Tim Burton and Danny Elfman’s seminal Edward Scissorhands (1990) turns 30 on December 6th – arguably the best and most iconic work of the director/composer duo. The score also constituted one of the analysis chapters of my university thesis back in 2004. What follows is a translated, edited and less academic version of that chapter – republished as an anniversary tribute.
I think it’s safe to assume that Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton’s most personal film. The adventures of a social outcast and his efforts to cope with prejudices in superficial suburbia very much resemble Burton’s own childhood. They also resemble Danny Elfman’s. Perhaps this “soul mate” connection is why the movie stands as the quintessential classic in the Burton/Elfman canon thus far. What is it about the film and music that makes it so emotionally engaging? And is the effect first and foremost related to the strong symbolism located in certain core moments?
Edward Scissorhands is a neo-classical film with clear-cut causal chronology, ending in a dramatic finale before everything winds down in bittersweet harmony. Yet it is more than that. Burton cross-references so many conventions – from horror to fantasy to romance to satire to comedy – that the expectations of the spectator are undermined with regular intervals. As usual with Burton, the execution of the story – the mise-en-scène – may be more complex than the story itself, especially when it comes to the relationship between image and music.
Danny Elfman’s score supports the narrative while also highlighting the autonomous symbolic moments of the film. The music is not leitmotivic in a typical sense, i.e. there are basically just two themes that are both related to the Edward character (Johnny Depp) and that are varied according to mood and narrative pertinence. Since we see the world through his eyes, it is only natural that most themes center around him; and that other characters and settings only receive limited individual motifs.
The first of these themes is a graceful waltz that represents the relationship between Edward and his creator, the inventor (Vincent Price), while the other is a choir-based, “lullaby”-like theme that signals Edward’s “heart”; his emotional and human side. However, these themes are not used consistently and also represent other things. The five ascending notes of the “heart” theme, for example, are expanded to become a sort of “love theme” for Edward and teenage girl Kim (Winona Ryder). If you split the latter theme in two, you then actually have three main themes in the score, in addition to a series of briefer motifs for secondary characters and settings (such as a Christian fundamentalist or the gossip of the local housewives).
The music has total narrative integrity on one level. But since Elfman manipulates the application of the themes to such an extent, he also opts for meanings on a higher, more abstract level. This becomes particularly evident because the film is sparingly spotted, and allows for several setpiece scenes with only music and visuals. As Elfman says in the commentary track on the DVD: ”The lack of music at certain moments, makes other moments so much more special”. Here are some of those moments.
The independent title sequence
Title sequences – at least of the elaborate kind – set the mood of the story that is to follow. The film opens with a snow-covered 20th Century Fox logo in blueish monochrome. These colour tones are used throughout the sequence to induce a sense of gothic horror. It is counterpointed, however, by “Edward’s waltz”, which is inquisitive, graceful and almost naïvistically innocent in nature. It is through this audiovisual contrast that most of the meaning is produced, since the sequence only has a loose causal structure; we are introduced to a series of flashes that only have a symbolic-lyrical connection:
After the logo, we see a heavy door being opened, accompanied by a gentle solo celeste. It becomes a maiden voyage into a unique fairytale world, one we should meet with childlike wonder. This is further cemented as Elfman orchestrates the introduction of “Edward’s waltz” with melancholic strings and a series of bright choral harmonies as the next flash takes us up a spiralling staircase. Just as the music adds elements, we are led deeper into this partly frightening, partly innocent world.
The next flashes display an assortment of weird machinery: scissors, wandering robots, a big metal ball. Elfman’s music becomes more literal; more synchronized to the movements of the machinery, adding faintly growling brass, but still keeping both the waltz mode and the playful orchestration. The most evident example of mickey-mousing occurs in the following flash: Various cookies “rain” across the screen to Elfman’s pizzicato strings, eventually supplemented by a profound choral presence. The mechanical (if playful) machinery is then associated with merry cookie production, as the music prepares us for the final flashes: a pair of human hands and the sleeping face of the (dead?) inventor. In other words: The increased use of choir and strings reinstate a human and warm element, just as the images do.
