If, like me, you thought that Danny Elfman’s Rabbit & Rogue looked like a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you might be tempted to write off this score as self-indulgent and twee. But hear me out—
Rabbit & Rogue was the source material for a collection of short films that premiered at the LA Film Festival just last month. Produced by Indi.com, the Danny Elfman Project: Rabbit and Rogue was a contest inviting filmmakers to create a short film to set to the score, in the same vein as Disney’s Fantasia. Or Baby Driver. Submissions were judged by a star-studded panel, and the winning pieces screened for LAFF’s 36,000-some-odd festival attendees. The Limited Deluxe Edition was just released as an album this past June, brought to life by the Berlin Session Orchestra with conductor Joris Bartsch Buhle.
Rabbit & Rogue actually first premiered in 2008, as the six-movement score to a ballet, commissioned for the American Ballet Theater and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. The production was met with a few curmudgeonly responses (one New York Times critic named it “irksome” and “relentless”) which, okay, slow your roll. It’s a Danny Elfman score. Y’know, Danny Elfman? The guy who wrote the score for The Simpsons, and Batman Returns, and basically every Tim Burton movie ever? If you’re not here for whimsy, then get up out my face. But to be honest, I had a hard time imagining this as a ballet too. It’s just too cinematic (you can take the Danny Elfman outta the film score…), which is likely the motivation behind repurposing this piece for short films.
The “Intro” begins quietly with the percussion bubbling with a nervous heartbeat, which sets into motion the fidgety, pent-up kinesthetic energy that permeates the entire work. It opens gradually into a spacious—though no less fidgety—storybook landscape, letting the saxophone serve some serious Creation du Monde vibes before tumbling abruptly into the second movement, “Frolic.”
At points, the second movement could be mistaken for a Looney Tunes score (that xylophone tho). It evokes the sense that Rabbit is scampering through other symphonic works: there’s a reference to a theme from Rite of Spring’s third movement, a “Flight of the Bumblebee” nod in one piano solo section, and this perfectly cheeky moment about nine minutes in, where we are in full John Williamsy triumphant brass glory, then a pause—just long enough to raise an eyebrow—then BAM we’re doing a wild Charleston. It’s worth a listen just for the sonic scavenger hunt alone.
You know what they say: The way to a new music snob’s heart is through their gamelan. Admittedly, Rabbit & Rogue’s third movement, “Gamelan,” bears dubious resemblance to any traditional gamelan, but still it’s pretty magical. The beginning of this movement reprises the fluttery rabbit-heartbeat from the “Intro” (Are you trying to pass off the Berlin Session Orchestra’s xylophones as gamelan, Danny? Tell the truth…). The movement later leans hard into standard box office film score territory: sweeping, no-surprises-here anthems that remind you of the VHS tapes you watched and re-watched as a kid. If any one movement is dangling precariously close to preciousness, it’s this one. One might rebut, though, that, in a ballet about the adventures of a bunny, a little preciousness might be forgiven.
I won’t spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that Elfman continues this Macaulay Culkin-meets-Milhaud-meets-Mel-Blanc remix all the way through the Finale. Does this mean that Rabbit & Rogue essentially is, in fact, a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon? Okay, yes. But who cares? The value in this piece is in its marriage of smartypants in-jokes and blockbuster soundtrack accessibility.
If, like me, you spend a fair amount of time wrestling for common ground with friends and family who “just don’t GET classical music,” this is precisely the kind of music that serves our cause. This kind of you-got-new-music-in-my-film-score/you-got-film-score-in-my-new-music mashup allows us to offer “If you liked that, you might enjoy this John Adams; this Charles Ives; this Conlon Nancarrow,” and before you know it, you and Uncle Craig are blasting Pierrot Lunaire from his truck like it’s no big deal.
As classical music people, our biggest image problem is in being perceived as too serious. Rabbit & Rogue helpfully reminds us to lighten up, lol at Elfman’s musical jokes, and for goodness’ sake, watch some cartoons.