The Second Disc

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Back Tracks: Burton and Elfman

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It turns out the reissue of Batman wasn’t the only Danny Elfman-related catalogue news at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con: Elfman shared at a panel discussion that Warner Bros. is planning a box set devoted to the composer’s longtime collaboration with director Tim Burton.

It’s not much of a surprise that such a set would happen. Burton and Elfman’s collaboration is one of the strongest director-composer bonds in Hollywood. And while neither men are collaborating with the kind of urgently great results they had in their early years, it’s a strong bond that deserves some attention from the catalogue world.

Not much is known about the set, tentatively titled The 25th Anniversary Music Box, other than that it will include 14 CDs, a DVD and a book featuring interviews with the director and composer. (Fans can learn more by signing up for the newsletter at the official site for the box.) In the meantime, though, a look back at the duo’s collaborations would be in order, in the classic Back Tracks style. Get ready for a weird, wild trip through film score history, after the jump.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985 – released Varese Sarabande, 1986)

Before Pee-Wee Herman became a national icon of the ’80s, Tim Burton was a frustrated animator at Disney and Danny Elfman was the leader of Oingo Boingo. Neither of them had much experience at feature films (save for Elfman’s work on the Boingo movie Forbidden Zone), but Elfman proved to be a perfect fit for both film and director. It’s a score that balances heroism and kitschy, upbeat motifs – particularly “Breakfast Machine,” one of the best cues the composer ever wrote. The original soundtrack release combined a selection of re-recorded highlights from Pee-Wee with more re-recorded cues from Elfman’s second score to the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School. The DVD of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure has an isolated audio track of the complete score with commentary from Elfman to boot.

Beetlejuice (1988 – released Geffen, 1988)

The Elfman quirks returned for this comedy about a dead newlywed couple who hire a “bio-exorcist” to rid their house of a yuppie family. Disembodied voices and rollicking strings were the order of the day, and yet another memorable score was created. (Like Pee-Wee, Elfman drew inspiration on Beetlejuice from pop music – notably the calypso stylings of Harry Belafonte, whose “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” is quoted in both the film and the iconic theme). A recent DVD release for the film’s 20th anniversary in 2008 also included the original isolated score with Elfman’s commentary.

Batman (1989 – released Warner Bros., 1989/La La Land, 2010)

Here began Elfman’s transition into a big-C Composer, armed with a full, fortissimo orchestra and a Gothically heroic theme that brought horns and strings together as the spiritual counterpoint to John Williams’ iconic theme for Superman: The Movie (1978). This is one of Elfman’s most enduring works (arguably more so than the Prince album of rock music that accompanied the heavily-hyped film), which has provided the template for the best musical Bat-moments over the past two decades. Given a lengthy treatment on CD when the film was first released, the new La La Land reissue includes the original soundtrack mix and the complete score as mixed for the film on two discs. (It will likely be a quick sellout at only 5,000 copies – so order it quick when it’s released on Tuesday.)

Edward Scissorhands (1990 – released MCA, 1990)

After some high-profile jobs away from Burton, including the classic theme to The Simpsons, Burton and Elfman collaborated on their fourth straight gem. The fractured fairytale about a man-made boy with scissors for hands attempting to assimilate into suburban America was a personal film for both director and composer, and its success was a vindication for both of them as well. Again, kitsch-pop was utilized (Tom Jones, this time), but it never diluted the beautiful sounds Elfman and his orchestra made.

Batman Returns (1992 – released Warner Bros., 1992/La La Land, TBA)

The Batman Returns score was not a total retread of the original, though it did a) incorporate more of Elfman’s increasing quirks (more choral voices) and b) lack the kick-in-the-pants aspects of the original score. Most memorable about the soundtrack outside of the music is its horrible track indexing; several longer cues are split up into two separate tracks, making independent listening of cues impossible unless you edit them together or listen to two tracks in a row. The impending La La Land expansion, announced at the Ubeda conference, should rectify this error.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 – released Walt Disney Records, 1993/2006)

Okay, so it’s not really a Tim Burton film (he only produced, thanks to constraints during Batman Returns). But both mens’ stylistic hallmarks are all over this project, a stop-motion-animated kid’s horror pic that made Disney cool (or at least tolerable) to the Hot Topic set. This is also the closest Elfman ever returned to pop stylings in his soundtrack material (Oingo Boingo were almost through at the time). As Jack Skellington’s singing voice, Elfman added great gusto to the proceedings, and while the film may have suffered a bit beneath its cult following, it’s spawned a nice bit of catalogue product. In 2006, the original Nightmare soundtrack was expanded with a bonus disc that included not only Elfman’s original demo tracks but a host of covers of the best-loved tunes from sympathetic artists (leading to the bizarre scenario of Walt Disney Records boasting a track from Marilyn Manson). Two years later, Disney expanded upon the idea and released an all-covers record called Nightmare Revisited.

