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Music / Danny Elfman

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Not an actual elf, man.

"When I'm writing music, so much of the time I feel like I'm being pulled around by a big dog. I've got the dog on a leash and sometimes I'm leading this dog along just where I want it to go. And then sometimes the dog gets real big and starts yanking me. I think when I'm reacting the way I should be, I let the thing yank me around. Because it yanks me into places where I wouldn't go. And I look at it and go, "Oh! Thanks, boy! It's a strange place, but there had to be a reason why I went here, so I'm just going to leave it."

Daniel Robert Elfman (born May 29, 1953 in Los Angeles, California) is an American composer and singer.

A former leader of Oingo Boingo with his brother Rick, he first broke into film scoring with Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Since then, he has worked steadily in Hollywood, most famously for Tim Burton, to the point the two are often mentioned in the same breath, and for a longtime friend Sam Raimi, composing dozens of scores and themes for movies, TV, and even video games and a Cirque du Soleil show (IRIS, a 2011 show inspired by the history of cinema).

An excerpt from his main title for Sommersby was later adopted by Regency Enterprises (the company that produced the film) for its logo; on the other hand, Elfman wrote the logo music for Hollywood Pictures several years before he did his only feature score for the company (1995's Dead Presidents).

Like John Williams, Elfman tends to compose classical, Romantically-themed music reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, although Elfman makes more limited use of Leitmotif and his music tends to have darker overtones — which seem to mesh well with Tim Burton's films, although he also has a penchant for Duke Ellington-style Jazz. Again like John Williams, Elfman is one of the few major Hollywood film composers who has never had a score thrown-out (the closest being his score for Spider-Man 2 being extensively rewritten and altered without his permission).

His scores are frequently used in trailers. Elfman also has a cameo in a film he didn't score, Sam Raimi's The Gift, he also appears As Himself with his band Oingo Boingo in the classic 1986 comedy Back to School.

He's married to Bridget Fonda, and they have a son together named Oliver, which in old English means "Elf Army", amusingly. He also has two daughters, Lola and Mali, from previous relationships.

Works done by Elfman include (but are certainly not limited to):



Studio Albums:

  • Serenada Schizophrana (Classical Album) (2006)
  • Eleven Eleven (Classical Album) (2019)
  • Big Mess (First rock album of his since the disbanding of Oingo Boingo.) (2020)

Tropes associated with this composer:

