Danny Elfman - Writer

Composer. Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles (one source lists Amarillo, Texas), 29 May 1953; brother of Richard Elfman, founder of Oingo Boingo and film director. Education: Educated in Los Angeles public schools; toured with an avant-garde theater troupe playing conga; spent a year in West Africa. Family: Married (separated); two children: Lola, Mali. Career: Rock musician with group Mystic Nights of Oingo Boingo, 1971–79; singer, songwriter, and guitarist for rock group Oingo Boingo 1979–1986; recorded solo albums, including So-Lo (1984) and Music for a Darkened Theater (1990); film composer, from 1980; composer of music for television series, including Amazing Stories (1985), Pee Wee's Playhouse (1986), The Simpsons (1989), Batman: Animated Series (1992), and Dilbert (1999). Awards: Grammy Award, Best Instrumental Composition, for "The Batman Theme" from Batman , 1989; Academy of Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Films Saturn Award for Best Musical Score, for Mars Attacks! , 1997; Academy of Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Films Saturn Award for Best Music, for Men in Black , 1998; Academy of Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Films Saturn Award for Best Music, and Golden Satellite Award for Best Original Score, for Sleepy Hollow , 2000; Fantosporto Special Career Award, 2000. Agent: Blue Focus Management, 15233 Ventura Blvd., Suite 2A, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, U.S.A.

Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman

Films as Composer:


Forbidden Zone (+ arranger, ro as Satan)


Pee Wee's Big Adventure


Back To School (+ ro as Oingo Boingo band member); Wisdom ; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (song)


Summer School


Midnight Run ; Scrooged ; Hot to Trot ; Big Top Pee Wee ; Delores Claiborne


Batman ; Ghostbusters II


Dick Tracy ; Edward Scissorhands ; Nightbreed ; Darkman ; Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (song); The Flash (main theme—for TV)


Pure Luck (main theme)


Batman Returns (+ music producer); Buffy the Vampire Slayer (song "We Close Our Eyes"); Article 99


Sommersby ; Army of Darkness ( Evil Dead 3 ); Nightmare Before Christmas (+ assoc pr, ro as Jack Skellington [singing])


Black Beauty ; Shrunken Heads (main theme); Darkman II: The Return of Durant (musical themes)


Delores Claiborne (+ music producer); Dead Presidents (+ music producer); To Die For ; Great People of the Bible and How They Lived (video)


Extreme Measures (+ music producer); The Frighteners ; Mars Attacks! ; Mission Impossible ; Bordello of Blood (theme); Freeway ; Farewell: Live from the Universal Amphitheatre Halloween (video) (+ sc, exec pr, performer); Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (musical themes)


Good Will Hunting (+ score producer); Flubber ; Men in Black ; Scream 2 ("Cassandra" aria)


A Simple Plan ; Modern Vampires ; A Civil Action (+ score producer)


Anywhere But Here (+ songs); My Favorite Martian ; Instinct ; Sleepy Hollow

Films as Actor:


Hot Tomorrows (as singer)


Urgh! A Music War (as Oingo Boingo member)


The Magical World of Chuck Jones (as himself)

Other Films:


Pyscho (music adaptor, producer, and supervisor)


On ELFMAN: books—

Karlin, Fred, Listening to Movies: The Film Lover's Guide to Film Music , New York, 1994.

Marill, Alvin H., Keeping Score: Film and Television Music, 1988–1997 , Landham, Maryland, 1998.

Craggs, Stewart A., Soundtracks: An International Dictionary of Composers for Film , Aldershot, England, and Brookfield, Vermont, 1998.

On ELFMAN: articles—

Gorbman, Claudia, "Narrative Film Music," in Yale French Studies , vol. 60, 1988.

"A Sweet and Scary Treat," in Time , 11 October 1993.

Hoberman, Jonathan, "Puppet Regimes," in Village Voice , vol. 38, 19 October 1993.

Katz, Alyssa, "Elf Esteem," in Village Voice , vol. 38, 9 November 1993.

"The Evolution of Elfman," in Film Score Monthly , vol. 4, no. 1, January 1999.

"Danny Elfman: Music for a Darkened People," at http://elfman.filmmusic.com , June 2000.

