Danny Elfman’s music from the films of Tim Burton

Film music’s an interesting beast, isn’t it? We can watch a movie and barely notice the music at all. But take away the music, and the film flops. Indeed, film music at its best “becomes one” with the screen. It’s like pasta and sauce. Once you add the sauce, you can’t take it out again. It all fuses together as part of the same dish.

Last night I went to a wonderful program at Lincoln Center called “Danny Elfman’s music from the films of Tim Burton.” It featured an orchestra, chorus, and soloists including Mr. Elfman himself. Elfman had made a kind of orchestral suite of his movie music, grouped into sections according to what film the music was from. There was a big screen backdrop which showed montages of movie clips interspersed with sketched of the characters and scenery, presumably by director Tim Burton. I was fascinated by how the animation in many of Burton’s films is derived so heavily from his detailed sketches. What an amazing visual imagination! Even with “real” actors, I found it striking to see how much of Burton’s visual imagery made it onscreen. From his mind into ours.

Some of the films represented last night (July 6, 2015) were The Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice In Wonderland, Beetlejuice, Planet of the Apes, and of course, Batman. The audience welcomed each new movie with enthusiastic applause, showing how much Elfman’s music is beloved by his and Burton’s fans. (It was also a fun night for Johnny Depp fans like myself, since he appeared onscreen in may of his best roles).

I found it fascinating to hear Elfman’s music for an entire evening. For one thing, I could hear relationships and a stylistic continuity between the different scores which I don’t always recognize when I just see an occasional movie of his. I also found it interesting to read about Elfman’s musical influences in his bio and hear how they played out in the “finished product.” Although Elfman and John Williams (Star Wars) cite similar classical influences like Stravinsky and Shostakovich, they’ve both managed to put their individual stamp on their music, with the exception of the Batman choral sections, which would have fit right in with Williams’ Revenge of the Sith score.

Besides his classical-sounding music, Elfman at times drew on the German music hall tradition, 1930’s swing, bluegrass, and African percussion styles. He also used a nice array of “exotic” sounds, including two solos for boy soprano and a featured use of a theremin (an early synth), which I was hearing live for the first time. Marvelous!

All in all, a fun evening of live music which re-ignited my interest in film music. Here’s a clip of something I particularly enjoyed at the concert. Enjoy!

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