by Wayne Robins
What would you have said ten years ago if someone insisted that
Nik Kershaw would be the John Williams of his generation, or that
Alex Chilton would be such a prolific composer of film scores that
he'd be compared to Henry Mancini? You mihgt have said, "Holy
hallucinations, Batman!" But when it comes to former new wavers as
film composers, roll over, Stewart Copeland, and tell Joe Jackson the
news: In the ten years since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Danny
Elfman has gone from the gritty clubs of Hollywood, where his band
Oingo Boingo used to play, to player in the Hollywood of his boyhood
"I was a movie nut," Elfman says. "I went three of four times a
week if I could." As a kid, he loved those weird myth-based movies
like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of
Sinbad - anything, in fact, that featured either animated special
effects by Ray Harryhausen or fright composer extraordinaire Bernard
Herrmann, a longtime collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock on shock
masterpieces like Vertigo and Psycho.
"If it was a movie that had a dual punch, it was a sure winner for
me," Elfman says. "Owing all to Bernard Herrmann, I became aware of
his name in association with my favorite movies when I was 11 or
something. It suddenly occurred to me that music wasn't put there
magically, but that somebody acutally did it. Every time I saw this
name in the credits at the beginning of a science fiction movie, I
said, 'Oh boy, this ig going to be just a little bit better!' And if
you added Harryhausen's animation, my chances of loving the film were
When it came to literature, Elfman was hooked on Famous
Monsters of Filmland magazine, which still flourishes under the
guidance of its pun-mad founder, Forrest J. Ackerman, sometimes known
as "Dr. Acula." The magazine's balance between the hilarious and the
horrifying provided the perfect grounding for Elfman's subsequent
approach to music and film. "Elfman moves effortlessly from the
mock-sitcom 'The Simpsons' to the heavily Germanic Batman,"
Stephen Handzo wrote in the scholarly film journal Cineaste,
in recognition of the young composer's versatility.
Indeed, Elfman's soundtrack work covers an astonishing range. Just
listen to some of the films and shows represented in his soundtrack
anthology, Music for a Darkened Theater (MCA). There's
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, as frolicsome as a ride on some
majestic carousel, along with his Beetlejuice, which is
disjointed, wacky, like slicing open the skull of a cartoon corpse
and finding reams of cold spaghetti. Or check out the Pacific
rimshots that begin Wisdom, which then goes on to touch on
Eurasian, North African, Middle Eastern, and sub-Saharan styles,
compressing the whole World Beat movement into a two-minute single.
Elfman goes Stax-Volt Memphis on Midnight Run and gets into
quintessential TV-theme mode for "The Simpsons," a careening joyride
on a truck hauling nitroglycerin that's running brakeless down a
mountain road, finally crashing through your TV and exploding what's
left of the nuclear family.
And then ther's Batman (as well as Batman Returns).
All the films he did with Tim Burton - in fact, all of Burton's
previous films - were setups to this career slam-dunk, gandiose and
claustrophobic, capturing perfectly the totalitarian mood of Gotham
City on the verge of spiritual catastrophe.
"His movies were kind of milestones for me," Elfman says of
working with Burton. "Edward Scissorhands is my personal
favorite, and The Nightmare Before Christmas was a whole new
dimension." For that 1993 film, Elfman acted as assoiciate producer,
wrote the score, songs, and lyrics, as well as being the screen voice
of Barrel and the singing voice of the animated musical's main
character, Jack Skellington.
But the prolific and profitable relationship ended after
Nightmare. Michael Fleming, the well-connected reporter and
gossip columnist for the show-biz weekly Variety, says he
believes that Elfman was angry at Burton and backed out of doing the
music for Ed Wood.
"Tim is not a very verbal guy, and is hard to communicate with,"
Fleming says. "He often goes into his bunker and nobody hears from
him. Danny might have wanted more out of Tim than he's willing or
able to give."
Elfman declines to be specific about his rift with Burton. "It
ended," he explains. "Why does any marriage end? We had a falling
out, and that was that. There were many complex reasons, none on the
personal level, which I won't really get into."
But Elfman's film-composing career has continued to thrive without
Burton. For Taylor Hackford's intense family drama Dolores
Claiborne, Elfman underscored every one of the film's 100 or so
minutes. "I actually tried to get the director to drop some cues,"
Elfman says. "It was more music than perhaps I would have done, but
he wanted a kind of tone going all the time. I knew it was going to
be a challenge. The music had to be very understated. A lot of dark
things were happening in this movie, of a more serious nature than
anything I had done. Not Batman-like dark, but
child-molestation kind of dark, which is a whole different ball game.
I was excited about writing very dense music, and getting much more
into string textures - it was almost entirely a string orchestra -
and dissonance, which I've always enjoyed doing, but don't get to do
That is quite a musical mouthful for anyone to bite off, much less
a largely self-taught occasional rock 'n' roller like Elfman. While
he was growing up in southern California, his parents were both
teachers. (His mother, Blossom Elfman quit teaching to write a
successful series of mysteries and books for young adults.)
Elfman, of course, had no use for school. "In my mind, education
pretty much stopped with junior high," he syas. "I just lost interest
and started getting into movies." Elfman's indirect facilitator in
turning an obsession into a vocation was his brother Richard. Richard
was working in Paris with an avant-garde musical-theater troupe
called Le Grand Magic Circus when Danny graduated from high school.
