Elfman’s Music Propels IRIS Off the Silver Screen

IRIS is Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatic nod to cinema, staged inside the Hollywood-heavy Kodak Theatre. It premiered on September 25th last year, and is slated to run for a decade. It is an homage to film and film history—stylistically, thematically, and technically—and appropriately moves to the music of film composer Danny Elfman.

The show is, fitting with Cirque’s reputation, quite brilliant. A series of the troupe’s iconic acrobatic feats, body contortion, dancing, and bouncing are combined here with elaborate projections, a unique film-strip routine, and movie-themed comedy to carry the conceit. Inside the palatial auditorium where the Academy Awards ceremony takes place every year, with flickering lights, live music, big showtunes, and wacky costumes, the feeling is marvelously conjured of tearing a hole in the celluloid on the screen and letting movie magic loose into the theater.

The show’s music is one of its best feats. Elfman is a talented composer with a big, diverse palette (yet with very definite trademarks), who has been scoring films since Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. His ongoing, 25-year collaboration with Burton is one of the most fruitful and symbiotic in film history, producing classics like Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Big Fish. There is a circus quality to a lot of Elfman’s early film music—influenced, no doubt, by his time in the offbeat band Oingo Boingo and his affinity for Italian composer Nina Rota—making him a perfect fit for the wild big-top acts in the show. There is also a strain of Burton in IRIS, both in the look of costumes and set design and in the general spirit, and the overall character and weird vision that Elfman has cultivated with the director blends seamlessly with the show’s aesthetics (whether Burton’s work influenced the production at all is hard to know, although there is an apt joke made by own of the “clowns” about a “Tim Burton garage sale”).

Elfman’s manic voice is an obvious choice for the carnivalesque sequences, as is his established zoot suit sound for the show’s gangsters-on-trampolines set piece (he scored Dick Tracy and defined the sound of Gotham, after all). But it is his “sensitive” side that sticks in the heart and serenades the most beautiful acts in the show. IRIS opens softly, with the central character Buster sitting at a lone piano on the stage. He plays a melancholy lullaby, at which Elfman has become quite adept in films like Big Fish and Charlotte’s Web. This elegant, innocent little tune sets the mood of the romantic storyline between Buster, a nobody crew member, and Scarlett the beautiful starlet. Variations in the same tone occur in Scarlett’s climactic dance/gymnastic number, the gorgeous swinging trapeze set, and the show’s best sequence—”The Twins.” In the latter, two identical, Adonis males swing through the air on ropes, unite their bodies mid-air in incredible postures, and spin with whirlwind grace. Elfman’s music pines and weeps as they fly. I don’t know why the timbre is mournful, but the effect is exquisite.

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The alchemy of staggering feats of physicality (you’re cringing half the time, expecting someone to drop from the ceiling, hang themselves with a supporting cable, land hard on their family jewels, or at least suffer a major charley horse)—and of hypnotic music rumbling loud throughout the theater—ignites in an unequaled visceral fire, stunning and washing over every sense. There in the dark, watching human bodies defy gravity and achieve superhuman acts, with the vibrant warmth of a live cello or female voice singing Elfman’s elegiac melody over the recording of a massive orchestra shaking the floors, you feel like you’ve been transported inside the magic of the movies. And you don’t want the lights to come back on.

  • Tim Greiving

    Thanks Katherine! You should definitely buy the soundtrack.

    April 21 2012
    • Katherine

      I loved reading this article, and re-listening to the haunting music. I recently just saw this show, and couldn’t agree more with the fact that most of the time you are on the edge of your seat. “Iris” can almost be stressful to watch because of the incredible movements the performers do. I had no idea that this show would be on for a decade! Amazing! I would recommend this to everyone!

      April 21 2012