We haven’t really been told a specific story in the title sequence, but rather used our inductive skill to blend a series of audiovisual elements, thereby constructing a number of what I have called “charged semantic fields”, i.e. a form of symbolic firepower that may stand on its own, but also bleed into other sequences later on.
Introducing suburban satire
After the title sequence, the music moves into a purely narrative function. An ageing Kim is about to tell her granddaughter (in a huge, over-sized bed) a bedtime story. Elfman continues the emphasis on celeste and bells in a lullaby-like arrangement with comforting, pastoral strings. As Kim begins her story, the camera pans outside into the snowy night and up towards the castle that is situated on a hill outside the suburb. This is where Elfman introduces the “heart” theme with amplified choir, climaxing brilliantly as we witness Edward by a window in his deserted castle, gazing out on the town of Avon below. Edward obviously longs for companionship.
However, by inserting a “hard” cut in sound and image, Burton suddenly underlines the great cultural divide that separates Edward from the townspeople. From a partly black/white (i.e. nocturnal) and soft colour palette, combined with non-symmetrical angles and over-sized rooms, he cuts to a gaudy, straight-angled and pastel-coloured suburban neighbourhood, with blue skies and rigid contrasts. The music similarly ends abruptly, and continues to be absent as we are introduced to cosmetic saleswoman Peggy (Dianne Wiest), futilly trying to sell her products to neighbours and friends. Eventually she decides to give Edward’s castle a try.
As Peggy nears the gothic mansion, the music keeps changing lanes between mysterioso, dissonant arrangements of Edward’s waltz (through deep woodwinds and brass) and a more awe-inspiring, surprised value (through xylophone, harp, triangle and choir), as when she discovers Edward’s marvelous garden sculptures. Edward emerges from the shadows on the attic as a monster – heavy percussion and dramatic, Herrmann-like brass clusters – but as he steps into the light and says “Don’t go!”, the innocent children’s choir and gentle strings return, signalling that Edward is really just a lost boy.
The meaning that is created in this sequence is not particularly autonomous, but follows the ebb and flow of the narrative. However, as Peggy decides to “adopt” Edward and drives him back to her house, a new “charged semantic field” is created – a typical example of Burton’s ubiquitous satire of 50s and 60s suburbia: In addition to the pastel colours and the standardized houses, the inhabitants run about in cheesy jogging suits or water the garden’s only plant. It’s a very superficial atmosphere that Elfman underlines with a kitch mix of 60s lounge muzak and fluffy pizzicato strings, plus what can only be described as choral “giggling”.
On a narrative level, this may of course represent Edward’s fascination with a world that is new to him, but perhaps stronger is the audiovisual satire of suburban life itself. Since it is presented so succinctly, there is more satisfaction to be gained from this semantic connection than any kind of character-related identification.
An even more obvious example of this satire occurs later on, in a scene where Edward isn’t even present. The suburbanites are getting ready to leave for work in the morning. In a very choreographed scene, all cars exit their driveways simultaneously and leave the frame neatly in line. Elfman begins the scene with a ticking wood block sound to simulate the sound of a clock; everyone is on time as good workers. As the cars roll down the lane, Elfman increases the tempo somewhat and adds playful brass and winds, Simpsons-style. In the middle of the scene, which only lasts some 30 seconds, the music suddenly turns extraordinarily dramatic, as if the exaggerated punctuality also has a scary side; a rib at conformity, perhaps. On the soundtrack album, both of these suburbia tracks are joined in a single track called «Ballet-de-Suburbia», which has a different chronology than in the film.
Cookie factory and hairdresser tango
A moment with strong symbolic autonomy is found in Edward’s first flashback. Edward chops salad in Peggy’s kitchen when a can opener reminds him of the cookie factory in the castle (before Edward himself is created, but a common narrative device that expands the perceptive capacity beyond the character itself). In a typical Burton scenario, we witness a bizarre machinery that has robots with feet shaped as baking tin walking across an assembly line of dough. The ovens and pipes have quasi-human traits interacting with one another.
