Despite a lack of formal musical training in orchestration, composing, counterpoint, or conducting, Danny Elfman has become one of the most sought after film composers in the film industry. Since his first major film about twenty years ago, Elfman has composed for more than fifty films and has received numerous honors including a Grammy, three Academy Award Nominations, and an honorary doctorate from the North Carolina School of the Arts in June 2007.
Early Music Experiences
Danny (Daniel Robert) Elfman was born May 29, 1953 in Los Angeles, California. Throughout high school, Elfman experimented with several instruments including violin, trombone, mallet instruments, and guitar (deciding much later that not one of them was of any use to him as a composer). He ended up settling on violin and guitar, and after high school, toured the world performing the violin as a street musician.
At the age of eleven, Danny Elfman became enamored by film music and often frequented the local theater just to hear the music in the films. His “heroes” included film composers Bernard Herman, Nino Rota, Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Erich Korngold. Other influences include Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Orff, Bartok, Duke Ellington, Harry Partch, Philip Glass, and Lou Harrison. Elfman also attributes his diverse style of writing to other non-classical composers and groups such as old country artists, Hank Williams, Georgy Jones, and Patsy Cline, as well as pre-1935 to the 1940s jazz, current and contemporary music, Latin music, African music, and Cuban music.
After high school, he and his brother, Richard Elfman, moved to France. It was here that he had his first professional music experiences performing and composing for a French theatrical troupe, “Le Grand Magic Circus,” at the age of 18. While he was with this group, he also learned to breath fire, a skill he continued once he moved back to California. After living in Paris, he moved to West Africa where he studied Javanese and Balinese Gamelan and embraced his passion for percussion. It was during this time that he contemplated becoming an ethnomusicologist, and was the only time when he actually “studied” music. He returned home when he ended up with malaria.
Once he moved back to California, he collaborated with his older brother, Richard Elfman, performing musical theater on the streets. This group, then known as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, was an avant-garde, comic troupe that later evolved into the popular music group Oingo Boingo when the Mystic Knights dissolved in 1978. While with this group, Elfman claims he began to develop the skills he would utilize later as a film composer. Elfman would often transcribe (but never play) solos and songs by composers and performers such as Duke Ellington and Stefan Grapelli so that the group could use them. Essentially, he learned how to read music by writing it.
Oingo Boingo achieved substantial popularity during its seventeen years together. Although it never achieved true commercial breakthrough, they became very successful in Southern California. Oingo Boingo performed the music written by Danny for Richard’s troupe, but was arranged into a more manageable “rock band” format. Members included Danny Elfman on vocals and guitar, Steve Bartek on lead guitar, Richard Gibbs on keyboards and trombone, Kerry Hatch on bass and vocals, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez on drums, Sam “Sluggo” Phipps on tenor sax, Leon Schneidermann on baritone sax, and Dale Turner on trumpet.
Elfman’s stylistic model for Oingo Boingo was an African band called Highlife, which performed in a salsa-reggae style and used a horn section. It was also, in this group that he taught himself to write, transcribe, notate and orchestrate (for the twelve piece instrumentation influenced by the African band). The influence West African drumming had on Elfman is also apparent in the music of Oingo Boingo.
One of the last pieces Danny Elfman wrote for the group was a five minute piece called Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto #1 1/2. It was the first time he committed himself to a full composition that included counterpoint. This discipline, he carried on with him when he was scoring for his first major film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In his own words, “if you can write for twelve pieces, it is not that big of a creative jump to write for a whole orchestra.”
As Elfman’s career as a film composer grew, Oingo Boingo had difficulty remaining active. In 1995, the group retired with its final performance at the Universal Amphitheatre in Hollywood on Halloween. Some of the group’s hits included Weird Science and Dead Man’s Party. One of the most important connections to come out of this group, was that of Steve Bartek, who would become Elfman’s partner and orchestrator.
His Career as a Film Composer
Danny Elfman’s career as a film composer was created with an opportunity that arose when Tim Burton approached him to write the soundtrack to the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Unlike many film composers who study and work their entire lives to become film composers, Danny Elfman never dreamed of composing film music. In fact, he had hopes of becoming a writer or director.
As demand for Danny Elfman scores increased, animosity towards him grew amongst his peers. According to Elfman, jealousy exists in every field. Lacking any formal training composition, Danny was labeled as an imposter. Others often told him that they hated his music, and he faced the bitterness of others on a daily basis. However, the jealously and constant stabs regarding his competence as a composer did not bother him; it was when others were given credit for his work that he found difficulty handling. This resulted in Danny Elfman becoming protective of his composition drafts, which often contained “notational flubs”. According to his orchestrator, Steve Bartek, “Reading Danny is like reading E. E. Cummings. It’s different, but not a problem. But he’s paranoid about it.”
Danny Elfman frequently collaborates with several directors in addition to the single-contract films he composes. According to Danny, there are a few directors that he always says “yes” to without even knowing what the film is about. Those directors include Sam Raimi, who he no longer works with (over a creative dispute after Spiderman 2), Gus Van Sant and Tim Burton.
