Unfortunately for director Terry Gilliam, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is destined to be remembered as `the film Heath Ledger was making when he died' rather than for any artistic merit the film may have itself, which is a shame because by the looks of things the film has all the magic one has come to expect from the former Python. The film is a fantastical tale about the owner of a travelling circus who, having made a deal with the Devil, takes his audience members through a magical mirror to explore their imaginations. However, Parnassus harbors a dark secret; in exchange for immortality, he pledged the life of his daughter to the devil, and is now using the unsuspecting customers of his `imaginarium' to trick the devil out of his prize. Following Ledger's death, his part was taken over by three actors - Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law - all of whom apparently worked for free, alongside a quirky cast that also includes Tom Waits, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, and Christopher Plummer as Parnassus himself.
The score for Doctor Parnassus is by Canadian composing brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna, who worked together with Gilliam on his last theatrical film, Tideland, in 2006. Much like the film it accompanies, the score varies madly from style to style, from rich and vivid classicism to modern jazz and contemporary songs. It's a change in style for the Dannas, who have been working separately on a wide range of individual projects lately: Mychael has been scoring everything from political thrillers (Breach) to romantic dramas (The Time Travelers' Wife) and animated penguin movies (Surf's Up), while Jeff has been specializing in horror movies (Resident Evil Apocalypse, Silent Hill). When they work together, however, they seem to bring the best out of each other - some sort of cosmic sibling inspiration - and that is certainly the case here.
The score is bookended by two cues - "Once Upon a Time" and "Parnassus Alone" - which have a timeless, magical feel, with some sumptuous cello writing, tinkling harpsichords, and a beautiful central theme. The use of a solo violin to lead part of the main melody here alludes to the deal Parnassus makes with `old Nick', and his stereotypical use of a fiddle as his instrument of choice; it's not groundbreaking by any means, but the effect on the sound of the score can never be underestimated.
Much of the rest of the score dances from style to style and genre to genre with gay abandon, reminding the listener that the imaginarium represents whatever is in the client's subconscious, and as such can never be taken for granted as being what you might expect. Cues such as the impressionistic "The Imaginarium", the vivacious, almost Elfmanesque "Four Through the Mirror", and the hilariously Pythonesque songs "We Love Violence" and "We Are the Children of the World" have the same wildly imaginative style that the late Michael Kamen brought to one of Gilliam's earlier films, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Kamen himself described his score for that film as elaborate and ornate, and one can easily use those same adjectives to describe the Dannas' work here.
Cues such as "The Tack", the bold and tumultuous "Book & Story", and the trio of staccato action cues comprising "Escape from the Pub", "The Ladder World" and "Tony's World Collapses" have a dark, powerful energy about them that is very satisfying. The action music often incorporates syncopated piano lines and throbbing bass elements that unexpectedly put me in mind of something Carter Burwell might write on one of his more demonstrative days, but which is very engaging nonetheless. Mychael Danna especially rarely writes action music of such power and depth, but when he does - as he did on earlier scores such as Ride With the Devil for example - the effect is usually very positive.
More abstract, unconventional sounds infiltrate the score via cues such as "Tony's Tale of Woe", "The Monastery", "The First to Five Souls" and "The Devil's Dance", which incorporate accordions, seedy saxophones, brushed snares and nightclub-style stand-up basses, Latin rhythms, and other unexpected instrumental flourishes into the mix. These jazzier elements may be the most difficult part of the score to swallow for less adventurous listeners, as they stand at odds with the overarching sound of the rest of the score, but personally I found their easy, sleazy tones to be both appropriate and authentic.
Thankfully, the action and jazz writing is tempered by some truly lovely lyrical writing in cues such as "Sympathy for the Hanged Man", the soothing "The River", and the sumptuous "Tango Amongst the Lilies" which highlight the often overlooked softer side of the Dannas' palette. "Tango Amongst the Lilies" is especially lovely, with a sweeping melody, magical accompaniment from harp glissandi and chimes, and a violin/guitar/accordion combo performing the tango itself. "Suicide Attempt" somehow manages to jump between three different styles - from action music, to noir jazz, to lush orchestral themes - over the course of one 2-minute cue, which is quite a feat indeed.
The score is nothing if not a mixed bag, but it is precisely this tonal insanity which might alienate some sections of the soundtrack-buying public who are not used to such flights of fancy. Personally, I loved the inventiveness of the Dannas' work, and thoroughly enjoyed the trip through the musical dreamland they created for the film. However, less adventurous souls may be forgiven for thinking that Doctor Parnassus's place is not an imaginarium, but an asylum for the musically schizophrenic.