Born May 29, 1953 (some sources say 1955), near Amarillo, TX; married, two daughters. Addresses: Home-- Santa Monica, CA. Agent-- The Kraft Agency, Inc., 6525 Sunset Blvd., Ste. 407, Hollywood, CA 90028. Management-- LA Personal Development, 1201 Larrabee, Penthouse 302, West Hollywood, CA 90069.

Danny Elfman's exotic collection of folk objects--ranging from Ecuadoran shrunken heads to Mexican Day of the Dead figures--has often inspired him in his musical creation of a dark, humorous, and fantastic world. Elfman has scored over 15 films, concocted numerous television themes, and until 1990 was writing songs and performing with the rock band Oingo Boingo. Despite his successes with film music, however, he is largely considered an amateur composer. He explained in American Film, "It is a generally accepted feeling within the music industry, of composers and would-be composers and wanna-be composers, that I don't write my own music, that I hire ghosts." But Elfman has successfully exorcised his ghosts with the orchestral works Batman and Edward Scissorhands, thus firmly establishing himself in the realm of contemporary film composers that includes giants like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.

In 1971 Elfman returned home to Los Angeles after a yearlong trip through Africa, where he had unearthed the musical roots for both his film work and the sound that would define his band, Oingo Boingo. Upon his return, Elfman's brother Richard asked him to join a theater ensemble called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The Mystic Knights performed a multimedia theatrical revue, initially in the streets, then moving on to more elaborate indoor shows. After eight years with the troupe, Richard redirected his efforts toward independent filmmaking, leaving Danny to form Oingo Boingo from the remaining Mystic Knights. The group had its first Top 40 hit in 1985 with the theme song from the film Weird Science. Despite his eventual triumph in Hollywood, Elfman continued to write songs for the group as well as perform guitar and percussion duties. All of Elfman's scores are orchestrated by Steve Bartek, Oingo Boingo's lead guitarist, who also assists Elfman in producing his soundtrack albums. Dividing his time between scoring and songwriting, Elfman nonetheless allowed in American Film that songs reach "people on a much more personal, direct level" than does orchestral music for film.

Elfman composed his first score in 1980 for his brother's cult film Forbidden Zone; it included several songs by the Mystic Knights. Actor Paul Reubens--more popularly known as Pee-wee Herman--saw the film; it piqued his interest in acquiring a non-traditional composer for his project Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which was released in 1985. This became Elfman's first full orchestral score. He told Keyboard in 1987 that he "really learned to write [music] on Pee-wee's [Big] Adventure. My scores aren't what you would call legit, but they communicate my ideas effectively, and ultimately that's what composition is all about."

Elfman learned how to communicate with an audience from some of the great soundtrack masters. He revealed to Egg, "As a kid I would see movies five, six, seven times if I liked them, and I learned early on that a lot of my favorite '50s and '60s fantasy films had wonderful music by Bernard Herrmann." As a teenager he "would go out at least three nights a week, see every Truffaut, every Fellini--Nino Rota's music became like second nature to me." His awareness at such a young age of the intimate relationship between a film's soundtrack and elements of mood and character made writing soundtracks a very personal endeavor. Composers like Rota, whose work includes the venerable 8 1/2 and The Godfather, and Bernard Herrmann, the genius behind the scores of both Psycho and Citizen Kane, are still his inspiration, and their styles are echoed in many of his works. In Fanfare, Elfman wrote of Pee-wee's Big Adventure that he "was looking for a type of music that was very innocent and light. Bringing in the Nino Rota element felt right for me.... I wanted to find something that immediately put [Pee-wee] over as something from another world living here." Herrmann's influence, too, is evident, particularly in the film's dream sequences.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure marked Elfman's first collaboration with director Tim Burton, with whom he has enjoyed a strong partnership. His relationship with Burton began early on to resemble those of other filmmakers and their composers--Fellini and Rota, Hitchcock and Herrmann. Elfman told Fanfare, "Tim puts me into areas that are very challenging and fun to work with, and yet he allows me the creativity of figuring out how to make it come alive musically." Their second film together was 1988's Beetlejuice. Often cited as Elfman's finest work, the Beetlejuice score combines circus, calypso, and horror motifs to create a discordant musical montage that skillfully complements the comic film. "A funnier, more boldly innovative or more manic score would be virtually impossible to imagine.... Elfman's work is as joyous and rollicking as the film itself," wrote Frederic Silber in Fanfare.

Then, in 1989, Elfman and Burton collaborated on Batman, one of the most commercially successful movies of all time. Burton's tale of the Dark Knight was tailor-made for Elfman's dark, visionary style. The score earned the composer a Grammy nomination for best score and the prized statuette, for best instrumental, in 1990. In an interview with Keyboard, Elfman remarked that the visual imagery of the film helped him create the score, which is filled with driving percussion, energetic horns, and haunting organs. "As soon as I saw Gotham [the setting of the film], I heard the music," Elfman professed. "Tim and I had talked about doing a kind of darkly operatic and Romantic score.... I got my major thematic ideas right there, sitting in the theater and singing into this tape recorder the very first time I was seeing the movie." Once again, Elfman's musical sensibilities were easily wed to Burton's highly developed visual perceptions. Keyboard contributor Robert L. Doerschuk noted in 1989 that Batman could change the face of the movie soundtrack forever. "By writing a soundtrack that stands on its own as an album release and could challenge the Star Wars theme in pops concert programs, Elfman demonstrates that with sufficient talent and dedication ... [he] can transcend the idiom formerly defined by the technology of his studio and write effectively for orchestra."

