By the 1980s, the art of composing music for films had undergone several sea changes. The craft moved from traditional orchestration and classically trained musicians during the days of the studio system to more broad and experimental venues, with some scores created completely electronically, and people without classical music backgrounds—or virtually no musical background—beginning careers as composers. It was in this environment that composer Danny Elfman got his start making music for films, a vocation that seemed a little destined given his older brother Richard Elfman’s career as an actor and director.
However, Elfman first rose to fame as the frontman of the experimental new wave rock group Oingo Boingo, an offshoot of a performance art project begun by his brother. Largely self-taught as a musician, it was Elfman’s Boingo songs that first appeared in films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) and Weird Science (1985). When director Tim Burton hired Elfman as a full-fledged composer for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), the musician’s work was praised, but generally perceived as an unserious effort, given its whimsical style and composition for a comedy film. By the time Burton brought Elfman along with him to the big leagues with 1989’s Batman, Elfman had to fight to keep the gig, competing with the producers’ promotion of songs by Prince for the soundtrack. He was still generally thought of as a rock musician-turned-composer, a category that diminished his robust musical skills. In 1990, Elfman still had a lot to prove, and whether by happenstance or intention, that year saw him solidify his worth many times over with a series of masterpiece film scores that showcase his range and abilities.
Many composers—not to mention filmmakers—get their start on horror films, and both Elfman and Boingo had a long association with the genre. Yet Elfman the composer had only worked on horror adjacent films before 1990; the closest was 1988’s Beetlejuice. Thus, Nightbreed was Elfman’s first unabashed horror movie, being director Clive Barker’s follow up to Hellraiser (1987). The film has a troubled production history, as Barker was attempting to tell a grand horror fantasy tale in the mode of someone like Guillermo del Toro or Neil Gaiman, yet the studio wanted something closer to a gory slasher. While the resultant theatrical cut of the film was compromised, Elfman’s score retained Barker’s vision, containing a wide variety of tones and instrumentation. His music is alternatively dark, romantic, tribal and eerie, emphasizing not the horror of the wild monster creatures in the film but rather their humanity.
In his scores for Burton, Elfman had shown his affinity for a Gothic sound, and Nightbreed makes use of this only to twist and subvert it in unexpected ways. He understood Barker’s aims perfectly, as the creepiest moments of the score are reserved for the film’s human characters—both serial killer Decker (played by David Cronenberg), and the humans in general, exemplified in a country music version of a Boingo song entitled “Skin,” Elfman playfully parodying himself. His music for the ‘Breed, by contrast, is tribal and gentle, highlighting their strong ties to each other as well as their nobility. Far from being just a series of rote “horror” cues, Elfman proved with Nightbreed that he could elevate what was expected of the genre.
The composer’s next big step in establishing his worth to blockbuster Hollywood was writing the music for Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. In a number of ways, Beatty’s film was an attempt to emulate the success of Burton’s Batman, down to not only the choice of composer, but making his music compete with a series of original songs performed by a pop star (Madonna in this case). Elfman was more than ready for this challenge, taking the bold visual statements made by the film’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and using them as license to go big with his music. Thus, Tracy is a meaty, brassy, splashy score, with Elfman arranging the orchestra in a fashion reminiscent of Old Hollywood crime adventure films.
Batman had a pulp fiction element which Tracy capitalizes on, and Elfman follows suit, using elements reminiscent of Americana composers like Gershwin to create music for the detective character. His score’s scope also allows the audience to buy in to the movie’s outrageous-looking villains and the makeup effects used to create them, establishing a sense of unreality that dovetails with their odd visages, not to mention the huge number of matte paintings and backlot sets utilized throughout the picture. Elfman’s score blends perfectly with the Stephen Sondheim-penned songs for Madonna, making the movie sound cohesive and proving that he could play ball with big budget productions and their marketing-influenced whims.
Batman and Tracy were comic book movies, and Elfman had played around with horror before, so he was a natural choice for Sam Raimi’s Darkman, a film that sought to combine those genres. Darkman is an original character created by Raimi as a tragic monster in the Universal tradition, an ex-scientist who loses his mind and his face but can disguise himself as anyone in the world (for a short time). He’s a weird blend of the Phantom of the Opera, the Invisible Man, and a superspy, and Elfman supports all that with a heroic theme that is ominous and oddly arranged, with little runs of notes breaking out of the melody at unexpected times. He emphasizes the tragedy of Darkman as well, with plaintive, yearning music, and bolsters the film’s gangster villains with cues reminiscent of his pulp fiction-tinged comic book scores. Beyond the movie’s plot, Elfman is a perfect fit for Raimi’s filmmaking sensibilities—the director’s penchant for exaggerated, live-action cartoon-style compositions and hyperreal sound effects dovetails nicely with Elfman’s menagerie of instrumentation and manic, off-kilter arrangements. As with Dick Tracy and Nightbreed, Elfman’s music gives the movie’s unreality emotional truth, allowing the film’s visuals to go to increasingly crazy lengths while never losing sight of the main character’s core.
Any of these layered, complex scores would make a composer’s year, but Elfman finished 1990 with a work that is arguably his greatest to date. As a follow-up to the gargantuan success of Batman, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is a particularly quirky choice—a genre pastiche (much like the other films Elfman composed for in ’90), it combines Gothic tragedy and romance with then-modern suburban satire, turning the story of the titular almost-completed person into a live-action fairy tale. Many composers would have looked at such material and thrown up their hands, taking one approach or the other while letting the rest of the film down. Elfman, by this point a double act with Burton, combines every approach into one, creating a score that’s ironic, playful, tender, and gorgeously elegiac. His work single-handedly elevates the relationship between Edward (Johnny Depp) and Kim (Winona Ryder) to a grand romantic level, consummating it since the characters cannot. It also makes Edward—who Depp, in conjunction with Stan Winston’s makeup design, attempts to make look as off-putting as possible—a deeply kind and tragic figure, making the film a moving storybook tale rather than a distancing curio. There’s a holy, sacred quality to Elfman’s use of a boys’ choir in the score, an element that, like the best of Burton’s work, comes off both satiric and earnest when applied to such outrageous circumstances.
In this and all the scores he composed in 1990, Elfman brings soul and reality to worlds and characters that could all too easily have been dismissed by audiences. With so many great works one after the other, none of which had anything to do with rock music, Elfman firmly established himself as a film music writer for all time, leaving his pop career behind and ensuring “composer” would be the first term associated with his name forevermore.