Wednesday, November 23, 2011

SDTK: Oingo Boingo

You really can't blame them,
Society made them.
Normally it takes years for a band to find themselves on a soundtrack for a major motion picture. We’re not talking about indie films taking what they can get to keep costs low. For a band to breakthrough on that level of national (and international) exposure they either have to be very well established, or insanely talented and ahead of their time. Another factor to consider is the variety of songs in their repertoire. Most of the time if an artist is lucky enough to get selected for inclusion on a soundtrack it is only for a hit single, or a one-hit-wonder. It is exceptionally rare for a band to contribute several different tracks to multiple films. Of course the thing that will make or break this situation for a band is their proximity to the action. In that regard Oingo Boingo, who are anything but “normal,” became the go to band for film soundtracks in the 1980s. Based out of Los Angeles and rising from the ashes of a well established cabaret musical theater troupe, known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the band had a modest following when they transitioned into a new wave rock outfit. 

From the very beginning, Oingo Boingo had an advantage over other acts when it came to film. They had a track record. Richard Elfman, who founded the Mystic Knights, had moved over to filmmaking, leaving the musical group and direction in the hands of his younger brother, Danny. Richard's first project was a fictional document on the Mystic Knights stage show, aptly titled Forbidden Zone (1982). The film featured skits, characters, performers, and musical numbers associated with their recently deceased stage show. Being the main creative force of the band, Danny composed the score and wrote the songs for the film, which were all performed by the band. They even appeared in one of the more memorable scenes where Elfman plays Satan, singing an adapted version of the Cab Caloway classic Minnie The Moocher, entitled Squeezit The MoocherConceived and executed during the bands transitional phase, Forbidden Zone acts as a pop culture headstone to the band that once was. The title track actually made it onto the band’s self-titled debut EP.

When they reemerged it was sans costumes and theatrics, embracing a new wave punk rock edge. Despite the loss of their stage personas their musical proficiency and diversity enabled them to stand out among the crowd. They were featured alongside other up and coming artists of the day such as The Police, The Dead Kennedys and Devo in the concert documentary Urgh! A Music War (1981) playing another song from their debut EP, Ain’t This The Life. They followed the success of that EP with a slew of provocative pioneering albums beginning with Only A Lad (1981) and continuing with Nothing To Fear (1982), and Good For Your Soul (1983). As a result they became a landmark not only in the L.A. music scene, but also the entire new wave movement.

In addition to dishing out album after album the band also recorded several songs that appeared exclusively on motion picture soundtracks. They were featured in the forgotten film Longshot (1981) performing an unreleased song, I Got To Be Entertained. The following year they contributed the songs Better Luck Next Time and Goodbye, Goodbye to the soundtracks for The Last American Virgin (1982) and Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), respectively. 1984 proved to be a breakout year for the band, contributing two tracks (Something Isn’t Right and Bachelor Party) to the soundtrack for the Tom Hanks comedy Bachelor Party (1984). Their song Wild Sex (in the working class), from Nothing To Fear (1982), was featured in Sixteen Candles (1984) as well as the song Gratitude, from Danny Elfman’s So-Lo (1984) album, which was featured in Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Of course their biggest success came the following year when they contributed the title track to the John Hughes film Weird Science (1985). The song was also featured on their subsequent album, Dead Man’s Party (1985).

As if these accomplishments weren’t enough, Danny Elfman, who wrote and sang all the songs for Oingo Boingo, turned his talents towards film composing. Recruited by Tim Burton and Paul Reubens (aka: Pee Wee Herman), who were both fans of Forbidden Zone and Oingo Boingo, Elfman was hired to compose the light comedic score for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). This was Elfman’s first motion picture film score, outside of Forbidden Zone, and although the presentation was completely different from his work with the band, his unique musical style bled through. Elfman’s musical collaborator and Boingo band mate, Steve Bartek, continued to fulfill his role from the band as musical arranger. He would go on to be the orchestrator for all of Elfman’s compositions and even make his own contributions to films in the future.

