September 21, 2005

Discovering Danny Elfman

Print More

One of the most overlooked elements of cinema is always its musical score, yet it is often what makes a film most memorable. Who could imagine Star Wars without its booming march, or the equally imposing theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Jaws without the pensive and terrifying warning of impending danger? However all of the aforementioned scores are by one man, John Williams, who has often dominated the market of composing film scores for the past 20 years. This has often overshadowed the equally talented composer, Danny Elfman who is most recently responsible for the score of The Corpse Bride by director Tim Burton. While listening to the soundtrack to this film which arrived recently at the Sun offices, I started to wonder who exactly was the person who developed the dark but effective music that I was hearing. After a little research, I was incredibly surprised by the talented and diverse career of Danny Elfman.

Elfman’s work is often based on using dissonant tones and minor keys, a very sharp contrast to the ostentatious grandiosity of John Williams. Elfman’s talent is quite similar to the style of film composer Bernard Herrman, who created the themes to many Hitchcock films like North by Northwest, Psycho and, most impressive of all, Vertigo.

In fact most of Elfman’s most impressive work has come out of collaborations between himself and Burton. After working with his rock band Oingo Boingo for several years and composing scores for his brother’s early films, Elfman was recruited by Burton to compose the theme to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Throughout the 80s Elfman continued to write scores for the Pee-wee series and additional films.

In 1989, Elfman collaborated again with Burton to produce probably his most memorable score: Batman. The dark score brings to mind the imposing works of Richard Wagner’s Ring series of operas. It was the perfect compliment to Burton’s dark and monumental revision of the Batman comic book series. The Batman score was used again for the film’s sequel and television series. After that, Elfman has composed the score of almost every Burton film including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes and Big Fish. Elfman also composed the entertaining score for Burton’s summer hit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory including the opening credits and all of the Oompa Loompa songs. Elfman even provided the voices for most of the Oompa Loompas.

However Elfman’s scores do not solely appear in Burton films. He also composed the music for Scrooged, Men In Black and Good Will Hunting. Elfman also provided music for Chicago, although the original songs are from the Broadway musical.

Continuing in the Batman tradition, Elfman has often lent his talent to movies based on comic books including the film versions of Dick Tracy, Spider-Man and The Hulk. All of these scores usually have a very similar dissonant, but strong tone to the Batman theme.

Elfman’s music can also be heard on television. He created the recognizable scores for The Simpsons and the most recent hit Desperate Housewives.

Elfman continues to lend his talent to the movies and is slated to write the scores for the upcoming films Charlotte’s Web and Spider-Man 3.

Archived article by Mark Rice
Film Editor