Danny Elfman is one of those people who, if I am foolish enough to begin comparing my creative career to his, makes me want to give up entirely because some people are just born with it (and I am not one of that class). A self-taught musician with no real formal training in composition, no music degree, no dues-paying stints as the conductor of a plucky but not very polished community orchestra, Danny Elfman is proof that some people just don’t need school. Some people can flout all expectations and find their own path to success.
Raised in Los Angeles, Danny led your average American life: went to school, started a band, etc. Then, while visiting his brother in France when he was 18, he, you know, joined a musical theater troupe with the violin he had only just started playing, and became a street performer (because why not?). Following that, he joined his brother’s new group, The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, moved to Africa for a few years, contracted malaria–all pretty typical stuff. Then he became a rock star as part of the renamed Oingo Boingo, and then Tim Burton asked him to write a score for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The rest is history.
Elfman attributes some of his success to being in the right place at the right time –and so much of success does seem to depend on serendipity–yet if a less talented person had gone to France to visit their brother with four months of violin practice under their belt, they probably would have returned home, finished high school, and put the violin away in a closet until their kid needed something to play in the school orchestra years later. No Oingo Boingo, no malaria, no long career filled with collaborations with Tim Burton.
Because that’s what Danny Elfman is really known for. Sure, he wrote the Simpson’s theme song and was a well-known rock musician, but what we all know him for is Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Jack Skellington. Most recently, he composed the score for Burton’s Big Eyes, but his first collaboration with Mr. Burton was on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, for which he was requested specifically because Burton was a fan of his work with Oingo Boingo. Never mind that Elfman had no training as an orchestral composer–indeed, it didn’t matter. As evidenced by his thirty year career as a film composer, Elfman knows how to write for the big screen. His scores, apart from those named above, include Mission: Impossible, Good Will Hunting, and Men In Black, proving that he’s not only talented; he’s versatile.
I’ve only ever played Elfman’s Batman theme, but that performance stands out as one of the most enjoyable of my orchestral career because it was so much flipping fun. At no point did my mind wander as I held long “shimmering” tremolos to set a “mysterious” mood for a composer that didn’t know what to do with a violin. Instead, my heart raced with the music, I anticipated my favorite parts, and I felt true gut-level joy in performing something I knew the audience felt, too. That ability to write music to elicit a specific emotion is important for any composer, but even more so for a composer of film scores, because the success of the movie depends upon inspiring the right emotions in the audience.
Elfman’s latest project–coming to theaters this Friday–is the score to Fifty Shades of Grey (a fact that moved me a smidge closer to considering thinking about maybe seeing it one day if it’s on HBO and I have cable at that time). Once again, he proves that he’s not limited to quirky comedies or Tim Burton films… And, I have to say, with Danny Elfman on board for the film score, the creators of the Fifty Shades movie might actually know what they’re doing.
His Fifty Shades of Grey score aside, Danny Elfman has contributed enormously to the last four decades of art in the western world. He may not have quite as many Academy Awards as John Williams, and it’s possible to imagine a world without his music, but really… who would want to?