Tuesday, May 29, 2007

DANNY ELFMAN: a highly personal musical journey

Danny Elfman turns 54 today and because it's been a while since I did one of these personal musical journeys (and with the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon less than a month away) I figured I'd take this opportunity to highlight some of my favorite scores by this supremely gifted composer/singer/songwriter who, along with the great John Williams, happens to be my all-time favorite maker of filmmusic. Unlike Williams, however, and as he is fond of reminding people, Elfman is completely self-taught (Hey, that’s okay, Danny! So was George Gershwin!). Yet no formal training, and a background that includes mostly garage rock bands (the most famous of which would be Oingo-Boingo), seems to have given Elfman a strangely subversive “counter-culture” postmodern musical voice. Elfman’s scores are highly instinctual, remarkably appealing and amazingly versatile. Bursting onto the scene in the mid-80’s, Danny has since established himself as a wholly unique presence in the world of movie music and has worked with such distinguished directors as Brian DePalma, Sam Raimi, Warren Beatty, Richard Donner, Taylor Hackford, Gus Van Sant and Peter Jackson. However, his most frequent collaborator has turned out to be the very man who gave him his first shot: the equally dark and twisted Tim Burton. The two have proven to be “brothers of the macabre.”

So, here are my favorite Elfman scores (in alphabetical order):

BATMAN – This is, in my opinion, Danny Elfman’s finest hour. Perfectly complementing Tim Burton’s vision of a dark and oppressive Gotham city, Elfman wrote an ominous, brooding score, typified by its character’s main theme (a simple ascending of five notes that he brilliantly weaves into a rich, multi-layered tapestry) which reaches its zenith of power in the cue “Descent into Mystery” (played during the scene where the Batmobile races at full speed back to its lair). Of course, Elfman gives the villain of the picture his own motif as well, but by going against our expectations and providing the Joker with something seemingly innocent and benign (such as a sweet-sounding lullaby or that lovely tune “Beautiful Dreamer”), Elfman makes the character even more chilling and frightening. I shall forever be haunted by “Face-Off” the exhuberantly joyous waltz that plays while the Joker gleefully empties round after round into his old boss (Jack palance) who betrayed him. Bombastic, intense, fast, exciting, lush, elegant, suspenseful and, at times, even sad... Elfman’s score covers a multituide of ideas and emotions. In the same way that John Williams’ theme for the first Superman movie embodied the tone and personality of that character so effectively that it informed all composers who would follow, so has Elfman created the quintessential “Batman sound” that has already become a classic. So much so that, although Elfman has clearly influenced all subsequent cinematic incarnations of the pointy-eared superhero, his work for the original Batman (and its sequel Batman Returns) is still far superior to what Elliot Goldenthal did for the two Joel Schumacher embarrassments or the throbbing James Newton Howard/Hans Zimmer score for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It's interesting to me that two good composers working together couldn't produce something equal to the caliber of one great composer working alone.

BEETLEJUICE – This is such a fun soundtrack! Perfectly capturing the manic personality of its ghoulish title character (the hardly recognizable Michael Keaton), Elfman’s score bounces effortlessly back and forth between the bizarre and the lighthearted. At times dark and twisted, at other times harmlessly wild and wacky, Elfman’s music, like Burton’s film, plays like a perverse carnival ride. The catchy main theme, for example, provides us with the musical equivalent of a roller coaster (It’s interesting to note that when they made a Saturday morning cartoon from this movie, the opening title sequence had Beetlejuice and Lydia actually riding a roller coaster to said theme). Other highlights include “The Fly” (which for some strange reason showed uncredited up in a Tim Allen / Kirstie alley comedy called For Richer or Poorer) “Beetle-snake,” and the exciting finale (“It’s showtime!”)

BLACK BEAUTY – Listening to this soundtrack, one would never guess that it was written by the same guy who did Batman, Beetlejuice, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and The Simpsons. Apparently writing the score after a rather emotional divorce with his first wife (similar to what inspired Dave Raksin's Laura theme), Elfman outdoes himself with this gorgeous, subtly understated gem. The movie, whose story focuses on a beautiful black horse and its many owners, is worth seeing, but the music makes for an emotional listening experience on its own. It’s hard to hear those meaningful melodies (filled with such longing) without being somewhat moved. This is a phenomenal score.

EDWARD SCISSORHANDS – Considered by many to be his greatest and most poetic work, Elfman wrote a beautifully melancholy collection of cues for Tim Burton’s tragic fairy tale about an afflicted, childlike soul named Edward, the unfinished creation of a mad scientist, who yearns for love and acceptance and finds only fear and distrust. Sweet and sad to the extreme, filled with such brilliant pieces as “Storytime,” “Suburbia,” “Edwardo the Barber,” “Ice Dance,” “Cookie Factory” and Edward’s heartbreaking “Main Titles” theme, this score never fails to evoke some kind of emotion in the listener. Elfman himself has confessed that this is his personal favorite score and portions of his music have been incorporated into a recent ballet based on the film.

