Burton+Depp+Elfman=Gothic Genius

Posted on February 3, 2009. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Ramblings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Most people know that Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have collaborated on a lot of films, I can count six but I’m sure I’m missing some .  Often forgotten though is the addition of the incredible Danny Elfman-composer of The Simpsons theme tune, but also author of a number of Burton’s scores.

Tim Burton has become so much of a cult figure that you can now use “Burton” to describe a genre rather than a person.  The defnining feature in this back catalogue is  The Nightmare before Christmas, a Disney film, believe it or not, which uses stop animation to tell a grinch-like story that is much darker than anything coming out of the studios before (or since).  The iconic character of Jack Skellington adorns the merchandise of many an EMO kid, providing a pretty good example of Burton-design.  Nightmare is also one of the best examples of Elfman’s work, distinct in its use of layered voices which have become a trademark of his composition


Other classic Burton films include Beeteljuice, which I desperately need to see, two of the Batman series and even Big Fish which had a bit of a limp impact on the world, probably because its just that little bit too weird, but its still worth a watch.  The best Burton films though, have Johnny Depp cast in the leading role.  Somehow, the pair seem to bring out the best in eachother, and have often remarked in interviews how easily they can interpret eachothers ideas.

I’m not sure which of these collaborations is my favourite, but Edward Scissorhands has got to be near the top.  Featuring a young Depp desperately trying to shake the “pin up” image, Edward is a twisted fairytale set in an exaggerated steriotypical suburb which is both child-like and intelligent.  Elfman’s score is magical (you can currently find it being sacrificed in the Dancing on Ice adverts) and supports the cinematography of the film perfectly. Like Depp, he seems to know exactly what effect Burton is going for, and produces it to the letter.edward_scissorhands

Creating “kids films” that aren’t quite for kids seems to be a talent of Burton’s, following Nightmare and Edward with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a much creepier version of the story than the original film, but a lot closer to Dahl’s book.  Again Elfman’s score makes the film, taking on the Oompa Loompa songs single handedly by singing each harmony line himself and layering the recording.  Even better, each song takes on a different musical genre- I  particularly love the hard rock cautionary tale to Mike TeeVee.

Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka is also far removed from Gene Wilder’s first characterisation.  Said to be based on Michael Jackson, (take from that what you will) he plays him as a Peter-Pan-boy-who-never-grew-up, and Burton supplies a backstory not given in the book to try and develop this.  Both Wilder and Depp give the character a darker side, but while Wilder’s is a scarier angry side, Depp’s is more naive.


Elfman also donates his vocal chords to “Bonejangles” the scat singing skeleton in The Corpse Bride the long awaited “sequel” to Nightmare, where Burton returns to stop animation, this time to tell a story of thwarted love and murder (so another one for the kids).  Depp also got in on the act, providing the voice for Victor, our hapless groom.   The film is filled with ghosts and ghouls, but takes a completely light hearted approach to death as shown by the lyrics to Elfman’s upbeat Jazz track  “Remains of the Day”:

Die! Die! We all pass away!

But don’t be afraid ‘cos it’s really OK

You might try to run, and you might try to pray

But we all end up the remains of the day!

The most recent of Burton’s films lacks the last member of the Trinity, but replaces him with the formidable Steven Sondheim, resulting in what might be the ultimate Gothic film: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

I was painfully excited about this film being made, as a long time fan of Depp, Burton and Sondheim, and I was not disappointed.  Using practically no colour except red was a master stroke, and the casting was perfect.  At times, I’d argue that Helena Bonham-Carter is somewhat oeverused in Burton films, I’m sure having nothing to do with her long term relationship with the director, but in Sweeney Todd she is the ultimate Mrs Lovett, better even than Angela Lansbury’s Broadway original.lovett


I was annoyed by the rumblings of the film being too gory, because to me Sweeney Todd is on a level with Burton’s earlier horror film Sleepy Hollow, where the “horror” part is used more as humour than anything else; done in a stylised way so that it is deliberatley unreal.  All the way through Sweeney Todd there is a dream (or nightmare) like quality which puts it on an ethereal level and therefore removes any realism or true horror.  That’s not a criticism, it’s a clever device by Burton which makes his films so instantly recognisable.

Burton is the master of the Gothic Fairytale.  Of course, the original fairytales were never as cute as one might think, but Burton has created a new genre of dark tales with a true emotional heart.  When Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman are added to the mix, something pretty special is created.  I don’t have time to review them all here (this post is already incredibly long!) but suffice to say that the formula above is pretty much guranteed to give you a great night at the cinema.

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6 Responses to “Burton+Depp+Elfman=Gothic Genius”

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I love Tim Burton films and agree with you about the importance of Danny Elfman music, I often hear a snippet of his music and immediately think of Tim Burton films even if it is in an unrelated film/program. I do feel that Burton really lost his way on Planet of the Apes and has never been the same again. Although Sweeney Todd was something of a return to form it does not live up to earlier films like Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands or even the first two Batman films.

I’m glad that Danny Elfman is becoming more of a household name because he is enormously talented. He’s one of Hollywood’s hardest-working composers, too — I believe he was responsible for the score for “Wanted.” The score, of course, MADE the movie.

Elfman is a great composer. Whenever anyone asks me for a list of gret movie music he’s always near the top of the list.

I love the Burton+Depp+Elfman combo in Burtons movies he is my fav director I once was a goth cause a friend of mine had a sleep over ( the friend was a boy ) and he brang some movies over they r my first tim Burton movies seen they r edward scissorhands sweeney todd and the corps bride and at the end of edward scissorhands I cryed cause trough the movie I felt so connected to him he remined me of my boy friend at the time blaine farr all alone and lost finally finding love and then haveing to run from it coz noone accepts u oh and the music by Elfman really sets the mood for the film ………….. *endpost*

[…] written about Nightmare before, but for those of you who don’t know it’s a cult classic Burton film telling the story […]

[…] again we have the holy trinity of Burton, Elfman and Depp which is usually a good indicator of a decent movie, and while this one […]

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