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BFI: Soundtracking with Tim Burton review

★★★★

Film review by Nathanial Eker


‘There are few who deny, at what I do I am the best, for my talents are renowned far and wide’, so goes the lament of Jack Skellington. Indeed, there are few who’d dare propose a mainstream filmmaker with greater stylistic flare than the auteur of darkness himself, Tim Burton. The promise of a live BFI podcast starring Burton, as he analyses the musical motifs of his work, followed by a secret film screening chosen by the man himself, is immediately exciting.


Still as widely eccentric as the eerie characters he crafts, Burton speaks with an awkward passion for his art. He regularly looks uncomfortable, and unlike his Hollywood contemporaries, cringes at most compliments, looking anywhere but into the eyes of his interviewer. For the majority of his film clips, he ignores the screen and stares at his mostly unused microphone. It’s clear that his self-confessed weirdness is no façade; the quiet young Disney animator from the 80s that he describes remains present in the room with us, albeit now donning the title of one of the world’s most famous film directors. Speaking almost exclusively with his hands and dressed in clothes as dark as his protagonists’ (complete with striped Beetlejuice socks), he’s everything you’d imagine him to be.


The selection of film clips shown comprise of mostly beloved classics, inevitably offering the crowd of Burtonites at least one personal favourite. Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman Returns, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provide an excellent musical variety (say what you like about Charlie as a film, the Oompa Loompa songs are total bops). That said, while the clips offer interesting personal insight, such as an uncharacteristic use of commercial music in Beetlejuice, some, like the clip from Edward Scissorhands feel like a poor choice. To hear the director break down a scene is undeniably fascinating, yet as a music-centric podcast, groundbreaking iconic moments like the ice sculpture scene could offer meatier discussion.


Inevitably, the podcast becomes as much an analysis of long-time musical collaborator Danny Elfman’s career as it does Burton’s. To hear the humble origins of their partnership, as well as the sweet acknowledgement of Elfman as Burton’s ‘kindred spirit’ is as interesting as it is charming. However, it is thus all the more disappointing that films with rare moments of expansive partnerships out of the Elf-sphere are ignored. Burton’s work with Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, as well as the legendary Howard Shore on Ed Wood remain sadly sidelined. Though the work of Elfman undeniably belongs as the podcast’s centrepiece, acknowledging Burton’s noteworthy work with other composers and probing the creative decisions behind those choices could’ve offered an even broader analysis.


Criticism aside, listening to Burton’s unique observations on the nuance of a scene remains a treat. Equally, his personal thoughts on casting decisions and certain influences on his method provide an unusually in-depth look into his directorial development. Perhaps most profoundly, his view that ‘every film [he] works on must contain something that means something to [him]’ shines a light of self-reflection onto his morbid body of work. In particular, the autobiographical role of the Burton loner archetype; Edward, Willy Wonka, The Penguin, that have provided the basis for film student’s auteur assignments for decades, remains a paradoxically shining example of personal filmmaking in Hollywood. Even more powerfully, however, Burton comments on the emotionally crippling impact of personal tragedy, such as the death of his father inspiring the production of Big Fish.


Most crucial though are his musings on soundtrack to the verisimilitude of a film; ‘I treat the music of a film like a main character in itself.’ The ultimate clip, This is Halloween of The Nightmare Before Christmas, exemplifies the truth of his statement with its infectious melody and playful rhymes that’d likely make Dr. Seuss blush. Throughout Burton’s nearly forty-year long career and countless collaborations with Elfman, the two have crafted music that has indeed taken on a life of its own. Seldom does an artist craft such uniquely personal orchestrations that they become an essential element of the director’s unmistakable mise-en-scené. Burton might be infamous for his creepy characters and German-expressionist influenced aesthetic, but it’s the leitmotifs of Elfman; the innocence of Edward, the broody heroism of Batman, the sass of Oogie Boogie, that truly gives his undead portfolio a breath of life.


As for the secret screening, for Burton to self-summarise his work as a filmmaker in one picture, there’s arguably no better choice than Ed Wood. Regrettably, it remains one of those few films that doesn’t feature Elfman as composer, but as it undeniably remains the director’s magnum opus, it’s forgivable. Presenting it on 35mm film stock certainly helped to make the screening that bit more special. See my review here.


#NathanialEker