Danny Elfman's Music for Tim Burton Films Gets Symphonic Treatment

Danny Elfman joins the Colorado Symphony for his Music From the Films of Tim Burton on January 14 and 15.
Danny Elfman joins the Colorado Symphony for his Music From the Films of Tim Burton on January 14 and 15. Brian Averill
Danny Elfman had led the Los Angeles new-wave band Oingo Boingo for six years when Tim Burton, who had previously been an animator for Disney, called in 1985 to see if Elfman would be interested in scoring his live-action debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

“I thought it was kind of an odd choice,” says the now-68-year-old Elfman. “Even still, I've never gotten a great answer from him.”

Elfman’s name had come up when Burton was talking to the film's star, Paul Reubens, who was a big fan of Oingo Boingo’s predecessor, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a music theater troupe formed in 1972 by Elfman’s brother Richard, who also directed the 1980 film Forbidden Zone.

During their first meeting, Burton showed Elfman a cut of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Elfman started to hear a tune in his head. He went home and wrote a minute-and-a-half piece for the opening scene of the film, recorded it on a cassette tape and sent it to Burton.

A week later, Elfman got a call from his manager saying he’d gotten the gig. That was the beginning of a long-running collaboration between the two, including the films Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland and others. Now Elfman will be a special guest when the Colorado Symphony performs "Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton" this weekend; Christopher Dragon will conduct the concerts, which will be enhanced by visuals of Burton’s original film sketches, drawings and storyboards on the big screen.

Elfman premiered "Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton" at Royal Albert Hall in London in 2013. In preparing for the concert, Elfman went back to the original scores and created suites from each of the Burton films he’d scored up to that point, ending with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland.

“It was interesting and it was fun,” Elfman says. “It's like that became the whole challenge. It's like turning these into concert pieces and then trying to do something kind of interesting in each one. I tried to do one moment in every score where I'm doing something new, like doing a variation or something that's not in the score. So if somebody's a fan of the score and a fan of the movie, they'll hear something and go, ‘Oh, wait, that’s new. What is that?’”

Elfman went on to do more of those concerts around the globe, eventually singing some songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas, which led to his creating a whole show of music from the film, which he did with Billie Eilish last Halloween in Los Angeles.

Elfman says that he hadn't paid much attention to his earlier work when he started preparing for the 2013 premiere of "Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton." “I was listening to Pee-wee's Big Adventure and going, ‘Wow, that was so simple,’” he says. “And then I can kind of hear the progression from Pee-wee to Beetlejuice to Batman to Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, and moving on to Big Fish and Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was kind of interesting following my own progression.

“But I also remember thinking, there's also something about being very simple that maybe there's a lesson there," he continues. "It's not like I don't like Beetlejuice or Pee-wee's Big Adventure just because they were very simple. It's kind of a reminder that sometimes it's okay to just do something really simply, because I frequently find the most complicated way to arrive at any problem.”
Part of the reason that Pee-wee's Big Adventure was simple might have been that Elfman hadn't had any formal music training.

“It was like, ‘I'm not trained for this, I can't do it,’” Elfman says. “And then part of me was like, ‘But wait a minute. When I was with the Mystic Knights, I was notating music.’ I was writing out arrangements of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and my earliest compositions. And some of them were pretty elaborate. So I thought, ‘Well, I do know how to write music down. It's not like I've never done it.' And that kind of counteracted the 'But I'm not trained. I can't do it’ to ‘Well, so what?’"

Another thing that encouraged Elfman was that he’d grown up as a longtime fan of film music, particularly that of Max Steiner, who composed music for the 1933 film King Kong; Franz Waxman, who scored Bride of Frankenstein; and more modern composers, including John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. The music of Nino Rota, who scored many of Federico Fellini’s films, and Bernard Herrmann, who scored many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, also rubbed off on Elfman; that's particularly evident on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Elfman says that while he could have tried to copy Williams or Goldsmith, he just wanted to write his own music. “I think a lot of composers, when they start out, they really want to sound legit,” Elfman says. “They want to impress and sound legit, and I didn't care to impress or sound legit.”

While Oingo Boingo wasn’t a punk band, Elfman subscribed to the punk ethos early on in his career. “I had a real attitude of like, I don't give a shit if anybody likes it or not,” he says. “If the director is into it, that’s all I care about. If the score gets thrown out, fuck them. I came from a kind of attitude, and that actually really worked to my advantage, because other than the director that I was sitting with, I wasn't trying to please anybody. I wasn't expecting anything from it. And I wasn't trying to impress anybody."

But he certainly worked for a lot of people. Elfman has scored over 100 films with directors like Gus Van Sant, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Ang Lee, Rob Minkoff, Guillermo del Toro, Brian De Palma, James Ponsoldt and David O. Russell, as well as Burton. Last year, he released his solo album Big Mess, which he describes as “chamber punk, an aggressive rock sound but with an orchestra." He recently finished a percussion concerto and a cello concerto, and started working on the score for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Meanwhile, he and composer Chris Bacon are gearing up to work with Burton again on the Netflix series Wednesday, which focuses on Wednesday Addams’s teenage years.

“Tim, almost more than most directors I work with, is very unpredictable,” Elfman says. “When I first play music for Tim, it's far from, ‘Oh, yeah, it's Tim. I got this.’ I really get nervous still. It’s actually no different than when we first started out. I don't know how he's going to react. He responds really viscerally to everything musically.

“And sometimes I hit it right on the nose early on, and sometimes I have to really work and experiment a lot, and then I'll find that sweet spot with it," he adds. "So I never know what it's going to be. And I don't ever go in there with the kind of feeling of like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is going to be a piece of cake.’”

"Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton," with the Colorado Symphony, Elfman and violinist Sandy Cameron, 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 14, and Saturday, January 15, at Boettcher Hall, Denver Performing Arts Complex, $15-$89. An Afternoon Forum with Danny Elfman will be offered at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, January 15, $35,
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon