Danny Elfman

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Citing influences that include Harry Partch, Kurt Weill, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Cab Calloway, versatile film composer Danny Elfman is best known for his fantastical collaborations with director Tim Burton. After writing his first score for the 1980 musical/fantasy/comedy Forbidden Zone, he went on to create one of the most distinctive bodies of work in contemporary screen music, bringing his talents to a dark fantasy world populated by superheroes (Justice League), monsters (Hellboy: The Golden Army), and freaks (Edward Scissorhands). Originally a street-theater musician, he concurrently led the new wave band Oingo Boingo, whose eclectic mix of pop, ska, rock, and world music spanned 17 years and spawned the mid-’80s hits “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science.” In 1990, Elfman was nominated for an Emmy for iconic main theme to The Simpsons and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition for the theme to Burton’s Batman. He soon became a Golden Globe nominee thanks to 1993′s The Nightmare Before Christmas — an ambitious amalgam of classical, musical theater, and pop that featured Elfman as the singing voice of lead Jack Skellington — before his new wave band issued their seventh and final album, Boingo, in 1994. For Elfman, Academy Award nominations followed for 1997′s Men in Black and Good Will Hunting. While he continued to work with Burton well into the 2010s on efforts like Big Fish (his third Oscar-nominated score), Alice in Wonderland, and Dumbo, he proved to be just as adept at scoring less-whimsical fare, earning accolades for his work with David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) and Gus Van Sant (the Oscar-nominated Milk, and Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot), among others. Written entirely in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, a fact reflected in its antagonized orchestral hard rock, 2021′s Big Mess marked Elfman’s first solo pop album in nearly four decades.
The son of novelist Blossom Elfman and her husband Milton, he was born May 29, 1953 in Los Angeles. He and brother Richard relocated to France in 1971, where he joined an avant-garde theatrical group. Elfman subsequently traveled across Africa, busking and collecting West African percussion instruments before returning to the U.S. after a bout with malaria. He then reunited with Richard in the Jazz Age-inspired performance art troupe Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, with Danny serving as musical director. Richard directed a film inspired by the group, 1980′s Forbidden Zone, and asked his brother to compose the score. Before the film was released, Danny took over as main singer and songwriter of Mystic Knights, trimmed the ensemble to eight members, and shortened its name to Oingo Boingo. The group went on to earn a significant cult following. Their first three albums — Only a Lad (1981), Nothing to Fear (1982), and Good for Your Soul (1983) — all cracked the bottom half of the Billboard 200. Elfman released a solo pop album, So-Lo, to little fanfare in 1984. It featured electric guitar work by Oingo Boingo bandmate and frequent Elfman score orchestrator Steve Bartek.
In 1985, Oingo Boingo issued Dead Man's Party, which contained the Top 50 single and movie theme “Weird Science,” and Elfman met fledgling filmmaker Tim Burton. After collaborating on the hit Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), they reunited frequently in the years to come, with Elfman composing the music to Burton projects including Beetlejuice (1988), the Grammy-winning Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Batman Returns (1992). In 1993, he also scored the Burton-produced Nightmare Before Christmas, dubbing the singing voice of the animated musical’s lead character, Jack Skellington. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for best score and a Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children. A year later, Oingo Boingo released seventh album Boingo before disbanding in 1995. A darker release than their previous albums, it reached a band-high number 71 on the U.S. album chart. The ’90s also delivered the Burton collaborations Mars Attacks! (1996) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). Outside of Tim Burton’s sphere of influence, Elfman also scored a number of other features in the ’80s and ’90s, most of them strange fables such as Darkman, Dick Tracy, and The Frighteners. His 1997 scores for the indie drama Good Will Hunting and summer blockbuster Men in Black garnered his first Academy Award nominations. Meanwhile, Elfman’s television work included his Emmy-nominated theme for The Simpsons and Emmy-winning theme for Desperate Housewives.
In addition to his marriage to actress Bridget Fonda in 2003, the new century brought continued professional accolades. Among them were additional Burton collaborations including Best Original Score nominee Big Fish (2003) and the animated feature The Corpse Bride (2005). He also released a symphony on Sony Classical in 2006 titled Serenada Schizophrana and earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Harvey Milk biopic, Milk. Highlights of Elfman’s prolific output during the 2010s include Burton’s 2010 rendering of Alice in Wonderland, the 2012 comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook, and 2013′s American Hustle, the latter two of which were directed by David O. Russell. The year 2015 alone saw the release of the varied Elfman scores Fifty Shades of Grey, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Goosebumps. The 2016 sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass marked the composer’s 17th Tim Burton feature. That year also saw Sony Classical release his original music for the ballet Rabbit & Rogue, which had premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2008, as well as his score for the film thriller The Girl on the Train. The following year, he stayed busy delivering the scores for such high-profile films as Fifty Shades Darker and Justice League, the latter of which landed in the Billboard 200. In 2018, he teamed up again with Gus Van Sant for the comedy-drama Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. His score for Tim Burton’s live action version of the Walt Disney classic Dumbo appeared in theaters in 2019. That year, the Men in Black franchise returned with an Elfman score in tow for Men in Black: International, and the composer rejoined his brother for the Richard Elfman-directed Aliens, Clowns & Geeks.
Following the release of his music for the fantasy film Dolittle in January 2020, Elfman had cleared his calendar for a series of career-spanning concert performances. Instead, with tours canceled worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elfman wrote and recorded his first solo pop/rock album since 1984′s So-Lo. The unplanned and anxious Big Mess saw release on Anti- and Epitaph in June 2021. Featuring a score by Elfman, the delayed thriller The Woman in the Window also arrived in 2021. The following year saw Elfman helm the soundtrack for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. 2022 also saw the release of Bigger. Messier, a companion piece to 2021′s Big Mess that featured innovative remixes by Iggy Pop, Xiu Xiu, and Trent Reznor, among others. ~ James Christopher Monger & Marcy Donelson