Music from the darkside
from Time, 1993.10.11 vol.142 no.15 p.80
Venture down the zigzagging stairway to Danny Elfman's home in
the hills above Malibu, and you might think you've wandered into a storyboard
for The Nightmare Before Christmas. A dinosaur skull is perched on a
coffee table in the living room. A human skeleton from Peru sits in one corner.
A shrunken head is encased in glass downstairs. "Halloween is the night I live
for," says Elfman. "When Christmas time rolled around when I was a kid, I became
Even without his ghoulish tastes, there was little doubt that
Elfman was the man to turn Tim Burton's holiday fable into a musical as well
as a visual feast. Elfman has written the scores for all of Burton's films,
including Batman and Edward Scissorhands. His dark, richly textured
music has also set the mood for such films as Darkman and Dick Tracy,
as well as TV's The Simpsons. All that in addition to his parallel career
as lead singer and composer for the quirky Los Angeles rock bank Oingo Boingo,
creator of songs like Dead Man's Party and Weird Science.
His score for Nightmare may finally bring Elfman the recognition
that his dazzling talent has never quite received. A self-taught musician, he
has always been an outsider in the tight-knit world of Hollywood film composers.
(He has never even been nominated for an Oscar.) It doesn't help that he writes
old-fashioned, full-orchestra scores at a time when pasting a few pop songs
onto the track qualifies as film composing. Even his breakthrough score for
Burton's Batman was overshadowed by the songs (and a competing sound-track
album) written for the film by Prince. Reviews that praised Prince's "score"
for Batman frustrated Elfman. "It kind of epitomized the whole twisted concept
of what a sound track is and isn't," he says.
Elfman, 40, learned what a sound track is by spending weekends at
the neighborhood movie theater while growing up in Los Angeles. He
fell in love with the music of such vintage Hollywood masters as Max
Steiner, Franz Waxman and (his most obvious influence) Bernard
Herrmann, who scored many of Alfred Hitchcock's films. Elfman began
his own music career in the early '70s, when he helped form a
performance group called the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. He
learned to play virtually every instrument in the group and taught
himself composition by transcribing Duke Ellington pieces.
Burton, a fan of Oingo Boingo (as the group rechristened itself
in 1979), surprised Elfman by asking if he would be interested in writing the
music for Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Burton's first movie. "Though I never
took it seriously as a potential job," recalls Elfman, "I thought it would be
hip to do a meeting." The meeting led to Elfman's first great score -- playful,
lyrical, full-bodied -- and launched his movie career.
In Nightmare Before Christmas, Elfman's witty, melodically
intricate songs drive the action forward as surely as does the animation. Elfman
suggested that he sing the lead role only after the composing was well under
way. "I realized that I was writing as lot from my own character," he says.
"I went to Tim and said, 'I'm not the best singer alive by a long shot, but
no one's going to sing Jack Skellington better than I am.' And he agreed." But
first Elfman bounced each number off Mali, 9, one of his two daughters. (Lola
is 14.) "Until Mali signed off on it, nothing was approved." (Elfman is separated
from his wife; his current girlfriend is Caroline Thompson, Nightmare's screenwriter.)
Not content with a flourishing dual career, Elfman is trying
to open up a third track: writing screenplays. Disney is developing a musical,
Little Demons, based on an original story by Elfman. "I'm not a genius,"
he says. "If I have a talent, it's being a good observer and being very tenacious."
And a little weird science doesn't hurt.