Danny’s success as a film composer opened even more doors for the band in terms of cinematic exposure. Often times a film that he was composing the score for would also feature a track by Oingo Boingo on the soundtrack. In the case of Back To School (1986) the band not only contributed to the soundtrack, while Danny wrote the score, but they also appeared in the film playing the title track from Dead Man’s Party. Throughout the latter part of the 1980s Oingo Boingo was also featured on the Elfman scored soundtracks for Wisdom (1986), Summer School (1987), Midnight Run (1988) and Nightbreed (1990). Their songs also appeared in the films: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Something Wild (1986), My Best Friend is a Vampire (1987), Teen Wolf Too (1987), Like Father Like Son (1987), Ghostbusters II (1989), and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), although at this point they rarely contributed exclusive or non-album tracks.

During the 1990s Elfman focused more on film scores than rock albums. They released their final album, Boingo (1994) and retired as a band on Halloween night, 1995. Despite the musical outlet that the band provided, Elfman found a way to satisfy his song-writing fix by occasionally performing in the films he was composing, most notably with long time collaborator: Tim Burton. Elfman wrote the score, songs and provided the singing voice for Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). In that regard the soundtrack almost acts as an Oingo Boingo holiday album. He also was an associate producer on the film. More recently he pulled the same duty in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), singing all of the Oompa Loompa songs, as well as Corpse Bride (2005), singing two songs as the character Bonejangles.

Oingo Boingo continues to appear on film soundtracks from time to time. Their songs have been featured in Donnie Darko (2001), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), and Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (2007) to name a few. Even an episode of American Dad (2005) featured Patrick Stewart’s character singing Little Girls (from Only A Lad (1981)). Coincidently that is the song that got Oingo Boingo band in Canada. Choosing to focus on composing orchestral scores, Elfman has officially stated that he is content to remain retired from the stage. The only thing left to do is sit back and have a brew.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Catch up with the beginning of the series in Hollywrong I & Hollywrong II

The Dimension of Sight, Sound and SUCK!
NOTE: This article was originally conceived and planned at the start of the summer movie season. Now that it has ended I see that much of what I had intended with this article has come true. The fad is fading.

Contrary to popular belief, the ability to present a film in 3-D has been around since the beginning of cinema. Experiments with the technology, known as stereopsis, first began in the 1800s and continued up through the 1920s and ‘30s. It was considered an expensive process that added little to the film going experience. It wasn’t until the 1950s that 3-D had a commercial breakthrough as a visual gimmick. Many genre pictures such as House of Wax (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954) were filmed and released in 3-D. By the time Dial M for Murder had been released the charm of 3-D had already begun to wear off and most prints of the film were screened in 2-D. Thirty years later a generational revival, brought on by the filmmakers who had grown up with 3-D movies in the ‘50s, brought the medium back from the dead to better showcase the dead. A slew of horror franchises in the 1980s including Amityville Horror, Jaws, and Friday the 13th all exploited the market with third installments filmed and released in 3-D. To all but those who were there this seems like pre- and ancient history, especially in the razzle-dazzle 21st century marketplace.

Looking forward to the future.
Today everyone wants everything in 3-D, including their televisions; and why? Because they were raised on a lie. Beginning in the 1980s animators started applying 3-D principles and technology to their work. Simply because their work was created in a 3-D environment doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a 3-D product. In fact, most 2-D products actually adhere to the principles of 3-D – they just aren’t jumping out of the screen at you. Images are composed of several elements including color, shadow, distance, angles, etc. to create the illusion of depth, representing the fundamentals of 3-D. This applies not only to film, but also video and computer games, advertisements, visual effects and animation, although computer animation tends to steal the show in this arena. What people continue to not realize is that 3-D is an illusion, a gimmick, a distraction, just like the marketing campaign that sells it. If you put an outline or drop shadow on text does it become a 3-D document? NO! It was through videogames, promotional films, documentaries and advancements in visual effects that the modern commercial revolution of 3-D technology came about.

