I live for live concerts, but there have, in my life, been only a few musical acts that I would travel pretty much anywhere and pay pretty much any amount of money to see live. One was Rammstein, who I saw a few years ago. One is David Bowie, whom I’ve never seen. One was Tom Waits, who after much fuss I saw on Sunday. Another would be a full reunion of the legendary alt-punk-ska-rock-jazz band Oingo Boingo. While I’ve resigned myself to the fact that that will never happen (probably), I decided that seeing a live performance by their frontman, Danny Elfman, would be the next best thing.
Elfman, though, is much more well known as a composer of film scores, particularly the scores to films directed by Tim Burton. Johnny Depp, in a note in the show’s program, wrote that Elfman was the Ralph Steadman to Burton’s Hunter S. Thompson, which would not be incorrect. I’d be lying, of course, if I said that I knew Elfman’s work best from Oingo Boingo anyway; while I didn’t get into Boingo till adulthood, I have known his film scores since I was but a tyke. In fact, as one of my earliest cinema-going memories is seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas in the theater when it opened twenty years ago. And while I hate that I am now so old I can talk about things I remember that happened twenty years ago, it is quite fitting that I saw Danny Elfman live exactly twenty years after first seeing that movie (to the day, in fact; Nightmare opened on October 29th, 1993).
A lot has happened in twenty years, both for me and for cinema itself. And while I grew up on a steady diet of Tim Burton films, loving them all, I’ve revisited some of them recently only to discover, to my infinite sadness, that they have not aged well. Batman Returns, I’m looking at you. Not only that, Burton’s modern-day films do absolutely nothing for me. The former glory of his production design has little meaning in the modern world of CGI, where anything can be created on a computer. I find the scripts for fare like Corpse Bride and Dark Shadows to be trite; though maybe the scripts he filmed were always so.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Burton’s oeuvre doesn’t mean to me what it once did, seeing the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra, the Page LA Choir, and Mr. Elfman himself recreate those classic scores using a virtuoso group of dozens of musicians took me back to my childhood, reminding me why I loved those movies in the first place. Burton was always able to bring in other artists whose visions reflected his own, such as production designer Bo Welch and costume designing genius Colleen Atwood. But perhaps no other artist had a vision mirroring Burton’s quite so much as did his long-time personal composer. That composer, if you haven’t been paying attention, is Danny Elfman.
Now, I’m not in any way qualified to review an orchestral concert. I live on a constant IV drip of rock and roll; metal, blues rock, classic rock, etc… So when you go see an orchestral performance, who do you punch? I can’t knock anyone down during the violin solo, that would be crude. When conductor John Mauceri, uh, conducted, was I supposed to crowd surf?
My lack of high-culture training notwithstanding, this was a great show. I have remembered thinking that, while some Tim Burton movies are – to say this nicely – pish-tosh, their scores are often still great. Bad movie/good scores include the thundering drums of Planet of the Apes and the eerie theremin of Mars Attacks. And they had a theremin player, Charles Lester, who popped up to play the scores for both the aforementioned Martian movie and for the recent Frankenweenie. Mauceri pointed out to the audience that many of the members of this orchestra had performed on the original scores; he also pointed out that they’d begun their rehearsals at 10:30am the day before. I thought I noticed the choir stumble over a few lyrics, and that would be why (though their rendition of Day-O from Beetlejuice was glorious).
Being the… ahem… huge nerd that I am, a highlight for me was hearing the Batman theme played by a full orchestra. While Burton’s Batman films seem hokey today and have largely been rendered obsolete by Nolan’s, I still find Elfman’s march for the Dark Knight to be that hero’s definitive theme. The night also included performances from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and others.
Without question, though, the highlight of the night was the performance of the music from The Nightmare Before Christmas. This, of course, was when Danny Elfman himself came out onstage (to a standing ovation) and sang the classic songs sung by Jack Skellington. Seeing him up there, far from satiating my craving for an Oingo Boingo reunion, only served to make me desire such a reunion even more, for Elfman still maintains the showmanship that he became known for as the frontman of that band. His voice has lost none of its eerie grandeur; he easily recreated the pathos of an animate skeleton for Jack’s Lament, he tap danced in time to the music while he wasn’t singing, and when he roared “I AM THE PUMPKIN KING!” during Poor Jack, the crowd cheered. Maybe this is the film and score that’s aged the best because, as my associate Pierce Nahigyan pointed out in his review of Coraline, it isn’t actually a Tim Burton movie, having been neither scripted nor directed by him. Still, the movie bears Burton’s distinctive mark, which is brought to life by Elfman’s grand soundtrack.
I’d heard that Helena Bonham Carter had come out to perform Sally’s Song during the London performance. And while I thought that would have been cool, the Los Angeles performance did it one better and brought out Catherine O’Hara: the original voice of Sally and also famous for being the worst mom ever in Home Alone. She was great (singing, not mothering Kevin McCallister). We ate it up.
Elfman concluded the show with his own rendition of Oogie Boogie’s Song, a bluesy number performed in the film by the much larger and blacker Ken Page. Swinging his hips as he terrorized Mauceri, who sang the Sandy Claws parts, Elfman (now 60) proved that the legendary singer and composer has still got it. Even now, twenty years after The Nightmare Before Christmas, while Jack Skellington kitsch fills Hot Topics worldwide, and Tim Burton has been fully consumed by CGI and the Disney machine, Elfman showcases the power of a good score and the magic that goes into the making of movies.
Danny Elfman’s Music From The Films of Tim Burton plays October 30th and 31st at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, and will then tour North America.