Saturday, October 31, 2015

Danny Elfman’s Music for the Films of Tim Burton (PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched an intriguing but also somewhat numbing program on PBS: Danny Elfman’s Music for the Films of Tim Burton, which was engaging for about the first hour or so. The gimmick was that the New York Philharmonic played the music from films including Beetlejuice (which I can remember watching with my late partner John Gabrish; we enjoyed it but we both realized early on it was simply Ghostbusters in reverse — instead of people trying to exorcise ghosts, it was ghosts trying to exorcise people), Batman, Batman Returns (I still think these films, Burton’s only two in the Batman mythos, are the best Batman movies ever made — all the others have been either too campy or too dark —though I’d also throw in the marvelous 1943 Columbia serial, the Caped Crusader’s first appearance on screen, directed by Lambert Hillyer, who’d also done The Invisible Ray and Dracula’s Daughter), Edward Scissorhands (a film I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve never seen even though it’s already 25 years old and it launched the long-term collaboration between Burton and Johnny Depp, a director-star pairing I’ve compared to John Ford/John Wayne, John Huston/Humphrey Bogart and Douglas Sirk/Rock Hudson), Mars Attacks! (which Charles and I watched recently — which helped us appreciate the fusion of music and image more than we did for some of the films we hadn’t seen either in ages or at all), Big Fish (a movie I don’t recall even having heard of before, let alone seen, though quite frankly it looks like it would be quite interesting, a circus-set movie that seems from the clips they showed like a modern reworking of Freaks) and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is considered part of the Burton oeuvre even though he merely produced it (someone named Henry Selick directed), along with Burton’s early short Frankenweenie, one of the most horrible titles ever concocted for what turned out to be a clever and savagely brilliant spoof of the James Whale Frankenstein movies (a kid’s dog gets killed and he determines to bring the pooch back to life with Dr. Frankenstein’s technology). The New York Philharmonic brought in a guest “pops” conductor, John Mauceri, instead of entrusting it to their normal one, Alan Gilbert, but quite frankly there’s not much a conductor can do with this music except make sure the orchestra (and particularly the percussionists) get the rhythms right.

Elfman began his career with a rock band called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo — though the name got abbreviated simply to “Oingo Boingo” when they got a record contract — and wasn’t sure at first he had the technical skills to compose orchestral music for films, but he’s quite good at it. He’s developed an off-kilter “take” on the classic-era scores of the 1930’s and 1940’s (in an interview in the show he mentioned his particular admiration for Bernard Herrmann, who was represented via a film clip from Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad — obviously closer to Burton’s type of movie than the dramas and thrillers Herrmann scored for Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock!) that works beautifully for Burton’s films. The problem is that the music all started to sound pretty much the same after a while; perhaps if they had interspersed some of Elfman’s work for other directors the show wouldn’t have started to pale, but as it stood it just communicated how Tim Burton gravitates to the same sorts of subjects again and again, and Elfman comes up with the same sort of music again and again to match Burton’s choice of stories and overall approach. The music for Edward Scissorhands stood out if only because for once in his career (at least judging from the clips and the content of Elfman’s music) Burton went for pathos, and as a result Elfman was able to write lyrically — something he isn’t generally able to do for Burton. Also standing out was The Nightmare Before Christmas, though more because Elfman and a woman singer actually performed with the orchestra — and Elfman joked that even after 25 years in the public eye he still gets stage fright before he has to go on, but “maybe when I’ve been doing it 50 years I’ll be over it” (a sort of joke that underscores the compatibility of his and Burton’s senses of humor) — and the vocals added a new dimension to a long stretch of music that, though composed over at least two decades, all was starting to sound pretty much the same.

All those off-beat percussion rhythms, all those low-voiced instruments (at one point one of the pieces started to sound like a cross between the cello part Brian Wilson was so obsessively rehearsing in Love and Mercy and the famous tuba theme from Jaws), all those theremin effects (the theremin player got an interview in which he said you have to tune the thing to make sure the electronic field it’s generating is going to give you the correct pitches, even though it remains the only instrument that is played without the player physically touching it), mostly meaning the same thing the theremin usually means in a film (to indicate that the flying saucer is coming in for a landing — Franz Waxman was the first film composer to use the theremin, and he pioneered it to underscore Ray Milland’s alcoholic ravings in The Lost Weekend and Gregory Peck’s struggle to regain his memory in Spellbound, but such “serious” uses of the theremin have long receded into movie history) and all those twitchy little semi-melodies started to get wearing after a while even though the concert presenters, as has become standard in concerts of film music, had a projection screen over the orchestra showing not only clips from the films themselves but a few of Burton’s original storyboard drawings and paintings — which showed that some of his characters were considerably wilder in appearance in his imagination than they were when they finally hit the screen. The show was engaging, and about 40 minutes of the Elfman music interspersed with other works could have made a compelling concert, but ultimately the sheer sameness of the material (as well as its references to classic-era film scoring — not surprising, given that Burton is the sort of director who fills his movies with references to classic films) got more wearing than entertaining.