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  • The Film Music of Danny Elfman:A Selective Discography
  • H. Steven Wright

On 26 July 1985, the film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was unleashed onto a baffled world. Pee-Wee Herman, the comic persona of comedian Paul Reubens, already had some meaningful name recognition from his stage performances and occasional appearances on late-night television; far less prominent in the credits were the names of director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The bizarre tale of a bow-tied man-child searching for his stolen bicycle was generally attributed to the manic creative energy of Reubens, and less to the imagination of Burton and Elfman, who were merely names at the time.

Yet Elfman's musical accompaniment for Pee-Wee's quest was a critical element in the artistic success of the film. For this, his first major film score, Elfman drew stylistic inspiration from the energetic, quirky scores written by Nino Rota for the films of Federico Fellini. Elfman's themes emphasize repeated notes, perhaps reflecting the narrowly-focused obsessions of the Pee-Wee character; they veer off wildly into unrelated keys, only to return abruptly to the home key. Irregular phrase lengths are the norm and sudden, non-sequitur brass outbursts are common. The score also contains obvious references to the film music of Bernard Herrmann, whom Elfman has repeatedly cited as his major compositional influence; when Pee-Wee discovers that his beloved bicycle is missing, Elfman deploys slashing strings in an homage to Herrmann's score to Psycho.

Elfman was born 29 May 1953 in Amarillo, Texas. He claims no formal musical training, but taught himself the rudiments of music notation by transcribing Duke Ellington works. His early musical experiences centered around two theatrical troupes founded by his brother, Richard Elfman, in the 1970s: Le Grande Magic Circus and The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The latter group eventually narrowed its focus to become a rock band known simply as Oingo Boingo, with Danny Elfman leading in the triple role of singer, guitarist, and composer. Oingo [End Page 1030] Boingo provided the music for Forbidden Zone (1980), Richard Elfman's film directing debut; although this score (released on compact disc on Varèse Sarabande VSD-5268 [1983]) is sometimes considered to be Danny Elfman's first film score, Forbidden Zone remained an obscure cult film and Elfman's career as a film composer might have ended there had he not become friends with Oingo Boingo fan Tim Burton.

In a departure from typical Hollywood marketing practices, the soundtrack to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was not made immediately available at the time of the film's release; this perhaps reflects Elfman's relative obscurity at the time. However, in 1988 Varèse Sarabande released a re-recording of the score conducted by John Coleman (Varèse Sarabande VCD-47281 [1988]). Coleman's crisp, lively rendition is a virtual carbon copy of the original soundtrack performance conducted by Lennie Neihaus. Due to the brevity of the Pee-Wee score, Varèse also included Coleman's performance of a later Elfman score, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School (1986). Although the Back to School score is somewhat more conventional and less bizarre than Pee-Wee (not surprising, considering the more traditional comedy of Dangerfield), it is notable for Elfman's approach to the "campus comedy" genre. In 1978, Elmer Bernstein scored National Lampoon's Animal House in a self-consciously serious style derived from Johannes Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, and that established the standard approach to such films for years. Elfman, however, eschewed Bernstein's ironic pomposity and composed a typically manic score which seems to parody musical academia: his main title theme sounds like something a student might produce for a counterpoint class, and a brief solo piano passage strongly resembles a Charles-Louis Hanon or Carl Czerny exercise.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was the beginning of Elfman's career-long collaboration with director Tim Burton, and Elfman went on to score Burton's next film, the wildly creative comedy Beetlejuice. In this film Burton revived a genre that had been dead since the 1960s—the comic horror film. For the story of recently...


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