Danny Elfman was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of Blossom Elfman, a writer and teacher, and Milton Elfman, a teacher who was in the Air Force. He spent much of his time in the local movie theatre, adoring the music of such film composers as Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman.
Elfman says he mainly hung out with “band nerds” in high school, he started a ska band. After dropping out of high school, he followed his brother Richard to France, where he performed with Le Grand Magic Circus, an avant-garde musical theater group. Violin in tow, Elfman next journeyed to Africa where he traveled through Ghana, Mali, and Upper Volta, absorbing new musical styles, including the Ghanaian highlife genre which would eventually influence his own music. Eventually he returned home to the United States, where he began to take Balinese music lessons at the CalArts. He was never officially a student at the institute, nonetheless, the instructor encouraged him to continue learning.
At this time, his brother was forming a new musical theater group, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The group performed the music for Richard’s debut feature film, Forbidden Zone. Danny Elfman composed his first score for the film and played the role of Satan. By the time the movie was completed, they had taken the name Oingo Boingo and begun recording and touring as a rock group.
Oingo Boingo were a big deal Stateside during the 1980s and they featured on pretty much every movie soundtrack such as Weird Science, Ghostbusters II, Summer School, Back to School (which Elfman also scored) and Sixteen Candles.
In 1985, a young Tim Burton approached Elfman about scoring his wacky new movie of the cult TV series Pee Wee Herman – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman turned in a score which was pure mania in musical form, like an circus band on fire and it clicked exactly with the subject material. Off the wall, eccentric and downright fun. Breakfast Machine and Finale – being the stand out tracks and a shape of things to come for Elfman over the next few years.
After two further projects, Wisdom, Back to School, Elfman was again approached by Tim Burton to score another curiosity of a film which would also require an off the wall score to suit its needs : Beetlejuice.
The score to Beetlejuice is without a doubt one of Elfman’s finest. The Main Titles are like being thrown around inside a run away wagon en route to a manic carnival and the whole score marries perfectly with the source material. The use of demonic fiddle throughout is a master-stroke.
In 1987, Robert De Niro made his first awkward steps into comedy/action and Elfman followed him with a score of utter brilliance :Midnight Run. Sounding more like an Oingo Boingo album than what we would now know as Elfman, it is a standout classic soundtrack and one to play to Elfman doubters who say everything he does sounds alike. The Main Titles track is a barnstormer.
Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) came calling in 1988. He was making a new version of A Christmas Carol and would require something suitably creepy to accompany it. The film was Scrooged and the score was perfect.
Elfman was beginning to show himself to be a force to be reckoned with, but the best was yet to come.
In 1988, Warner Brothers took a massive gamble and hired Tim Burton to bring Batman back to the big screen. What came out in 1989 was one of the biggest hits in history, and the score was surely just as responsible for its success. Brooding, dark, Gothic, majestic, booming, terrifying and one of the best superhero scores ever put on screen.
The Batman score made Elfman a popular man, he was suddenly inundated with work (he was also called upon to write a score for several TV shows such as The Flash and The Simpsons). He followed Batman with Nightbreed, a Clive Barker directed version of his own book (Cabal). While the film was in no way a success, the score is a baroque ballet of fear that haunts every scene and is just as monstrous and ill fitting as its protagonists.
Another comic book hero was next on the agenda with Warren Beatty’s 1990 version of Dick Tracy. The film brought the old style comic book to life in a very real sense. Elfman’s score was a fine accompaniment and absolutely conveyed the noir feel of the project along with the old style comic book hero dynamism of a time were men were men and dames were dames.
Also in 1990 Elfman made a heroes out of monsters. First was Sam Raimi’s Darkman. Elfman produced a tragic marching score that tropes hand in hand down the street with the anguished protagonist. Next was another project with Tim Burton which has become a modern fairytale classic – Edward Scissorhands. The score to Edward Scissorhands is a sublime ballet on ice that tip toes around in front of your ears and warms the cockles of the coldest heart. Particularly “Ice Dance” which is a modern classic and has been used in many commercials for perfume and many, many trailers.
In 1992, Elfman and Burton returned to Batman for Batman Returns. The score feels rained in and less pounding, doubtlessly a smaller orchestra than the first film and Elfman seems to be carrying a hangover from Edward Scissorhands with a great deal of choir work and perhaps too much whackyness present within. Indeed, both Burton and Elfman seem to be harbouring small film intentions with such a grand project as both the score and the film seem to be shrunken when compared to the first film.
