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Danny Elfman plays an electric guitar shirtless at Coachella
Danny Elfman, four-time Oscar nominee, performs at Coachella 2022
Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

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Jack Skellington turned legendary composer Danny Elfman into an even weirder rock star

The Nightmare Before Christmas composer’s Coachella turn looks more like a final form

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Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The last person in the world who thought Danny Elfman would play Coachella was Danny Elfman.

But in 2022, the legendary composer behind projects like Batman, Spider-Man, The Simpsons, and countless Tim Burton films took the desert stage, shirtless and ready to rip. Those who witnessed the spectacle of Elfman’s performance were blown away — “Nobody else even came close to bringing that level of chaotic pageantry,” wrote Vulture at the time — while images of the roaring composer were quick to go viral on social media.

Most movie buffs knew Elfman as Burton’s bespectacled, goth-adjacent music pal.

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman smile as they hold up signed copies of the Corpse Bride DVD at Best Buy in West Hollywood in 2006
Hey, it’s Danny Elfman and Tim Burton having a great time promoting the Corpse Bride DVD at a Best Buy
Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Then, in 2022, most movie buffs did a double take. Wow, yes, that’s frickin’ Danny Elfman.

Elfman’s rock turn may not have surprised those who were clicked into the alternative scene of the late 1970s and ’80s; before he established his macabre staccato identity in Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands, Elfman was a member of new wave band Oingo Boingo, which hit its hardest with the 1985 single “Weird Science” (featured in the film of the same name). Founded by Danny’s brother Richard, the band steadily toured and cut records through the early ’90s. (In fact, members of the band still tour to this day.) When Elfman left the band to pivot to composing, he also left behind his live music career — for so long that many of his younger superhero-movie-watching/Hot Topic-shopping devotees never knew his lineage. And even in the Oingo Boingo days, the musician wasn’t going as hard as he did at Coachella.

Danny Elfman wearing a grey tee with close cropped hair, plays the electric guitar and sings into a microphone while on stage at the US Festival in Ontario, California, May 28, 1983.
Danny Elfman, dorky but Sting-esque, performing with Oingo Boingo in 1983
Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

So what brought him back? What rebirthed him as a man who could share a stage with Billie Eilish and Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland? To my mind, it’s Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Produced by Burton, the stop-motion project was a black sheep for Walt Disney Animation that blossomed into a cult favorite, and based on the last few years in Elfman’s life, a transformative milestone for a musician born to shred on a stage like no other rocker ever has.

Elfman joined Burton early on in the development of The Nightmare Before Christmas, plussing up the loose animation pitch into a musical worthy of the Disney Renaissance. And after recording demos for Jack Skellington’s big numbers, Elfman became the obvious pick to record the final versions (while The Princess Bride’s Chris Sarandon was hired to match Elfman’s baritone vocals in the spoken dialogue). The rest is history: Elfman went on to win awards for his Nightmare work, and the soundtrack became a cross-holiday staple every October through December.

Tim Burton in a black and white button-down shirt and Danny Elfman in a band t-shirt, big glasses, and a dorky digital watch, sitting in the recording studio for The Nightmare Before Christmas
Burton and Elfman on the “set” of The Nightmare Before Christmas
Photo: Touchstone Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

Elfman did not peak with Nightmare in 1993. His four Oscar nominations for Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, Big Fish, and Milk were all awarded in the years that followed, and his work has extended far beyond film over the decades. In 2005, he premiered the highly baroque Serenada Schizophrana, his first work composed specifically for concert orchestra. In 2008, he wrote the music for the American Ballet Theatre’s Rabbit and Rogue ballet and in 2011 composed for Cirque Du Soleil’s $100 million Iris show. But it’s bops like “This Is Halloween” and “Jack’s Obsession” that will be engraved on his future tombstone, and he’s never been ashamed to play the hits — unlike Disney, which had no clue how to release the movie to an audience weaned on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but has since incorporated its parts into everything from theme parks to 3D re-releases to the Disney Dreamlight Valley sim. And unlike his film score work, The Nightmare Before Christmas gives him the chance to take the stage.

In 2013, the former Oingo Boingo frontman returned to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall to perform his scores from Tim Burton movies with a full orchestral backup. This included select numbers from The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he sang in full. The concert appearance was such a hit, Disney invited Elfman to appear alongside his co-stars Catherine O’Hara (Sally) and Ken Page (Oogie Boogie) at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles for a night purely dedicated to The Nightmare Before Christmas. The concert was such a hit, the group has performed it on the regular every October — and will do so again this Halloween.

Danny Elfman and a few other singers perform in black and white evening wear for The Films of Tim Burton Halloween concert
Danny Elfman (center) putting on a lovely show during the Films of Tim Burton Halloween concert
Photo: JC Olivera/WireImage

The hype around his various Burton and Nightmare Before Christmas concerts sparked the idea for Coachella programmers that Elfman could play alongside pop acts of the moment. As Elfman tells it, there was immediate and obvious hesitation on his part: He was not a rock star or a pop star or hip-hop star. But after watching Childish Gambino and Janelle Monáe unleash pure theatrical mayhem at Coachella 2019, he saw his way in. The then-66-year-old began immediate work on a set that would blend his film music, Oingo Boingo hits, and experimental songs fit for a rowdy crowd.

As he put in a video for the music festival, “Coming out and doing something as myself, not as Jack [Skellington], was terrifying and exciting.”

Coachella 2020 was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Elfman was purely activated and kept on creating. He released his new music as a studio album, Big Mess, and eventually took the Coachella stage in his now-notorious 2022 performance. As envisioned, the Elfman revue bounced from known tunes to weirdo grooves, all backed by animated graphics that paired well with, uh, extracurricular substances. But it was not a total upending of expectations; there was still room for Mr. Skellington at Coachella.

2022 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 2 Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella

In a flurry of post-show interviews, Elfman comes off as rejuvenated. While the show hasn’t realigned the trajectory of his career — he went on to score White Noise for director Noah Baumbach and continues to tour with his symphonic works — it’s hard to imagine him shaking the moment in the spotlight. (This is where I want to flag that earlier this year, a Rolling Stone report uncovered a 2018 sexual misconduct lawsuit filed against the composer, which he settled out of court. Elfman has vehemently denied the accusations against him as “vicious and wholly false.” No additional accusations or investigations have come out in the wake of the story, and Disney and his longtime collaborators continue to work with him.)

During the Coachella set, Elfman proclaimed that it was “my first time onstage as ‘myself’ in 27 years.” He’s likely referring to his time acting as Jack Skellington, though looking back, it doesn’t seem like Elfman as the frontman of Oingo Boingo was his true “self” either. The act launched at Coachella is not a return to form. It is the final form.

Danny Elfman Performs At North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in 2023, lit by green neon with his red hair parted down the middle Photo: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

There are few musical wanderers like Elfman, capable of swinging between genres and mediums and venues, and his time performing as Jack Skellington has everything to do with that elasticity. He is now unified — as a six-packed weirdo rock star with floppy red hair and body tattoos head-banging to the theme from The Simpsons.

Elfman has said at the time that there were no plans to tour his laser-lit Coachella act, although he busted it out earlier this year at the North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in California. It seems entirely possible that Elfman’s rock star persona will explode out of nowhere with the rhythm of his percussive scores. That seems like the best-case scenario for a musician who never wants to be defined, and is often trapped in the conventions of his business. A regular Jack Skellington.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Elfman performed at Royal Albert Hall in 2014. He performed his Music of Tim Burton concert in 2013. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.