* * *

Danny Elfman's shadowy scores of exaggerated comic-book quality are most closely associated with the films of director Tim Burton: Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Pee Wee's Big Adventure , Edward Scissorhands , Nightmare Before Christmas , and Mars Attacks! Yet, his most catchy tune is perhaps the Jetson's-like theme of the animated television series The Simpsons. Elfman is a self-taught musician who can (and does) play virtually every instrument. In an interview for Time , Elfman resisted the label "genius," instead describing himself as "a good observer [who's] very tenacious." During his youth, Elfman was exposed to symphonies and classical film scores. His favorite composers are highly imagistic Eastern European composers such as Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostokovich, and Stravinsky. Yet, he is the first to admit that his exposure to classical music has been filtered through film. Alfred Hitchcock's composer Bernard Hermann ( Psycho , Vertigo , The Man Who Knew Too Much ) is Elfman's all-time favorite, with Nino Rota (Fellini's 8 1/2 and Coppola's The Godfather ) a close runner-up. His ongoing fascination with Hermann was one of the reasons Elfman joined up for the 1999 remake of Psycho , in which one can hear distinct homages that are reminscent of the original score without being derivative. Elfman also credits Cab Calloway, Gilbert and Sullivan, Ravel, Camille Saint-Saens, Dr. Seuss, Max Steiner, and Franz Waxman as inspirations. The "dark cheeriness" of songs, lyrics, score, and vocals for main character that Elfman composed for Nightmare Before Christmas are reminiscent of Kurt Weill, the German cabaret composer.

Elfman started playing the violin in high school. In his first gig, he played conga drums while touring France and Belgium with an avantgarde troupe, Grand Magic Circus. When eighteen, he spent a year in West Africa, after which he joined up with his brother's group, The Mystic Knights, otherwise known as the prequel to Oingo Boingo. Elfman taught himself composition by transcribing the jazz music of Duke Ellington. Elfman received his first taste of international stardom when Oingo Boingo's theme song for the film Weird Science (1985) made Billboard's Top 40. He remained active in the rock group until the band's retirement in 1996.

Although Elfman's first composition for film was the low-budget cult film made by his brother, Richard, Forbidden Zone (1980), Elfman entered the Hollywood scene in 1985 when Tim Burton approached Elfman to score Pee Wee's Big Adventure based solely on Elfman's work with Oingo Boingo. Elfman subsequently composed the music for all three Pee Wee sequels and the television series that resulted from the film's popularity. Burton and Elfman have enjoyed a lucrative and creatively inspirational partnership ever since.

After winning a Grammy for the neo-gothic soundtrack for Burton's Batman (1989), Elfman has had his pick of film projects. However, Elfman usually chooses to share his distinctive sound in films featuring alienated characters and macabre story-lines similar to Burton's portraits of melancholy and misunderstood outsiders. His music intensifies the atmosphere of bizarre, mysterious, and haunting alienation that complement Burton's highly stylized, moody films. In these films, music becomes part of a mosaic of poetic effects that turn the film into a composite of suspense. His quirky, gloomy musical style reflects the essential quality of the comic books that inspired some of films such as Batman , Darkman , and Dick Tracy , the latter leading to his second Grammy nomination. In Nightmare , for example, Elfman "wraps minor scales, dissonance, and witchy vocals into a child-accessible soundtrack," explains Alyssa Katz. Against Elfman's elaborate musical backdrop, the spectator enters a different world in which Elfman's music becomes part of the ethereal mood. Film critic Jonathan Hoberman sums up Elfman's music for Nightmare before Christmas , Elfman's personal favorite, as "a near perfect balance between nasty and cute." Nightmare , a "funhouse of funereal glamour" according to a film review in Time , balances a succession of funny, tragic, ironic characters in exaggeratedly dramatic situations.

In an interview, Elfman has said that "writing the melody is the easy part. Art comes from what you do with the melody." His music is indeed artful: his haunting melodies match the rhythm of animated sequences, just as his changes in instrumental color highlight dramatic effect. His scores provide emotional support, accentuate the pacing of the films, and enhance the mood of the setting. Elfman creates a textured fabric that drapes over the narrative to magical effect. The music in Scissorhands , for example, emphasizes the character's alienation and increasing uncertainty as he becomes a cultural cast-off.

As counterpart to his exaggerated portraits of lonely outsiders, Elfman's interest in the gothic and creepy led to his participation in several horror films, including Delores Claiborne , Psycho , Tales from the Crypt , and Sleepy Hollow. Elfman has composed eerie music for many ghostly, otherwordly characters including those from Beetlejuice , Scrooged , My Favorite Martian , and Modern Vampires. Of the 300 films Elfman has been involved in, he readily admits to regretting at least a third of them. Moreover, his candid acknowledgement of the commercial enterprise of film composition, in which creative vision is frequently sacrificed for heightened sales, is part of Elfman's appeal. He has proven his independence in thought, action, and music.

—Jill Gillespie

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Jun 15, 2011 @ 7:07 am
Wonderful article. I fell in love with Danny Elfmans sound and style when I was very young. His music as a composer really takes me away every time I hear it. I still don't know very much about his work so I was pleased to find your article. Thank you.- Christine

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