‘I didn’t really notice the music’ is a comment you don’t hear very often when it comes to Danny Elfman’s film scores. Moviegoers sometimes mean it as a backhanded compliment; the film was so engrossing that the music merely served to inform their emotions and tell the story rather than stand out on its own. Not that Elfman’s rollicking scores don’t inform your emotions, particularly in the case of his masterful symphony for Edward Scissorhands, its sweeping melancholy bringing grown men to tears by the film’s bittersweet finale.
On Tuesday night at the Leeds First Direct Arena, the BBC Concert Orchestra, under the baton of John Mauceri, performed stunning renditions of this and a dozen other scores from Elfman’s nearly thirty-year collaboration with director Tim Burton. Burton has come to rely on Elfman as the musical voice to complement his visual extravagance, from their first film together in 1985, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, through to their more recent commercial films such as Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. All have been memorable and all were brought to delightfully pleasing life over three hours of symphonic brilliance.
An eighty-piece orchestra – complete with shimmering theramin used to creepy effect with Mars Attacks! – and a full choir is a rare and thrilling way to experience film music, a chance only usually afforded to the film’s director before the music is digitised and inserted into the film for audiences to largely ignore through speakers of variable quality. (Elman cites hearing Pee Wee, his first film score, performed by a full orchestra, as ‘one of the most thrilling experiences of my life’.) The theramin was in fact showcased in several pieces, most hauntingly serving as the macabre brains of the Martians in a direct reference to Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day The Earth Stood Still, the first score that Elfman says he ‘was aware of as a kid; that the music isn’t just there by magic.’
Indeed, Herrmann’s influence can be heard throughout Elfman’s music, as can nods to Nino Rota in his fun, jangly scores for Pee Wee and Beetlejuice, which opened the night. One-off cues from Planet Of The Apes (not Burton’s finest hour but served by a brutal, bellicose score from Elfman) and the tender Big Fish served to highlight the composer’s often underrated versatility, even within the oeuvre of Burton’s weirdness. It’s easy to remember tracks like the magnificent Batman theme – and subsequent action cues Descent Into Mystery and Waltz To The Death – and overlook the gentle, stirring simplicity of his ethereal Corpse Bride or his ode to beloved lost pets in Frankenweenie.
The evening would have been satisfying enough with that selection and the amusing, haunting images of Burton’s sketches and film clips projected above –
not to mention a frantic, show-stopping violin solo from Edward Scissorhands to represent Edward’s hair-cutting skills. However, to round off the night, the audience were treated to a real highlight: Elfman himself emerging from backstage to take his place in front of the orchestra and sing songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas, dancing maniacally and lip-synching with the movie as Jack Skellington to What’s This? and duetting with a playful Mauceri as Mr. Oogie Boogie and ‘Sandy Claws’ to a standing ovation.
A rare chance to experience film music in its purest form should never be missed. In future, is it too much to ask that all movie screenings have a live orchestra?
Danny Elfman’s Music From The Films Of Tim Burton will appear for one last UK appearance at the Birmingham Indoor Arena on Thursday 10th October before returning to LA for several more performances.