An Evening With Danny Elfman: A Life In Music And Movies
    • TUESDAY, JULY 14, 2015

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    I watched Beetlejuice religiously as a child. When my grandfather would pick me up from school, he would take me to the grocery store, and once a week or so, he'd let me rent a movie, and I'm convinced I wore out the Nutter Fort Kroger's VHS copy of the 1988 Tim Burton classic. I watched it so many times in fact that the first time I had a nightmare about Michael Keaton's deranged (and, I was far too young to notice, hyper-sexual) poltergeist-cum-exorcist, my mother forbade my grandfather from renting it for me anymore.

    And I had that relationship with most of Tim Burton's oeuvre as a kid. We owned a VHS copy of his Batman. If A Nightmare Before Christmas was on TV, I watched it. I couldn't appreciate the fairy tale tragedy of Edward Scissorhands but I could soak in its vibrant color palette and the gonzo visuals of Vincent Price's castle in the hillside (not that I had any idea who Vincent Price was as a child beyond "the voice of Rattigan in Disney's The Great Mouse Detective). Tim Burton's surreal, dream-like films helped to define my childhood and my early teens. And you can't discuss the works of Tim Burton without bringing up another innovator (and, no, I'm not referring to Johnny Depp): Danny Elfman.

    Well into my teens, there were only two film composers that I could name off the top of my head: John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, basically the entire Spielberg/Lucas filmography) and Danny Elfman. I'm a bit of obsessive so clearly I can name more today, but as a kid, you don't spend too much time thinking about the music in the films you watch. But, Danny Elfman's scores were inseparable from Tim Burton's images. They're one of the great collaborations of the screen. You have Scorsese and DeNiro (or Scorsese and DiCaprio or Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker); you've got Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Bergman and Ullman, Malick and Lubezki. And there's Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Play the music from Edward Scissorhands titles, and even a casual film-goer can tell you who wrote it.

    And when I was a kid, I might have lacked the vocabulary to discuss the neo-Gothic sweep of Batman's grand symphonic score or how Edward Scissorhands' use of understated strings enhances it's fairy tale romance. And, even as a teenager, I couldn't have discussed the Americana uplift of his work on Big Fish (my pick for Burton's best film but that's a conversation for another day), but despite not knowing specifically what made Elfman's music work, I knew that my favorite films were complete without them. I knew that the pan over Alec Baldwin's model town at the beginning of Beetlejuice (not that I knew what a pan was) didn't work without the liturgical organ morphing into bombastic, comical horns and chants. I knew that Batman driving with Kim Basinger's Vickie Vale through a forest 100% drawn from the tradition of German expressionism (once again, I had no idea who F.W. Murnau or Fritz Lang were as a child) was off without Elfman's frenetic strings and deep, percussive rhythms.

    And I grew up, and while Tim Burton's recent body of work hasn't lived up to the standards he set in my youth, Elfman's scores have been as memorable and stirring as ever. I don't go out of my way to listen to scores often, but if I do, they fall into three categories: unrepentantly jazzy 1940s/50s film noir scores, the works of neo-classical Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu (the Final Fantasy series), and Danny Elfman's scores. Scores are the perfect writing music. If I'm working on a dark and brooding story, I can throw on Elfman's Sleepy Hollow work, and I'm instantly transported to the perfect mindset of despair and terror hiding just around the corner.

    And so when I was sent an e-mail saying that the orchestra at Lincoln Center would be performing the works of Danny Elfman from Tim Burton's film, I knew I had to leap at the chance to go. Now, I can already hear my boss's question: what does Danny Elfman and the orchestra have to do with indie pop/rock? The easy answer: everything. In the 90s, I was too young to know the Cure or Oingo Boingo (Danny Elfman's band) or the Pixies, but I knew Tim Burton. Tim Burton's earliest work was, for me (and for countless others), an introduction to alternative filmmaking and storytelling. Those films sparked my interest in the bizarre, the macabre, and the surreal. And it was only natural that after seeking out films that embraced eccentricity and unique identities that I would look for music that did the same. Without Edward Scissorhands in my life, I suspect I would have never embraced the similarly coifed Robert Smith and the Cure. And, of course, without Disintegration, I wouldn't be writing about music today.

    I'd also never been to the orchestra before, and it was high time that changed. And change it did Sunday at Lincoln Center. As someone who's been to more rock concerts than I count at this point in my life, going to the orchestra is an Experience. I've listened to high-quality recordings of orchestral performances many times (might I recommend this one in particular?), but no recording and no set of headphones will capture the fullness of the sound of being in a concert hall and hearing a full orchestra playing their music. Nothing can prepare you for the way you catch bits of string (or the way you can clearly distinguish between the violas and the violins) and snatches of horn and the fluttering of the woodwinds. And to experience all that for the first time with music I knew so intimately became an emotional powerhouse of an experience.

    There are nearly 30 years worth of Danny Elfman/Tim Burton collaborations to choose from (including A Nightmare Before Christmas which Tim Burton didn't actually direct), and over the course of two and a half hours, the orchestra, led by conductor John Mauceri, did not fail to impress. There was barely a stone left untouched from Elfman's prolific partnership with Tim Burton, and when Mr. Elfman came out to sing Jack Skellington's songs from A Nightmare Before Christmas, it was like I was five years old all over again. Though the biggest delight of the evening may have been when violin soloist Sandy Cameron (who reminds me of a young Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg) came out dressed as Edward Scissorhands himself and tore Lincoln Center down with her fiery and theatrical (and astonishingly technically proficient) take of one of that film's numbers.

    After Sunday's performance, I hope it isn't another 26 years before I return to the orchestra. It's an experience more people need in their lives (and I could likely dedicate an entire article on the various class reasons why it isn't and why that's a problem -- which I say as someone who grew up poor in the rural South). Danny Elfman's music and Tim Burton's films have touched the lives of millions of people over the years. And having been able to experience the richness and fullness of that sound in person, I hope they continue to enrich our lives for years to come.

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