Danny went over to Europe and toured with the Magic Circus. "I wanted
to take an instrument with me," he says, "so, being a Stephane
Grappelli fan, I thought I'd take a violin."
Elfman went on to travel alone to such unlikely places as West
Africa, "scratching away" on his violin. After nearly a year, he
returned to Los Angeles, where Richard had started another
musical-theater aggregation called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo
Boingo. Elfman joined that group - playing trombone, guitar, and
whatever else he could get his hands on - for eight years, through
"Over those eight years," Elfman tells us, "I started writing and
transcribing music, and the musicianship went from being a total
street band to having good musicians who read music. We did a lot of
1930s material mixed with kind of crazy compositions. Transcribing
Duke Ellington piano solos was the first thing I did. It was great
training, because they're amazingly complex in their simplicity. I
developed an enormous amount of confidence in my ability to hear any
kind of riff go by and hold on to it, and eventually write it down.
Then I started composing ambitious pieces, such as 'The Piano
Concerto Number One and a Half.' That was a crazy Prokofiev-like
piece that, if anything, was a precursor to film scoring."
But the movies would wait. When the Mystic Knights disbanded,
Danny maintained the core, which became the new wave band Oingo
Boingo. They were accepted as engaging oddballs in Los Angeles, but
the rest of the country had decidedly mixed feelings. Either you
didn't care much one way or another or you flet, as New York rock
critic Robert Christgau did, that they combined "the worst of Sparks
with the worst of the Circle Jerks."
But Elfman turned out to be more multidimensional than even
Christgau's crusty comment would have you believe. "The guy onstage
with Oingo Boingo is entirely different from the guy you have luch
with, or have business meetings with," says Kathy Nelson, head of
soundtracks for MCA Records, which has released numerous Elfman
soundtracks, as well as an Oingo Boingo compilation. "He's extremely
complex as a person."
Getting that first movie score was simple serendipity. Tim Burton,
an Oingo Boingo fan, was going to direct Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee
Herman, in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Elfman's and Reuben's
paths had crossed a few years earlier, when Danny did the music for
an underground cult film called Forbidden Zone, directed by
his brother Richard.
When Burton's and Reubens's first choice for composer was
unavailable, Elfman's name showed up on both of their lists. Danny
syas, "Paul has told me since that he had me on the list early on,
but what made Tim take the leap and hire me, I'll never know."
As soon as the film came out, Nelson started getting calls from
agents offering to handle Elfman's career as a composer, which has
gone on to include silly flicks like Hot to Trot and Summer
School and big-budget bonanzas like the Batman films,
Darkman, Sommersby, and Dick Tracy.
There are also TV themes for "The Simpsons," "Tales From the
Crypt," and the "Beetlejuice" cartoon show, as well as soundtracks to
episodes of "Amazing Stories" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
Is this what Danny Elfman wants? Even he is torn by his
perfectionism and drive. "There are really two stages to composing,"
Elfman says. "One is blocking out scenes and coming up with themes,
and that's the really exciting, fun part. The second part is writing
it all down, and that is always miserable. Starting the first cue is
like taking the first step up Mount Everest - it feels impossible.
And halfway through, I make a solemn vow that I will never do it
again as long as I live."
So after a film project is finished, Elfman very frequently wire
up Oingo Boingo - something that doesn't make him entirely happy
either. "At the end of a film, all he'd want to do is go on the road
with his band," Kathy Nelson says. "And after a week on the road, all
he'd want to do was a movie."
Still, the twin passions kept Elfman's creative vision fresh.
"There have been times when I'm sick of everything and never want to
pick up a guitar agian, and I'd go completely underground into film
work," he says. "The I would resurface, and suddenly there'd be
something exciting happening in music. Like the first time I heard
sampling in dance music. I thought, those sounds are so...
interesting! Or when things started loosening up at the
beginning of the nineties - I was hating just about everything by
then. Then I got re-engaged by bands I thought were incredible, like
Jane's Addiction, and Nirvana and Alice in Chains - a whole bevy of
inventive, wonderful stuff. When I heard Primus for the first time,
it was a complete inspiration for me."
Yet the balance has tilted decisively toward film work, and Oingo
Boingo may well be history. A West Coast tour in October was Oingo
Boingo's sayonara, and a live album is planned.
Besides, Elfman has plenty to do at the movies. After Gus Van
Sant's To Die For, Elfman wants to work on his own film
projects, including a dark fantasy-world musical called Little
Demons, another musical called The World of Jimmy
Callicut, and a movie called Julian. On each of these
projects, Elfman has written music and script, and will either
produce or direct.
It's no wonder then, that when he's asked if he has unrealized
ambitions, the list still seems endless. "Well, yeah, I've got
nothing but!" he exclaims. "I feel like I've only started to scratch
the surface as a composer. As a [screenplay] writer, I've barely
begun. I've written three scripts now. Whether I can cross that
valley and actually make on of the films I'be been trying to develop
is yet to be seen.
"Eventually I will, because I'm very persistent," he continues,
"and I know there's a strange, twisted market out there somewhere for
my work, which is hardly mainstream. It's for others with a slightly
off-kilter kink in the brain."