The composer's next film with Burton, 1990's Edward Scissorhands, produced a score that deftly evoked Burton's fairy-tale imagery. Elfman used a choral backdrop to develop a melancholic vision of the world, producing a work that many feel stands on its own while simultaneously enhancing the title character's feelings and expressions.

Between his ventures with Burton, Elfman composed for a wide range of directors and genres. In 1988 he scored Wisdom, a box-office bomb written, directed by, and starring Emilio Estevez. Fanfare' s Silber wrote of Elfman's contribution, "Suspenseful, hypnotic, pulsating, dream-like, the score succeeds so admirably in every thematic aspect where the film failed so miserably." Also in 1988, Elfman composed scores for two comedies: Hot to Trot and Big Top Pee-wee, the follow-up to Pee-wee's Big Adventure. But the film Elfman considers a turning point is yet another 1988 offering, the box-office hit comedy Midnight Run. The composer noted in Fanfare, "Finally, after all those years, I was asked to do a 'contemporary' score." His next film, however, 1988's horror-comedy Scrooged, was a composer's nightmare: Most of his music was either buried in the film or not used at all.

The following year, two film projects, Nightbreed and Darkman, brought Elfman back to the genre he loves best--horror. Both scores featured shadowy themes combined with tribal chanting and dramatic overtures. Instead of taking the usual route--reviewing scripts to decide which film to score--Elfman sought out director/writers Clive Barker, the mastermind of Nightbreed, and Sam Raimi, father of Darkman. "I wanted very much to work with them, since I love horror," Elfman wrote in American Film. "So I've returned to the genre that inspired me in the first place."

Elfman's soundtrack for another 1990 film, Dick Tracy, directed by and starring Warren Beatty, used Gershwin-esque themes to conjure the 1930s-era setting of the Dick Tracy comic strip. The film earned Elfman a second Grammy nomination for best score. But by 1992, he had again changed directions, this time with the soundtrack for Article 99, the story of a Vietnam veteran's hospital. That score took a more traditional approach to film music but still featured Elfman's signature style. 1992 also found Elfman following up his Batman efforts with the score to Burton's Batman Returns. Entertainment Weekly' s Ty Burr, for one, was unimpressed with the results. Asserting that Elfman had run out of ideas, Burr groused: "Here are the same windswept demon choirs, tinkling music boxes, Fellini carny music, and chic Wagnerian pooting that sounded so great in Edward Scissorhands, Elfman's peak. But like Batman Returns itself, this new score is neurotically hyperactive. It's as if Elfman, stumped for new material, simply opted to throw the old stuff at us faster and louder. That's fine if you're a punching bag. If not, not."

In addition to soundtracks, Elfman has composed several television themes for successful shows like Fox-TV's extremely popular animated The Simpsons and HBO's highly acclaimed Tales From the Crypt. These and other television and soundtrack themes were released in 1990 on a compilation album called Music for a Darkened Theatre: Film and Television Music Volume One.

Throughout his composition adventures, whether with Oingo Boingo, in film, or in television, the prolific Elfman has remained close to the origins of his fascination with the theatrical power of music. "Even now, the way I get around my lack of training and technique is by drawing on my having grown up in a world of movies," he told Fanfare. "Very often, when I'm not sure how to approach something, I say, 'How would I approach this if I were thirteen years old, sitting in a theater, and watching the movie?' In other words, what would make me come alive?" These instincts have, indeed, served him well, which has perhaps given him the confidence to branch out yet again, this time into screenwriting and directing. In January of 1992 Entertainment Weekly reported that Elfman was "developing several oddball projects, including an 'over-the-top' musical titled The World of Jimmy Callicut at Fox and 'a strange and stylized ghost story' he'll also direct called Julian, which Tim Burton is executive producing for Warner Bros."

by Debra Power

Danny Elfman's Career

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, and percussionist for group Oingo Boingo, 1979--. Composer of film scores, including Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Warner Bros., 1985; Batman, Warner Bros., 1989; and Dick Tracy, Buena Vista, 1990; and television themes, including The Simpsons, Fox-TV, and Batman: The Animated Series, Fox-TV. Contributor to soundtrack of film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twentieth Century Fox, 1992.

Danny Elfman's Awards

Grammy Award for best instrumental and Grammy Award nomination for best score, 1990, for Batman; Grammy Award nomination for best score, 1991, for Dick Tracy.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

December 2003: Elfman married actress Bridget Fonda. Source: E! Online,, December 5, 2003.

Further Reading


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