More than the sound effects, it is the music that creates the machine-like rhythm in this sequence. Elfman utilizes tuba, trumpets and various forms of unorthodox percussion; a macabre circus march that literally underlines the mechanical movements. In a wide shot of the entire factory, all instruments erupt in a tutti crescendo; all parts of the machinery and all parts of the orchestra work together as an organic whole. The inventor appears to “Edward’s waltz” (the link between creator and the created is established), and proceeds to pick up a heart-shaped cookie from the assembly line. Without speaking, he lifts the cookie towards the chest of a robot. It’s really a very simple form of symbolism. The heart is ‘life’ and can be injected into the static machines to create something with soul.
Elfman obviously uses an articulated version of the “heart” theme for this scene. You don’t have to have understand the narrative significance (that the inventor’s discovery will result in the creation of Edward), but only the universal meaning of the setting and the imagery to grant the symbolism autonomy.
The first part of the movie is about Edward’s attempt to adjust and blend into the superficial suburban milieu. Edward is an outsider both in visual appearance and mentality, but despite his disruptive presence, he is also perceived as exciting and exotic, especially by the women. This is particularly evident in the “hairdresser” scene, which also possesses symbolic autonomy. Edward, with his obvious talent for haircutting, is asked to groom the local pet dogs. Elfman’s music for this scene can be divided into three segments. As the housewives stand in line with their furry pets, he first offers a whimsical, burlesque melody with pizzicato strings and “barking” winds and brass. This motif has been used earlier to describe the gossip of the housewives – very casual and light (reminiscent of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure), and a musical step-brother to the suburbia theme.
As Edward grooms the first dog, the music shifts to a typical tango in the style of Rossini’s The Barber of Sevilla. Excited about Edward’s gift, one of the women asks if he can do her as well (no pun intended), and Elfman shifts for the third time to a gypsye-like, virtuoso violin solo just as he begins his “work of art”. The tango returns briefly as he finishes. The symbolic quality seems to be pretty obvious here. For the women, this is a sensual (if not even sexual) experience.The tango and the gypsye tune, two styles often associated with passion and lust, underline this. Since there is barely any dialogue, the meaning is created in a combination of visual signals (women closing their eyes, curling their toes) and Elfman’s music, which builds like an intercourse.
Love Conquers Story
Still, the strongest autonomous moments are to be found in the scenes that describe the love between Edward and Kim. The first time we witness a clear-cut articulation of Edward’s passion (which goes beyond small glances and hints) is when Edward is brought to a shopping mall where he happens to see his flame on the parking lot outside, embraced by her boyfriend. Sound effects fade out, the editing revolves entirely around a shot-reverse shot of Edward and Kim, and Elfman’s music is pushed to the front.
After having scored the arrival at the mall with the humourous gossip motif, the composer immediately shifts to a subdued version of the “heart” theme as Edward sees Kim. It is arranged a bit sadder than usual as Edward knows he cannot have her (yet). But it also has an autonomous quality in the sense that it signals Edward’s extreme focus on Kim (through the limited point-of-view and the removal of sound effects). Nothing else in the world matters. The theme, the scene and the experience are interrupted rather harshly as Kim jumps into a van with her boyfriend and the doors slam shut.
The core scene of the film – symbolically and emotionally – is also centered around the relationship between Edward and Kim, often referred to as the “ice dance” scene. It is Christmas time in suburbia. Edward is in the garden, shaping a gigantic ice sculpture of Kim (in angel suit) with his scissor hands. Tiny ice floes float around like snow. Kim walks out and is at first overwhelmed by the sight, but then proceeds to dance gracefully in the ice rain, arms raised and eyes towards the sky with a blessed smile on her face.
Narratively, this is the first time we experience a kind of cross-pollenation between the two worlds: Edward’s black/white/snow-covered fairytale world and Kim’s snow-less and unimaginative world (and hence her dancing fascination for the former). But on a more abstract level, it symbolizes a kind of careless romance with hints of melancholic longing. This is achieved first and foremost through the interplay of visual and musical elements.
