The release of the Danny Elfman-scored Oz the Great and Powerful means now is the ideal time to do a retrospective on this brilliant composer – one of my personal favourites.
Elfman has one of the most distinctive voices in film music, often favouring a captivating fairytale/lullaby/choral quality, a sound he has honed through his multiple acclaimed collaborations with Tim Burton, arguably the partnership for which Elfman is best known. In fact, he has developed collaborations with many directors, including Oz director Sam Raimi – although interestingly, it didn’t look like Elfman would work with Raimi again following a falling-out during post-production on Spider-man 2.
Interestingly, Elfman didn’t approach film music from a classical background. In his youth, he performed in France with the musical theatre group Le Grand Magic Circus. But his first properly significant career move came in 1976 when he assumed leadership of his brother Richard’s band The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (later shortened to just Oingo Boingo). Elfman’s first score was in fact for Richard’s 1982 film Forbidden Zone, to which Oingo Boingo also contributed.
Then, in 1985, a young director named Tim Burton approached Elfman to provide the score for his film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Despite his lack of formal training, Elfman’s enthusiasm and love of past masters such as Bernard Herrmann set him on a career path that was to define the rest of his life. The rest, as they say, is history. Here are several selections of some of my favourite Elfman scores – I haven’t attempted to whittle it down to a best-of as the man’s back catalogue is simply so rich.
That Elfman had the raw skills to make it as a film composer was further demonstrated in his second score for Tim Burton. Considering Elfman was still in his formative film composing years, Beetlejuice is a remarkably complex work, honing a madcap carnivalesque atmosphere that perfectly captures the hilariously dark tone of this ‘tale of laughter from the hereafter’. The frantic tuba work in the Main Titles remains one of Elfman’s most immediately recognisable themes: a witty, mischievous and magical piece that, at the time, announced the presence of a fresh, hip new composer on the block.
Midnight Run (1988)
Composed in the same year as Beetlejuice, Midnight Run is possibly the most straightforwardly entertaining score of Elfman’s career. A score that overtly bears the hallmarks of the composer’s musical background, it’s an infectiously groovy blues/pop/rock hybrid with a tremendously infectious central theme that manages to stay just the right side of cheesy. But it’s not merely an empty exercise in style, the composer also extracting some beautifully heartfelt work for bluesy piano that evokes the burgeoning friendship between fractious duo Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Comedies are the hardest films to score – but Elfman knocked this one out of the park.
Quite possibly the most influential superhero score of all time, next to John Williams’ Superman. Tim Burton famously took the DC Comics hero back to his Gothic roots to immense box-office success – and Elfman’s lavish, spine-tingling score followed suit. Forgoing campy heroics in favour of a dark, brooding tone, Elfman marshals the might of the Sinfonia of London Orchestra to create a thematically driven powerhouse. Yet underpinning it all is an undeniable sense of fun, especially in the wickedly amusing Waltz to the Death composer for Jack Nicholson’s Joker. The score was, and still is, an astonishing achievement, especially when one considers how young Elfman was at the time. The score’s moody tonalities were to exert a powerful influence over subsequent superhero scores, from Jerry Goldsmith’s The Shadow to Elfman’s own Spider-man.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Elfman’s magnum opus is also the composer’s favourite of his own work. It’s not hard to see why. Arguably one of the finest scores to never be nominated for an Oscar, Edward Scissorhands is a masterpiece of musical storytelling. Elfman takes the listener on a beautifully nuanced journey from wonderment to romance, heartbreak to fear. All the while, the score is underpinned by exquisitely haunting arrangements for choir and music box that demonstrate the composer’s intuitive understanding of the fairy-tale form. It’s as fragile as the snowflakes that Edward (Johnny Depp) casts down on the small suburban community but it’s also a score that communicates the darker impulses of prejudice and fear. All of Elfman’s subsequent scores have owed a debt to this one.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
When Elfman is on his A-game, there are few composers more inventive. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a case in point. The Henry Selick-directed, Tim Burton-penned stop-motion musical is prime fodder for the composer, who conjures up a host of wickedly inventive songs, from the busy, frenetic ‘What’s This?’ to the hilariously grisly ‘Kidnap the Sandy Claws.’ Each of the songs traverses a range of genres, from big-band to jazz, showcasing Elfman’s ability to adapt to various musical styles whilst again demonstrating his mastery of musical storytelling. Tying the songs together is a typically rich and Gothic underscore, while Elfman himself provides the singing voice of central character Jack Skellington. But although the score is one of the composer’s finest, relations between Burton and Elfman were strained during its creation, prompting them to not work together on Burton’s next film Ed Wood (which was scored by Howard Shore).
