The Importance Of Being Elfman – Danny’s Journey From Quirky Rock Star To Geek Composer Extraordinaire

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DannyWith the news of a new The Flash series coming in the fall, I decided to re-watch the series from the 90s starring John Wesley Shipp as the hero. I loved this series when it originally aired, and, my brain cloaked in nostalgia, I looked forward to visiting Central City again all these years later. The pilot was pretty good, but the disappointment was almost instant upon starting the second episode, hitting me like a sack full of bricks and sadness. The show is in actuality pretty terrible, and got worse with every new episode, with mostly unconvincing acting and terrible special effects. The costume still holds up in some scenes, but not many.

The one bright side was the theme by Danny Elfman. Along with the incidental score by some time musical partner Shirley Walker, this theme made me go on with the show. Elafman’s theme is heroic in every sense of the word, catchy and unmistakable, its strings and horns giving off a classic serial vibe. It was vintage Elfman at his best, the snares chugging away underneath swirls of dancing violins, propelling the theme along with graceful yet accelerating motion. It was perfect.

This got me to thinking about Danny Elfman’s other scores and themes, from 1989’s Batman to the iconic Fox television staple The Simpsons, and I realized something. Danny Elfman has his conductor’s wand (okay, that would be Steve Bartek’s, Danny’s musical partner, but you get the analogy) in so many geek films and television shows, bringing together two of my favorite things. He may be the king of geek scores, with John Williams being a very close second for having less, but bigger geek scores under his belt. I decided then and there that I would write about it, sing Danny Elfman’s praises in the only way I know how. Maybe in reading this you’ll be entertained. Maybe you’ll learn something. Either way, if you’re reading this then I suppose you are already a fan, and I hope you enjoy my love letter to Danny Elfman as much as I enjoy his music.

Forbidden_ZoneElfman’s film scoring goes way back, long before Oingo Boingo’s rise to prominence in the mid-80s in films such as Weird Science. Danny Elfman, along with his brother Richard, founded The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo in 1972 as a musical comedy troupe. With them, Elfman performed music for the Roger Corman film, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, as well as Hot Tomorrows, both in 1977, but they are most well known for the cult classic The Forbidden Zone in 1980. For those who have yet to see this odd, quirky, musical comedy, it’s basically a live-action Betty Boop cartoon, but with much more nudity, curse words, and midgets. This film was Richard’s send off to the group, capturing the vibe of their live stage shows. Danny composed the musical score, and even performed a few numbers as a dapper, goateed, tuxedoed Satan himself.

Throughout the late 70s and 80s Oingo Boingo, as they came to be known, performed equally quirky new-wave rock and pop, mixing disparate musical styles such as ska and doo-wop, and it remained Elfman’s focus. And while Oingo Boingo had songs in many films through the mid-80s, Elfman didn’t compose anymore film music until 1985, when he met a man who would change his life, as well as his career direction.

Tim Burton was an animator working for Disney with only two shorts and a shelved live-action film in his portfolio, when he was approached by Paul Reubens to direct the first live action adventure of his beloved character, Pee-Wee Herman. Burton, being an eccentric himself, felt a kinship with Oingo Boingo, and asked Danny Elfman to score the film. Elfman was apprehensive at first, feeling that he lacked the training needed to compose the score, but along with Burton’s nudging, and band-mate and arranger Steve Bartek’s help, Elfman gave in, and a relationship that would last decades was forged. His score fit the tone of the film, and Burton’s sensibilities perfectly, with equal parts whimsy and darkness, especially during the dream sequences. Elfman had found a new career, exactly where he started; in film.

In the liner notes of his film score best-of album, Music for a Darkened Theater, Elfman describes the first time he heard his music played by a full orchestra as one of the most thrilling experiences of his life. Elfman has scored all but two of Burton’s films since; the brilliant Ed Wood, and slightly lackluster Sweeney Todd.

Which brings us to Batman, with just a slight detour into Beetljuice territory. Beetlejuice was the first movie that Burton, Elfman, and comedic actor Michael Keaton worked on together. With this film, and many of his early scores, Elfman wore his influences plainly on his sleeve. He has stated that Nino Rota and Bernard Hermann are two of his biggest inspirations, and it shows, the Rota influence specifically on Beetlejuice. Elfman was on his way to being a full time composer, and in 1989 would have his first major breakout success.

