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Men In Black
Men In Black (1997)
Music Composed by Danny Elfman
Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Mark McKenzie and Edgardo Simone
Conducted by Artie Kane
Recorded and Mixed by Shawn Murphy
Music Editor: Ellen Segal
Album Produced by Danny Elfman and Ellen Segal

Label (Catalogue): Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax, (68859)
Availability: In-print
Purchasing options: Available at

"Men in Black is a real simple kind of thing. It's just like kind of a groove—a feel... I always hope that I could do something at least a little fresh. But, I'm not sitting there while I'm writing the score going, "Okay, what am I doing that's completely fresh for me?" - Danny Elfman *

By Jason Comerford - Danny Elfman has to be a happy person at heart, all those dark scores of his notwithstanding. There's a joyous, freelowing energy working in his latest scores, Men in Black and Flubber, that makes his compositions some of the most infectious in years. You have to wonder if he likes to cut loose late at night on his keyboards; I must say that I'd be interested to hear the results.

I've always been a fan of Elfman's idiosyncratic comic scores, starting with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and continuing with Back to School, Hot to Trot, and Beetlejuice. (I think I'm the only one that enjoys the downright psychotic accordions that bolster the Hot to Trot score.) What has distressed me in recent years is Elfman's lack of scoring comedies; his stylistic synthesis of Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann, and his own rock-and-roll talents has indeed resulted in some of the finest film scores of the eighties and nineties, but one can only take so many dark, dissonant, funereal scores before running off to hide, listening to Jerry Goldsmith's Rudy to remind oneself that the world can be a happy place too.

Therefore I was downright thrilled to see Elfman return to his comic form with Men in Black, the delightful summer sci-fi comedy about deadpan INS-for-extraterrestrials agents whose function is to monitor the activities of all domestic aliens. Real aliens, that is. Barry Sonnenfeld's broad, comic-book direction was given a boost by Elfman's self-consciously "cool" score, with a groovy bass line that hearkens to Mancini at his sharpest.

But while the broad nature of Elfman's score in the film was a perfect match for its hit-and-run pacing, its suitability was also its downfall. Men in Black is comprised mostly of comic vignettes, one after the other; the film is funny as hell, but there's not much urgency to hang on. Granted, I don't think one should ask for much dramatic gravity in a film where a giant alien bug goes about New York City wearing the skin of a shotgun-toting farmer. But it's always nice to be reminded that a film has a story. Men in Black's frothy, easy-to-take tone is sharp but cluttered, and Elfman's score unassumingly magnifies its weakness, by presenting short, choppy cues that seem to exist only to undermine a joke when it comes along.

The long-awaited release of the score on CD addresses these problems, and makes for a much more coherent listen than I thought it would. Many of the film's brief cues are edited smoothly together, and as a whole the score really benefits from its smart presentation on disc. Elfman's orchestral experimentations are as enjoyable to listen to as ever (his MIDI samples here and there are perfectly placed in the score), and his music presents itself without resorting to parody. And he still writes finales like no one else; the "Finale" track on the new Sony CD grabs all of the themes from the picture and mixes them into a tight 3:02 package that gives the film a rousing sendoff.

What I enjoyed about Men in Black most was its complete unwillingness to resort to the usual bag of tricks. The agent theme presented in "M.I.B. Main Theme" isn't really much of a theme -- it's just four notes repeated in different orchestral inflections -- but Elfman doesn't let it dominate the movie. He's too smart for that. What serves as a more central theme is the motif introduced in "D's Memories", a wistful guitar-based melody that's used to great effect when underscoring the yearnings of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones at his meanest and funniest). It's always refreshing to know that there are composers out there who don't take one theme and run with it for the entire score, repeating it ad nauseum along the way. Elfman is up to the challenges presented by the goo-dripping E.T.s in Men in Black, and it's a joy to hear him work.

Special thanks to Jason Comerford.

Danny Elfman received two Oscar nominations (his first two -- at the same time!) in 1997, for Men In Black ("Best Original Score Musical or Comedy") and Good Will Hunting ("Best Original Dramatic Score").

Two tracks from Elfman's score are on the Men In Black song/soundtrack album. "M.I.B. Main Titles" and "M.I.B. Closing Theme". The "Main Titles" is a different mix than the one that appears on the score album.

Interview: Tales From The Black Side, by Doug Adams

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Click for enlarged CD artwork
Click cover to enlarge
01. M.I.B. Main Theme (2:58)
02. D's Memories/Chase (3:57)
03. Edgar's Truck/A New Man (2:58)
04. Imports/Quiet Moment (2:22)
05. J Contemplates (1:18)
06. Headquarters (1:13)
07. The Suit (1:28)
08. Morgue Time (:49)
09. Petit Mort (1:42)
10. K Reminisces (:48)
11. Orion's Belt/Cat Stinger (2:18)
12. Noisy Cricket /
     Impending Trouble (2:08)
13. Sexy Morgue Babe/Icon (5:41)
14. Take Off/Crash (7:20)
15. Finale (3:02)
16. M.I.B. Closing Theme (2:36)

Danny Elfman's music at:

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* - from FSM Vol. 2, No. 4, June 1997
All original text, original artwork © Ryan Keaveney & Klaatu Media and cannot be copied without written consent. All other materials are © by original authors / artists / labels and are presented here for critique, educational and promotional purposes only. Answers to frequently asked questions can be found on the Discussion Board. Additional questions or comments can be emailed to Ryan Keaveney.