Elfman next composed a piece of music for the Army of Darkness soundtrack entitled “March of the Dead”. A wonderfully silly march that marries wonderfully with the perfectly silly third Evil Dead film.
The next significant project for Elfman was to be a musical about Christmas that is now considered a yuletide classic. Tim Burton had the idea of The Nightmare Before Christmas when he was a young animator at Disney and in 1993 the project was made under the steady hand of Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline). The soundtrack is a work of art and some of the songs contained within (such as What’s This?) are now as synonymous with Christmas as Jingle Bells and Noél.
Elfman next began to venture outside of his usual projects and score projects such as Black Beauty, Dead Presidents and Delores Claiborne.
In 1995 he worked on another summer blockbuster for legendary film-maker Brian DePalma, Mission : Impossible. The resulting score is like a hammer blow as the legendary theme belts out and threatens to blow your speakers every time you hear it. The score is undeniably Elfman and is injected with the same frenetic vigour and panic inducing rise and falls and most Elfman scores, almost threatening to explode at any minute.
Next was Peter Jackson’s first step into the mainstream with The Frighteners. Elfman was certainly the perfect choice for this and he delivers his usual jangly fare with the choir on hand and the misshapen brass section.
Another collaboration was to follow with Tim Burton in 1996 with Mars Attacks! A film based on the cult trading card series of the same name. While the film would ultimately confuse audiences and critics alike, the soundtrack is worth a mention and worth remembering. Sounding very much like a trip to Mars and back it is heavy on theremin and camp B movie sentiments.
In 1997, Elfman scored the smash hit comedy Men In Black, Flubber and Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, with which Elfman was now scoring exclusively as well as Tim Burton. In 1999 Elfman collaborated once again with Tim Burton on the delightfully Gothic Sleepy Hollow.
The next project for Tim Burton was to be a remake of the seminal 60s classic Planet of the Apes in 2001. The film would ultimately flop both commercially and critically. Sadly, the score is just as much of a nonsense and is almost unnoticeable. Elfman had always been noticeable, if only to point out that his work was sounding alike.
The 2000s have not been kind to Elfman and every score he produces seems to blend into one another. The worrying trend really manifested itself when in 2001 and 2003 Elfman was chosen to score two massive comic-book projects in Spider-Man and Hulk. Both scores are bland at best and are a galaxy away from his epic Batman score just over a decade before.
Some epic blandness has been produced since the turn of the century such as Spider-Man 2, Hellboy 2, Terminator Salvation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride. The only silver lining was his orchestration for the 2002 movie of the hit musical Chicago.
He had a mild return to form with his score for the Gus Van Sant Oscar winner Milk and his dark, gothic Wolfman, but it remains to be seen if he can recapture his former glory.
Here in no particular order are the top 10 Danny Elfman scores :
Brooding, dark, Gothic, majestic, booming, terrifying and one of the best superhero scores ever put on screen.
Edward Scissorhands – Ice Dance
Gorgeous, balletic, fairy tale music. Used in advert after advert. Sublime work.
Sounding more like an Oingo Boingo album than what we would now know as Elfman, it is a standout classic soundtrack and one to play to Elfman doubters who say everything he does sounds alike.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
A score which was pure mania in musical form, like an circus band on fire and it clicked exactly with the subject material. Off the wall, eccentric and downright fun.
Like being thrown around inside a run away wagon en route to a manic carnival and the whole score marries perfectly with the source material.
The score is a baroque ballet of fear that haunts every scene and is just as monstrous and ill fitting as its protagonists.
Elfman’s score was a fine accompaniment and absolutely conveyed the noir feel of the project along with the old style comic book hero dynamism of a time were men were men and dames were dames.
Nightmare Before Christmas – What’s This?
The soundtrack is a work of art and some of the songs contained within (such as What’s This?) are now as synonymous with Christmas as Jingle Bells and Noél.
Sounding very much like a trip to Mars and back it is heavy on theremin and camp B movie sentiments.
Batman (1989) – Descent into Mystery
An epic piece of gothic mastery that accompanies the batmobile racing through the dark countryside. Amazing work Mr. Elfman.