The film “Smile” has nothing on Danny Elfman. Back in the day of Oingo Boingo, he’d frequently adopt a demonic grin that you could easily imagine having become a belated inspiration for the horror movie hit. He hasn’t had much opportunity to show us those choppers in the 27 years since he wrapped up a Boingo farewell tour and took to movie scoring stages full-time. But when he released a music video for his rock comeback single “Happy” last year, there the smile was, back in action and distorted into something even creepier for the new digital age.
When he played at Coachella over two weekends this past April and doffed his shirt, onlookers took note of his buffness and how he’d been, well, taking care of himself, to say the least. Fortunately, maybe even more importantly, he’s taken good care of his evil grin, too.
At his two sold-out Hollywood Bowl shows over the weekend, Elfman started out the 115-minute set shirtless, after previously characterizing his mid-set stripping down at Coachella as a spontaneous act that occurred as he got revved up in the manic energy. And so, as he frequently appeared in closeup on the Bowl’s big screens — although not as often as you might expect, given how extensive the show’s sorta-scary visual companion pieces were — there was a good chance you found yourself hoping for edits long enough to study a full torso’s worth of tats, many of which were in the macabre vein he visually favors, along with… wait, was that a lovely collie tattooed on his left pec? Yes, sure enough, a collie. Elfman’s not all about the skeltons, or the Skellingtons.
During Saturday’s set, there wasn’t much time or need for distractions, with nary a breath taken between most of the 32 selections and thrill-ride hypertension characterizing nearly all of them. But if you did allow your mind to wander, you might have let yourself remember how long it’s been since did anything like this — at least for his contemporaries in town, versus the kids who saw the first ineration of his comeback out in the desert last spring — and how unfamiliar some of the film industry folks he works with must be with his distant past as a rocker. Had he guest-listed some of the string players and other musicians he employs in his symphonic film work? (That is, the ones who were not already on stage as part of his mini-orchestra and choir?) Now that they were seeing one of Hollywood’s busiest and seemingly friendliest composers reborn as a maniac… were any of them scared of him now, just a little?
Probably not, because the guy who once sang “Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself)” (and sang it again this weekend) really isn’t a fearsome presence, despite his spooky toothiness and all that overhead imagery full of moderately disturbing viscera and deteriorating flesh. Elfman isn’t really playing the role of a demon. If you’re looking for any meaning in that madman’s expression, it has less to do with him being a doer of sinister deeds than the look of a guy who’s been driven deranged by what he sees and writes about as an ongoing social dystopian on the path to certain death. Apart from that, like his counterpart Jack S., he’s really a very friendly fellow.
Elfman had warned that the weekend Bowl shows should not be seen as a family-friendly variation on the “Nightmare Before Christmas” screening/concerts he did at Halloween-time at the same venue in 2015, 2016 and 2018, and in a detour last year to the Banc of California Stadium downtown. His main point was that the current act, with its courser language and copious overhead intestinal animation, is not “family-friendly.” But, in fact, he did deliver three songs from that film’s song score early on — “Jack’s Lament,” “This Is Halloween” and “What’s This?” — which is really about all the musical “Nightmare” anyone needs in one night, unless you’re a hardcore Sally-head. And anyone who saw the 2021 live iteration of “Nightmare,” which featured Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” as a surprise hard-rocking encore, and thought, “What’s this?… more of this!,” finally had their morbid prayers answered this weekend.
And so did anyone who wanted to hear a substantial amount of his film music, although there’s been at least a little opportunity for that in the past, with the all-orchestral “Elfman/Burton” shows (officially known as “Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton”) that he took part in starting in 2014. There was Burton-ianness aplenty at the Bowl, with the childlike lunacy of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” the comic menace of “Beetlejuice,” the portent of “Batman,” the ridiculous glee of “Mars Attacks” and the phantasmagorical sweetness of “Edward Scissorhands” and “Alice in Wonderland” all represented in excerpts that ranged from way-too-short to just a little too short. Also sneaking its way in as one of a number of fresh additions since Coachella was an example of Elfman/Raimi, with the nutty sweep of “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” providing a fresh take on what he’s been up to. (No “White Noise,” alas.)
