Daniel Robert Elfman (born May 29, 1953) is an American musician, who is famous for composing scores and songs for Tim Burton's films, the "The Simpsons Theme" and leading the rock band Oingo Boingo as singer/songwriter from 1976 until its breakup in 1995, and has composed film scores extensively since 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. He has been nominated for three Academy Awards and won a Grammy Award for Tim Burton's Batman and an Emmy Award for his Desperate Housewives theme. Elfman also wrote the theme for the video game Fable.
Elfman was born in Los Angeles, California
, the son of Blossom (née
Bernstein), a writer and teacher, and Milton Elfman, a teacher who was in the Air Force
. Elfman grew up in a racially mixed community in the Baldwin Hills
area of Los Angeles
, where he was known as 'the whitest white kid'. He spent much of his time in the local movie theatre, adoring the music of such film composers as Bernard Herrmann
and Franz Waxman
After dropping out of high school, he followed his brother Richard to France, where he played his violin on the street and performed with Le Grand Magic Circus, an avant-garde musical theater group. Violin in tow, Elfman next journeyed to Africa where he traveled through Ghana, Mali, and Upper Volta, absorbing new musical styles, including the Ghanaian highlife genre which would eventually influence his own music. Elfman contracted malaria during his one-year stay and was often sick. Eventually he returned home to the United States, where his brother was forming a new musical theater group, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The group performed the music for Richard's debut feature film, Forbidden Zone. Danny Elfman composed his first score for the film and played the role of Satan. By the time the movie was completed, The Mystic Knights had shortened their name to Oingo Boingo and become a recording and touring rock group.
In November 2003, Elfman married actress Bridget Fonda
in a private ceremony at Los Angeles' First Congressional Church, with Fonda's father, Peter Fonda
, giving her away. The couple reportedly met while working on the film A Simple Plan
. They have one son, Oliver, born January 2005. Elfman is of Jewish ancestry.
Danny Elfman and Tim Burton
In 1985, Tim Burton and Paul Reubens
invited Elfman to write the score
for their first feature film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure
. Elfman was apprehensive at first because of his lack of formal training, but with orchestration assistance from Oingo Boingo guitarist and arranger Steve Bartek
he achieved his goal of emulating the mood of such composers as Nino Rota
and Bernard Herrmann
. He later described the first time he heard his music played by a full orchestra
as one of the most thrilling experiences of his life . Elfman has spoken of the affinity he developed right away with Burton, and he has gone on to score all but three of his major studio films (Ed Wood
, which was scored by Howard Shore
, Sweeney Todd
, an adaptation of the 1979 Stephen Sondheim
Broadway musical for which music already existed, and "James and the Giant Peach
" for which the musical score was done by Randy Newman ).
To date Elfman has scored the following Burton films:
Burton has said of Elfman: "We don't even have to talk about the music. We don't even have to intellectualize – which is good for both of us, we're both similar that way. We're very lucky to connect" (Breskin, 1997).
Elfman’s film scores can be described as dark and brooding, lush and romantic, wild and manic - reflecting the many composers and styles which have influenced him over the years.
He recalls that the first time he became aware of film music was in his youth during a screening of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951). The music was by Bernard Herrmann, and that, he has said, was where his love of film music began (Russell and Young, 2000). Elfman purposefully nodded towards Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still score in Tim Burton's sci-fi spoof Mars Attacks!
Other film composers have also proven to be influential, such as Nino Rota and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the former in Elfman's playful music for Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the latter in his much grander work, Batman. Sometimes his music has a distinctly Russian feel, inspired by the likes of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, while his frequent use of choirs reflects his love of choral music by the likes of Mozart and Carl Orff. Jazz and rock influences from his earlier career are evident in such films as Chicago and To Die For.
