SoundTreks | Elf
When Jon Favreau’s Elf was released in 2003, it became something of a quiet smash. Critics were generally positive, it made a good deal of money, and people spoke of it glowingly. In the coming years, however, the light affection people had for Elf became a groundswell of joy, and it wasn’t long before audiences and critics were confidently listing it as a new annual Christmas tradition. By 2015, it became pretty widely accepted that Elf belongs in the canon of great Christmas films, and it still regularly makes its way onto magazines’ annual Christmastime top ten lists.
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So Elf is a standard. Thusly, it’s fitting that its soundtrack record should also be a litany of unforgettable holiday standards. The Elf soundtrack only features one brand new recording, and even that is of an old holiday standard. The rest all come largely from the late 1950s or early 1960s, an era that has come to represent wholesome Christmas nostalgia for several generations running. It may also be the last time in pop music history when new Christmas songs entered the secular American songbook. The book closed at some point, and now we still listen to these ones.
SoundTreks is going to take a listen, and suss out if this is a worthy collection of Christmas standards, or just run-of-the-mill muzak.
Track 1. “Pennies from Heaven” – Louis Prima
In the jazz/lounge kingdom, Louis Prima (1910 – 1978) is the jaunty duke (while Keely Smith is his duchess). Like Cab Calloway or Fats Waller, Prima was not afraid to be a bit silly, but unlike those two, Prima was not aggressively humorous. His silliness was gentle and fun. It’s hard to listen to Louis Prima and not crack a smile. The song “Pennies from Heaven” comes from the 1936 film, of course, and there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of recordings of it.
So the question must be asked: Why this version? Well, seeing as Elf is a comedy film, the filmmakers needed something lively and fun to set the appropriate tone. There is little darkness to Elf, and its ultimately sweet and edifying.
The next question: Why kick off the soundtrack to a Christmas movie with a song that has no allusions to Christmas at all? I would say this is kind of brilliant. It opens the door to the world of holiday standards by throwing you a curve. Here’s a silly version of a standard, but we’re not going to go expressly Christmas yet. But you know we’re going to get there, so get in the mood first. We’ll be jingling bells soon enough.
Track 2. “Sleigh Ride” – Ella Fitzgerald
“Sleigh Ride” was written in the mid ’40s, and it’s a Christmas standard with no reference to Christmas; seriously, there are no Santas or nothing. There is a reference to pumpkin pie, a traditional Thanksgiving fixture, but that’s as close as it comes to any holiday. The soundtrack to Elf is easing us very slowly into the season isn’t it? Ella Fitzgerald, as is her skill set, adds a bit of soul to a song that can be – and often is – performed as a bit cartoony and overtly chipper. This is as serious a version of “Sleigh Ride” you’ll ever get.
Track 3. “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” – Lena Horne
A bit of trivia: The previous song and this one were both written during heat waves, when the songwriters longed for cooler weather. It’s also another Christmas standard that never once mentions Christmas or any holidays. These two songs are, strictly speaking, songs about weather. Now I’m getting the impression that Jon Favreau is just fucking with us. Which may be a distinct possibility, as the man has a pretty awesome sense of humor.
Of the many, many versions of this song I’ve heard, Lena Horne’s falls somewhere in the middle Horne is wonderful, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear her tackling a standard, but it feels… expected. This is the danger you face when playing the game of standards. Can you assemble a songbook of well-known American vocal hits, and still come across as something striking or original? Can you find a voice in the background?
Track 4. “Sleigh Ride/Santa Claus Party” – Les Baxter
Okay, now we’re back on track. Yes, we have another rendition of “Sleigh Ride” in the first four tracks of the record – one of the biggest partyfouls when assembling your own mixtapes at home – but since this version is an extended instrumental paired with another song, I’ll allow it for now. And, truth be told, Les Baxter looms large in my imagination thanks to my incessant consumption of Captiol Records’ forty-odd volume Ultra-Lounge series throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s. So any nod toward Baxter, Martin Denny, Julie London, and several other lounge luminaries just gets me wiggling about.
Is this the best version of “Sleigh Ride?” It’s close. My favorite is still the Al Caiola & Riz Ortolani version.
Track 5. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone
This is the one track that was recorded explicitly for Elf, as it plays a role in the film; it’s the song that our childish hero and pretty ingenue sing to one another. Deschanel plays said ingenue, and has gone onto a successful recording career with her band She & Him. This was her first official recording, and it kind of shows. Amateur singers who are trying to sound more professional tend to affect either a nasal or a breathy tone to their sound. Deschanel used to star in musicals as an aspiring actress, but is not using her Broadway voice. It’s her pop voice. This is all well and good, and it’s a new approach to an old song, so it can be appreciated.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944 for a film called Neptune’s Daughter, and yes it’s just as rapey today as it was 70 years ago (“Hey, what’s in this drink?”). It’s a conversational duet about a man trying to convince a woman – and clearly a potential conquest – to stay inside with him. That’s not to say that it’s not a fun song. It’s the pleasantest song with rapey overtones that you’ll ever hear.