The most prolific and recognized of these is his relationship with Tim Burton (it is often compared to the relationship between Steven Spielberg and John Williams). The Burton-Elfman collaborations began when Burton introduced Elfman to the industry with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. It was Elfman’s first major film. His only film scoring experience prior was when he wrote the music for the cult film, Forbidden Zone, which was directed by his brother, Richard. Paul Rubens, who was working on the film with Tim Burton, had heard the music to Forbidden Zone, and wanted the composer for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Coincidentally, Burton had also approached Elfman because he liked Oingo Boingo’s music and thought that Elfman would be qualified to compose the music for the film. After producing a demo, Elfman got the job.
The pair went on to produce Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989), which earned Danny Elfman a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. His score turned heads and gave him a reputation as an “A-list” composer. In 1990, Burton and Elfman produced Edward Scissorhands, setting a new standard for fantasy score settings. Then again, in 1993, they astonished audiences and critics with the constant orchestral score and Elfman providing the singing voice of the main character, Jack Skellington, in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Other notable collaborations include Mars Attacks! (which reunited the pair after a fallout following The Nightmare Before Christmas), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for which Elfman sang all of the Oompa Loompa vocals, and Corpse Bride where Elfman provided the voice of Bonejangles, among others. In fact, Elfman has composed the music for all but two of Burton’s films, Ed Wood, and more recently, Sweeney Todd. Elfman claims that the relationship he has with Tim Burton works so well because “Tim will allow me to do my work.” In other words, Tim Burton allows Danny Elfman to be creative and produce strong scores because they are on the same page creatively.
In the mid-90s, Elfman’s sound as a composer began to change as he implemented the use of synthesizers and sequencing software. This is demonstrated clearly on the Dead Presidents and Mission Impossible soundtracks. Elfman uses many samples when composing – mostly for percussion and guitars. He says it is too costly and time consuming to record instruments such as hand drums and ethnic drums, and it is easier to sample the instruments independently in his home studio and have the orchestra perform to the track.
Danny Elfman states that he is proud of most of his scores, but in particular, he likes Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he said was very hard to compose. He also enjoyed writing Midnight Run in 1988, which lead to a wave of imitators, Dolores Claiborne, and composing for the Gus Van Sant films To Die For and Good Will Hunting.
In recent years, Elfman has grown tired of film composing and has sought to explore other avenues of composition and creativity. He still enjoys film scoring as part time work, but admits that he hates doing it as full time work.
Some of his outside compositions have included composing for television. In 1989, he met with Matt Groenig, and created the theme to The Simpsons, which he claims earns him $11.50 every time it is played. He has also composed themes for several other television shows including Tales from the Crypt and Desperate Housewives.
In addition to television, he is interested in composing original musicals and musical versions of films of films he has scored, such as Edward Scissorhands. He has also explored writing full-scale orchestral works intended to be performed in a hall. On February 23, 2005, Serenada Schizophrana, was premiered at Carnegie Hall. It earned great acclaim from both popular music and classical music critics. Due to its popularity, it was implemented into the film Deep Sea 3D, which was narrated by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. The piece is scored for large orchestra, electronics, two pianos, and female voices.
Over the last twenty years, Danny Elfman has been recognized as a prolific composer across a variety of genres, namely film scoring and popular music. He is constantly surprising his audience with his diversity as a composer, and has created a strong reputation as a skilled composer despite animosity from others in the industry early in his career. Despite the fact he was initially labeled as a dark composer, he has eluded being put in a stylistic box by avoiding composing in any one style. According to Elfman, he does not feel it is necessary to have a trademark sound and prefers to be the composer that “you never know what he’s going to do next.” With over two decades of experience under his belt, Danny Elfman will continue to develop his reputation as an in-demand and well-respected film composer.
1982 Forbidden Zone
1985 Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
1986 Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Back To School
1987 Summer School
Big Top Pee Wee
Hot to Trot
Face Like a Frog
1992 Article 99
Batman: The Animated Series
Army of Darkness
The Nightmare Before Christmas
1994 Black Beauty
1995 Dolores Claiborne
To Die For
1997 Men In Black
Good Will Hunting
1998 A Simple Plan
A Civil Action
Anywhere But Here
2000 Proof of Life
The Family Man
2001 Spy Kids
Planet of the Apes
Men In Black II
2004 Spiderman 2
2005 No Experience Needed
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
2006 Deep Sea
2007 Meet the Robinsons
2008 Standard Operating Procedure
The Wolf Man
2010 Alice in Wonderland
The Next 3 Days
2012 Dark Shadows
Men in Black 3
2013 Oz the Great and Powerful
2014 Mr. Peabody & Mr. Sherman
The Unknown Known
Glionna, John M. COVER STORY, A Different Beat. Danny Elfman Pinged From
Oingo Boingo Front Man to Prolific Movie Score Writer. Now This Oddball
May Pong Into Directing His Own Scripts. 1999.
Gordinier, Jeff. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY #422, MARCH 13, 1998.