This year’s Academy Awards telecast paid tribute to horror films—a genre cited by the presenters as often neglected by the Academy—with a clip reel that featured select masterworks of cinema by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polanski. As I watched the montage, I caught glimpses from Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Sleepy Hollow (1999). Although I found their inclusion to be a bit incongruous among films like The Exorcist, Carrie, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Ring, and The Blair Witch Project, it nevertheless reaffirmed the popular perception of Tim Burton as a dark, gothic, and macabre filmmaker. Certainly, with Tim’s affinity for skeletons, graveyards, severed heads, and iron maidens—some of the recurrent motifs in his work—the classification of his films into the horror genre would surprise few. However, I propose another genre to be considered when examining Tim’s oeuvre: the musical film.
In fact, one of his bloodiest movies, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), is first and foremost a musical, adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s stage version. In addition, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005) are also traditional musicals, using the performance of songs to execute character development, reveal character motivation, or encapsulate plot exposition, but their categorization as stop-motion animations has largely overshadowed their entry into the musical genre.
Add to the mix Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), innovative for Tim and composer Danny Elfman’s decision to adapt Roald Dahl’s lyrics into songs with distinctly different musical styles, and Tim has made three straight musicals. Yet he is seldom (if at all) known as a musical director.
Even films that are not outright musicals feature memorable numbers and signature songs. Can you imagine Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) without “Tequila”? Pee-wee placates a gaggle of hostile bikers by donning white platform shoes and dancing atop a bar to the instrumental 1958 ditty by The Champs. And who cannot envision Catherine O’Hara singing “Day…O” when thoughts turn to Beetlejuice (1988)? Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” (1956) is a cheeky accomplice to the titular ghoul’s mischief during a particularly memorable dinner scene. (Sorry District 9, prawns have been getting a bad rap for a while.) Perhaps the most practical use of a song happens in Mars Attacks! (1996), in which Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” (1952) proves to be the Martians’ ultimate undoing, as the sound of his yodeling causes their oversized brains to burst and splatter in the most spectacular fashion.
Let’s call this early campaigning in case the Academy decides to honor musicals next year. I expect to see Tim well represented.