This August not only reminds us that Elliott Smith would’ve been 43, but it marks the 15th anniversary of Good Will Hunting: A film expertly written, acted, directed, and of course, scored. Smith’s music is as much a cornerstone of the film as the Boston accents and autumn weather. Due to the raw emotions explored within the film, and the critical attention paid to Smith afterwards, it seems his music became inseparable from the film.
Director Gus Van Sant, a Portland native who saw something special in this whispery singer-songwriter Smith, exposed this bruised bull to the rest of us. He gave us something palpable — a soundtrack that didn’t just accompany the film, but enlighten all aspects of it. The pairing of Elliott Smith’s sparse ballads with Danny Elfman’s inspiring choirs creates an almost tribute-like accompanying album to Either/Or (as if someone decide to create Either/Or: The Orchestral Version).
Danny Elfman has been known for his grand sweeping, sometimes eccentric scores. He has scored several of Tim Burton’s films — it’s easy to see where the idiosyncrasy would be needed. But Good Will Hunting is stripped-down sonically, as Elfman uses several woodwind instruments to reach down-to-earth tones while soft and angelic choirs flutter in the background. This creates a beautiful score that oddly evokes Titanic (which beat out Good Will Hunting for the Best Original Score Oscar that year) but then grows into an almost churchlike transcendental choir that fills you up until you’re left with nothing more than a falling leaf giving way to an autumn breeze. It’s a heartbreaking and moving feeling, and that’s exactly why Elliott Smith’s presence is felt in this film. In many ways, he’s our Will Hunting: always fragile, always strong.
The placement of the other songs not penned by Elfman or Smith, however, feels tricky, even egregious at times. It’s hard to justify the transition from Smith’s haunting ballads to Gerry Rafferty‘s “Baker Street” (with its torturous saxophone) and Andru Donalds’ “Somebody’s Baby”. Although these songs essentially are conveying the same message as the film, tonally they are jigsaw pieces that don’t quite fit (the lone exception being Al Green‘s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”).
The centerpieces of this soundtrack are Smith’s “Between the Bars” and “Say Yes”. Consider these songs to be two halves — one is a drunken plea to stop the pain, the other a more optimistic plea for a better tomorrow. The two songs are unadorned; no added strings, no low key choir in the background, no woodwind instruments. And this exactly how it should be. The music, like the film, shows us a world of vulnerability, sparse living, simple wants, and an innocent plea for more. If Elliott Smith is our Will Hunting, then Danny Elfman is our Sean Maguire. Like the therapist-to-patient relationship in the film, Elfman knows when to hold back and leave Smith on his own (the painful drop-by-drop rain song of “No Name #3”) and he knows when and how much to push him (just slightly on the first “Between the Bars”) so he can reach his full potential (“Miss Misery”).
The story of Danny Elfman’s instrumental “Weepy Donuts” (the final track on the soundtrack) is bittersweet, for we know the pain of people exiting our lives without warning. But right when the guitar strings start coming in and the strings rise, we’re able to see the beauty of it all, the hope that the people we love will go on to better things. We move farther away from oblivion.
Elliott Smith would soon go to the Oscars and stand on stage in front of millions of people, baring his soul in an all-white suit, like God gave us this wispy little angel to soothe our souls. He used this period of his life as a launching pad, expanding his sound on later albums, especially Figure 8 and From a Basement on The Hill. He had a fondness for baroque pop and would soon add orchestral instrumentals to his music, creating grand ballads that fit side-by-side with those by Elton John and The Beatles. But our journey begins here, from the delicate “Between the Bars” to the bold “Miss Misery”, and the affecting pieces in between. When Smith and Elfman came together we had something touching, something unexpected. It was the sound of a little boy learning to grow up, a scared hand reaching for a piece of chalk, and the daunting challenges of settling into a healthy romance.