Every year I try to get excited about Coachella – and the ability to watch it live from all the way down here in little old New Zealand, and in the comfort of my own home. But then I find there’s not much I want to actually see. This year I was a bit more invested, but really only in one act: Danny Elfman.
Elfman is best known as a film composer – and within that for his collaboration with Tim Burton. But outside of the Burton films (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and many more) he has created iconic themes for action films (Spiderman), horrors (Delores Claiborne) and quirky comedies (Midnight Run).
Before all of that there was the band Oingo Boingo. And, bookending his film-score career to date, a couple of solo albums.
Over the last 30 years, Elfman has been studio-bound, save for a few appearances as ‘Jack’ in his creation The Nightmare Before Christmas – a soundtrack for a Burton film that has a life all of its own.
So, to even see Elfman on a stage was one thing. But for it to traverse his career – including a generous stack of Boingo songs and so many of his iconic themes – was just a treat. He was ripped and ready. He shredded, he howled, he played tunes from his brand new (pandemic-inspired and isolation-created) solo album and stopped off along the way to play the ‘hit’s (The Simpsons Themes) as well as some truly beautiful music (selections from Edward Scissorhands) and even showcasing brilliant music from mediocre films (Alice in Wonderland’s gorgeous theme).
The band featured Wes Borland (Limp Bizkit) and Nili Brosh on guitars and Josh Freese on drums – a choir and orchestra was conducted by Steve Bartek, who briefly ditched the baton and picked up an axe to return to his original musical duties (a founding member of Boingo) and looked elated to be back in that role and back with his old bandmate.
Seamlessly, orchestra and band worked together, seamlessly the tunes moved through prog rock to modern classical and back, via agitated pop-punk, art-rock and polyrhythmic percussion (taiko drumming).
What a thing to see and hear and feel.
Elfman has been a hero of mine for over 30 years, and possibly the first film composer I was consciously aware of – the music of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams was in my ears and swirling in my brain first, sure, but I didn’t have a name and a face to put the music. Elfman has been one of my most listened to artists since his themes for The Simpsons and Batman hit (around the same time). From there I’ve been back through everything he did before that and held on for most of what he has created since. There’s a few films he’s scored that I haven’t heard (he’s created around a hundred distinct film soundtracks) but I’m making my way through most of them.
His Coachella set was a triumph. And one hopes he’ll follow the lead of Hans Zimmer and take the show on the road. He could have structured a set twice as long and it would still be but a drop in the ocean of his sound, the world he’s built.
But what a thrill it was to see this – I spent most of the first time watching this set just marvelling at the logistics of putting it together; thinking of the rehearsal process, the precision of the players. It was from Frank Zappa to Bartok and back – all in one fluid movement.
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