Movies with music cues pretty much always sync up in an obvious way. You’re doing a happy montage, here’s a peppy pop song. Someone’s committing suicide, here’s Elliott Smith. Zach Braff’s in the movie, roll out the winsome indie folk. Songs are used to accentuate a mood that the movie might not convey as effectively in silence or plain dialogue. It enhances our empathy for and connection to the events depicted on screen, so naturally the song wants us to feel the same way that the characters do in that moment. Horror movies are one exception – if they ever use previously recorded songs, their tendency to trade in innocent oldies has been adopted into film language as a shorthand contrast. In this matter and most others used to define Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice, the movie falls uniquely in-between two worlds. Half horror, half comedy, its soundtrack leans heavier on the former thanks to all the sinister, gothic pomposity of Danny Elfman’s orchestrations, so it’s only fair, if not the least bit sane, that the two musical numbers…are silly, toe-tapping calypso frolics?
The movie is all about contradictions, mainly those that make spooky scenarios less frightening than they at first seem. The kind, happy main characters die right away, but their way of life stays mostly the same. They try to scare away new tenants in their house with morbid shows of death and gore, but the people don’t notice at all. They nervously cross over into the mysterious world of the dead, only to find a humdrum bureaucracy. They summon a powerful demon, but he acts like a coked-up used-car salesman. They can’t leave their house because it leads them to the deserts of Saturn teeming with monster sand worms, but in the end Geena Davis rides (be-friends?) one of the worms to defeat Beetlejuice. It’s all part of Tim Burton’s inclusive spirit as a filmmaker (if only he’d found a way to redeem Beetlejuice and Othos, this movie would be an admirable lesson in everybody getting along), by way of his own loner, outcast identity as a child compelling him to sympathize with the weirdest thing on screen and turn the normal people into the deadly freaks (see also Edward Scissorhands and Burton’s entire career).
The first Harry Belafonte song-and-dance routine serves his mission statement in a subtler way than he’s known for. At their wits’ end but still wary of employing Beetlejuice, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Davis) devise a surefire strategy for chasing away the annoying new residents. At a dinner party, suddenly possessed matriarch Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara) starts belting out “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” in Belafonte’s voice, then leads the whole group in a round-the-table singalong as they are helplessly forced to sashay about in unison, until their shrimp cocktails come to life and knock them all down. It’s a scene unlike any other in movie history (well, until The Mask basically copied it six years later with the cops dancing to samba music), and it reinforces Burton’s subversions by not only being a lot more wholesome and melodic than you’d expect for an ultimate scare tactic, but also afterwards by not even having the desired effect – it turns out everybody had a great time “doing the Calypso” and want to meet the ghosts behind it all. Score even more validation for the strange and supernatural, and this time it even wins over the disturbingly normal folk!
The story goes that they were using a song by ’40s pre-doo woppers The Ink Spots, until Catherine O’Hara suggested something calypso to lighten the mood, and Jeffrey Jones (as the dad Charles) recommended “Day-O”, probably because it was the best-known hit off Belafonte’s first, best selling (the first record to ever move over a million copies) all-calypso record in 1956. Side note: if you want to get real, “Day-O” is less calypso than mento, a sister style of Jamaican folk music, less dance-oriented and carefree. Anyway, it was a very collaborative creative process, as many of Burton’s earliest films seemed to be; maybe his later ones are too, but they get so much worse over time that it’s not even worth looking into. After five days spent filming the dinner dance, Burton went back and added a couple other Belafonte songs into the background of earlier scenes for continuity (personally, even though I’ve loved this movie my whole life, I never even noticed the other two songs until a recent re-watch), then came up with the final scene of Lydia (Winona Ryder) convincing Adam to let her do a floating song-and-dance number to Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” (from his 2nd calypso album in 1961). However the machinery in Burton’s head was working back then, it paid off – this movie, with scenes especially like the “Day-O” one, and others like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Scissorhands, and The Nightmare before Christmas (not his officially, but close enough) aren’t just memorable because of their winningly weird underdog heroes or rich production designs, but also for the sheer madness of their content. There are out-of-nowhere detours, delightful little nooks and crannies, and odd stylistic tangents in all these movies, and whichever cast member or stage hand came up with them, if it wasn’t Burton himself, he was wise to take so many chances, as they lend an invaluable texture to the experiences. If you want your haunted house comedy to stand apart from House, High Spirits, and Haunted Honeymoon, to say nothing of the predominantly autopiloted studio genre exercises we get nowadays, then using vintage calypso songs as your soundtrack is definitely going to work.
