I always get a little thrill when Danny Elfman decides to step back in front of the microphone or, more bluntly, when Tim Burton decides to let Danny Elfman step back in front of the microphone. His last actual studio recording with a band was 1994’s ill-fated Boingo, an attempt to drag wacky and macabre party rockers Oingo Boingo into the ’90s, yet the dire and very pointed rock sound of the album accomplished two unwanted things: it alienated the original fans who wanted the music to be more fun and less funereal, and it failed to attract new fans thanks to its alignment with the moody, grungy times. After a live farewell concert, documented on a final band release, Elfman and longtime collaborator Steve Bartek went back to the scoring stage.
It makes perfect sense. Elfman had carved out a wildly successful and respected niche in film scoring, and his signature polkas from hell and minor-key romanticism have become immediate signals to an appreciative audience. Still, whenever there’s a reason to sing and Elfman accepts the challenge, it gets me charged up. That it takes Tim Burton’s strange visions to do it ensures that such occurrences aren’t altogether frequent. Remember that Burton’s last musical partner was some dude named Stephen Sondheim, whoever the heck that is; when it’s Elfman’s turn I start to get those old heebie-jeebies back. His music for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) leaned heavily on his film-music sensibilities, but his tracks for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) as well as a jazz number from Corpse Bride (2005) drew from his more contemporary side.
As the singing voice of Bonejangles, the pub entertainer for the underworld in Corpse Bride, Elfman had the dubious task every writer, be he a writer of scripts or of songs, dreads â€” expositor. Luckily, his “Remains of the Day” manages to clue in the audience to what the afterlife, or in this case the underlife, is about, as well as telling the lonely tale of the Corpse Bride without putting us to sleep. Elfman has said in interviews that Bonejangles was his hardest job to date because of the damage the character’s guttural bebop inflicted on his vocal chords â€” imagine Leon Redbone with a desiccated larynx and you’re in the ballpark.
Elfman’s other most recent vocalization was no less challenging but thankfully a bit less painful. Elfman gave musical voice to the Oompa Loompas â€” all of ’em â€” in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Each of the diminutive cocoa pushers was played by Gurdeep Roy (credited as Deep Roy), but even though all the Loompas look the same, they’re voiced in a variety of different ways, often according to the fates of the bad children taking Wonka’s candy tour. With digital pitch shifting and manipulation, Elfman’s voice fluctuates from Barry White to Tiny Tim, from dance number to punk-metal. For Boingo geeks the real treat was the Veruca Salt sequence: copping a Beatles vibe and pushing the pitch tricks to the background, we get as close to pop-star Danny as we have in a very long while.
So that’s what’s been gained. It ought to be noted what has been lost, though. With the demise of Oingo Boingo, one of rock’s most twisted ensembles, a sense of good-time insanity also seemed to disappear from Elfman’s work. Boingo was very apparent in that sense with the manic opening diatribe “Insanity,” based upon a passage from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo. The album, for what it was, was actually quite good but was assuredly heavier on the psyche than any of the band’s other offerings. One of the lighter, poppier tracks is a prime example of why I wish Elfman would consider a film-work sabbatical: “Spider” is yet another tune about love lost, but comes across with a nice, creepy edge that keeps things south of Diane Warren, where it belongs. While it’s tonally a cousin to “Is This” from Oingo Boingo’s Dark at the End of the Tunnel (1990), in tempo and in certain chords the sense of this being a new entity still comes through. More than anything else, Boingo brings to mind lost opportunities.
But who knows? In this absurd world of band reunions, where half or more of the concerned parties are absent, or in the film world, where directors like Robert Rodriguez score their own damn films, anything is possible. It just seems that in a cultural and political climate such as the one we’re in right now, where candidates can openly flaunt prolonged, devastating, and costly war ambitions, celebrities are made as quickly as a secret sex tape can be rewound, and our idea of a role model is the person who can store the most Botox in their lips for the longest period of time, a li’l devil in the messy details might be what we all need. Danny Elfman fit the bill once. Maybe he could do it again.