MEN IN BLACK – Taking a cue from some of his previous works (Beetlejuice comes to mind), and adding a slyly fresh spin on them, Elfman wrote a satirical score to accompany this clever sci-fi/comedy about a secret organization that protects Earth from alien scum. Elfman used an orchestra, lots of percussion and even an electric guitar to create something that is simultaneously eerie, exciting and humorous. Amazingly, it even manages to venture occasionally into the poignant (“D’s Memories”). The ultra-cool “Main Titles” theme perfectly captures the confident demeanor of our heroes in the dark suits and sunglasses. Elfman was FINALLY nominated for an Oscar for this movie.

MIDNIGHT RUN – Writing for a small band rather than a full orchestra, Elfman proves his versatility with this snappy, fast-paced and highly uncharacteristic work. Elfman was still working with Oingo-Boingo at the time that director Marty Brest asked him to write for this delightful action/comedy about a gruff bounty hunter (perfectly played by Robert DeNiro) trying to bring in a bail-jumping, million dollar embezzling accountant (hilariously played by Charles Grodin). A little bit of country, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of blues, and even some rock thrown in for good measure, make this score a constant joy to listen to. It’s foot-tapping, finger-snapping good!

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – Demonstrating that sometimes an artist can produce his best work when under heavy pressure (he was a last-minute replacement for the dismissed Alan Silvestri), Elfman wrote a moody, suspenseful score that aptly blends the classic 60’s style of Lalo Schifrin (who scored the original TV series) with very contemporary “Elfman-esque” sounds. At times the score is minimalism at its best (during the prickly “Red-Handed” or daring daylight “Heist”) while at others it is as big and bombastic as they come (as in the exciting Helicopter / train chase finale). Elfman makes good use of the show’s dynamic main theme on several occasions (as well as a slightly-lesser known Schifrin piece called “The Plot”) and manages to weave in elements of his own quirky personality. The slow-building, paranoia-inspiring “Mole Hunt” (which culminates in an explosion of horns and percussion to accompany the image of Tom Cruise leaping from a wall of water) and the disheartening “Betrayal” (as Cruise’s character discovers who the bad guy really is) are also outstanding pieces.

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS - Earlier I mentioned that I think Batman is Elfman's best work. Well, this effort runs a very close second. Collaborating again with Tim Burton, Elfman creates his "magum opus" in the musical / opera(etta) format. Though by now it needs no introduction, The Nightmare before Christmas is the tale of a melancholy skeleton named Jack who has grown dissatisfied with his work and wants to change, but finds that he unable to be anything other than himself. However, in learning to accept who he is, Jack discovers true happiness and contetnment (and the love of someone whom he might not have found otherwise). It is dark, funny, scary, sad, weird and very moving. It is, in other words, quintessential Elfman. The songs are eminently hummable. Memorably wacky numbers like "Kidnap the Sandy Claws," "This is Halloween," "The Oogie-Boogie Song," "Town Meeting" and probably my personal favorite "What's This?" are all outstanding pieces, but it is in the heartfelt "Jack's Lament" and "Sally's song" where the story's heart and soul lies. In the character of Jack Skellington, Elfman finds a true alter-ego through which to express his own voice (quite literally since Elfman provides the singing voice of Jack). As if the great songs weren't enough, Elfman also provides one of his best scores, working his own songs into the melodies of the pieces but never forgetting to emphasize the action or enhance the emotion of the scenes. Nightmare is, in short, a masterpiece. I've actually been thinking, for the past few years, that this story is simply begging to become a piece of musical theatre. If they can turn Lion King and Beauty and the Beast into stage musicals (and make a ballet out of Edward Scissorhands) why can't they do the same with Nightmare? It means, of course, that Elfman would have to write even MORE music to pad the story out to a reasonable length for an avarage show... but I wouldn't complain.

PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE – Elfman’s first movie score (and director Tim Burton’s first full length movie) still remains one of his best. Taking its cue from the film’s sardonic sense of humor, Elfman wrote a score of circus-like sensibilities that simultaneously evokes shades of Nino Rota / Federico Fellinini collaborations and old Warner Bros. animated shorts. Makes sense, since Burton was, after all, a former animator and the film has the feel of a live-action cartoon. So many great pieces, so little time! The Bernard Hermann-esque “Stolen Bike,” the sweet “Simone’s Theme,” the thrilling “Studio Chase” and the nightmarish “Clown Dream” are all marvelous pieces, but the most memorable composition would probably have to be “The Breakfast Machine.” I still get goosebumps when I listen to it. I remember first seeing the movie as a kid and not being able to shake the feeling that there was something different about the music. I couldn’t put my finger on it but it was somehow “new.” It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, but I liked it. Years later, after I had subsequently fallen in love with the score for Batman and the theme to the The Simpsons, Weird Science and the short-lived TV series Sledge Hammer, I made the shocking, but pleasant, discovery that they were all done by the same dude (I had a similar revelation about John Williams at one point too). That’s when I knew this guy was one of my favorite artists.

SPIDER-MAN – In the same way that he designed a signature "sound" for Batman, Elfman created a musical personality for the latest big-screen adaptation of a classic comic book hero. Like his percussion-heavy Men in Black (but without all the tongue-in-cheek aspects) Elfman wrote music that is sometimes heroic, sometimes sad, but always enjoyable. Like the Sam Raimi film (and its sequel), Elfman focuses on the inner struggles of Spider-man / Peter Parker (writing two distinctly separate, but nonetheless similar, themes for the two different identities of the character) and provides an emotional core for the character, never sacrificing the drama for the sake of the action or the suspense. Unfortunately, while scoring Spider-man 2, Raimi and Elfman has a HUGE falling out and apparently won't be working together again anytime soon. Though his themes were used, his influence was sorely missed in the third Spider-man film. Hopefully, Raimi and Elfman will reconcile (as Elfman and Burton eventually did after the "break-up" that followed their working on Nightmare together) because their artistic voices, if not perhaps their personalities, mesh extremely well.

HONORABLE MENTIONS - Corpse Bride, Big Fish, Good Will Hunting, Dick Tracy, Dolores Claiborne, Scrooged, Mars Attacks, Red Dragon


Adam Ross said...

Excellent read, Damian. Even though I'm an Elfman fan, I had forgotten he had done Men in Black and Spiderman, and when seeing his scores in this list it's easy to put them on the same "album" with all of them sharing similar sounds.

Batman, PeeWee and Beetlejuice all had a huge influence on my young movie-watching life, and I think one of the ways they can easily captivate a young mind is with Elfman's scores. PeeWee in particular, what more can you say? You put it perfectly with "so many themes, so little time," every single one is pretty much note-perfect (an underrated one: the hitchhiking montage).

Damian said...

Thanks, Adam. :)

Yeah, Elfman was a hugely influential presence in my young life as well. You're right in that it's easy to forget how many great scores he's done until you see them all together in one list.

Fun story about the hitchhiking cue from Pee-Wee: Elfman wrote this silly, crazy little composition (that sounds almost improvisational) which he didn't think anybody would be able to play in one "pass," but an extremely talented harmonica-player came in and did it one take without any rehearsal. He just said "Roll tape" and they recorded it and put it in the film. In retrospect, Eflman actually considers it the best thing he wrote for the film (along with "The Breakfast Machine") because of its simplicity.

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damian said...

Damian, you make me want to go out and buy all those soundtracks now!!

Good. Than I accomplished what I set out to do! :)

Piper said...

Man, Oingo Boingo was one of my favorite bands growing up and I have loved the work of Elfman. But for me, Elfman should have cut himself off of Burton because I believe Burton's career has somewhat tainted his own in my mind. Don't think that is probably universally held, but it is with me.

The music for Pee Wee is incredible and Bettlejuice as well.

You should do a follow up piece about Mothersbaugh. He's been my favorite for some time and the work he does for Anderson's movies is incredible. But here I am creeping into Filmmusic Blog A Thon.

Good post.

J.J. said...

Elfman often sounds very repetitive to me (his Desperate Housewives music is horrendous and sabotages the show), but I have to also pledge my love for Beetlejuice.

Damian said...

It's true that, with a few exceptions, a number of Elfman's more recent work does sound very much alike (though I haven't yet heard his Desperate Houseeives theme), but all composers tend to more or less "repeat" themselves after a while (even Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Williams, etc). At least Elfman's stuff, while admittedly sounding similar, does not sound the identical. I don't mind composers writing in a similar style or with a distinctive musical "voice", but I can't stand composers who quite literally write the same damn score over and over again (using the exact same melodies, etc). *cough* James Horner *cough*

The real testament to Elfman's talent is his whole body of work. If you listen to the majority of his music, you will naturally notice emerging patterns, but you will also hear remarkable range and versatility. Listening to Batman, Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and then listening to Black Beauty, Midnight Run and Dolores Claiborne, one would never be able to tell they were done by the same individual.

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