According to Alex Ross
of The New Yorker
, Elfman's "rock origins and lack of classical training raised doubts at the start; some established composers considered him a 'hummer'—Hollywood slang for a would-be composer who can’t read music and relies on ghostwriters
After the release of Batman, Elfman reacted to comments in Keyboard Magazine wherein Micah Rubenstein conjectured that a rock musician like Elfman, not classically trained, probably didn't even write out the musical score to Batman. Speaking on behalf of "the many musicians, composers, and arrangers who lack formal education," Keyboard published an open letter by Elfman in March 1990. Elfman referred to Rubenstein's comments as a growing "musical elitism," stating he worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for a month and a half to write the Batman score, and called Rubenstein a "dumb fuck" for supposing that Elfman didn't write down his scores: "...I actually wrote it down - I will not sit back passively and allow myself to be discredited for the work I did by an idiot who mistakenly thinks that I lazily hire people to do it for me, or that only a conservatory can produce a real film composer."
And, as Alex Ross notes, Elfman has gone on to receive Academy Award nominations and other accolades for his work.
When asked during a 2007 phone-in interview on XETRA-FM
if he ever had any notions of performing in an Oingo Boingo
reunion, Elfman immediately rejected the idea and stated that in the last few years with the band he had begun to develop significant and irreversible hearing damage
as a result of his continuous exposure to the high noise levels involved in performing in a rock
band. He went on to say that he believes his hearing damage is partially due to a genetic
predisposition to hearing loss, and that he will never return to the stage for fear of worsening the condition.
In addition to his work with Tim Burton
, Elfman has written scores for numerous other films including:
- Forbidden Zone (Richard Elfman, 1980)
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Cameron Crowe, 1982)
- Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985)
- Back to School, (Alan Metter, 1986)
- Wisdom (Emilio Estevez, Robert Wise, 1986)
- Big Top Pee-wee (Randal Kleiser, 1988)
- Midnight Run (Martin Brest, 1988)
- Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988)
- Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990)
- Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, 1990)
- Nightbreed (Clive Barker, 1990)
- Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1993) (theme)
- Sommersby (Jon Amiel, 1993)
- Black Beauty (Caroline Thompson, 1994)
- Dolores Claiborne (Taylor Hackford, 1995)
- Dead Presidents (Hughes Brothers, 1995)
- To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995)
- The Frighteners (Peter Jackson, 1996)
- Freeway (Matthew Bright, 1996)
- Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)
- Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)
- Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997)
- A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998)
- Instinct (Jon Turteltaub, 1999)
- Proof of Life (Taylor Hackford, 1999)
- The Family Man (Brett Ratner, 2000)
- Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) (The instrumental pieces "After Midnight" and "Roxie's Suite")
- Men in Black II (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2002)
- Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002)
- Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002)
- Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003)
- Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
- Deep Sea 3D (Howard Hall, 2006)
- Nacho Libre (Jared Hess, 2006) (Ramses Suite)
- Charlotte's Web (Gary Winick, 2006)
- Meet the Robinsons (Steve Anderson, 2007)
- The Kingdom (Peter Berg, 2007)
- Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007)
- Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008)
- Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008)
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008)
- Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
- ''The Wolf Man (2009 film) (Joe Johnston, 2009)
He has also written the theme music for several television series, including:
His other work includes:
- The opening title theme of the 2004 video game Fable.
- The opening title theme as well as major themes of the 2008 video game "Fable II"
- Elfman was in Finding Kraftland for his agent Richard Kraft.
Serenada Schizophrana and concert works
Elfman has recently started working in the classical world, beginning with Serenada Schizophrana
for the American Composers Orchestra
. It was conducted by John Mauceri
on its recording and by Steven Sloane at its premiere at Carnegie Hall
in New York City
on 23 February 2005
. After its premiere, it was recorded in studio and released onto SACD
on 3 October 2006
. The meeting with Mauceri proved fruitful as the composer was encouraged then to write a new concert piece for Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Elfman composed an "overture to a nonexistent musical" and called the piece "The Overeager Overture."
Selected awards and nominations