Elfman starts off carefully with solo celeste and choir in the first part of the ”heart” theme, a three-note motif, while Kim moves towards the front door. For now, it only underlines narrative anticipation. When Kim sees the ice sculpture, the music builds towards a climax through a series of descending arpeggio strings and moves directly into the ‘love’ part of the “heart” theme as she begins to dance in slow motion. As I’ve previously noted, this is a very simple melody; really just five ascending notes (C-D-E-F-G) played in immediate succession, followed by minor variations. But the perfect synchronization of orchestra and choir (which in the first part of the theme had vocalized a reflective “o”, but which now segues into a more open “a”) has an enormous and immediate symbolic-emotional effect.
The combination of slow motion, raised arms and a simple ascending scale is reminiscent of the famous death scene in Platoon (with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings), but whereas that scene had religious undertones (Jesus on the cross), this scene is more romantic. Kim is stretching for a graceful, purely innocent love that descends from the sky, i.e. indirectly from Edward.
While the dance continues and Edward frenetically finishes the sculpture (unaware of her presence), the music returns to the three introductory notes of the theme, a common sonata-type form. This time, however, they are far more forcefully and elegantly orchestrated. The choir initiates a dialogue with itself: deep voices hum the three notes (“Ooooh”) and is then “answered” by the high voices in the same notes (“Aaaaah”). This is obviously a parallell to the non-verbal communication that takes place between Edward and Kim, a kind of greek chorus.
Finally, Elfman re-introduces the xylophone, harp and triangles as Burton inserts a close-up of Kim pressing the ice particles to her cheek and then a close-up of floes falling into her open palm. The combination of Elfman’s delicate, intimate orchestration and Kim’s treatment of the floes signal a longing for careful touch. Edward is certainly no E.T. – he has trouble touching people without hurting them (including himself), and the journey of the particles from Edward’s scissor hands to Kim’s soft hands becomes surrogate caress. This melancholic longing is further underlined by Elfman’s emphasis on minor chords.
The bittersweet quality in feelings and subject matter is repeated in the epilogue. In the second half of the movie, Edward becomes more and more distanciated from the suburban surroundings, and eventually flees back to the castle on the hill, where he kills Kim’s jealous boyfriend in self defense. This is the ultimate “point-of-no-return”. He will forever be isolated up there, and can never return to Avon.
After the main climax, we cut back to Kim’s bedtime story, which constitues the narrative frame. The granddaughter asks: “How do you know he’s still alive?” and Kim replies “I don’t know. Not for sure. But I believe he is. You see, before he came down here, it never snowed. And afterwards, it did. If he weren’t up there now, I don’t think it would be snowing. Sometimes you can still catch me dancing in it”. The lyrical end dialogue becomes the point-of-departure for one last pan up towards the castle, and Elfman re-builds the “heart” theme from scratch untill we see Edward in the garden and on the attic where he sculpts ice figures, causing ice floes to drift gracefully out of the window and towards the suburb.
This time, Elfman is even more grandiose (if possible) than in the “ice dance” scene, and shows an even higher degree of uninhibited harmonic consonance. Enduring arpeggio woodwinds simulate the falling snow, while the rest of the orchestra plays the entire “heart” theme. Narratively, all of this means that the love of Edward and Kim lives on even though they are no longer together. But the symbolic autonomy in the audiovisual interplay (the beautiful music over the expelled character) lies in an ironic confirmation that Edward and the surroundings of the castle are more human than the actual humans in suburbia. To quote Anne Devine: ”The final image of Edward in the colourful gardens, surrounded by nature and creativity, reinforces the idea that American society is too sterile and narrow to cope with one who does not conform” (Devine: online 2004).
Edward Scissorhands is ripe with “charged semantic fields” like these, pronounced Kodak moments, and many of them owe a lot to Elfman’s music. Herrmann and Hitchcock had Psycho. Williams and Spielberg had Jaws. Morricone and Leone had Once Upon a Time in the West. I will not be surprised if this stands the test of time as the most quotable Elfman/Burton collaboration in terms of independent, iconic film music moments. Happy 30th, Edward!