May 29th is Danny Elfman’s 63rd Birthday. Before he was known as a premier composer of film scores, he fronted the genre-mocking rock outfit Oingo Boingo; the band mixed punk, ska, and art-house sounds around a macabre aesthetic that borrowed imagery from Dia de los Muertos. They had a huge following in their home-city Los Angeles during late 1980’s, producing annual Halloween concerts considered legendary by those lucky enough to have attended. The band’s most famous song, Dead Man’s Party, was released in 1985.
Also in 1985, Tim Burton and Paul Reubens invited Elfman to compose the soundtrack for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. While, at the time, the musicians doubted his ability to work with an entire orchestra, he was assisted by fellow Boingo bandmate Steve Bartek; the collaboration proved to have an incredible impact on Elfman’s career trajectory. Today, he’s composed and produced dozens of film scores, including those in almost every Tim Burton movie. Of their working relationship, Burton once reflected: “We don’t even have to talk about the music. We don’t even have to intellectualize – which is good for both of us, we’re both similar that way. We’re very lucky to connect”.
Elman’s work is almost instantly recognizable for its use of whimsy and Gothic undertones, existing at the intersection of horror soundscapes and mainstream songwriting. His soundtracks have become integral components of the films they adorn. Below, in no particular order, are my 10 favorite scores. Enjoy!
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985, directed by Tim Burton)
Official Synopsis: Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), an eccentric child-like man, loves his red bicycle and will not sell it to his envious neighbor, Francis (Mark Holton). While Pee-wee visits his friend Dottie (Elizabeth Daily), the bike is stolen. Thinking his bike is at the Alamo, Pee-wee sets off on a trip, where he meets many remarkable people, including waitress Simone (Diane Salinger) and a motorcycle gang. Eventually, Pee-wee discovers that his bike is being used in a movie and tries to recover it.
Clown Dream (above) is incredibly Boingo-esque: Elfman takes a ska grove and turns it into something epic, psychedelic, and more than slightly creepy!
Batman (1989, directed by Tim Burton) and Batman Returns (1992, directed by Tim Burton)
Official Synopsis: Having witnessed his parents’ brutal murder as a child, millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) fights crime in Gotham City disguised as Batman, a costumed hero who strikes fear into the hearts of villains. But when a deformed madman who calls himself “The Joker” (Jack Nicholson) seizes control of Gotham’s criminal underworld, Batman must face his most ruthless nemesis ever while protecting both his identity and his love interest, reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger).
Elfman’s work on Batman and Batman Returns is incredible; the scores are exciting and invigorating (like super hero soundtracks should be), but they’re infused with emotional intensity and Gothic sensibilities that give both the films and the characters impressive depth.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, directed by Henry Selick)
Official Synopsis: The film follows the misadventures of Jack Skellington, Halloweentown’s beloved pumpkin king, who has become bored with the same annual routine of frightening people in the “real world.” When Jack accidentally stumbles on Christmastown, all bright colors and warm spirits, he gets a new lease on life — he plots to bring Christmas under his control by kidnapping Santa Claus and taking over the role. But Jack soon discovers even the best-laid plans of mice and skeleton men can go seriously awry.
Not only did Elfman write the music and lyrics for The Nightmare Before Christmas, he’s Jack Skellington’s singing voice.
Red Dragon (2002, directed by Brett Ratner)
Official Synopsis: Ex-FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) is an expert investigator who quit the Bureau after almost losing his life in the process of capturing the elusive Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). After a series of particularly grisly murders, Graham soon realizes that the best way to catch this killer, known as the Tooth Fairy, is to find a way to get inside the killer’s mind. For Graham, that means confronting his past and facing his former nemesis, the now-incarcerated Lecter.
Elfman’s work on the Red Dragon soundtrack shows that he can go from quirky and morbid to downright terrifying! While this score is definitely darker than most of the composer’s works, it still has that instantly recognizable Danny Elfman sound.
Corpse Bride (2005, directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson)
Official Synopsis: Victor (Johnny Depp) and Victoria’s (Emily Watson) families have arranged their marriage. Though they like each other, Victor is nervous about the ceremony. While he’s in a forest practicing his lines for the wedding, a tree branch becomes a hand that drags him to the land of the dead. It belongs to Emily, who was murdered after eloping with her love and wants to marry Victor. Victor must get back aboveground before Victoria marries the villainous Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant).
Not only did Elfman compose the music and lyrics for Corpse Bride, he’s the voice of Bonejangles. This one is creepy but also genuinely sweet.
9 (2009, directed by Shane Acker)
Official Synopsis: When 9 (Elijah Wood) springs to life, it finds itself in a post-apocalyptic world where humans no longer exist, and the only signs of life are sentient rag dolls like itself and the machines that hunt them. Though it is the youngest of the group, 9 convinces comrades that the only way to survive against the machines is to stop hiding, go on the offensive, and find out why the machines want to destroy them. As 9 and the group learn, civilization hinges on their success or failure.
Elfman’s soundtrack compliments the film’s post-apocalyptic aesthetic perfectly!
Edward Scissorhands (1990, directed by Tim Burton)
Official Synopsis: A scientist (Vincent Price) builds an animated human being — the gentle Edward (Johnny Depp). The scientist dies before he can finish assembling Edward, though, leaving the young man with a freakish appearance accentuated by the scissor blades he has instead of hands. Loving suburban saleswoman Peg (Dianne Wiest) discovers Edward and takes him home, where he falls for Peg’s teen daughter (Winona Ryder). However, despite his kindness and artistic talent, Edward’s hands make him an outcast.
Elfman was blessed to be able to score Vincent Price’s last film (the iconic actor died before Edward Scissorhands was released). The reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is both irreverent and devastating.
Sleepy Hollow (1999, directed by Tim Burton)
Official Synopsis: Set in 1799, “Sleepy Hollow” is based on Washington Irving’s classic tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Faithful to the dreamy custom-bound world that Irving paints in his story, the film mixes horror, fantasy and romance and features an extraordinary cast of characters that dabble in the supernatural.
Another knock-out score from Elfman that fits the film’s aesthetic and themes to a tee!
Nightbreed (1990, directed by Clive Barker)
Official Synopsis: Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is haunted by terrifying nightmares of a city of monsters. He goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg), for help. But what Boone doesn’t know is that Decker is really a serial killer. Decker frames Boone to take the fall for his murders, and Boone is killed by the police. But Boone is brought back to life by the monsters of his dreams, the Nightbreed, who in turn join Boone in his quest to stop Decker from killing again.
Most fans are completely unaware that Elfman composed the score for Clive Barker’s cult masterpiece Nightbreed. The soundtrack is fittingly chaotic, emotional, and grim.
Beetlejuice (1988, directed by Tim Burton)
Official Synopsis: After Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin) die in a car accident, they find themselves stuck haunting their country residence, unable to leave the house. When the unbearable Deetzes (Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones) and teen daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) buy the home, the Maitlands attempt to scare them away without success. Their efforts attract Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a rambunctious spirit whose “help” quickly becomes dangerous for the Maitlands and innocent Lydia.
Along with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the score for Beetlejuice is extremely reminiscent of Elfman’s work with Oingo Boingo. If the long-awaited sequel Beetlejuice 2 ever materializes, the composer’s participation will be crucial.
From all of us here at Pop Horror: Happy Birthday Danny Elfman! We can’t wait to hear what you come up with next.
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