Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Danny Elfman: The Bizarre

Danny Elfman was born in 1953 in Los Angeles.  Elfman spent most of his time at the movie theater and began noticing film music by the likes of Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann.  Dropping out of University High School in Los Angeles, he met up with his brother Richard in Paris.  While there, he played his violin on the street and joined a musical theater group, Le Gran Magic Circus.  He went on to travel Africa, only to return to the United States after getting sick.

Back in LA, his brother Richard formed the band The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo in 1972.  In 1976, Richard passed the band onto Danny, who became the lead songwriter and singer.  Many original band members left, and the group shortened the name to just Oingo Boingo.  Their first national introduction was in Richard Elfman's film Forbidden Zone (1982).  The music was provided by Danny making his film score debut as well as singing a few numbers as The Devil.  That same year, the Oingo Boingo song "Goodbye, Goodbye" appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


In 1985, Elfman composed his first film score for director Tim Burton - Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985).  The score opened the world up to Elfman with his quirky style and non-traditional musical training.  Within a short period of time, he began working in television and film.  He wrote music for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1986), two episodes of Amazing Stories (1985, 1987), and the theme to the series Sledge Hammer! (1986).  He also scored the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School (1986), in which he also performed as a member of Oingo Boingo.  Throughout all this, fellow band member Steve Bartek became Elfman's main orchestrator and arranger, a job which he maintains to this day.


It was 1988's Beetlejuice (directed by Burton), that helped Elfman get even more mainstream films.  His wacky style often fit with the macabre style needed for Burton's films.  That same year he also did Midnight Run (1988) and Christmas comedy Scrooged (1988).  Elfman composed his first large-scale orchestral score for Burton's Batman (1989).  One of the highlights of his career, Batman solidified his role as a Hollywood film composer.  He won his first Grammy for instrumental composition of The Batman Theme.


His work on TV continued, with the theme to The Simpsons (1989), which was nominated for a Emmy. He also wrote the theme to The Flash (1990), as well as an adaptation of his Beetlejuice theme for the animated series (1989), and the theme to Tales from the Crypt (1989). After Batman, Elfman saw more large-scale features, like the underscore to Dick Tracy (1990), Darkman (1990), and the Elfman/Burton classic, Edward Scissorhands (1990).  When it came time for the score for Batman: the Animated Series (1992), Elfman turned to Shirley Walker, who had orchestrated and conducted several past projects.  That same year, Burton and Elfman returned to Gotham City for Batman Returns (1992).


Danny Elfman took complete charge of the next project, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  In addition the the underscore and songs, Elfman was the singing role of the lead character Jack Skellington.  Elfman also began doing more serious orchestral scores to films like Sommersby (1993).  During the making of 'Nightmare', Burton and Elfman had a falling out, and Howard Shore stepped the score to the next Burton film, Ed Wood (1994) while Elfman composed one of his more beautiful scores, Black Beauty (1994).  He continued his darker scores with different sounds with films like Dolores Claiborne (1995), and To Die For (1995) with director Gus Van Sant.  With Elfman spending most of his time doing film scores, Oingo Boingo disbanded in 1995.  As he spread out to other directors, he did The Frighteners (1996) for director Peter Jackson, the action score Mission: Impossible (1996) for director Brian DePalma.  He also reunited with Burton for Mars Attacks! (1996).


1997 was another busy year, with the fun score to Men in Black (1997) and the touching score to Good Will Hunting, again with Gus Van Sant.  Both scores would be nominated for Academy Awards, in the same year.  Following that, he was given more dramas, very unlike the quirky scores of his past.  With Van Sant's remake of Psycho (1998), Elfman returned to his love of Bernard Herrmann, by adapting the original Psycho score with Steve Bartek.  He finished of the decade with the Gothic score to Sleepy Hollow (1999).


Highlights in the 2000s include the film The Family Man (2000), directed by Brett Ratner.  He returned with Burton for a percussion-heavy score to the remake of Planet of the Apes (2001) and the score was nominated for a Grammy.  He returned to the superhero world with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002), another fun score to Men in Black II (2002) and one of his creepier scores with Red Dragon (2002) again with Ratner.


One of his highly regarded dramatic scores was for the next Burton collaboration - Big Fish (2003).  It was nominated for the Academy Award.  In 2004, Elfman lent his whimsical music for the theme to the series Desperate Housewives.  Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Elfman wrote the score, songs and sang for both Burton films Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Corpse Bride (2005).  Around the same time, Elfman composed a concert piece titled Serenada Schizophrana.  While tough to write without a visual accompaniment, it eventually was used as part of the soundtrack to the IMAX film Deep Sea (2006).  Elfman continued on the silver screen with the touching score to Charlotte's Web (2006), and fun Disney film Meet the Robinsons (2007).  It was another Gus Van Sant dramatic film, Milk (2008), that got Elfman even more praise as a "serious" composer and another Oscar nomination.

2010 saw releases of another Gothic horror score - The Wolfman (2010) and the great score to Alice in Wonderland (2010), another Tim Burton collaboration.  Among the projects in 2011, he composed the score to the movie-themed Cirque du Soleil show, Iris.  With almost new score coming out every month in 2012, Elfman worked with Tim Burton twice with Dark Shadows (2012) and Frankenweenie (2012), Gus Van Sant twice with Restless (2012) and Promised Land (2012), he returned to familair themes with Men in Black 3 (2012) and returned to his Bernard Herrmann roots for the Alfred Hitchock biopic, Hitchock (2012).  As always, he has several works in the pipeline, like the reunion with director Sam Raimi for Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013).  

Danny Elfman over the past 27 years, Danny Elfman has been an exceptional voice for film scoring - and one of the most identifiable.  His macabre-yet-quirky sound has been a voice for (almost all) Tim Burton movies, they go hand in hand.  They certainly are the most memorable of his scores.  Over the years, he showed a lot of naysayers that having no musical training doesn't hurt a career.  He faced a lot of hurdles throughout, going from gaining respect among colleagues to 4 Oscar nominations.  He has had a few Golden Globe nominations, a hearty turnout at the Saturn Awards, and a bevy of Grammy nominations.  It is interesting to note that of his Oscar nominations (Men in Black, Good Will Hunting, Big Fish, Milk) most are the more dramatic scores and less frenetic.  Still, his scores are not always ordinary, even for more "serious" films.  

His unique, bizarre scores and memorable turns in films like Batman and The Nightmare Before Christmas are the reason we love to listen and why he is still a major player in Hollywood film scoring. 

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