Unfortunately there is very little practical use for 3-D outside of these formats. Misconceptions and crafty marketing have swindled the movie-going public into thinking that 3-D presentation actually enhances the film going experience. In reality the only thing it enhances is the cost of the ticket and ultimate box office return on a movie that would have been just as good, if not better, in 2-D. Like any real butcher of humanity, Hollywrong feels the impending need to milk anything even remotely profitable for all it’s worth as long as it’s worth something. Never mind exhibiting grace, understanding, or restraint. There is no hesitation when it comes to tacking a higher price tag on something even if it is completely saturated in harmful bile.

The problem is that there is no long-term future in gimmicks, no matter how little of an option you offer. Sooner or later people will just stop going to see new stuff because the allure doesn’t apply to every title. Avatar (2009) wasn’t successful just because it was in 3-D. Many people had been waiting twelve years for James Cameron’s narrative directorial follow up to Titanic (1997). Avatar inadvertently set a new standard for sub par filmmaking by having amazing visuals and production value while hiding a run of the mill story and predictable narrative structure. This opened the floodgates for a slew of halfwit films that continue to pollute the marketplace. No longer are 3-D movies regulated to cheap thrills offered by horror and science fiction films as in the 1950s and ‘80s. Now whole movies can be presented in the format, as long as they are riddled with visual effects.

The phrase “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” comes to mind when thinking about 3-D movies, especially as of late. It’s very easy to forget that limitations inspire creativity and without them things begin to blend and become less distinguishable. Of course technology has helped expand the boundaries of imagination, but when the imagination is limited to begin with then the technology has to pick up the slack.

You can imagine where it goes from here.
For me the best 3-D films have always been the ones that didn’t rely on the technology, but rather used it as another tool to tell and enhance the story just as they would the score, the lighting, or the costumes. Films like Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), which only features a select sequence in 3-D, or Tron: Legacy (2010), which regulates the 3-D presentation to a specific setting are actually making the best use of the technology. The only other film that I can recall that utilized 3-D technology to its full cinematic advantage was Jackass 3-D (2010), because they literally had shit flying at the audience. I guess it takes a gimmick to embrace a gimmick.

What they don’t tell you in the trailer is that the 3-D process actually saturates the color and makes it a less vibrant image, which is actually counter conducive to the whole goal of the format. So now you’re paying extra for a crappier looking image. That’s almost as interesting as the con they’re running on the glasses required to watch the movie. Every time you go to a 3-D movie you have to pay extra for the glasses, which they ask you to return at the end so they can recycle, sterilize, repackage, and resell them at future showings. You’d think if they were serious about being green they’d rely on people to keep their glasses and only charge them extra if they needed them. I’m still wondering why they haven’t started selling Advil at the concession stand for the ringing headache the follows every 3-D screening. If there is still any doubt in your mind about the viability of experiencing the third dimension please read this letter to Roger Ebert from Walter Murch

As Hollywrong continues to cling to 3-D, all the while looking out for the next best thing, they continue to regress with ideas from the past. In the 1970s Universal Studios developed the Sensurround system to physically engage the audience in the story. 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. soon followed with their own formats respectfully called Sound 360 and Megasound. It is this physical engagement with the audience that, when coupled with 3-D, creates 4-D. Nowadays it’s not just regulated to sound, but any physical effect such as fog, mist (for rainy or watery scenes), wind, or even hot and cold bursts on the audience. This process is incredibly expensive and hasn’t caught on in a commercial sense, but it does drag one further down the rabbit hole and back to the concept of virtual reality, where the viewer becomes a part of the environment. Of course if people wanted to do that they could always just go to the theater, but then actors would have to really know their craft.


Raiders of the Lost Art (of acting)