Reviews - The Nightmare Before Christmas
Review #1 by the Groovy Yak
Before Danny Elfman was the film composer that we all love, he was a songwriter. As talented as he is of writing for bass clarinets, celli, or xylophone, he is twice as talented when writing for the human voice. His work with Oingo Boingo is a testament to that statement, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is by far the best example of this.
Years ago, Tim Burton wrote a poem like The Night Before Christmas, except with a Halloween twist. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is the master of Halloween town- the people responsible for making the holiday of Halloween a fun and scary experience. However, Jack grows tired of trying to make each Halloween bigger and better than the last. After wandering in the woods he discovers Christmas town and is reborn. He decides that HE must be in control of Christmas. After successfully stealing Christmas and giving Santa a "vacation," Jack sets out to deliver presents to the children of the world. However, his misconception of what Christmas really is causes everything to blow up in his face.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (or TNBC as the lazy refer to it) was originally conceived as a 30-minute TV special (a la How the Grinch Stole Christmas) but was turned into a 70 minute feature film (thanks to the work of Caroline Thompson and Henry Selick) However, before Thompson sat in front of a typewriter Elfman was in front of a piano writing the brilliant songs that developed the characters and advanced the plot.
Elfman wrote a total of 10 songs as witty and fun as anything he's ever done. (In fact, the film critic Roger Ebert in his TNBC review claimed that the lyrics are so witty that they sound as it they came from a Gilbert and Sullivan production.- not a bad compliment!) Call me biased, but despite the efforts of Alan Menken, Randy Newman, or Hans Zimmer, Elfman's songs for TNBC are some of the most original, timeless, and enjoyable from a Disney film this decade. But, if you're looking for the Menken-brand sweetness of "Be Our Guest," you could be in a for a surprise. Elfman doesn't waste his energy trying to make sure every song has that sweet, candy coating that you'll find in Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. That may turn Susie-Smith-Middle-America away from TNBC, but I think most people will find a group of songs with the Disney moniker that don't treat the listeners like they're all 3 years old a very refreshing experience. I remember showing this film to a good friend of mine in high school- a guy who'd be much, much more inclined to like Metallica, Korn, or Marilyn Manson than anything by a film composer. I remember he was singing "What's This" the entire evening after watching it.
The songs loosely follow the formula a Disney musical, or any musical for that matter. "This is Halloween" is the big opening number that quickly introduces you to all of the characters of Halloweentown. A large, talented cast of voices sing for the interesting characters of this world. However, many of the voices are not beautiful and operatic, they all very nicely fit the ugliness and quirkiness of the characters- from the falsetto sound of the vampires, to the growling of the werewolf, to the boisterous 2-faced mayor.
"Jack's Lament" introduces us to the true character of Jack Skellington. He's not really the evil and scary creature that he appears to be. He has feelings and longings too. "Jack's Lament" does a wonderful job of showing us this- but it's not from the lyrics and music as it is from the performance of Jack's singing voice- which is done by noneother than Mr. Elfman himself. Elfman himself admits that he doesn't have the greatest singing voice, but the personality that he brings to Jack through his singing (listen to "Poor Jack" for one of the most spirited and uplifting vocal performances I've ever heard.) more than makes up for his lack of "Sinatra-ism." The same is true for all of the songs Elfman sings.
My favorite of the bunch (and the favorite of most people next to Sally's Song) is "What's This?" This song is definitely the exception to Elfman's saccarine-deprived score. "What's This?" is just filled with sugar. The people who know Elfman as the "king of dark music" will be completely surprised from the energetic and jolly tone of this song. Elfman's performance gets more and more excited as Jack discovers the wonders of Christmas town. Through Elfman, the listener can hear Jack's heart warming and this really pulls the listener into the story and the character of Jack Skellington. This is just one of about 1000 examples that demonstrate Elfman's broad compositional skills and his extreme talent for getting the tone of a scene right.
The songs all have their own style. "Making Christmas" loosely follows the ever famous Dies Irae motif. "Oogie Boogie's Song" is in the classic Cab Calloway style. (Ken Page's performance gleams as much as Elfman's) The subject matter of "Kidnap the Sandy Claws" is enough to make a child cry, but the characters of Lock, Stock, and Barrel give the song the opposite effect- this song is usually the favorite of the under-10 age group. Then there's "Sally's Song." It's a short little number, but it has to be one of the most touching songs in the movie. This could be attributed to Catherine O'Hara's very sweet yet modest performance, but I think the majority of the song's popularity is due to the hauntingly beautiful melody- a type of melody that Elfman has a real knack for composing. (SEE: Edward Scissorhands, Black Beauty)
The songs take up about 2/3 of the film- the other third uses score that juggles the melodies of the songs. Elfman deserves a big round of applause for his work on the score for this film. I've never heard a score where the songs are so intricately weaved throughout. Elfman even throws in some clever jokes- like a minor version of Jingle Bells as Jack is defeated or a very ugly version of "Here Comes Santa Claus."
If you've read this far in the review, you probably know how this final paragraph is going to sound. I wholeheartedly recommend TNBC to anyone who can hear. Elfman's score and songs are completely infectious. There's only one little gripe I have, and it's that the contracted orchestra's performance is slightly mediocre and there are many points in the songs where the voices and the orchestra aren't in-sync. But that's really only a very small criticism when compared to the hours and hours of enjoyment you'll get from the TNBC album, and if I'm correct, your children and your children's children will get from the album too...
Rating: * * * *
Review #2 by malevolence
I have the TNBC Soundtrack and love it. My first impression was a feeling of disorientation of reality, and pictured myself in a land with the colors of black, white, and grey. I was impressed in some parts, and felt like some things didn't work in others. One of my favorite songs was "Sally's Song." My heart beats faster when I listen to it. I absolutely love it. The way Danny Elfman mixes the beauty of Sally's persona, with a blend of dark, melodic, bass. And the little twinkles here and there make this a lovely arrangement of score and voice. A little disappointment with the Town Meeting song. In fact, there were a lot of times, throughout the soundtrack, when things that should have rhymed, didn't. Those times left me somewhat confused. But one of the best themes, in this score, is present in "Christmas Eve Montage" and the beginning of "End Title" Overall...... the cd was more better than worse. It was 90% good. The lyrics, at some points were off beat, but for most of it.... it was GREAT!!!!!