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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Music of "The Nightmare Before Christmas"

Before we get started here, a quick disclaimer. This is not going to be an academic look at the subject matter. Nor will this be from a musician's point of view. I'm not in the academic field and I sure as hell am not a musician either. And since I'm not a musician, there may well be times where I incorrectly use musical terminology or don't even use any proper terminology since, honestly, that's not in my sphere of reference. This is going to be me, shamelessly being a fanboy about one of my favorite film scores of all time. If that doesn't appeal to you, best to back out now.

Having said that, I'll go right ahead and state the obvious; I love The Nightmare Before Christmas! It easily one of my favorite movies. Not just a Christmas movie. Not just a Halloween movie. A movie that's perfect for watching any time of the year.

But I'm not here to talk about the movie today. While it is visually a masterpiece, I want to focus on the musical score for the film which was composed by one of my favorite composers, Danny Elfman. Now just a quick bit of background for those who may not be familiar. Danny Elfman is an American composer who served as lead singer and songwriter for the rock group Oingo Boingo in the late 70's through mid 90's. In 1985, director Tim Burton reached out to Elfman and asked him to write the score for his first feature film, Pee Wee's Big Adventure. And the rest, as they say, is history. Elfman has scored all of Tim Burton's films since then except for two, Ed Wood  and Sweeney Todd.

One of the biggest reasons that Elfman's music works so well with Burton's films, in my opinion at least, is the fact they both can switch tonal gears in a second. Things can go from quirky and whimsical to dark and brooding in the blink of an eye. Not to mention the occasional juxtaposition of these two tones as well. Take for example "Kidnap The Sandy Claws", an upbeat song in which a trio of trick-or-treaters gleefully sing about how they play to capture Santa Claus and then subject him to all kinds of torture afterward. And a prime example of tonal shift; after the Town Meeting scene, we see a montage of Jack conducting all sorts of scientific experiments in an effort to understand Christmas. Near the end of this montage, Sally, a rag doll-esque creation of the resident mad scientist, picks up up a dead flower which transforms into a beautifully trimmed Christmas tree in her hands. And then, just as quickly, it bursts into flames and burns up. The music that underscores this moment is so fitting; very soft strings, chimes and a slight accordion accompany Sally is she walks away from Jack's house and picks up the flower. As it transforms into the tree the strings become louder and some high brass enters the piece, culminating in a trumpet flourish. This quickly gives way to bass drums, low brass and mournful sounding bells as the tree goes up in flames. The piece concludes with the low notes of a cello as Sally looks on, shocked at what she had just witnessed.
To better hear what I mean, follow this link and listen from the 4:40 mark until the end of the video. It is superb!

In 2008 to help commemorate the movie's 15th Anniversary, Walt Disney Records released Nightmare Revisited. Nightmare Revisited was a cover album of the score to The Nightmare Before Christmas. 18 artists contributed their own unique takes on the music from the movie with Danny Elfman serving as narrator for the Opening and Closing tracks which appeared on the original soundtrack - originally done by Patrick Stewart, no less - but not in the movie itself. To say it's an eclectic mix of musicians would be an understatement. The fact that both Marilyn Manson and Korn are contributors to an album put by the Walt Disney Company would be enough to make most people's heads spin! But the album is nearly perfect in my opinion. The Plain White Ts do an amazing job with "Jack's Lament", Rise Against gives us a kick ass version of "Making Christmas" and you can't help but smirk a little when you hear Jonathon Davis sing "Kidnap The Sandy Claws". And the instrumental covers are great as well. The "Jack And Sally Montage" piece I mentioned earlier is covered by The Vitamin String Quartet and it sounds absolutely beautiful! And the duo Rodrigo y Gabriela turn "Oogie Boogie's Song" into a Latin guitar flavored instrumental cover.

Now you'll notice I said the album is almost perfect. There's one track on this album which I think is the worst song I have ever heard. It's the cover of "Jack Obsession" done by Sparklehorse. The vocals are terrible and the arrangement is garbage. And this particularly pissed me off because "Jack's Obsession" is my favorite song in the entire movie. There's a playlist here on YouTube that collects the entire tribute album together. If you're a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas and haven't heard anything from this album yet, I definitely recommend you give it a lesson. But skip over the Sparklehorse song. It's the audio equivalent of expecting some nice present and upon opening the box you find a shrunken head waiting for you instead.

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