The Village Voice
"a few years ago"
By Alyssa Katz
Scanned by Nelson Fernandez
With his tousled 'red thatch and bright eyes committing themselves to perkiness even when he doesn't want them to, Danny Elfman could easily be described as, well, elfin. Though he's quick to assure that he's of Russian-Polish Jewish descent, with a name of inexplicably Germanic origin, it's still tempting to think of him as part sprite, particularly judging from the film scores he's composed in the past eight years.
Elfman's soundtrack music might be most associated with its plucky, percussive Barnum and Bailey face; the Nino Rota inspired calliope of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, or the Jetsons redux theme from The Simpsons. But the frontster for the synth-rock hand Oingo Boingo wouldn't be writing music for films if he felt compelled to do his same old song and dance. "It's a motivating force to keep going, because I don't want that written on my tombstone: 'Here ties Danny Elliman, 1953 to 19...,' let's give me till '96. 'He wrote The Simpsons.' The best/worst obituary I ever read was for Herve Villechaize, whom I actually knew. 'His most famous line was pointing at the sky while jumping up and down excitedly and going, The plane, the plane.' Now that's nasty."
Tim Burton offered Elfman the opportunity to do his first orchestral soundtrack, for Pee-wee, solely based on his admiration for Oingo Boingo. Since then, the man-child director has had Elfman do the music for each of his features. Elfiman's darker side hasn't always been his most attractive; his Batman scores for Burton were turgid and oppressive. But The Nightmare Before Christmas is a lighter shade of dark. Burton signed on Elfiman to do the songs, lyrics, and score plus vocals for Jack Skellington, the megalomaniacal town dandy of Halloweenland. The meticulously twisted stop-motion animated fairy tale perfectly mirrors Elfman's shadowy pep.
A couple of flattish numbers in Nightmare testify that Elfman had never written songs for a musical before; they flail around, struggling gratingly toward a classic Disney merriness, But his stylistic gambles largely pay off, emerging in a score that reassuringly ladles on the homages even while it forges new territory, reviving devices like operatic recitative in the context of a very modern movie musical that refutes the reigning Aladdin paradigm. No Peabo Bryson ballad here. "I'm in an awkward position," Elfman concedes. "I'm trying to redefine something that's very popular at the moment. I knew that I'd catch a lot of heat from people saying, 'Where's the hit?' I'm trying to explain, that's not the idea. Songs should be glued to their musical and have no life outside of it."
Burton had serendipitously picked himself a music man who grokked the intimate interplay between the cinematic aural and visual. got my entire musical and I film education as I know it at the Baldwin Hills movie theater in a suburb of Los Angeles." Most every film music fan can remember that magic moment when they figure out that a score isn't just wallpaper behind the action; Elfman it turns out, had that revelation during a Ray Harryhausen flick with music by Bernard Herrmann. (Harrryhausen, of course, was the old master of Nightmare-ish stopmotion animation.) Finding a haven in Burton's mock-expressionist Halloweenland, Elfman lets loose with his long-evident Kurt Weill fixation. Halloween is distinguished from many Western rites by its near lack of musical tradition; working with what there is, it's a tough trick to wrap minor scales, dissonance, and witchy vocals into a child-accessible package, but Elfman fills in the blanks with the horror-movie soundtracks running through his cluttered head. His passion for grue even preceded any musical aspirations. "When I was a kid I wanted to do makeup. Horrible prosthetic makeup was my goal in life."
If anything, he may be burdened by too many influences, most often self-confessed: Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Gilbert and Sullivan, Dr. Seuss, Stravinsky, Saint-Saens, Cab Calloway...Elfman's post-pomo stretegy has its limits. As even he says of his film work, " I've actually become bored with it lately and have started to pull out. I only do two films a year, and I've been getting discouraged, not finding projects that challenge me."
The Calloway tribute in Nightmare has raised some eyebrows, performed as it is by a Santa-torturing, bug-stuffed burlap sack named Oogie Boogie. "It's something I brought up once or twice: are YOU sure YOU want to use this name, that sort of thing, and Tim would go, I don't understand, what?" Elfman recalls. "And I realized that it was completely coming from the innocence of Max Fleischer cartoons", which showcased a rotoscoped Calloway. We both agreed it'd be fun if the opportunity arrived to do an homage. The problem is that in almost any musical you have a single specialty number that's going to be a delicious little bit. It's always the bad guy."
Making his screen singing debut, Elfman found a romper room for his own peripatetic vocal theatrics, a dress rehearsal of sorts for the new Oingo Boingo album he's now recording. He also has a couple of his own scripts under his arm-one of them, Little Demons, is slated to be a liquefaction musical for Disney. "It's about child murderers," he explains with dark cheeriness.
If there's one project Elfman won't be working on, it's Burton's upcoming biopic of angoraphilic Z-movie-director Ed Wood. Variety reported that the two aren't even speaking. (While not mentioning a rift, Elfman says that the notoriously nonverbal Burton usually limited their collaborative discussions to "a 30-minute dinner or lunch conversation" anyway.) He'll have no name on his tombstone except his own.