A banner year for DC Comics and their 2nd most popular character up until that point, the Batman film was a huge success on all fronts. Everywhere you looked, there was Batman, from toys to breakfast cereals (The toys actually tasted better), its movie posters being the most stolen from bus stops in history. Warner Brothers was pretty much just printing money at this point, and decided to go against convention, and release not only the Prince penned soundtrack album, but also the score by Mister Elfman, which reached #30 on the US Billboard 200! He also won his first and only Grammy award for this score.

The main title theme has become synonymous with the character since then, being the basis for the 1992 animated series theme, also by Elfman, as well as being in both Lego Batman games, and played on the loading platform of Batman: The Ride at various Six Flags theme parks. As dark and heroic as the character it represented, the theme quietly creeps up on you, as if from out of the shadows, and then bursts into action, its strings and horns swinging like fists, and then it fades back into the shadows. It was, and still is the perfect Batman theme. It is unfortunate that Elfman followed Burton when he left the third Batfilm, because at least the score would have been good.

And all of this was merely the beginning for Elfman, who would go on to produce four more scores the following year for film properties such as Nightbreed, Dick Tracy, Darkman, and Edward Scissorhands, working with such notable geek icons as Clive Barker, Sam Raimi, and Burton once again. Like his relationship with Tim Burton, Elfman formed a bond with Raimi, and has since scored many of his films. The 90s belonged to Danny Elfman, whether we knew it or not.

1992 saw Burton returning to the Caped Crusader, once again with Elfman in tow. For the highly anticipated sequel Elfman returned to his iconic theme from the first film, albeit tweaked a bit to fit the tone of this very different movie. Along with the main theme, Elfman created specific themes for both Catwoman and the Penguin. The Catwoman theme, used at different points of the film in different ways, was a softer, slightly eerie affair, with a blanket of sadness covering the whole thing, very befitting of Burton’s version of the character. Likewise, his Penguin theme pushes the theme of sadness in this much darker sequel, especially in the otherwise laughable death scene.

Throughout the early 90s many of Elfman’s scores were pretty interchangeable, as he was still starting out and learning new tricks, techniques, and musical styles along the way. I’m not saying that is a bad thing in anyway, as those early works are still some of my favorites, but the scores for Scrooged and Nightbreed could be played back-to-back and few except the particularly familiar would realize they were from different films. It was the mid-90s that Elfman’s scores began striving for more, bringing in non-orchestral instruments, a wider stylistic range, and more Canto elements. Gone, or greatly toned down, were many of the “Elfman-esqe” elements, the dead giveaways that you were hearing an Elfman composed score. He was steadily growing as a composer, throwing off the chains of uncertainty that plagued his early career, and embracing his role in the film world. He was no longer wearing his influences on his sleeves, but instead influencing others. He was in demand, directors climbing over one another to work with him. He has worked with Raimi a half-dozen times, with Burton well over a dozen, and multiple times with countless others including Gus Van Sant, Errol Morris, Barry Sonenfeld, and Brett Ratner; and I’m sure will continue to do so.

1995 was also the year that Elfman broke out into more mainstream film territory. Mostly gone were the days of Army of Darkness and Dick Tracy; Elfman instead embracing films like Dead Presidents (Literally AND figuratively) and Dolores Claiborne. Throughout the tail end of the decade Elfman still did the occasional geek-beloved film such as Mars Attacks! and Men In Black, but he was an insanely popular composer by this point, and it was the perfect time to branch out and show the film world what he was truly capable of. In the decades since he has been writing scores for a diverse range of films, but never straying too far from what made him famous in the first place; Tim Burton and superhero/comic based films.

I could just sit here and type out a list of all the geeky film properties he’s written for in the years since Batman, Spider-Man 1 & 2 with Sam Raimi, Ang Lee’s much derided Hulk with daddy issues, and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army being three of the biggies, but you’ve seen the films, and you know which ones benefited from Danny Elfman’s golden touch. He’s had his hand in quite a few TV show themes as well, most notably for this piece being Tales From the Crypt, and quite possibly the most iconic cartoon theme ever; The Simpsons. It’s totally stuck in your head now, isn’t it? Ha ha!

He came from humble beginnings as an unsure composer who didn’t think he had the ability, to become a true master of his craft. He’s a man whose works I listen to regularly as I write for this very website, or when I’m reading comics, and he was my bridge to the wonderful world of film scores and classical music. The 1989 Batman film changed my life, and while the film itself was awesome, that score led me down the path to where I find myself today, as a comic fan, and sometime musician who never would have picked up an instrument were it not for the music of Danny Elfman. He had his first hit score with one of the world’s biggest geek icons, and grew to become a true geek icon in his own right.

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