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BEETLEJUICE – Danny Elfman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Beetlejuice is an irreverent supernatural comedy, one of the best of the 1980s, and is the film which introduced the world to one of the most iconic characters of the period – the ghoulish, disgusting, undead horror-for-hire played by Michael Keaton at his most madcap. The film is set in an idyllic New England town, where blissful newlyweds Adam and Barbara Maitland are renovating their dream home; unfortunately, they are killed in a car crash on their way back from the hardware store, and become ghosts, stuck haunting their home for 125 years. Some time later the home is sold to a new family, the Deetzes, comprising the insufferable and talentless artist Delia, her henpecked developer husband Charles, and his goth daughter Lydia; immediately, Delia begins ripping out the country charm of the house, replacing it with garish modern art. Desperate to save their home, the Maitlands travel to the afterlife – a dreary netherworld set up like the universe’s worst DMV office – where they are advised that they can scare out the Deetzes if they so desire. To accomplish this, the Maitlands find and hire a ‘bio-exorcist’ named Betelgeuse, who can be summoned by saying his name three times – but the perverted, irreverent ghost quickly causes more chaos then he cures. Not only that, but it quickly becomes apparent that the introverted and sensitive Lydia can actually see the ghosts…

Beetlejuice was director Tim Burton’s first bonafide box office success after the cult popularity of his Pee Wee Herman movie, and set him on the course that would eventually lead to him directing Batman in 1989, and his subsequent mainstream career. The cast includes several actors and actresses who quickly became established as members of Burton’s recurring repertoire of players – Keaton, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones – while the look and tone of the film became the blueprint for Burton’s idiosyncratic and hugely personal visual style. In terms of music, Beetlejuice was also a game-changer for composer Danny Elfman. Although he had already worked on Burton’s Pee Wee film, as well as titles such as Back to School, Beetlejuice was still only the sixth film Elfman had scored, and prior to it being released he was still overwhelmingly seen as a rocker from Oingo Boingo playing around with movie music – their hit songs “Just Another Day” and “Dead Man’s Party” had been in the charts just a year or so before. Beetlejuice altered that perception entirely.

With the help of his Boingo bandmate and now long-time orchestrator Steve Bartek, Elfman created a score which, in many ways (and along with Batman), has become one of his defining works, a true quintessential Elfman score. Everything that makes Danny Elfman Danny Elfman can be found in this score, from the wholly unique instrumental combinations to the infectiously upbeat rhythmic ideas, to the influences from a vast array of world music styles, to the homages to the two musical loves of his life – Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann. Elfman brings absolutely everything at his disposal to the table: a full orchestra featuring a multitude of unexpected instrumental combinations, various assorted choirs, tangos, waltzes, church music, and circus music, all wrapped around at least five recurring themes for the different characters.

Betelgeuse himself has two themes, the first being the one which appears for the first time in the “Main Titles.” This iconic piece is a mixed bag of styles and ideas, but it is so zany and catchy that there is little wonder it has lingered in public consciousness for so many years. What I love about the theme, more than anything, are the orchestrations, which in my mind people don’t talk about enough. After a brief diversion into the Caribbean and a hat tip to Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O,” Elfman’s ideas quickly take over, with quickly being the operative word. In the space of less than 2½ minutes Elfman crams in more inventiveness than other composers show in a lifetime – rampaging pianos combine with tambourines, low blatting tubas, and sighing vocals, before the actual melody kicks in on trombones at 0:52; thereafter there are swirling Danse Macabre-style strings, Nino Rota’s Fellini-style oompah brasses, and dancing circus clarinets, before it builds up to a huge finale. Reading it written down like this, it sounds completely bananas that anyone would try to write music like this, but it works.

The second theme for Betelgeuse appears in the second half of “The Book!/Obituaries,” and is a bizarre twist on a tango which, again, draws inspiration from Danse Macabre in the string writing, but augments it with the same hooting clarinets from the Main Titles, and church organs to give it a warped religioso feel. These two ideas for the main character recur frequently, depending on his mood. When he’s calm – reading the obituaries for new clients, trying to charm his victims… uh… customers into hiring him – the Beetlejuice Tango tends to be prevalent. However, when he goes into full-blown chaos mode, rampaging through the lives and afterlives of the unsuspecting, Elfman returns to the insanity of the main Beetlejuice Theme, allowing it to bulldoze its way through the score with devilish glee.

The innocent ghosts, the Maitlands, have their own theme, which first appears in the second cue, “Travel Music.” The Maitland Family theme is a quirky depiction of suburban idyll, full of movement and life, with more references to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre in the strings, and a pleasant, upbeat demeanor filled with harp glissandi and bouncy pizzicato effects. It’s a perfect tonal juxtaposition to Betelgeuse’s themes, clearly showing the wholesome relationship between Adam and Barbara that persists even after their death, in opposition to the uncouth corruption that the eponymous ghost shows. In the film, their theme is prominent throughout the score’s middle section, but on album it is largely absent until the penultimate cue, “The Aftermath,” where its cheerful jauntiness acts as a sigh of relief for the audience, and an acknowledgement that the odious apparition has been vanquished – for now.

