Monday, October 21, 2013

The Belated Danny Elfman Review Post.

This was written for the blog Mostly Film and posted there in different form last week (you can read it here), but here's the non-edited version. Yes, I'm petty.

Until Monday October 8 2013 I never would have thought that I’d ever celebrate a first at the same time as Danny Elfman, but there you are – that night was the first time I’d ever attended a world premiere concert, and that night marked the first time he’d had a concert devoted to his music for film rather than as a member of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Danny Elfman’s Music From The Films Of Tim Burton (surprisingly not sponsored by Ronseal, despite it being exactly what it says on the tin) premiered that night to a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall before going to Leeds (on Tuesday), Glasgow (Wednesday) and Birmingham (Thursday), and hopefully the punters had as glorious a time as most of those attending did.

Truth be told, I was a little bit apprehensive about this – in spite of having been a fan of his from the Sledge Hammer! days, devoting a whole night (or two hours plus) to his work for one director almost implies Elfman’s non-Burton work doesn’t rate concert treatment (John Williams concerts aren’t 100% Spielberg, after all). Yeah, a night of music from the films of Sam Raimi wouldn’t be as commercial, but he has done sterling work for other directors (Sommersby, Mission: Impossible, Gus Van Sant etc). Still, you have to start somewhere, and one of the most successful composer/director collaborations in film history is as good a place as any.

Featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Maida Vale Singers under the baton of film music patron John Mauceri – Elfman, Family Guy to the contrary, doesn’t conduct – the event also had visual support with film clips and Burton artwork for everything from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure onwards (except Charlie And The Chocolate Factory for some reason, with the film’s main title being performed under a montage of scenes from that and other Burton movies rather than have the choir regale us with “Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka, the amazing chocolatier”). The players rose to the energetic challenge provided by Mr. Herman’s exploits, but Beetlejuice was a bit more problematic thanks to the choral accompaniment somewhat overwhelming the main theme instead of complementing the orchestra. Sleepy Hollow was effectively pounding and mysterious, while Mars Attacks! continued its fine tradition of disappointing me in some fashion other than musically by marking the evening’s first drawback of having a restricted view, since I couldn’t see the theremin player earning her pay.

One of the biggest complaints some have made about Elfman, along with how his orchestrators are the ones who really do the work (which doesn’t explain how Elfman’s own voice shows through all the different orchestrators over the years) is how all his scores sound the same – the lengthy suite from Big Fish (still his only Oscar-nominated work for Tim Burton to date) is a poetic and gentle riposte to this. “Gentle” is not a word anyone would ever use for the next selection, which was also the first to be greeted with applause before a note was played; there are those who’d argue with the claim at this year’s Oscars that Chicago*was a game-changer, but the term fits comic book scores for years after Batman. The suite presented combined that and Batman Returns, and while Batters was front and centre with the music from the former, the latter used none of his material in favour of the more mournful, mysterious material for the Penguin and Catwoman. What that choice lacked in energy it made up for in underlining Batman Returns having some of the saddest music ever written for a superhero movie, showing that these villains are more misunderstood than evil (though there’s that as well). That said, ending the suite with the first film’s exuberant “Finale” was the right move and a super way to herald the interval.

Part 2 launched with Planet Of The Apes and another reason to curse the view; the players performing the clong-clong-clong in the main title were invisible from where I was. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (pleasant, but not a patch on the Chocolate Factory – and while the emphasis on the romantic element was understandable, a bit of “Remains Of The Day” wouldn’t have gone amiss) , Dark Shadows (which made the least impression on me, probably because it’s the only film represented that I haven’t seen yet) and the moving Frankenweenie followed before the evening’s highlight for many – as the overture for  Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas  kicked in, the third reason to hate restricted views walked onto stage to thunderous applause out of my line of vision… ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Daniel Robert Elfman.

A virtual concert-within-a-concert, we were treated to all of JACK! The PUMP-KIN KING’s songs as performed by Elfman, with “What’s This?” in particular being matched up perfectly to Henry Selick’s visuals – although for once they were upstaged by the man himself giving it all he had. As an extra bonus, the RAH audience had a little exclusive in the not-so-little form of Mrs. Burton herself, Helena Bonham Carter, losing her own stage virginity** to deliver “Sally’s Song” (and quite well). She may have gotten a louder response than Elfman, but I’m not sure…  thank goodness Johnny Depp never showed up.

Edward Scissorhands, one of Elfman’s finest – and most, um, “tributed” - scores and for my money still Burton’s best film along with Ed Wood (not represented tonight due to it being one of only two Burton features to date that Elfman sat out***), represented the point where the audio and visual elements met perfectly. As if the choral work and the first chair’s spirited violin for Edward’s tonsorial showing off weren’t enough, there was “Ice Dance”; the sounds of Elfman’s soothing, romantic notes under the sight of the ice-shaving-created storm Winona Ryder moved under… if ever a moment justified the presence of that screen, this was it. Stunning in 1990, stunning now.

An equally impressive piece from a considerably less impressive film was the last official piece of the night, as the choir took centre stage with “Alice’s Theme” from Alice In Wonderland; that in itself would have been a fine way to finish, but the rock star in Danny Elfman meant we still had to have the encore – and it was back to Christmas in October for “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” with Elfman as Oogie Boogie (throwing in some dance moves to the enthusiasm of the crowd) and conductor Mauceri as poor old Sandy Claws. “You ain’t going nowhere….” and neither were we, especially since the evening finished with Tim Burton himself speaking for us all by telling Elfman that this was his night. And he’d earned all the cheers he received; the US audiences getting this in weeks to come are in for a treat.

You gotta admit, Elfman played this stinkin’ city like a harp from hell.

*Also scored by Elfman (in a Dixieland style; still think he only has one sound?).

**Her word, not mine.

***The other being Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. But you already knew that, right?

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