Tim Burton’s stylistic and directorial hallmarks can be seen throughout his three-decade spanning film career. His films have achieved both box office success, cult following status and critical acclaim; a feat few directors can even hope of achieving. Visually unique, almost establishing his own sub-genre, one of Burton’s most distinguishable and often unrecognised features is his musical flair.
Even from the earliest roots of Burton’s film making, we can see the gothic style emanating from his visuals and audio. His short stop-motion film, Vincent, made in 1982 (but only raising to notoriety on the special features of one his later releases) demonstrates his talent and tendencies. The film, narrated by Burton’s childhood hero Vincent Price, had its score composed by the relatively unknown Ken Hilton. Throughout there are unnerving tones of the lone oboe and a grandly haunting church organ giving the black and white cartoon the perfect tone of darkly comic menace and torment. From these small scale beginnings, Burton has gone on to make some of the biggest and most stylistically impressive films of the last thirty years.
However, his greatest composing partner is Danny Elfman; a name now synonymous with Burton’s cannon. Having collaborated on Burton’s first full-length directorial offering Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 while Elfman was still working with rock band Oingo Boingo. The pair have now worked together on thirteen of Burton’s films, composing over a wide range of genres and styles.
One of the pinnacles of their relationship was the seminal Beetlejuice. The dark hilarity of Burton explodes onto the screen, soaring with the accompaniment of Elfman’s manic and pulsing scoring. From the very opening of the film, the main title music assaults the audience. With klezmer inspired heavy staccato piano and a dominating brass section, soaring like a low rain cloud over the titles, in a musical move of subtle yet effective prophetic fallacy. Elfman deftly spoofs this menacing musicality of popular family movies with style with ‘Travel Music’ and ‘Lydia Discovers’. Through combining the opening motif and a sense of mania, Elfman is Keaton’s wing man of madness. For a taste of the untamed composition of this film at its very best, listen to ‘The Fly’ and the undeniable menace of ‘Showtime’, with oom-pah bass horns and fairground flutes to boot.
However, Burton’s application of sound cannot simply be filed under ‘Creepy and Gothic’. Moving in a different stylistic direction, 2003’s epic drama Big Fish saw a tamer side of Burton’s filmic intelligence. Again collaborating with Elfman, the light musical touches employed differ greatly from previous offerings but resonate to a similar degree in a wonderful stretching of the duo’s colourful and enchanting imagination. The beautiful ‘Sandra’s Theme’ is a soaring piece of orchestral mastery. The light violins and melancholic undertones create a beautiful road for us to follow. An aural journey right alongside the narrative of the film. Coming from such a different place in Elfman’s musical vocabulary, Big Fish showcases the soft brilliance of his large orchestral arrangements. As well as this, the use of classic Rock n’ Roll songs such as Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘All Shook Up’ provides some tasty energy and timely pertinence to the film.
Although the two would appear to fit like a hand to glove, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was no obvious step for Burton’s career. Sondheim musicals are tricky at the best of time and Sweeney Todd is no exception both musically and vocally. However, in this loyal screen adaptation, the cast serve to impress even when occasionally “speak-singing” parts which were originally more operatic than anything else. The setting is one which Burton can revel in with the blood flowing plentiful and dark red, the gothic streets of London echoing the terrifying themes and dramas of the narrative. The gorgeous connection of these pathways is witnessed in ‘Pretty Women’ with tension, tone and timing all combining to deliver thrills and spills for all.
Staying on the theme of Burton’s more macabre tastes, Frankenweenie follows this trend with an inch less intesnity. The magic of Burton’s direction often shines in its ability to appeal to both adults and children, and the same very much goes for Elfman’s scoring – Frankenweenie being no exception.While less intense than previous gothic collaborations, the melodic fluctuations of the violins and swooning woodwind of the orchestra encapsulates a breathing soundscape of a score. The gradual and creeping ‘Re-Animation’ is a masterclass in suspense driven arrangement. The much more solemn ‘The Speech’ harks to the Nosferatu school of composition, with the gradual build and ebb of concealed threat underlining the scene perfectly as a nod to the classic horror films of Burton’s youth. This simple yet elegant snapshot of children’s cinema is a wonderful return to Burton’s early ideas and stop motion experiments, and is a great reminder of his and Elfman’s talent to entertain.
Having captured the hearts, minds and imaginations of a generation of filmgoers, Tim Burton has proved to be one of the most inventive and influential directors of his era. With his Danny Elfman collaborations and beyond, Burton has demonstrated perfectly the way in which music should be used to compliment, frame and centre a film. A masterclass in music and soundscape.