And what a show of fine taste! Sure, Harry Belafonte popularized calypso in the ’50s in a big way, greatly influencing his peers as well as all the incoming folk artists of the ’60s, but if it wasn’t for this one-of-a-kind ’80s flick, we future generations would know even less about this kind of music than we do now. It hasn’t permeated culture in any way since Beetlejuice (this awful Pitbull sample will never count), not even as part of the puzzle that is hybridized modern dance music. But this movie was enough of a gateway for me, at least – I’ve had “Jump in the Line” in an mp3 format of some kind or another ever since I first started downloading music (circa Napster 1998, if I recall). That scene, even more than “Day-O”, made a big impression on me, first in helping me fall in love with the horror/comedy genre (there is no better era for that kind of movie than the 1980s) by showing me that my ordinary childhood fascinations with monsters and ghosts could be domesticized into fun, funny packages, then adding to my adolescent infatuation with Winona Ryder, and most importantly in planting the seeds of my lifelong adoration of Harry Belafonte himself. It’s an ecstatic ending, with the two families united in harmony, Lydia brightening up, and then getting to party with supernatural powers and a team of football player phantasms as back-up dancers. As a kid I was in awe – I want to dance with ghosts! I want to set a beat with a rocking chair and percussive tupperware. I want to pantomime to exuberant songs in mid-air. It took me years to realize that the music was key to selling that scene. They could’ve used some Tiffany single from the ’80s, or even a good one like Michael Jackson or Erasure, and the scene still could’ve worked as a bubbly send-off. But using what sounded to me like some lost tropical island merengue shuffle made it a standout moment in my formative movie-watching days. Both the song and the movie were instantly immortalized.
In my adult years, I’ve gradually accumulated everything I can from Belafonte’s 40-year music career (though he’s still quite alive at 86, his last album was in 1988 and he retired from performing in 2003), and it’s a treasure chest of beautifully evocative folk, gospel, calypso, and Carnivale from one of the 20th century’s greatest vocalists. The calypso is what I prefer, though. However far removed I am from the origins of this Afro-Caribbean music as socio-political satire and in the workman chants of Trinidad and Tobago, it still takes me away to a better place of peace, simplicity, and contentment. The default desert island we all imagine, nothing but sunshine, transparent blue waters, sand, hammocks, straw huts, penguin butlers, and the iciest beverages, where everyday is freedom and joy. Of course none of that translates during Beetlejuice, except for the good times-vibe. But that might be a big reason why the happiest of music has always been my drug of choice. And anyway it’s in keeping with this movie’s magic – “Day-O” and “Jump in the Line” have nothing whatsoever to do literally or musically with anything else pertaining to Beetlejuice. They’re just another couple of comical curveballs in the mix, that also happen to be an opened time capsule to erstwhile pop music reverie. For all the records he released playing this kind of stuff, “Jump in the Line” is the apex of knee-slapping, conga-lining Belafonte-calypso – not even the fact that we only see Lydia rocking out to it for a combined total of 55 seconds* could prevent it from becoming one of my favorite uplifting musical movie moments.
*the rest of the 3:42 song plays instrumentally behind resolutions for Charles, Delia, and Beetlejuice, and then over the end credits