Black Beauty (1994)
Elfman, by his own admission, loves to compose sad music – and Black Beauty is a score that plays beautifully on the heartstrings. It’s a work that showcases a subtler side to the composer’s personality, dialling down the operatic bombast and instead capturing the tender grace-notes of Anna Sewell’s classic novel. Try listening to the gorgeous, Celtic influenced fiddle and pennywhistle combo of the Main Titles and not be moved. It’s an important score for the way in which it took the composer in a different direction from the action, horror and fantasy flicks with which he had previously been associated, opening the door to less fantastical, more adult-oriented movies. Elfman wonderfully captures both the movement of the horse and the spirit of his personality.
Dead Presidents (1995)
Gothic master Elfman’s mid-90s move into violent, contemporary movies alienated many of his fans. But the composer didn’t want to be defined by the realms of outlandish fantasy. Dead Presidents is one of his most confrontational works – a suitably tortured score that brilliantly captures the angry spirit of the Hughes Brothers film it accompanies. The film follows a group of alienated black men who resort to becoming robbers in the wake of the Vietnam War – and the disturbing, rock-inflected score adds extra layers of emotion. It announces its intentions from the start, the Main Titles (which accompanies shots of burning money) centering around a scratchy, itchy synth sample that eventually expands into a starkly rhythmic ensemble for percussion and electric guitar. The ‘Nam and robbery sections meanwhile are earmarked by some of Elfman’s most experimental and challenging rhythmic textures.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Good Will Hunting was one of two scores in 1997 that brought the composer Oscar nominations (the other was Men in Black). It was the first time Elfman had been nominated – many would say it was several years too late. But there’s no denying it’s an invaluable part of Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning drama, one that made stars of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. In-keeping with much of Elfman’s late-90s output, it’s not a straightforwardly appealing affair, blending Celtic rhythms, folk, choir and orchestra into a slightly off-kilter whole. All the better for capturing the mysterious, seemingly miraculous abilities of the eponymous Maths genius played by Damon. Once again, Elfman proves that he’s one of the finest composer’s of the human heart in the biz. A later collaboration with Van Sant, Milk (2008), brought him another Oscar nomination.
Big Fish (2003)
One of the most subdued scores Elfman has composed for Tim Burton, Big Fish blends the ethereal whimsy of his early years with the musical maturity of his 90s work. Clearly inspired by the character-driven aspect of Burton’s film, Elfman takes a leaf out of Thomas Newman’s book, a piano-led orchestral wash quietly accentuating the father-son relationship at the centre of the story. Meanwhile, the occasional whimsical excursions for choir call to mind Edward Scissorhands and some fiddle-led interjections capture the film’s Deep South setting wonderfully. It’s a refreshing change to have a Burton-Elfman score that doesn’t draw its strength from operatic bombast but instead from introverted humanism. Perhaps this is why the Academy saw fit to deem it to the first Burton-Elfman collaboration to be rewarded with an Oscar nomination.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
The late noughties saw Elfman return to the field of fantasy in spectacular fashion – and few scores boasted more blow-your-socks-off power than Alice in Wonderland. The film was an absolute shambles – a corporate, CGI dominated monstrosity – but Elfman rose above it with his richest score in years. Returning to the musical territory with which he made his name – large choir, skipping strings, chimes, a sense of fantastical wonder – Elfman develops a terrific theme for Alice herself (complete with sung lyrics) which powerfully bounds across the entire score, lending it a structure and focus. His capacity for creativity is also very much evident, from occasional Indian-infused inflections to shrill strings for the Cheshire Cat. Combine all this with Elfman’s blistering, modernistic action style and you have a modern masterpiece.