As at Coachella, it would be difficult not to single out the seemingly impossible recreation of the “Simpsons” theme — made possible here with the inclusion of a 12-member choir, among many other moving parts — as possibly the highlight. The facsimile was not exact: this was the extended-remix “Simpsons” theme, with an unexpected bit of climactic guitar shredding from Elfman and fellow guitarists Nili Brosh and Wes Borland lined up as a trio at the front of the stage.
There was no setup for any of these pieces… no “and then I wrote” explainers, or much talk at all. Most often, film pieces led into rock pieces led into film pieces without a second’s hesitation. At Coachella, Elfman has explained, he was trying to beat the clock, locked into a 58-and-a-half-minute framework that required trims of seconds here and milliseconds there to get on and off and still get in everything he hoped to squeeze under the buzzer. At the Bowl, he had no such requirements, with double the set list coming in at just about double the time. But being in a rush remained his m.o., and a rush it was to hear his classic Bernard Herrmann homages get pushed up directly against and into selections of new material that at times leans toward hyper-metal-with-strings.
At times, it seemed as if he were making a joke with some of the juxtapositions. Like, with the “Simpsons” theme doing directly into Boingo’s early ‘80s signature song “Only a Lad”… was Bart meant to be the murderous lad in question, in the concert’s unspoken sequence of events? It probably wasn’t coincidence — let’s hope Elfman doesn’t really want to see the little squirt fry.
“Only a Lad” was one of the only numbers, if not the only one, performed completely sans strings (or at least it seemed so; it wasn’t always eager to tell what exactly was transpiring on stage when Elfman sometimes kept the lights low to train the audience’s attention on the screen visuals). Years of KROQ exposure on the original, horn-filled version had rendered any sting moot, but from this occasion it was turned into a more frantic, less coy punk-rock number. That went for a lot of the songs even with strings, for that matter — treated during Elfman’s new album material and most of the Boingo oldies as collectively just another menacing member of the band.
Elfman wasn’t afraid to challenge the crowd with generous amounts of “Big Mess,” or challenging amounts, given that it’s not the audience-friendliest music he’s ever made; it’s a big grower, as they say. “Native Intelligence” proved the most melodically satisfying choice from among the nine new songs. (There’s a reason that, on Elfman’s recent “Bigger, Messier” remix/sequel, Trent Reznor picked that song… to do as a largely acoustic cover, rather than EDM-fest.) But in a way, for those who were ready for it, the show peaked with its very first number, the no-prisoners-taking “Sorry,” which is basically several minutes’ worth of angry climax. The crowd may not have been able to immediately pick a tune out of all that instrumental and lead vocal intensity, but the cheers indicated they sure knew they’d just experienced something, in the form of a headliner who put his most insane and intense number right at the head of the set.
The oft-grotesque visuals could also have been off-putting, if the audience weren’t so clearly primed for Halloween, however more seriously Elfman takes his Dia de los Muertos seriously than most mainstream artists. There’s precedent, anyway: the symbolic gore in his stream of videos may have reminded a veteran concertgoer of the animated gruesomeness that accompanied Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” from the “Wish You Were Here” tour forward.
So why does Elfman seem so gleeful about death, if it’s not just a game to him, as it is to some others who use similar imagery? Introducing the final encore, Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever,” Elfman pointed out that “no matter how hard you try” to extend life, it’s not going to matter “one little bit in the end… You know where we’re headed, don’t you?” Elfman delivered this final bit of business like having the end in sight was good news.
But having this particular show’s finale in sight wasn’t, with two hours still not feeling quite a big enough pillbox after almost 50 years of music-making that involved a 25-year lull on the rock end. There’s never been a show quite like this one because there’s never been a career like this, incorporating rock ‘n’ roll fun and danger and film-based heights that have him among the credible ranks of history’s scoring greats. Maybe Trent could do it, but the wild dynamics differentiating the different sides of a career wouldn’t be as extreme. No one traversing these rarely overlapping worlds has gotten to dress up for life like it’s Halloween quite this extensively. That he pulled it off as a cohesive concert experience made the show wildly successful, and not just because he’s refilling his rock reservoir after an epic drought. It almost felt like Christmas, with or without the boxed-up snakes.