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Danny Elfman - the dark and the weird

Danny Elfman: Beetlejuice - soundtrack CD cover Two of Danny Elfman's major opportunities in the music world have come from his brother Richard Elfman. Firstly Richard founded the group Oingo-Boingo which Danny then joined and secondly, when Richard was directing "The Forbidden Zone" he asked Danny to compose the music for it. While these two events were to open up new avenues, it was the relationship with director Tim Burton that truly launched his career as a major film composer. That relationship started when Burton asked Elfman to provide the score for his first movie "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985) whose modest success led to Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands to fully bring the partnership into the Hollywood big league. On the music side the extended team included Steve Bartek (also from the Oingo-Boingo band) as orchestrator, and music editor Bob Badami.

Danny Elfman - Edward Scissorhands soundtrack CD cover In many ways Elfman's music complements Burton's directorial style, frequently dark and weird but with a wicked humour. It's worth quickly reviewing that style as applied to those early film collaborations, because it is so distinctive. In Pee-Wee, Elfman uses good-humoured yet whacky tunes bobbing on top of simple accompaniments which suddenly change direction as though distracted. In Beetlejuice, the bold, dark and bouncy theme which accompanies the opening sequence immediately sets the scene for a romping tour de force, where you just know that something strange will hit you around every corner. In Batman the powerful Gothic theme seems to reverberate from some dark cathedral, with some colourful characterisation for the deranged Joker, and in Edward Scissorhands we have a gentle fairy tale with wonderful imagery (and equally descriptive music) which seems to have escaped from a fairy story rather than a horror movie. Elfman's soundscape for Edward Scissorhands has been much copied particularly on television commercials, and the music has now been adapted into a ballet by British composer Terry Davis.

Danny Elfman - The Nightmare before Christmas soundtrack CD cover The collaboration continued with Batman Returns, containing great musical characterisation, and then with The Nightmare Before Christmas. This was a huge opportunity for Elfman to display all his talents and he didn't disappoint. Again this is a fantastical fairy tale, with disturbing undertones, where the music is part of the whole conception with lots of good songs and Elfman providing the voice for Jack Skellington the lead character. The partnership between composer and director hasn't been exclusive. Although they have worked together also on "Mar Attacks!" and "Men in Black", Burton chose Howard Shore to score "Ed Wood" and Elfman in particular has scored many other films for other directors including "Shrunken Heads" for his brother Richard again.

Danny Elfman - Planet of the Apes soundtrack CD cover Although clearly well known for these wonderful dark or wildly exuberant scores, Elfman has also produced some more conventional fair and ably demonstrates that he can turn his hand to anything. "Dolores Claiborne" is dark not so much in the Gothic sense but in true emotional depth. The small residual amount of Elfman quirkiness serves to add to the uncertainty about the lead character and whether she is telling the truth. Another conventional soundtrack "Black Beauty" seems to lilt with melancholy English folk music not unlike Vaughan Williams' Fantasy on Greensleeves, and "Sommersby" smacks of American farm country. The music for "Good Will Hunting" is finely crafted, being quite light for Elfman yet hinting at depth and complexity in the psyche of the main character.

Danny Elfman: Mars Attacks! - soundtrack CD cover Although he doesn't have a formal musical training like some film composers, this seems to work in his favour to create a unique style full of talent and numerous influences from classical, early film music, blues, jazz, pop and various ethnic styles. He can (and frequently does) move effortlessly between these influences or combine them while adding liberal experimental dashes of his own creation. Elfman cites Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota as the film composers who have most influenced him, and you can see how he has taken the psychological depth from the former and a quirky humour from the latter. He also cites percussion as the core to his music, and has a large collection of percussion instruments from around the world. While his score for Planet of the Apes has used many of these instruments both familiar and rare, he hasn't used the up-turned metal mixing bowls used in the original by Jerry Goldsmith.

Every composer's style evolves over time just like film-making itself, in part as new technology enables different techniques but the tastes of the audience change too. Both Elfman and Burton started some trends with their Batman and other film collaborations, and dark and gothic became fashionable. Then over time other influences came into vogue, both in the visual and the musical sense. Elfman's latest superhero score for "Hulk" retains many elements of his unique style, but he has clearly taken on board ideas from Hans Zimmer and Don Davis' Matrix scores.

Danny Elfman - Corpse Bride soundtrack CD cover It would be remiss not to mention his contribution to the small screen in this overview. His TV work ably displays the required characteristic of grabbing ones attention and quickly setting the mood for what is to come. These shorts are really great fun, with the best-known example surely being the theme for "The Simpsons". More recently he has created the theme for "Deperate Housewives". With his film and TV work, playing and creating albums with Oingo Boingo, Elfman has been very busy indeed these past two decades and long may it continue. The year 2005 seems to have both Burton and Elfman returning to form with the release of both "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and Corpse Bride. The 2-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" has a feature about Elfman's recording of the songs for the movie.