The final theme is for Lydia, the supernaturally sensitive but perennially downbeat daughter of the Deetz family. As befits a 1980s goth, her theme is a dour little waltz with a recurring central motif that often features pianos, harpsichords, clarinets, and a softly sighing vocal texture that is the musical equivalent of an insouciant eye-roll. It first appears in “Enter the Family,” where it is surrounded by a series of quirky comedy textures and almost Carl Stalling-esque woodwind writing that capture the thoughtlessness of her parents. It is prominent later in “Lydia Discovers,” where it also features some eerie synth textures, and “Sold,” which has a touch of pathos and regret.

The rest of the score is no less fun. For the scenes set in, or talking about, the afterlife, Elfman uses revelatory crescendos on a church organ, darkly bittersweet strings, and resounding chimes, further playing up the Gothic parody atmosphere. “The Fly” is a jazzy scherzo for strings, brass, pianos, and tapped cymbals, and is very similar to the main title of Men in Black, for which he clearly repurposed this idea. Meanwhile, “In the Model” is a clear homage to the stabbing piano and string writing of Bernard Herrmann, cleverly interspersed with several textural instrumental ideas culled from the main title.

“Beetle-Snake” is the first of the score’s action/horror moments, building slowly as it progresses, until it eventually becomes a demented carnival of circus like rhythms, whirling woodwinds, aggressive prominent brass, and clattering wooden percussion. This is, essentially, the first significant orchestral action cue of Elfman’s career, and although some of the rhythmic ideas he employs are a little rusty, you can clearly hear the genesis of the great action composer he would eventually become.

The finale of the score begins with “The Incantation,” the longest cue on the album, and certainly one of the highlights. It underscores the scene where the Deetz’s peculiar friend Otho tries to resurrect Adam and Barbara with an ancient rite, but unintentionally exorcises them instead when he gets the words wrong. In this outstanding cue Elfman brings together the rhythmic piano pattern of the main Beetlejuice Theme with the ghostly vocals and the hooting clarinets, and allows it to grow to quite majestic proportions; the use of church organs, brass chords, and high chimes add to the magical religiosity of the piece.

From then on to the album’s conclusion, Elfman doesn’t let up – “Lydia Strikes a Bargain,” “Showtime,” “Laughs,” and “The Wedding” underscore the increasingly bizarre finale wherein Betelgeuse tries first to marry Lydia, then Barbara, in a sham wedding, before unleashing all his scary powers when he is matrimonially thwarted. All the score’s main themes – the main Beetlejuice theme, the Beetlejuice tango, Lydia’s theme, the Danse Macabre strings – come together in a demented cacophony of Elfmanesque circus music; there are prominent performances for a solo tuba, a Wurlitzer calliope, xylophones, and even a tortured burst of Wagner’s famous ‘Here Comes the Bride’ from his opera Lohengrin, in case things were getting too pedestrian and predictable. The “End Credits” acts as a final reprise of the main thematic ideas.

The album is rounded out by two songs, both performed by the legendary Jamaican-American calypso singer and musician Harry Belafonte. The first, “Day-O,” is as much associated with the film as Elfman’s music is – it actually re-charted in several countries 31 years after it was first released, such was its popularity at the time. The song it appears in the iconic dinner party scene in which the guests – the Deetzes, Otho, and others – are supernaturally compelled to dance along to the song by Betelgeuse, before they are all finally facially violated by their prawn cocktail appetizers. The second, “Jump In Line (Shake, Shake Señora),” appears in the final scene where the Maitlands and the Deetzes have all reconciled and are now living under one roof; Lydia returns home from school having aced a math test, and Adam magically levitates her ten feet in the air so she can happily dance along to the song,

Thirty years after its release, Beetlejuice is still regarded as a classic Elfman score, but I think that these days it tends to be somewhat overlooked, overshadowed as it is by the immense popularity of things like Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Edward Scissorhands, all of which were written in that astonishing five year period between 1988 and 1993 when Elfman was establishing himself as one of the most exciting young film composers of his generation. People remember the memorable main theme, but rarely look beyond that, meaning that both the depth and complexity of the orchestration, and the intelligent thematic interplay, tend to be disregarded. It’s also important to remember that in many ways Beetlejuice was the genesis of so many of the popular Elfmanisms we take for granted today; they didn’t just materialize out of thin air – Elfman had to create them – and so the innovation of the score needs to be recognized too. The whole thing is a zany, quirky, madcap adventure that works wonderfully almost in spite of itself, and needs to be in the collection of any serious student of Danny Elfman’s career.

Buy the Beetlejuice soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (2:27)
  • Travel Music (1:07)
  • The Book!/Obituaries (1:30)
  • Enter the Family/Sand Worm Planet (2:50)
  • The Fly (0:50)
  • Lydia Discovers? (0:59)
  • In The Model (1:35)
  • Juno’s Theme (0:48)
  • Beetle-Snake (2:08)
  • Sold (0:35)
  • The Flier/Lydia’s Pep Talk (1:25)
  • Day-O (traditional, performed by Harry Belafonte) (3:05)
  • The Incantation (3:11)
  • Lydia Strikes A Bargain… (0:52)
  • Showtime! (1:05)
  • Laughs (2:33)
  • The Wedding (2:02)
  • The Aftermath (1:21)
  • End Credits (2:47)
  • Jump in Line (Shake, Shake Señora) (written by Aldwyn ‘Lord Kitchener’ Roberts, performed by Harry Belafonte) (3:08)

Running Time: 36 minutes 18 seconds

Geffen GFLD-19284 (1988)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by William Ross. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Bob Badami and Nancy Fogary. Album produced by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek.

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