What’s the score with Danny Elfman?

Danny Elfman has defined the sound of Tim Burton’s films for over 30 years. His quirky scores for all but three of Burton’s films have helped him create a distinctly unique style. An accomplished singer-songwriter and composer for many other films, Danny Elfman is one of the most prolific composers in Hollywood.

Danny Elfman grew up in Jewish home in Los Angeles, and spent much of his youth in his local movie theatre, admiring film composers like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) and Franz Waxman (Rebecca). He was a keen musician, and during high school formed a Ska Band with some of his friends. After dropping out of school, he went to France with his brother, Richard, where they performed in an avant-garde musical theatre company called ‘Le Grande Magic Circus’.

Upon returning to America in 1972, the two brothers formed a new wave band called ‘Oingo Boingo’, who became known for their highly artistic on-stage performances. When Richard left the band to direct his own film ‘Forbidden Zone’ based on their on-stage performances, he asked his brother Danny to compose the music for it. This would be Danny Elfman’s film-composing debut, and in 1980 the film was seen by Tim Burton who asked him to come and score for his feature-film debut ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’.

Since then, the two have collaborated on all but three of Tim Burton’s films (the exceptions being ‘Ed Wood’, ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’). His scores have given life to ‘Batman’, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’, plus as a singer he also provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (which was written by Burton, but not directed by him), Bonejangles in ‘Corpse Bride’ and the Oompa Lumpas in ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’.

Outside of his Burton collaborations, Elman has also created memorable scores for Mission Impossible (which he composed in an astonishing three weeks), Silver Linings Playbook, Men In Black, Good will Hunting as well as composing the iconic main theme from The Simpsons. While working on ‘Hitchcock’, a biopic about Alfred Hitchcock making Psycho, Elfman got to revisit his favourite composers iconic score and use it as inspiration for his own work.

Danny Elfman has stated that one of the most difficult things as a composer is having to deal with ‘temp tracks’. These are music tracks directors and editors use when making rough cuts of films. Elfman states that directors get too addicted to them and expect something identical to what’s already being used. He says his job to convince directors that his score will work just as well is becoming more and more difficult, and that temp tracks are the “bane of (his) existence”. (from an interview with The Hollywood Reporter).

Despite major critical and commercial success, Danny Elfman has never won a major film award, though he did win a Grammy for the Batman theme, an Emmy for the Desperate Housewives theme and over 20 BMI Film Music Awards. He is incredibly hard working (in 2012 he scored for 6 major feature films) and already has three more scores confirmed for release within a year, so it can only be assumed that Elfman will happily continue scoring for many years.

If you’re interested, here are my Top 10 favourite Danny Elfman scores (as well as a key track from each that I recommend):

  1. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (“Main Titles”)
  2. Batman (“The Batman Theme”)
  3. Mission Impossible (“Zoom B”)
  4. Edward Scissorhands (“Ice Dance”)
  5. The Nightmare Before Christmas (“What’s This?”)
  6. Alice in Wonderland (“Alice’s Theme”)
  7. Good Will Hunting (“Whose Fault?”)
  8. Silver Linings Playbook (“Simple”)
  9. Men in Black (“M.I.B Main Title”)
  10. Big Fish (“Sandra’s Farewell”)

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