It was an emotional evening Saturday at Irvine, Calif.’s FivePoint Amphitheatre, when Danny Elfman, legendary film composer and former frontman of Los Angeles new wave band Oingo Boingo, played his first L.A.-area concert since the July 30 death of Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens — the man who gave Elfman his first big break in the movie industry and forever altered the course of Elfman’s career.
Reubens’s presence was felt Saturday when Elfman played Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’s opening song, “Breakfast Machine,” while fondly gazing up at the stage’s big screen to watch Pee-wee feast on a Rube Goldberg-assembled plate of bacon and eggs. The moment Reubens’s bow-tied, face-taped, childlike character appeared on the screen, the 11,000-capacity audience cheered delightedly. And they cheered again when the song ended with the onscreen message, “In loving memory of my dear, lifelong friend,” accompanied by a video still of Elfman and Reubens at the Big Adventure movie premiere in 1985.
“Paul was not only a friend but a huge part of my life. He, along with Tim Burton, was responsible for bringing me into Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Elfman said in a statement the weekend of the big, bittersweet show. “That opened the door to my 38-year composing career and but for them I’m quite sure never would have happened. Paul was also one of the sweetest, kindest, and most generous people I’ve known. … He will be deeply missed and I will be grateful to him always.”
It was in fact Reubens who came up with the brilliant idea to have Elfman compose for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, having been a fan of Elfman’s music in Oingo Boingo’s 1980 cult flick Forbidden Zone. As Elfman told Yahoo Entertainment in 2020, “I had a little eight-track tape player. I did a demo and sent [Reubens and director Burton] a cassette. I didn’t think twice about it. I never expected to hear back. But that became the main title to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Elfman even admitted that he’d assumed the Pee-wee project as a “fluke,” that “the score would get thrown out” by Warner Bros. so that a “real composer” could step in, and that he’d “probably never do it again.”
But the instant-classic road-trip comedy, which incredibly was the first major studio project for Reubens, Burton, and Elfman, instead set Elfman on a whole new professional path. “Once Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out, to my astonishment, I was almost immediately offered every quirky comedy made in Hollywood. I couldn’t have been more surprised,” said Elfman, who had since scored more than 100 films — including 19 of Burton’s, like Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
There was a time when Elfman thought he had retired from playing rock music forever, after his nearly two decades of touring with Oingo Boingo had resulted in significant hearing damage. However, in 2013 he eased back into live performing with a series of orchestral concerts titled “Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton,” during which he reprised his role as The Nightmare Before Christmas’s Jack Skellington — with Reubens often memorably joining him as the character Lock. “I feel quite lucky to have had the chance to perform onstage with him for the live Nightmare Before Christmas shows over the last decade,” Elfman said in this week’s statement to Yahoo Entertainment.
After releasing the 2021 dystopian lockdown album Big Mess, his first solo LP since 1984, Elfman finally officially emerged from rock ‘n’ roll retirement, beginning with a now-legendary set at Coachella 2022. “I never, ever imagined at this point in my life, when I thought I’d be retired and living in Florida playing golf, that I’d be back here,” the newly invigorated 70-year-old artist said Saturday, as he unleashed the nihilistic, creepy-crawly bombast of Big Mess’s “Sorry,” “Kick Me,” “True,” and “Happy,” all accompanied by screensaver-from-hell graphics of evil puppets, funhouse-mirror monsters, deformed dolls, and melting rubber Elfman faces to match all the face-melting avant garde audio.
But while those ultramodern numbers proved that Elfman is hardly capitalizing on his past, for concertgoers of a certain age who grew up in Los Angeles and Orange Country (where Oingo Boingo was practically the house band of trailblazing alternative rock radio station KROQ throughout the ‘80s), hearing Elfman revisit nervy new wave Boingo classics like “Grey Matter,” “Nothing to Fear,” “Just Another Day,” “Insanity,” “Only a Lad,” “Wild Sex (In the Working Class),” “Insects,” “Who Do You Want to Be,” and “Dead Man’s Party” (the latter featuring original Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek) was the real thrill — and what made this set even more nostalgic, along with the sweet Reubens tribute.
It should be noted that while onstage at the FivePoint Amphitheatre Saturday, Elfman unsurprisingly did not address the other reason why his name has been in the news lately: Last month’s Rolling Stone bombshell report that he agreed to pay a $830,000 settlement to Nomi Abadi, a musician and composer who accused him of sexual harassment. (While Elfman privately settled with Abadi in 2018, the case has made headlines recently, now that Abadi is suing Elfman for allegedly failing to make payments in the agreement.) Elfman denied Abadi’s allegations in a July 2023 statement to Rolling Stone, claiming that Abadi had retaliated after he rejected her romantic advances and that he reluctantly settled with her out of fear that his “50-year career may be destroyed in one news cycle” if she went public with her accusations.
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