It’s no exaggeration to state that Danny Elfman is the most skilled and iconic film composer of our time. He’s also our premiere scary music composer, with a playfully macabre bent that infuses even his most overtly dramatic work; it’s been said, persuasively, that if Edward Gorey’s art had a soundtrack it would sound like Danny Elfman’s music.
Elfman has admittedly turned out a few less-than-perfect scores in his day. That’s inevitable in a career as prolific and long-lasting as Danny Elfman’s (and something I’ll be getting to below), but the failures in no negate his many musical triumphs, whose skill and invention are without parallel.
I’ll admit my bias here: I’ve been a fan of Elfman’s work since his days as front man of the late Oingo Boingo. The roots of Elfman’s musical genius, and his penchant for the spooky, are evident in the furiously inventive Boingo tunes that packed the soundtrack of Danny’s brother Richard Elfman’s 1980 cult film FORBIDDEN ZONE (done back when the band was known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo). The same is true of later Oingo Boingo works like the delightfully raucous title song of BACHELOR PARTY (which conveyed that film’s rowdy spirit better than the flick itself), the 11 tracks that made up the now shamefully out of print 1983 album GOOD FOR YOUR SOUL (which contained lyrics about zombies, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU and George Orwell’s 1984), and the hit single “Dead Man’s Party” (with its impossible-to-forget refrain “It’s a dead man’s party, who could ask for more? Everybody’s coming, leave your body at the door…”).
It’s become chic in recent years to claim that Elfman’s success as a composer was foreseeable back in his Oingo Boingo days, but I’d dispute that claim. Back in the eighties, let’s remember, the idea of rock ‘n rollers writing non-vocal movie scores had yet to catch on (unlike today, when it seems rockers have outpaced traditional musicians on movie soundtracks). It’s entirely appropriate, however, that Elfman’s composing career began with the equally distinctive Tim Burton.
Danny Elfman and Tim Burton: theirs is a partnership that ranks among the greatest director-composer team-ups in film history. This is no surprise, as the two commenced their filmmaking careers with 1985’s PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, a movie that in its manic silliness and gently horrific edge (with one music cue deliberately patterned on Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score) contains some of the best work of both.
Elfman’s music was an integral part of Burton’s subsequent films BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN and EDWARDS SCISSORHANDS, providing an affectionately spooky backdrop that perfectly complimented Burton’s imagery–and also served to smooth out those films’ deficiencies in pacing and storytelling. In this way I’d venture to say that Elfman’s music is as important to Burton’s early films as the visuals (the same is true of Burton’s ED WOOD, scored by the less iconic Howard Shore, who I like to believe was inspired to step up his game by the brilliance of Elfman’s work).
The Burton-Elfman partnership continued beyond those early films, of course, although the output grew quite erratic on the parts of both. A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS contained some terrific music with vocals by Elfman himself, making it a nostalgic throwback for Oingo Boingo fans. In MARS ATTACKS, on the other hand, Elfman and Burton both fell prey to forced campiness. SLEEPY HOLLOW has one of Elfman’s most overtly horrific scores, an impressively wrought technical achievement marred by the fact that there’s no discernible theme–in this way it matches the film overall, an impeccably made product that lacks a soul. With PLANET OF THE APES Elfman deserves credit for providing interesting, even somewhat experimental percussion-based music, but it can’t overcome the lassitude of the film. Music-wise I found the songs of CHARLIE AND CHOCOLATE FACTORY, with lyrics taken directly from Roald Dahl’s novel, better than the score–and also the overall film. BIG FISH was empowering and emotional in both filmic and musical terms, but ALICE IN WONDERLAND and DARK SHADOWS, in a word, weren’t.
Of Elfman’s work outside the Burton-verse, the results have been mixed. Following the monster success of BATMAN Elfman became the go-to music maker for comic book movies, but his scores for DICK TRACY and HULK were forgettable, and his DARKMAN and SPIDER-MAN music only so-so (also in this category are Elfman’s scores for HELLBOY and WANTED, both of which I’m having trouble remembering).
Far more enervating are Elfman’s TV themes, of which there isn’t a single dud in the bunch. His joyously ghoulish TALES FROM THE CRYPT theme remains a classic tone-setter, and his subsequent themes for THE FLASH, DILBERT and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES were just as fine. As for his beyond-iconic SIMPSONS preamble, I’d say it needs no elaboration.
Beyond that there were Elfman’s terrifically scary cues for NIGHTBREED, another soundtrack that was superior to the film it graced. His classically based scores for the eighties comedies BACK TO SCHOOL and SUMMER SCHOOL were fun yet appropriately “educational” in feel (considering both movies had “school” in the title). To these ears Elfman’s edgy and energetic DEAD PRESIDENTS music far outdid the forgettable hip hop tunes that littered that film’s soundtrack. MEN IN BLACK marked a further example of a score whose brilliance helped carry viewers over the film’s many flaws. A surprising range was exhibited in the documentary STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, which traded Elfman’s standard dark whimsicality for brooding Philip Glass-ian minimalism. For THE WOLFMAN Elfman provided some old fashioned scary movie harmonies that yet again proved more memorable than the overall film. REAL STEEL contained a rousing triumphal march done with Elfman’s unmistakable aural signature. As for his SCROOGED, THE FRIGHTENERS, SPY KIDS, EPIC and many other scores…well, they are what they are.