Planet of the Aces

Victor Field sees composer extraordinaire Danny Elfman cut loose at the Royal Albert Hall

Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction stands in for Helena Bonham Carter
Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction stands in for Helena Bonham Carter

Until Monday 8 October 2013, I’d never have thought that I’d 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) premiered to a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall before going to Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham, and hopefully the punters there had as glorious a time as most of those attending the RAH.

"Hey, is that a 64 Fender Jaguar?" Danny Elfman with Oingo Boingo
“Hey, is that a 64 Fender Jaguar?” Danny Elfman with Oingo Boingo

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 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). The players rose to the energetic challenge provided by Pee Wee’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.

He's thinking of the theremin part
He’s thinking of the theremin part

There are two main complaints made about Elfman. The first is that his orchestrators are the ones who really do the work, which doesn’t explain how Elfman’s own voice shows through all his different orchestrators over the years. The second is that all his scores sound the same. The lengthy suite from Big Fish (still his only work with Burton to receive an Oscar nomination) 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: a suite combining Elfman’s scores for Batman and Batman Returns. Elfman’s Dixieland-style score for Chicago (still think he has only one sound?) was acclaimed as a game-changer at this year’s Oscars, but the term fits his Batman scores rather better, given that they influenced every comic-book soundtrack for years afterwards. The mournful, mysterious material written for the Penguin and Catwoman in Batman Returns may not be particularly energetic, but their performance here was a reminder that this is some of the saddest music ever written for a superhero movie, suggesting that these villains are more misunderstood than evil (though they’re that as well). With 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 Two 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. Then Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, which was 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. Then Dark Shadows, which made the least impression on me, probably because it’s the only film represented that I haven’t seen, and finally the moving Frankenweenie before, the highlight of the evening – the arrival on stage, coinciding with the overture to The Nightmare Before Christmas, of Mr. Daniel Robert Elfman himself. Cue thunderous applause.

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” quite well. She may have gotten a louder response than Elfman, but I’m not sure … just thank goodness Johnny Depp never showed up.

Edward Scissorhands, one of Elfman’s finest – and most, um, “tributed” – soundtracks and for my money still Burton’s best film along with Ed Wood (which Elfman didn’t score) 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.

*Her word, not mine.

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