You could tell from the diverse crowd entering the ornate splendour of the Royal Albert Hall that included lots of Goth chicks, gay couples and at least one Beetlejuice, that this wasn’t going to be your cliched stuffy buttoned-down classical concert. Filmmaker Tim Burton, right from the beginning of his directorial career, achieved something unique. His particular brand of weirdness immediately attracted a strong cult following, but also, somehow, popularity amongst the masses, with the result that you can see it all over the place. The Burton name has virtually become synonymous with a certain kind of fantasy, odd and dark, but a kind of dark that is harmless and never too be taken very seriously. The music of composer Danny Elfman, who has scored all but two of his films, has become an essential ingredient in a Burton film. Like Steven Spielberg and John Williams, the Coen brothers and Carter Burwell, not to mention older examples like Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Burton and Elfman are a great example of how a filmmaker and a composer can collaborate and achieve amazing results. A Burton film has a certain kind of sound as much as look.
As the BBC Concert Orchestra hurled straight into the main titles from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, I was drawn less to the energetic conducting of John Mauceri, the singing of the Maida Vale Singers, who throughout the gig worked overtime because of how often and how powerfully Elfman uses a choir in his scores, than to a woman waving her arms over something near the front of the stage. Was it?….yes…. it was, a theramin, the amazing electronic instrument that became almost synonymous with science fiction ‘B’ movies in the 1950’s. This was so awesome to Yours Truly that he ended up watching it more than the orchestra whenever a piece that employed it was being played. Meanwhile a huge screen behind and above the orchestra showed a montage of clips from Burton movies. As the music gradually worked its way through highlights from all 14 of Elfman’s scores for Burton, the screen showed a mixture of concept art by Burton and clips for the particular film whose music was being played. Sometimes you would actually get a full scene and the orchestra playing the exact music from that particular scene, truly achieving a heavenly combination of image and music without things like sound effects and dialogue to get in the way!
The orchestra would usually either play the main title music of each film, followed then by a passage or two from the rest of the score, or the end credits music which would usually be a convenient recap of the main themes or motifs. A few scores only had the their main title track played, but there wasn’t room for everything! The mechanistic fury of the Charlie And The Chocolate Factory piece, the throbbing rhythm musically evoking the crazy machines of Willy Wonka, we moved on to the end credits suite from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a perfect example of comedy music which is fun and catchy yet never itself laughs. With his main title theme from Beetlejuice, Elfman perfectly evoked the mischievous personality of the wicked title character, but it was then time to get serious and move on to the grimmer and less melodic music from Sleepy Hollow. Then came the wonderfully cheesy, in the most possible way, march theme from Mars Attacks, and the more introspective, with a touch of Deep South Americana replete with fiddle, Big Fish. The first part came to a show-stopping finale with a suite from Batman and Batman Returns. As soon as the first organ chord of Elfman’s rousing Batman march was heard, cheers were heard [and not just from me] as the excitement reached epic heights. A touch of sadness came over me though at the end of the suite though. Why? Because you just don’t hear music of anywhere near this calibre accompanying the exploits of the Bat any more.
After a much needed breather, part two kicked off with of the powerful primitivism of Planet Of The Apes, and the large percussion section worked above and beyond the call of duty to replicate the sound of the original track, in fact it was amazing how much all the music in the concert sounded like the original recordings, though I will say that, from where we were sat at least, the acoustics were sometimes a bit muggy and therefore the balance not always right, as in Mars Attacks, where the brass seemed to be a bit drowned out by everything else. Anyway, Corpse Bride was next, and included the choir perfectly replicating Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche The Wedding Song. I suppose that, thinking about it, I would personally have preferred to hear The Remains Of The Day, but that’s just being picky. Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie followed, and these two most recent examples of Elfman’s Burton film music do perhaps show the composer just relaxing with what by now had become quite a familiar sound and style. And then….the untouchable Edward Scissorhands, the incredible score to Burton’s heartwrenching masterpiece. When the music for the beautiful [one of the most beautiful in film] Ice Dance scene came on and the scene played out at the same time on the screen, my wife was in tears. Me? I was too busy trying to take in and store inside my brain for the rest of my life every moment.
So only two films left, and it was Mr Elfman himself who came on to the stage next to sing some of his songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The energy and enthusiasm of the 60-year old musician, who started his career in the pop world, was a joy to behold, he was Jack Skellington, the wonderful stop-motion character from the mind of Burton but clearly imbued by the personality of Elfman. And then….was it?….yes it was….Helena Bonham Carter, coming on stage to sing Sally’s Song, and looking very good too I must add. The songs finished and, after a thankyou from Elfman, on came Tim Burton himself. Burton has never been a talker and just said a few words, but who cares, the atmosphere was electric. The main part of the gig finished with Alice In Wonderland and then, for an encore, Elfman came back on to perform Oogie Boogie’s Song, but ringing through my head were Elfman’s words: “this is, I think, the greatest moment of my life”. It was a pretty great moment in mine too, and there really was a wonderfully happy, satisfied feeling amongst all of us coming out as my wife and I rushed off towards the underground station so we wouldn’t be too late home….but there was no way I was going to sleep much that night anyway.