Last Tuesday, Warner Bros. music released a 25th anniversary box set commemorating the orchestral soundtrack work Danny Elfman has done for Tim Burton. Elfman, the former front man for the wonderfully weird art-pop band Oingo Boingo, was first recruited by Burton to score his film Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Elfman, who turns 58 on Sunday, knocked it out of the park, and his career as a film composer took off.
Here are Rocks Off's ten favorite non-Oingo Boingo Elfman scores.
10. Scrooged (1988): This is almost certainly the one film that most people think is directed by Tim Burton, but isn't. Richard Donner was at the helm - yep, the Lethal Weapon guy. Still, it has a definite Burton feel to it as it vacillates between goofy whimsy and extremely dark subject matter. Aiding that sensation is Elfman's score, which uses traditional Christmas trappings such as sleigh bells and a children's choir, but to eminently creepy effect.
9. Dolores Claiborne (1995): One the more difficult to find soundtracks on this list, it's notable for the fact that the movie was good, not great, but the soundtrack is amazing. Based on a novel by Stephen King, the film's quiet, somber tones are echoed in Elfman's score. Those more used to his usual booming, thunderous style may be surprised at the subtlety here. The notes are long, soft, and mournful, with lots of string and very little percussion. Worth owning if you need rainy-day music.
8. Big Fish (2003): As sweet and sentimental as his other scores are dark and bombastic, Big Fish provided a big of an about-face for both Elfman and Burton. The film is half love story, half generational reckoning, and Elfman manages to interject some fun and wonder amidst the tender love suites and bittersweet life-lesson tunes.
7. Nightbreed (1990): An over-the-top horror film directed by Clive Barker, Nightbreed begs for an equally over-the-top score, and sweet Jesus did Elfman ever deliver. The children's choir is back, but this time they're chanting over tribal drums in a relentlessly paced cannonade that feels like the most metal thing Elfman has ever done. One of the track titles is "Meat For the Beast," if that tells you anything.
6. Beetlejuice (1988): Elfman got to stretch his legs a bit with this score, working in fun, cartoony stretches punctuated by the occasional genuinely dark, scary notes. Everyone who grew up in the '80s ought to know this theme song; it ranks alongside the score for Batman as one of Elfman's most hummable.
5. Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985): Elfman's first fully orchestrated, big-time score is, of course, the soundtrack to Tim Burton's feature film debut as director. It's grand, it's weird, and it's a hell of a lot of fun. The second track, the Raymond Scott-inspired "Breakfast Machine," has become a bit of a meme in recent years, even drawing a parody from Family Guy.
4. Edward Scissorhands (1990): This one has a little bit of everything. Dark, foreboding stretches; a few uptempo, almost silly numbers; some fast-paced, threatening moments; and, at its core, a romantic and heart-rending choral suite. Come on, you remember, when Winona Ryder is dancing in the fake snow... yeah. Wipe your eyes there, chief.
3. Batman (1989): Possibly the most iconic of Elfman's orchestral scores, who can forget the little fanboy chill that ran down your spine the first time you heard that score played over footage of a slowly rotating Batman logo? The movie was decent enough, if blatantly disrespectful of the Batman canon - The Joker as a mob enforcer? Batman shooting machine guns and blowing people up? - but the hardest thing for Christopher Nolan to top with his Batman franchise has to have been this score. He kind of did, but only by outnumbering Elfman two to one with veteran composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.
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2. A Simple Plan (1998): An extremely underrated heist film directed by Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan features Elfman's most subtle, nuanced score to date. It's dark, yet in a creeping sinister way instead of a booming, melodramatic way. It's mature and intelligent, and bears repeated listening.
1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): The score, the songs, the voice... this one is the peak of Elfman's genius. The orchestral score is amazing enough, but then the songs kick in. They're so gleefully, anarchistically fun and twisted and sweet, you'll be surprised that a couple of grown-up Goth kids named Tim and Danny could have this much fun. Elfman provides the singing voice of Jack Skellington, and can therefore land any Goth girl in the world from now until the day he dies.