May 15, 2002
Danny Elfman Bio
One of today’s most successful creators of movie music, Danny Elfman is also one of few who has managed to make the transition from rock musician to orchestral score composer.
The Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated writer has been toiling in the motion-picture arena since 1985, when director Tim Burton and star Paul Reubens — fascinated by Elfman’s playfully macabre music for the cult L.A. rock band Oingo Boingo — called him to write the music for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
The Elfman-Burton collaboration continued with the clever and quirky music for Beetlejuice (1988) and reached a high point with the massive, Gothic score for Batman (1989), which earned a Grammy for the composer; it also attracted legions of fans, who felt that his Wagnerian approach gave the comic’s Dark Knight a new and entirely appropriate sound.
Since then, Elfman has scored nearly all of Burton’s alternately spooky, weird and otherworldly cinematic excursions, including the touching Edward Scissorhands (1990), with its delicately lyrical choral passages; the funhouse-from-hell music for the mad Penguin and Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992); the songs and score for the imaginative Halloween fable The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993); the ‘50s-style sci-fi score for Mars Attacks! (1996); the intense and powerfully orchestrated Sleepy Hollow (1999); and the percussion-driven Planet of the Apes (2001). Five of Elfman’s eight Grammy nominations are for Burton films.
But the Burton scores demonstrate only one side of the Elfman persona, and constitute only a fraction of his more than three dozen scores (and contributions of themes or songs to a dozen more). His haunting music for the drama Good Will Hunting and his raucous sounds for the sci-fi comedy Men in Black earned him dual Oscar nominations in 1997.
Elfman is equally proud of his small-combo score for the comedy Midnight Run (1988), his music for Warren Beatty’s comic-strip adaptation Dick Tracy (1990), the romantic Sommersby (1993), his ethereal Black Beauty (1994), the often dissonant score for Dolores Claiborne (1995), the urban funk of Dead Presidents (1995) and the unsettling, eerie musical effects of A Simple Plan (1998). In addition to Burton, his regular collaborators include Sam Raimi (Darkman, A Simple Plan, Spider-Man) and Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Good Will Hunting, the remake of Psycho).
An entirely different audience knows Elfman for his classic television themes, including the famous, quirky and undeniably catchy The Simpsons and the creepy, atmospheric Tales from the Crypt (both 1989).
Elfman remains in high demand for big action scores: Witness his success with the driving music for Mission: Impossible (1996) and the current big-screen adventure of Spider-Man. Later this summer he revisits the wild territory of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black 2, and then it’s on to Red Dragon, the latest Hannibal Lecter thriller from director Brett Ratner (whose The Family Man boasted music by Elfman).
Elfman, 48, loved movies as a kid and grew up in Los Angeles appreciating the efforts of composers like Bernard Herrmann (for the Hitchcock suspense films and Ray Harryhausen fantasy flicks) and Max Steiner (for many Warner Bros. movies). His years with the popular troupe Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (in the ‘70s), and later as the leader of Oingo Boingo (in the ‘80s and ‘90s), provided the theatrical training that would serve him so well as a film composer.
As a musician, Elfman is self-taught — but many of the synthesizer, guitar and percussion sounds in his scores are those he himself has played in his Malibu studio and added to the orchestral mix. He has two daughters: Lola, 23, and Mali, 17.