to both score and film, with very strong renditions of the main theme. It’s a pity Danny doesn’t use solo piano more often, given how good those passages are.
The CD has been released courtesy of La-La Land Records as an non-limited album, and it might not appeal to casual Elfman fans, at least who know him from Tim Burton’s films. While the music is for the most part energetic and colourful, the overall tone is, ironically, bleak and moody. The lack of easily identifiable themes might be a problem, but having said that, The Unknown Known is the kind of work that shows the composer at his most mature and interesting. The days when he ruled the fantasy lands might have ended, but serious projects like this one open another door of possibilities.
The Unknown Known is out now from La-La Land Records