I walked into the Nokia Theatre lobby to attend Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton and I immediately felt like I was in the final scene from the film Big Fish.
All of the characters from their outrageous and impressive partnership were gathered. Pee-Wee Herman laughed heartily with Beetlejuice. The Corpse Bride shared a drink with Alice and the White Rabbit. Skeletons and Mad Hatters mingled. Everyone who was not in full costume (including myself) somehow got the mental memo to wear black and white stripes. It was a circus sideshow where there were no freaks because everyone somehow fit in. No one told us what to wear. We just knew, because this dynamic duo has been the soundtrack of our lives for nearly thirty years across fifteen beloved films.
The program began with music from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The first notes, played on a Theremin. A strange instrument you play without touching, its spooky sound electrified the room and like a herd of racehorses the orchestra took off. A montage with footage from all fifteen films flashed on a giant screen as the musicians played. The audience gasped and cheered as familiar faces and scenes raced by at lightning speed. It was exhilarating.
As each suite began, a few notes would play against a blank screen as if to tease the audience… can you name that tune in five notes? And then, just as the words would begin to formulate in my mind, a black and white placard would appear onscreen with the name of the film. The second, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Conducted by John Mauceri, the string section of the 87-piece Hollywood Symphony Orchestra sprang to life with “Breakfast Machine”. Onscreen, Tim Burton’s quirky watercolor art morphed into clips from the film, including a brilliant painting of the bug-eyed truck driver, Large Marge.
The next suite began with the 45-member Page LA Choir somberly singing these words, “Day-O, Me say Day-ay-ay-O, Daylight come and me wanna go home.” Beetlejuice… Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice. The orchestra plunged into the ominous sounding title song. Continuing with darker passages, the next suite was Sleepy Hollow. Eerie melodies were beautifully performed by a young male soloist. His voice had an other-worldly quality that hushed the audience and had me holding my breath.
The Theremin returned for the delightfully kitschy suite, Mars Attacks! The orchestra marched on with a heavy nod to soundtracks of 50s alien invasion films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. Next up was Big Fish with the most emotional pieces so far. It was at this point that I realized that even though I have been a fan of Mr. Elfman for many years, I believe I have underestimated him. You see, I thought I knew him. I thought I knew what an Elfman score sounded like. That comic lilt, the epic rise and fall, the quirky tinkling bells, the wobbling Theremin wail… but, in the room with a full orchestra and without all of the story and actors distracting me, I saw and heard the music as new and fresh and blindingly individual. Each soundtrack has it’s own character and pacing that makes it sublimely different and still uniquely Danny Elfman.
The first act concluded with music from Batman and Batman Returns. Accompanied by Burton’s colorful pastel paintings of The Joker and Batman, the music grew frantic as we watched Michael Keaton race the Batmobile, alongside the fragile Kim Basinger, into the Batcave. Next, some of my favorite Burton sketches of the night were the hilarious pen and ink drawings of penguins strapped with various weapons. Comically dark, these tiny terrors waddled forth strapped with immense and implausible bazookas and umbrellas.
Act 2 began with Planet of the Apes. At this point, I was getting excited. As thrilling as the music was, act 2 meant that we were getting closer to the one performance I really wanted to hear, Danny Elfman, as the original singing voice of Jack Skellington. But first, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride with it’s gorgeously wistful piano. Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie, and Edward Scissorhands… music for nightmares, fairy tales, and broken dreams.
Then suddenly, Danny. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The first thing I noticed was his red hair and confident walk, then his trademark amber-lensed glasses. And I thought, perhaps that’s part of the magic. This man, who last played live in the US on Halloween 1995 with Oingo Boingo, has been looking at the world through pumpkin colored glasses. How very Halloweenie.
With a devilish grin and a nod to conductor John Mauceri, he put his whole body into the performance. Crouching, dancing, and throwing his arms about, it’s hard to believe, but he was more animated than the animation playing on the screen behind him. His voice was in top form, easily mastering the long phrases and tongue-twisting lyrics of “Jack’s Lament”, “Jack’s Obsession”, and “What’s This?” It was a tour de force performance. He wrestled the songs physically and won, growling and shouting “I am the Pumpkin King” with the audience, as his eyes glittered like Sandy Claws.
He paused and thanked the audience for giving him the chance to sing songs he “never thought [he’d] sing again”. He explained that some of the performers on stage have been with him 27 years since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and announced special guest Catherine O’Hara. Appearing at stage right, the original voice of Sally from the film walked onstage and sang the beautifully melancholy “Sally’s Song”. Her pained expression and haunting intonations were heartbreakingly mournful.
The final suite was from Alice In Wonderland, and how fitting. Somehow more mature-sounding, with the whole orchestra and choir in full voice… the lilting score transported us back to Hollywoodland from Wonderland. I knew when I walked into the theater that, like Alice, I couldn’t live in the topsy-turvy intoxicating world that Tim and Danny created forever. I’m just thrilled that I could spend a couple of hours there. I can dress the part, but eventually the make-up has to come off, the props and wigs must be put away… and it’s time to clamber out of the rabbit hole. So, until the next time I meet them in a theater filled with flickering light and music, I drive home feeling a little like Sally…
“Try as I may it doesn’t last.
And will we ever end up together?
No, I think not.
It’s never to become,
For I am not the one.”
Danny Elfman’s Music from the Film’s of Tim Burton
Performances played at the Nokia Theatre at LA Live
October 29, 30, 31, 2013 only.