  • Associated Composer: For Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Gus Van Sant, and Barry Sonnenfeld.
  • The Cameo: While he didn't score The Gift (rather, Christopher Young did), you can spot Danny as a fiddler in a dream sequence.
  • Creepy Children Singing: Easily half of his soundtrack commissions for Tim Burton tend to have this in the background somewhere.
  • Creepy Circus Music:
    • "Waltz to the Death", The Joker's Leitmotif in Tim Burton's Batman (1989). The theme actually sounds more like something from the 19th century (think Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite), but it's played on rather loud horns that remind one of a circus band; and while it's not very creepy in itself, the two scenes during which it's played certainly are (the Joker gleefully shooting a man several times and the Joker forcing the film's Damsel in Distress to dance with him - at gunpoint - atop Gotham City's cathedral).
    • In the sequel Batman Returns, given the presence of the Red Triangle Gang, a malevolent group of criminals that were formerly a children-stealing Circus of Fear, Elfman implemented a creepy circus vibe and ominous organ grinder music whenever they appear, as observable in "Shadow Of Doom/Clown Attack", "Lair (Part 1)" and "The Rise And Fall From Grace (Part 1)".
    • "Carnival From Hell" from Sam Raimi's Darkman starts off like normal carnival music, but an underlying note of tension keeps building up until it takes over turning the music into a tune of pure chaos and menace when the protagonist loses his patience with a carnival worker who doesn't want to give him a game prize. While the pay off is played for laughs, this track remains eerie to listen to.
  • Creepy Jazz Music: His first composing role Forbidden Zone has two big moments, both Shout Outs to the films of Max and Dave Fleischer which also employed this method.
    • The first is "Behind Them Doors (Some of These Days) an aggressive number when Frenchy and Hercules' apparently Norwegian father warns them not to go through the doors that lead to the titular Zone (for bonus points, he lip-syncs to a Calloway song partway through), that also establishes how bonkers the Zone is by way of a brief stop-motion transition.
    • The second is later in the film after Frenchy gets kidnapped by the Sixth Dimension's rulers, Squeezit goes down to rescue them, and is greeted (well, kidnapped) by Satan performing a lyrically modified and key-changed version of Minnie the Moocher named "Squeezit the Moocher".
  • Cult Soundtrack: Many of his soundtracks for Tim Burton's films have extensive cult followings.
  • Dark Reprise: Several examples from Tim Burton's two Batman Film Series films:
    • Batman (1989)
      • The film has what could more properly called a "Darker/Sarcastic Reprise," we have Danny Elfman's "Waltz to the Death." This is played as The Joker, having first revealed his clown-face to the audience, murders his former boss by shooting the old man six times from various angles. Here the music is more darkly funny than scary, though it does segue into a creepy lullaby tune played on chimes at the end of the scene. Much later, toward the end of the movie, "Waltz to the Death" is heard again as Batman stalks the Joker in the cathedral belltower, only to be ambushed by his gang while the Joker forces Vicki Vale at gunpoint to dance a waltz with him. Now the tune is less brassy than before, with a weird dreamlike quality that would be a Light Reprise if it weren't so out of character for the Joker (it's really disturbing to see a man who had previously murdered a young boy's parents while taunting in a demonic voice being portrayed as a romantic gentleman, albeit a villainous one) and if it didn't abruptly fall off toward the end into almost total silence. Even before then, the howls of rage and pain as the Joker's Mooks and Batman beat the tar out of each other do a great deal to undercut the supposedly light mood of the piece.
      • Inverted on the movie's pop soundtrack by Prince. "Batdance," his dance mix at the end of the album, takes some of the darker songs that have gone before ("The Future" most notably) and parodies them by remixing them in a goofy "deejay" style.
    • There's a more straightforward example in Batman Returns. During the "Lair" sequence, we hear a poignant, hopeful violin piece as The Penguin speaks of returning to the world above and once again being accepted as a human being. After he has been rejected once again and vowed to kill all the children of Gotham City, the Penguin's theme is heard once more...this time (once again) in "chimey, creepy lullaby" style as the Penguin plays with an umbrella from which have been hung various toy animals.
      • Another inversion occurs with "Selina Transforms." When we hear it the first time, the piece starts out tragic and just goes downhill from there, mounting to what sounds like a Hitchcock movie score on acid as Selina Kyle loses her mind. "Selina Transforms" is then heard again at the end of the movie, but now it is Lighter and Softer, an elegy of sorts now that Catwoman is apparently dead.
      • "The Finale" soundtrack in Returns can be considered a Dark Reprise to the first film's "The Finale." Both scores end with church bells being rung three times before segueing into Batman's main theme, but while in the first film, they're being rung in a triumphant tone, in keeping with the second film's Bittersweet Ending, the bells are being rung in a slower, more somber mood.
  • Deaf Composer: After years of playing loud rock music in front of huge speakers, he and a few other members of Oingo Boingo began to develop irreversible hearing loss and would have gone stone deaf had the band stayed together any longer, which is why in 2007, he formally announced that the band would never reunite.
  • Deathly Dies Irae:
    • In Batman (1989), a fast-paced repeating dies irae, dies illa makes up much of the backing of the track "Descent in Mystery," which plays as Batman drives Vicki through the dark woods and into the hidden Batcave, creating an unsettling atmosphere around the location.
    • In Batman Returns, the four notes make several appearances during the Red Triangle Gang's introductory attack, most prominently as a fire-breathing member in a devil costume torches a department store. It later appears when Selina is driving towards the tree-lighting ceremony to assist in the abduction and eventual murder of the Ice Princess, though she wasn't aware Penguin intended to kill her.
    • The main theme for the aborted Dark Universe franchise incorporates several dies iraes in the background.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: A single bell chimes six times in Edward Scissorhands when Jim falls to his death after being stabbed by Edward.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The Geffen logo at the beginning of Beetlejuice features an upbeat but somewhat hollow chorus of "Day-O" that swings into a hauntingly creepy minor key halfway through, just in time to introduce the main theme.
  • The Mel Brooks Number: The four Oompa-Loompa songs in the 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory play out this way. Elfman assigns each one a different genre (mambo for Augustus Gloop, psychedelic Folk Rock for Veruca Salt, etc.) and gives them terrific melodies and arrangements. The lyrics (pulled from the original novel) are still about naughty kids getting their comeuppance, though, and the "rather rehearsed" dance numbers the Oompa-Loompas — all voiced by Elfman — mount are parodies of Busby Berkeley numbers, heavy metal videos, etc.
  • Musical Pastiche: Batman (1989) has a snippet of "Scandalous" by Prince worked into Elfman's otherwise somber score. Not that the song isn't fairly somber in its own way, especially when used in the film.
  • Perky Goth: The red hair contrasts with the Goth image, but the Slasher Smile and cheerfully upbeat songs like "No One Lives Forever" certainly doesn't. There's a reason he's Tim Burton's go-to guy for soundtracks and Jack Skellington's singing voice.
  • Psychotic Smirk: Both young and old. He also likes combining it with a Kubrick Stare.
  • Rearrange the Song: The track "Salvation" from Terminator Salvation is a new arrangement of the original Terminator theme by Brad Fiedel.
  • Recycled Trailer Music:
    • If you're advertising a buddy movie, the theme to Midnight Run is typically the go-to choice.
    • The trailers for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy made excellent use of Elfman's score from The Wolfman (2010).
    • The music from Edward Scissorhands is a frequent offender. Elfman himself said, as part of a commentary track for the DVD, that every now and again his friends will call up and say "Edward's back!" when some trailer uses its music. The first one that did, specifically using the cue "The Grand Finale", was most likely 1993's The Secret Garden. The score is also frequently imitated in ads for other companies - indeed, if any ad's BGM involves an slightly spooky Cherubic Choir, it's probably an imitation of this score.
    • The title music for Beetlejuice is heard frequently in trailers for kid's movies.
  • Slasher Smile: He practically made a living doing this in the '70s and '80s. There's hardly any Oingo Boingo music video (or film, for that matter) in which he doesn't spend a few seconds scaring the living crap out of the audience. Overly obnoxious talk show hosts occasionally got the silent treatment from him, combined with his trademark psychotic grin. The worst, or possibly the best example, has got to be the music video for "Little Girls", wherein the slasher smile goes on for the entire video and makes Danny look like he's in searing pain.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: When watching Batman (1989), the minute you hear any version of Elfman's classic Batman theme, there's gonna be some kicked ass. No questions asked. This applies to Batman Returns as well.


Video Example(s):


Don't Go in the Basement

A reptilian Danny Elfman warns Max why you shouldn't go down to the basement.

How well does it match the trope?

4.78 (18 votes)

Example of:

Main / WarningSong

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