It’s also another Christmas standard that is about weather, and makes no reference to Christmas.
Track 6. “Jingle Bells” – Jim Reeves
Holy shit! I just realized that “Jingle Bells,” the most common, most widely sung of all Christmas songs, also makes no explicit references to Christmas! It’s about riding in a sleigh through the snow, listening to bells jingle, and keeping one’s spirits bright, but those are merely winter activities! My world is falling apart. I also just learned that the original songwriter, James Lord Pierpont who wrote it in 1857, intended for “Jingle Bells” to be a Thanksgiving hymn! Seriously, Favreau. Are you fucking with me?
By the way, if you’re going to include “Jingle Bells” on a soundtrack record, you must include a really square, really old recording of it. Don’t update it. Don’t make it “hip.” Let Jim Reeves cover it.
Track 7. “The Nutcracker Suite” – Brian Setzer
Brian Setzer may be known to children of the 1990s as one of the more notable figures in the rockabilly revival of the time, but this version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker sounds like it could have easily come from Count Basie or some other 1940s bandstand. Well, except for the Arabian Dance portion, which sounds like a surf tune. Actually, the Arabian Dance part is really awesome. Your enjoyment of this piece will depend entirely on how much affection you have for The Nutcracker. I saw it a lot as a kid, so I warmly embrace all renditions.
Track 8. “Christmas Island” – Leon Redbone
Leon Redbone is a Canadian jazz musician who, unlike most of the artists on this record, is still alive and recording. He has three recordings on this album, and they’re all soulful and pretty good. “Christmas Island” is especially a treat, since it’s so whimsically weird. It originally came out when Hawai’ian fever was sweeping the nation (i.e. the late 1950s), so surfing and hula and slack-key guitar were everywhere, including in Christmas music. It’s a tonal juxtaposition that is weird and fascinating.
This is the first time on the record that someone sang the word “Christmas.” On the eighth track.
Track 9. “Santa Baby” – Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt needs some pretty expensive shit, Santa. Hop to.
Track 10. “Winter Wonderland” – Leon Redbone
Another winter song, another one by Redbone. I’d be interested to know which of these particular Christmas standards has been recorded by the most number of artists.
Like “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland” (originally written in 1936) is perhaps too jaunty to be taken too seriously. It’s a peppy little folk ditty that can be transformed into anything but portentous. Especially that part about that rhymes “snowman” with “no, man.” As such, your recording has to either be a genuine period piece, or at least sound like it. Leon Redbone handles it fine. Like “Jingle Bells,” make it square.
Track 11. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – Eddy Arnold
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” plays a large role in Elf, as it is the song people must sing to give Santa Claus (Ed Asner) his magical powers that allow his sleigh to fly. It’s hard to tell what the best version of “Coming to Town” there is in the world. I encourage you to share your favorites below. I know many people object to this song, as it depicts Santa Claus as a pervasive spy (“he sees you when you’re sleeping”). I have no beef with the song, and can enjoy it for its playful, childish celebration of Santa.
Track 12. “Nothing from Nothing” – Billy Preston
Hm. We started with a non-Christmas song, and we end on one. It’s a great bookened to the record. Even if “Nothing from Nothing” is a bit of an obvious choice for a soundtrack record. There is a list somewhere full of songs that should no longer be allowed on soundtrack records for their popularity and obviousness. This one is on that list, but it’s low. Most soundtracks to comedy films have at least one or two. The soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy is constructed entirely from these songs. I kind of wish the Elf soundtrack ended on something a little more hip. Jon Favreau has great taste in music (Swingers, anyone?), so I would expect a deeper cut. Oh well, I’ll just enjoy this soul classic.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
The movie is. The movie is playful, a tiny, tiny bit subversive, and openly silly. The soundtrack record doesn’t have the same overall silliness as the movie, and seems content to be an above average, perfectly serviceable collection of Christmas standards. The movie has more on its mind about Christmas, Christmas spirit, and, more than anything, innocence; Will Ferrell’s character is a childlike adult who loves Christmas the same way a five-year-old does.
The record, by contrast, is mere comfort food. Apart from Zooey Deschanel’s entry, there’s little here to distinguish this record as a soundtrack album at all. It could easily be replaced by any pretty-good collection of Christmas standards commonly found in Starbucks around Christmastime (Starbucks still sells CDs, right?). Not that this album is bad by any stretch, but I feel that I could assemble a Christmas mix that was just as good – if not better – than this one.
You want some standards? Elf will do. But the soundtrack doesn’t declare itself to be a new tradition the same way the movie did. It doesn’t break out. It works, but it could have done much more than merely “work.” It could have been spectacular. Maybe I’ll find that Christmas album soon enough…