Fans of Tim Burton's macabre style felt their Christmas had come early in 1993, when his beautifully designed, stop-motion animation The Nightmare Before Christmas, was unleashed on audiences. Based on a poem that Burton had penned in the 80s, it hits upon the fabulous notion of Santa Clause being kidnapped by the inhabitants of Halloweentown, presided over by the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon). Although the project was not in fact helmed by Burton but by Henry Selick, the former's influence is immediately apparent, a darkly enticing fantasy world of full moons and odd characters; one that blends the whimsical and the creepy together expertly. And of course his involvement extended to Danny Elfman's soundtrack, a somewhat fraught period that resulted in intense creative differences between the two men (to the extent that Elfman abandoned Burton's next project, Ed Wood).
Regardless, it sits as a pinnacle of Elfman's career, and has become a pop culture staple at the time of year when the long nights settle in and the ghouls come out to play. It's a beautifully evocative work, effortlessly conjuring up Burton's twisted world of pumpkins and supernatural pranksters, although its complex structure certainly demands more of the listener than Elfman's other efforts of the time (Edward Scissorhands, Black Beauty, etc.).
Elfman and Burton's intense creative process eventually saw the film being transformed into a 10 song musical, accompanied by a segment of orchestral underscore clad in the Beetlejuice-mould of bouncy horns and tinkling xylophones. The songs are the most memorable element, Elfman contributing his own vocals when Chris Sarandon claimed his singing voice wasn't strong enough. Drawing on his Oingo Boingo background, Elfman's singing is wonderfully expressive, capturing the ebbs and flows in Burton and Selick's madcap universe.
Elfman weaves a multitude of themes and motifs together throughout the score, although none of them get an extended workout. Instead, its effectiveness lies in its careful storybook structure (much like his work on Edward Scissorhands), whisking us from a celebration of Halloween to the catharsis experienced by Jack in the latter stages. Unusually, the soundtrack album begins with a brief "Overture" introducing us to the score's primary ideas sans vocals. It sets the tone superbly, juxtaposing Elfman's wacky side with that unmistakable brand of dark melancholy; one can simply imagine the camera swooping over the stop-motion landscape. The album is also bookended by an (unused) introduction and conclusion narrated in wonderfully rich style by Patrick Stewart. As for the songs themselves, besides Elfman's solo efforts, they are also handed over to other cast members including Catherine O'Hara and Paul Reubens, plus an assortment of "Disney Characters".
Of the songs, "This is Halloween", "Jack's Lament" and "What's This?" are noteworthy highlights. The first is a deceptively chirpy melody boasting terrifically sinister lyrics ("In this town of Halloween, I am the one hiding under your bed, teeth glowing sharp, eyes glowing red") that are designed as a celebration of all things frightful and horrific. "Jack's Lament" is perhaps the standout, a surprisingly poignant track where the King of Halloween rues his inability to do anything but frighten. "What's This?" is a brilliantly frivolous alternative, scampering here there and everywhere as Jack discovers the gateway to Christmas and is consumed by the magic of Yuletide ("What's this? What's this? There's something very wrong! What's this? What's this? There's people singing songs!") Although they don't boast the immediate appeal of those penned for Disney, Elfman's brilliant sense of humour and his innate understanding of Burton's is never in doubt.
The soundscape is also impeccably detailed and amazingly varied; later on, baddie Oogie Boogie gets his own bluesy number performed by actor Ken Page, and there are subtle jazz influences in the theme for Jack himself. The solely orchestral pieces are more familiar but stitch the soundtrack together nicely, from the poignant "Jack and Sally" and "Christmas Eve" montages to the resoundingly satisfying "End Credits" suite. The dazzling blend of fleeting ideas may not give the listener much to grab onto but the nuances in both songs and score are remarkable.
Indeed, what's also worth commending is Elfman's astute grasp of the film's tone: never sickly but never too dark either. From the menacing "Kidnap the Sandy Claws" to the celebratory "Finale/Reprise", the composer sketches a finely wrought journey that dovetails both the Halloween and Christmas aspects of the narrative. It's little wonder the composer has remained Hollywood's go-to man for fairy tales and fables for the better part of 25 years. He would re-visit similar territory in "Corpse Bride" years later but for freshness and verve, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" proved hard to beat. It's one of few film scores that have entered the popular consciousness, capturing the spirit of every candlelit pumpkin and trick or treat trip in the years since. Elfman's perhaps demonstrated greater musical maturity elsewhere, but for sheer creativity, it doesn't get much better than this.
The score is readily available and a popular release, having been released in 1993, and again in 2006 with a second CD consisting of covers from artists such as Fall Out Boy and Marilyn Manson and 4 bonus tracks consisting of Elfman's original demo songs. Then in 2008 this second CD was extended further with additional cover tracks and re-released under the title "Nightmare Revisited". There is also a Sheet Music Songbook, which is great to play and sing along with - the music is a faithful arrangement for piano/vocal (with guitar chords) and includes the songs "This Is Halloween", "Jack's Lament", "What's This?", "Town Meeting Song", "Jack's Obsession", "Kidnap The Sandy Claws", "Making Christmas", "Oogie Boogie's Song", "Sally's Song", "Poor Jack" and "Finale/Reprise". Links for the various CDs and sheet music are as follows:
Danny Elfman sang some of these songs live in the concert series Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton. However his more recent show goes one step further with The Nightmare before Christmas Live in Concert which as the name suggests includes the film with all the songs sung live by most of the original singers, and a lot of bonus material too. This show is highly recommended if you get the chance to go.