Mars Attacks! (1996 – released Atlantic, 1997/La La Land, 2009)

The quirks meld with ’60s sci-fi styles (and more pop – this time it’s Slim Whitman and Tom Jones) for this mildly entertaining, mostly uneven action satire. (Elfman only really nailed sci-fi/fantasy scores less than a year later with Men in Black.) It was given a nice, if not entirely complete, expansion last year from La La Land, which included several alternate cues and other interesting stuff from the vault.

Sleepy Hollow (1999 – released Hollywood Records, 1999)

By now the Burton/Elfman partnership was beginning to harden into something predictable – Burton supplying the Gothic imagery, kooky outsiders and protagonists with daddy issues, Elfman scoring the proceedings with razor strings and weird, ghostly tones. Sleepy Hollow was no different, although horror enthusiasts were excited at the outcome.

Planet of the Apes (2001 – released Sony Classical, 2001)

One of the weirdest entries in the Burton/Elfman canon, this overblown, big-budget adaptation of the classic 1963 novel and 1968 film featured another action-based score (this one heavier on percussion than usual) that would pale in comparison to Elfman’s work on another action/blockbuster franchise just one year later: Spider-Man.

Big Fish (2003 – released Sony Classical, 2003)

Arguably a return to form for both men, this appealingly off-the-wall, introspective film included a score that used Elfman’s quirks sparingly and advantageously. It netted him several major nominations, including an Oscar and a Grammy.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005 – released Warner Sunset, 2005)

Back to the weirdness for both of them. This kooky adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel was Burton/Elfman playing to their strong suits (Burton nailing the candy-coated wackiness and Elfman using genre-bending pop-inspired themes to represent the many characters). It’s nothing like the music to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; how you react to this knowledge determines how much you’ll like it.

Corpse Bride (2005 – released Warner Sunset, 2005)

A whimsical but less inspired attempt to repeat the success of Nightmare Before Christmas leads to not that much special in the score department, aside from some interesting songs here and there.

Alice in Wonderland (2010 – released Walt Disney Records, 2010)

A very Burton-esque adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story results in a very Elfman-esque score. It’s the tale of the tape for both men by now, although Disney was willing to release the score on CD, as opposed to their mostly digital-only offerings. (Still, it was overshadowed by a tie-in album of goth-pop tracks inspired by the film.)

Also worth checking out: the Danny Elfman compilations Music for a Darkened Theatre Volume I (MCA, 1990) and Volume II (MCA, 1996) are a great overview of the Burton/Elfman collaboration, including newly recorded suites from most of the films mentioned here as well as some other Burton-related ephemera like musical arrangements for the Beetlejuice cartoon show.

Written by Mike Duquette

July 23, 2010 at 15:38

4 Responses

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  1. […] big and little screens alike. Mancini’s longterm collaboration with Blake Edwards ranks with the Danny Elfman/Tim Burton and John Williams/Steven Spielberg teams as among the most influential ever in the annals of film […]

  2. […] anyone wondering how much unreleased material was slated for Warner’s Tim Burton & Danny Elfman 25th Anniversary Music Box can at least help determine the answer: producer Richard Kraft is taking requests on the Film Score […]

  3. […] It’s quite a unique approach, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in comparing each presentation and finding details that may have been buried to our ears after two decades. But to anyone less involved, the whole thing looks exhaustive. And audiophiles may balk at the original mix on the first disc, culled from a variety of sources and therefore lacking the consistent sonic clarity the original score album retains. (To this reviewer, that’s a minor quibble, especially when one considers just how much music is being heard for the first time. Although there’s always the fear that Warner Bros. will throw La La Land under the bus and provide clearer elements for that upcoming Burton/Elfman box set…)* […]

  4. […] major problem with the delay of the Burton/Elfman box. The Second Disc first reported on this set almost exactly five months ago, and an official track list and release date was up at the end of September. Given the excesses of […]

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