Danny Elfman - Film Composer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Danny Elfman - Film Composer

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Great Film Composers
John Barry | Alexander Courage | Danny Elfman
Jerry Goldsmith | Bernard Herrmann | Joseph LoDuca
Ennio Morricone | Alfred Newman | John Williams

Danny Elfman is something of an outsider in the world of composition. He has no formal training, little experience with concert work, and his background is in rock music. That being said, he is also highly talented, very popular, and as prolific as any of his contemporaries.

He has scored numerous films, from Pee Wee's Big Adventure to Sleepy Hollow, and provided memorable themes for various television shows, from Tales from the Crypt to Dilbert. His creations include some of the most memorable works of popular culture, such as:

  • Batman
  • The Simpsons
  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Men in Black
  • Mars Attacks
  • Dick Tracy, and many more.


Danny Elfman grew up in Los Angeles. He did not study music, and his first experience with orchestral instruments was with a theatre group in France while living there with his brother, Richard. It was at about this time that he and Richard formed the band The Mystical Knights of Oingo-Boingo, in order to provide music for Richard's first feature film as director: The Forbidden Zone (1980).

Oingo Boingo

Elfman became front man of the band which produced quirky rock like 'Dead Man's Party', 'Goodbye Goodbye', and 'Weird Science'. As lead singer and composer, Elfman led the band to become almost a household name, even if not everybody liked their groundbreaking style.

The band was successful enough to attract a substantial loyal following. They survived numerous shortenings of their name before Boingo finally split in 1995. For some time the band was Elfman's principle project, until the beginning of his partnership and friendship with director and Boingo fan Tim Burton kicked off his career as a film composer.

The Elfman Canon

His first project with Burton was Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in 1985, and to date they have worked together on nine projects, eight movies and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents... called 'The Jar', made in the same year as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. He has won a Grammy award (Best Instrumental Composition for the theme to Burton's Batman), and received two Academy Award nominations in a single year for Good Will Hunting and Men in Black. In addition to movies, he has written themes for TV series, and wrote and performed with Boingo until they split.

In some ways, Elfman has been handicapped by his background. While it provided him with a solid fan base at the start of his composing career, it has set him somewhat apart from the community of film composers, and perhaps limited the variety of his earlier projects. In his own words:

They're the only ones that will punish you for your lack of schooling and who won't accept you because you're self-taught. They just insist that you don't exist. And, although I taught myself to write notation on paper, I'll always be perceived by some as a 'hummer' - someone who hums the melodies and turns them over to teams of orchestrators who do my work.
- Danny Elfman talking to Movieline Magazine

While he is a varied and adaptable composer, Elfman is still best known for his work with Tim Burton. After Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, he scored Beetlejuice, Batman (and its first sequel, Batman Returns), Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, and Planet of the Apes (2001). Among his most impressive work, Elfman composed both the score and the songs for Tim Burton's incredible musical, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and also provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington.

The tone of these pieces, very appropriate to the dark, gothic-fantastic fables which Burton creates, dominates the perception of his work. Similar scores for Men in Black and The Frighteners have helped to cement this stereotype, but it would be wrong to assume that Elfman is so limited. Not only do these works, although similar in tone, differ greatly in style and technique, but the Elfman canon includes many other works, such as the score for Good Will Hunting, which - by being so different from his Burton work - sometimes slip under the radar and are not immediately thought of as Danny Elfman themes.

Elfman also contributes songs to the soundtracks of movies he does not score, and sometimes will compose only a single theme. For example, he scored a single scene in the film Scream 2, wrote 'The March of the Dead' for Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness, and composed the title music but not the underscore for My Favourite Martian and Spy Kids. He also works in television, composing theme music for - among others - The Simpsons, Tales From the Crypt, The Flash and Amazing Stories.


Elfman's compositions have a very distinctive style. They are often quirky, odd, and downright weird, reminiscent of the works of Raymond Scott. His sound is perfect for goofy comedy and odd characters.

Perhaps because of his limited formative experience with classical music, Elfman's style is less referential than that of many other composers, almost never reflecting classical themes in his music. While he is best known for the distinctive, dark and moody music he produces for Burton and for similar projects, Elfman's style is greatly affected by the mood of the film he is scoring, and by the personality of its director. Elfman himself claims that the heart and challenge of being a film composer is to find out what makes the director excited, and getting a sense of the movie's tone. Consequently, his music adds substantial emotional power to a scene; he makes the scary scarier, the tragic sadder, and the action more exciting. This same emotional intensity makes Elfman's scores, and the scenes they accompany, highly memorable.

Another feature of Elfman's music - again attributable to his background - is the flexibility he shows in the use of instruments. In addition to the orchestra, Elfman makes substantial use of instruments, including electric guitars and basses, synthesisers, and even - for Mars Attacks! - two Theramins. As with the overall tone of a piece, his choice of instruments is dictated by the movie he is working on. Thus while Men in Black uses strong bass guitars alongside the orchestra in the score, Sleepy Hollow is all orchestral instruments and choral singing, and the Theramins on Mars Attacks! give a connection to the scores of its B-movie antecedents, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

However, there can be an innate power to his scores, an emotional quality that moves audiences in the theatre and at home. The theme from Edward Scissorhands is some of the saddest, most tragic music ever written.

Outstanding Works

The Batman Theme - Batman (1989)

Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?
The Joker - Batman

In 1989, few people guessed the impact which Tim Burton's dramatic reinvention of the veteran comic hero  Batman would have. The campy, Adam West TV series dominated the popular perception of the character, and along with the famous na-na na-na na-na na-na Batman! theme tune, that dominance seemed secure. By the end of the year, Batman had reclaimed the title Dark Knight, and he had a new tune to go with his new image. The film featured original songs by pop superstar Prince, but even such a prestigious soundtrack failed to make much of an impact when compared to Elfman's darkly triumphal score. In particular, the brooding Batman theme, playing over the opening credits as the camera traces the ravines of a giant carved bat symbol, put the audience squarely in the mood for Burton's gothic offering.

Elfman also composed the score for Burton's sequel, Batman Returns, and the theme was used on the Batman animated TV series and even Lego Batman: The Movie - DC Super Heroes Unite. Perhaps fortunately for Elfman, he was not implicated in either of Joel Schumacher's entries into the franchise.

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

What's this!
Jack Skellington - The Nightmare Before Christmas

Although it is called Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, this film was as much Danny Elfman's triumph as Burton's. Directed by Henry Selick, the film was based on a story and characters created by Burton while Elfman produced not only the score and the truly wonderful collection of songs, but also recording several roles, including the singing voice of the protagonist, Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King. Running the gamut from darkly sinister to simply playful, the songs are a perfect complement to the inventive story.

Main Titles - Mars Attacks! (1996)

Don't run. We are your friends.
Martians - Mars Attacks!

While much of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks was disappointing, one thing was absolutely spot on: the opening credits. Elfman's theme is a combination of military march and the haunting Theramin of Bernard Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. Coupled with swarms of B-movie flying saucers moving in masses ranks between Mars and the Earth, this opening promised a musical and visual feast which - sadly - went largely undelivered. Despite the relative disappointment of the film as a whole, the score was still excellent.

Further Information on Danny Elfman

Overall, he is one of the kings of movie music. On a par with the likes of Henry Mancini, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and Bernard Hermann, his musical presence and influence can't be ignored.

He maintains a substantial fan base, and websites devoted to Elfman are perhaps more common than for any other cinematic composer.

For more information on Danny Elfman's work, see his entry in the Internet Movie Database.

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