With six months to go before “This Is Halloween” starts playing everywhere, I went to Coachella in Indio, CA to watch Nightmare Before Christmas’ Danny Elfman—the legendary composer of such scores as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and most of Tim Burton’s catalog—perform. If there was ever a year that I was going to attend the festival, it was this one, and I was able to through press credentials.
Coachella is known for being eclectic with its artist curation across all music genres, and Elfman joined the likes of Hans Zimmer, whose scores played in 2017. What stood out about this year’s Coachella was that it marked Elfman’s official return to the stage. Previously, I’ve attended productions of Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton and a live performance of The Nightmare Before Christmas music set to the film. In those cases, the orchestrations were usually done by other conductors with Elfman appearing briefly to perform as Jack Skellington along with guests like Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens, and more recently fellow Coachella performer Billie Eilish (who was part of last year’s annual Nightmare Halloween show in LA).
Elfman was originally scheduled to perform at Coachella in 2020. Maybe his set in 2020 would have been similar, but thanks to the pandemic, Elfman recently produced a new solo record—Big Mess, his first dip back into rock music since his days in Oingo Boingo. So it was pretty clear his Coachella show would be more than just a concerto in the desert, and that we’d be getting a rock show.
To say I was out of my element is an understatement, but thankfully I had a Burton-esque Coachella outfit to blend in as much as I could, because I’m so not as cool as most of the people who were there. Entering Coachella was what I imagine Jack Skellington felt like going into Christmas Town. With numerous San Diego Comic-Cons and theme park adventures under my belt I was at least prepared to be on my feet for hours on end to wait for music sets. And thankfully going to weekend two saved me from the dust storm that hit the Elfman set the week during weekend one, which affected the performance. Elfman posted on Instagram that they were ready for a smoother round two.
Elfman opened his show on the Outdoor Stage at Coachella to “Sorry” from Big Mess. It was a bit of a wink to the unsuspecting as a way to introduce his energetic set, which would cover not only his pop culture scores but his entire discography. Many may be unaware but Elfman was a full on rock star before leaving the public stage for a sound stage to make movie music. For some of us it was the first time hearing Oingo Boingo, with the band’s former guitarist Steve Bartek live performing classics like “Only a Lad” and “Dead Man’s Party” (one of my all-time favorites).
Whenever the audience wasn’t dancing we were watching the screens and stage in awe at the orchestra and choir Elfman employed for big, cinematic, sweeping score moments. Hearing Elfman’s Batman theme conducted by Bartek (pulling double duty seamlessly) was epic. Honestly, the crowd started off modestly but grew as selections like the Spider-Man theme or The Nightmare Before Christmas medley attracted crowds drawn in by the siren call of nostalgia. Here was Jack Skellington, live at Coachella of all places, performing “Jack’s Lament”, “This is Halloween” and “What’s This?” (This is what I would go back in time to tell Hot Topic teen me she’ll get to experience after the coming of the plague. She’d probably laugh at me and double down on being straight-edge.)
Midway through the set I could not see too far past me in a crowd that was fully all in on Elfman’s sheer bonkers genius. One moment he was performing wickedly twisted verses from his slick new industrial tracks, the next he was observing an orchestra doing his work for Marvel—then all of a sudden he was freakin’ Jack Skellington lamenting on the hill, riffing on guitar to The Simpsons, or quietly standing beside the orchestra as the choir performed the ethereal “Ice Dance” from Edward Scissorhands.
The high-wire balancing act of a rock set mashed in with his greatest movie hits speaks to Elfman’s consummate greatness. I don’t think there’s ever been quite anything that compares to this experimental performance particularly at a setting like Coachella—but it also made sense. I wished good luck to anyone at the festival that experienced hallucinogenic hijinks to the sounds of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman really gave fans a space to see decades’ worth of his formative music live, and delivered perhaps one of the most memorable sets ever witnessed at Coachella. It’s so good to have him back on stage after nearly 30 years but there’s a couple things we want to know: when’s the tour for this set, and will one of the stops be San Diego Comic-Con?
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