Danny Elfman - Alice in Wonderland piano sheet music cover A couple of years ago Elfman released a stand-alone album of music not composed for film but in his own inimitable style. It is called "Serenada Schizophrana" and is available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. One of Elfman's recent films is "Alice in Wonderland" which is highly recommended in CD form where you can hear in full the vocal version of the "Alice theme" which is a treat. This is definitely Elfman back on form, and the rhythm and chord progressions suggest Elfman's earlier score for "Black Beauty". Alice is a must for any film score collector or Danny Elfman fan, and it is available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Piano sheet music for "Alice in Wonderland" has also been released and you can find this online at Sheet Music Plus or Music Room. After the success of "Alice in Wonderland" Elfman is reported to be lined up to score "The Green Hornet" for director Michel Gondry.

Danny Elfman: Dark Shadows - soundtrack CD cover Two of Elfman's film scores are hitting the screens at the same time this year. Firstly the composer pairs again with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp for the movie adaptation of the TV series "Dark Shadows". Although he doesn't use Robert Cobert's music from the series, Elfman keeps the film in familiar territory by putting his own spin on Cobert's TV syle. Dark Shadows is available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Next up Elfman revisits the "Men in Black" universe, adapting some of his earlier themes with new MIB3 music and putting it all together into a single fun package. MIB3 can be found at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. See also our review of two Concert Series: Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton which included suites from some of his best-loved film scores, plus Danny himself performing live some of his songs from "The Nightmare Before Christmas"; and then the more recent The Nightmare Before Christmas, Live in Concert.

With the books having been something of a sensation, the film version of "Fifty Shades of Grey" has been and gone at the cinemas and now appearing on disc. The score is an usual one for Danny Elfman, with "shades" of minimalism and popular drum kit, but it works well. Watch out too for "Alice Through the Looking Glass" which re-uses the themes from "Alice in Wonderland" but with more freedom and more vocals. Elfman has thrown himself into classical concert music recently with his Violin Concerto called "Eleven Eleven" and a Piano Quartet which have been recorded and released (find the album at these links on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com). The Violin Concerto will receive its UK Premiere in Scotland later in 2019, with Sandy Cameron (violin) and John Mauceri conducting the RSNO. Both violinist and conductor (and orchestra) also appeared with Elfman in Glasgow for the UK Premiere of his latest show The Nightmare Before Christmas, Live in Concert.

Films by Danny Elfman:

    Danny Elfman - Batman soundtrack CD cover
  • Pee-Wee's Big Adventure 1, 2 (i.e. Big Top Pee Wee) - the latter clearly influenced by Nino Rota's music for a number of Fellini films with a circus theme
  • Beetlejuice - as quirky as the title character
  • Extreme Measures - a conventional thriller but Elfman highlights the weird elements
  • Batman - vintage Elfman
  • Batman Returns - delivers on the promise of the original
  • Edward Scissorhands - wonderful fantasy painting by music which has been much copied by film and television composers and has now been turned into a ballet
  • Dick Tracy - with some songs by Stephen Sondheim
  • Darkman - dark indeed
  • Nightbreed
  • Midnight Run - infectiously likeable lead guitar music for this action comedy, wandering across blues and country states as bounty hunter Robert de Niro takes his man in
  • Danny Elfman: Men in Black - soundtrack CD cover
  • Wisdom
  • Hot to Trot
  • Face like a Frog (animated)
  • Forbidden Zone - influenced by Erik Satie
  • Evil Dead 3 (theme) - Elfman's contribution to this series otherwise scored by Joe LoDuca
  • Weird Science (song)
  • Something Wild (song)
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (song)
  • Scrooged
  • Ghostbusters 2
  • Article 99
  • Sommersby
  • Black Beauty (1994 film version)
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas - unmissable with Elfman acting as associate producer and providing the singing voice for Jack Skellington
  • Mission Impossible - incidental music excluding main theme based on the Lalo Schifrin original and pop music
  • Men In Black
  • Mars Attacks! - wickedly wonder pastiche of B-movie electronics, influenced by Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Good Will Hunting - excellently understated but with haunted overtones, though the soundtrack album pays more attention to the songs by Elliott Smith and others
  • Danny Elfman: Spiderman - soundtrack CD cover
  • The Flash
  • A Civil Action
  • Dolores Claiborne - engaging drama dominated by strings, plucked at times, and piano
  • To Die For - the Elfman style is perfect for this movie, with the music commenting upon many video documentary sequences
  • Donny Darko
  • Proof of Life - proof that Danny Elfman can do conventional thriller as well as quirky movies
  • Dead Presidents
  • A Simple Plan - generally quiet atmosphere and unthematic, though rising in importance at the key narrative moments, serving the film well
  • Extreme Measures - medical thriller
  • Heartbreakers (theme) - main score by John Debney
  • Planet of the Apes (2001) - more percussive and less melodic than other Elfman soundtracks giving an earthy militaristic tone
  • Red Dragon - latest Hannibal Lecter movie, the soundtrack including some music by Mendelssohn
  • Spiderman (1 and 2) - the soundtrack CD concentrates on song tie-ins, though the film itself has much more Elfman music
  • Chicago - Elfman provides the original score music for the film version of this musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, one track "After Midnight" is a sleazy jazz number and "Roxie's Suite" is in an upbeat tempo
  • Hulk - yet another superhero from Danny Elfman, with much more of his music on the soundtrack CD on this occasion
  • Danny Elfman: Charlotte's Web - soundtrack CD cover
  • Big Fish - Elfman and Burton return to familiar fantasy territory
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - as with "The Nightmare before Christmas" Elfman again lends his vocal talents to the songs
  • Corpse Bride - with more songs and even closer to concept of "The Nightmare before Christmas" with cute but gothic characters rendered in stop motion
  • Charlotte's Web - some similar sounding thematic material to "Corpse Bride"
  • Meet the Robinsons
  • The Kingdom
  • The Simpson's Movie (Theme) - Hans Zimmer retained Elfman's main theme and aspects of his style for the big screen version of the cartoon family
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army - this is a welcome return to the Danny Elfman's old-style, although some fans would have wanted some continuity with Marco Beltrami's score for the first film
  • Milk - light and subtle music, including choral elements blending nicely with tracks by the Swingle Singers (e.g. Bach's Prelude No.7 from Book 2) and Kalinka
  • Terminator Salvation - a well-executed orchestral score with plenty of percussion and deep brass, rather than the synth sounds of Brad Fiedel in the first two films
  • Danny Elfman: Men in Black 3 - soundtrack CD cover
  • Taking Woodstock
  • 9 - Elfman is credited with the "themes" on this interesting animation with Deborah Lurie having the main credit for "original music"
  • The Wolfman - for this back-to-basics werewolf film, Elfman dispenses with the quirkiness and delivers very much a traditional horror score - but a fine one
  • Alice in Wonderland - the soundtrack is glorious on CD, though the vocals are mostly missing from the film
  • The Next Three Days
  • Dark Shadows - set mostly in the 1970s Elfman scores this very much like a traditional horror movie with a romantic twist
  • Men in Black 3
  • Frankenweenie (2012) - a delightful adventure score ranging from childhood innocence to mock horror; just as Burton refers to Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Omen, Gremlins, Gremlins 2, Critters and Godzilla, Elfman seems to use the first 5 notes of his Batman theme (perhaps because one of Victor's kites is a Bat symbol)
  • Hitchcock - with Anthony Hopkins playing the larger than life film director
  • Promised Land
  • Oz the Great and Powerful
  • Epic - animation, with Elfman finding his folk roots
  • Mr. Peabody & Sherman
  • Fifty Shades of Grey - with Elfman's style taking an unusual turn
  • The End of the Tour
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron - an interesting blend of styles with Elfman and co-composer Brian Tyler
  • Goosebumps - Elfman's welcome return to his comedy horror roots
  • Alice through the Looking Glass - the sequel retains the excellent "Alice Theme" and runs with it as only Elfman can
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Fifty Shades Darker - sequel
  • Tulip Fever
  • Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
  • Fifty Shades Freed - another sequel
  • The Grinch - animation based on the Dr. Seuss character
  • Dumbo (2019) - Tim Burton's CGI/live action remake of the classic Disney movie, with Elfman paying homage to some of the original songs
  • Men in Black: International - returning to this series, with the help of co-composer Chris Bacon

TV themes by Danny Elfman:

    Danny Elfman - Music for a Darkened Theatre soundtrack album cover
  • Back to School - infectious little theme
  • The Simpsons - instantly recognisable, this was voted the favourite TV theme in the UK's National Music Awards 2002 (Alf Clausen is the resident composer for the series' songs and frequently spoof incidentals)
  • Alfred Hitchcock presents: The Jar (1 episode)
  • Tales from the Crypt - more darkness
  • Amazing Stories (2 episodes of this including "Family Dog")
  • Desperate Housewives - the series has a whimsical sound of its own, established by Elfman's theme
  • Justice League Action - theme

Danny Elfman CD Recommendations:

For an enjoyable introduction to the world of Danny Elfman, we recommend his two great compilation albums Music for a Darkened Theatre and Music for a Darkened Theatre volume 2 which we review here. Hardened Elfman addicts will also want to snap up his two Batman soundtracks, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and anything else available. Here is a selection of soundtrack CDs:

Danny Elfman - Piano Sheet Music:

Here is a selection of sheet music books of Danny Elfman's film music, all arranged for piano.