Danny Elfman is composer du jour at the multiplex with his recent scores for THE WOLFMAN and ALICE IN WONDERLAND. So it seemed the perfect time to add him to the “9 on the 9th” lineup.
Though I enjoy Elfman’s music, he is not someone I usually turn to when I just want to listen to film music. So when I initially started writing this post, I thought I’d struggle to find nine scores that I really enjoyed. Oddly enough, I found more enjoyment compiling this list than some other composers.
Following his breakthrough in 1985 with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, Elfman has made himself a permanent fixture in Hollywood and the rare successful crossover from the world of pop and rock. His style is unmistakable and he has composed in nearly ever genre. His latest scores are too new to make the list (and I haven’t listened to them enough), but expect reviews of them in the next week or so.
Elfman is one of those rare composers that appeals to nearly ever film music fan. While his masterpiece still awaits, he is a wonderfully consistent composer. And there’s not a dud anywhere on this list.
9. SPIDER-MAN (2002)
Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN films are arguably some of the best of the comic book films and they inspired some of Elfman’s best work as well. Backed by a continuous sixteenth note accompaniment that almost sounds like the spinning of a web, the main theme is more heroic than some of his other superhero themes. The music flies through the air with the grace and ease of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker.
8. MARS ATTACKS! (1996)
I’ve never been able to make it all the way through MARS ATTACKS! I find it only fitfully funny, but Elfman’s homage to Bernard Herrmann and other 1950’s sci-fi scores is one of his best. The scores spans everything from patriotic music to action cues, but it is the eerie sci-fi element that makes this score so unmistakable. And any score that can find a use for the theremin is all right by me.
7. ARTICLE 99 (1992)
I’ve never seen this medical comedy/drama for fear that it wouldn’t match the level of Elfman’s beautiful score. With a lovely main theme based around a haunting 4-note motif, the score is one of Elfman’s most melodic. This was my first indication of actual depth and heart in Elfman’s music.
6. MEN IN BLACK (1997)
It took over a decade before Elfman cracked his way into Oscar’s Big Boys Club. In 1997, he was double nominated for his dramatic score to GOOD WILL HUNTING and in the Musical/Comedy category with MEN IN BLACK. I never understood why MIB became a massive hit, but it’s one of those films that I keep watching if I come across it on TV. Electric guitars, harmonics and swirling sixteenth notes in the strings supply the musical bug sounds, while Elfman gives us one of his tenderest melodies for K’s (Tommy Lee Jones) memories of his wife. A far worthier nominee that year than the Oscar-winning THE FULL MONTY.
5. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
The score that launched Elfman’s career and one of his most bouyant. Elfman seems to be winking at us all through the entire score, but never pandering. Pee-Wee wouldn’t be Pee-Wee without Elfman’s music accompanying him, and this goofy, stupid, wonderful film pedals along on the some of the most joyous cues ever committed to film.
Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY was a beautiful mess of a movie. Gorgeous in its costumes and set design, but empty and flat emotionally. Yet Elfman gives us one of his most heroic themes and a great Golden Age-like love theme for Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney. The 1920s atmosphere also allowed him to add jazz elements which elevates this score above its onscreen comic book silliness.
3. GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997)
Elfman’s score to GOOD WILL HUNTING was like a breath of fresh air. The melodies seldom sit still for long and the harmonies are in constant motion, like the brain cells of Matt Damon’s Will. The tin whistle gives a hint of the Irish for the Boston South End atmosphere, while the music swells and subsides against a wordless chorus and gentle guitar accompaniment. Elfman’s music keeps the sentimentality of Ben Affleck and Damon’s Oscar-winning screenplay to a minimum, adding a layer of real emotion and psychological depth.
2. BATMAN (1989)
From the beginning of his career, Elfman has found a kindred spirit in director Tim Burton. Few director/composer relationships are as successful or have lasted as long. In 1989 the two changed the face of the superhero genre with the first film in the BATMAN franchise. Gone were the brash heroic brass of other superhero scores like John Williams’ SUPERMAN, a style that had ruled the genre for a decade. Taking its place was a darker, more twisted musical vision that has been copied by numerous other composers and remains to this day.
1. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Tim Burton has always had a problem with a cohesive storyline and character development in his films. But EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is one of his best. Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder convey some real emotion and Elfman ventures into a truly magical fantasy realm that he has yet to match. The music soars on a gorgeous main theme and a memorable waltz, while the wordless chorus take us into another world and gives this very strange story a musical universality that brings the characters to life. It’s a style that has been imitated by countless others but never matched. A true classic.