Film director and writer Tim Burton used to joke that when it came to composer Danny Elfman’s 80s new wave band, Oingo Boingo, “all his shows were very Halloween-based.” It’s fitting, then, that together the pair would create one of the most influential works of pop culture ever, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and bestow upon it a soundtrack that set the bar for every seasonal movie that followed (whether that season is Halloween or Christmas, take your pick).
Burton and Elfman shared a love of that costume-heavy festival, and by the time the former decided to pitch an animated holiday film to Walt Disney Studios in the early 90s, he had decided that it would have a distinct Halloween theme.
The director once explained that he had grown up in Burbank, California, where the sunny weather hardly changed. One way residents could tell the seasonal changes, he recalled, was by the holiday decorations, and a lot of the town’s stores used to blend Halloween and Christmas to capitalize on sales well before October 31 each year. Burton said this planted the seed for his tale of the Pumpkin King intruding on Christmas. He sensed that a similarly canny creative hijacking would pay dividends in a musical movie.
Is it a Christmas or Halloween movie?
Elfman, who wrote the music and lyrics for The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack, also lent his singing voice to Jack Skellington (otherwise voiced by Chris Sarandon) and had a cameo as the red-headed corpse in the double bass of the Halloween Town Band in the Oscar®-nominated film. “I think of it more as a Halloween movie, but it really is about Christmas,” says Elfman. “Regardless, it’s just that weird thing that sometimes happens where a film continues a kind of cult life after it comes out.”
The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack
The movie gained an extraordinary following and the sinister characters and gleefully macabre songs helped make Halloween a much bigger global event than it had been before. Elfman said that he and Burton both agreed that the tracks should not feel like pop songs: “We felt these songs should try to find a kind of timeless place that’s not contemporary. My influences were going from Kurt Weill to Gilbert and Sullivan to early Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
There were some jazz influences, too. Elfman said that he had taught himself to write music by transcribing Duke Ellington, and there is more than a touch of the Jazz Age in “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” which was performed by actor Ken Page. Page, who had previously starred in a Broadway adaptation of the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, brought his own bold approach to the track. “I told them my take on Oogie Boogie’s voice would be somewhere between Bert Lahr [the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz] and the voice of the demon in The Exorcist, and along with that came Cab Calloway and Fats Waller stuff for the singing.”
Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek helped oversee the orchestration on the soundtrack and was pleased with the way they brought out the best from a multitude of vocal performers. Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), who voiced the trick-or-treater character Lock, sings on “Kidnap The Sandy Claws,” along with actress Catherine O’Hara. The latter also delivers a sweetly sinister version of “Sally’s Song” – accompanied by accordion and violins – as she sings the lines, “Can’t shake this feeling that I have/The worst is just around the bend.”
Other highlights include the songs “This Is Halloween,” “Jack’s Lament” and “What’s This?” on a soundtrack full of strong melodies and lyrics bursting with striking imagery. The Nightmare Before Christmas album is bookended by an introduction and conclusion narrated in typically extravagant style by Patrick Stewart. The music was nominated for the 1993 Golden Globe for Best Original Score and the soundtrack reached the Top 100 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
The movie has since become part of modern Christmas festivities
If there were any qualms around releasing such a ghoulish take on Christmas, they were to prove unfounded. Within a few years of The Nightmare Before Christmas’ release, both the film and music had gained an enormous following.
In 2006, a special edition of the soundtrack was released with a bonus disc, which contained covers of the film’s songs including Fall Out Boy, Fiona Apple, and Panic! at the Disco.
Fall Out Boy’s bassist, Pete Wentz, said: “Disney approached our management about us doing a song and we’re obsessed with that film and Danny Elfman. And of course I’ve got my Nightmare tattoos, so we were like, ‘Yes!’ The songs in the film are pretty much the best things ever. They’re Elfman at his prime.”
Nightmare Revisited, a cover album of songs commemorating the 15th anniversary of the film, was released in 2008, including Korn, Rise Against, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Amy Lee, and the All-American Rejects, plus more.