His name has become synonymous with dark shadows and strange beauty, and American composer Danny Elfman has had a hell of a time on screen over the last four decades. From the low-budget, childish hijinx of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) to the big-budget, high-octane comic book fantasy of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), Elfman has really done it all.
But what have been the benchmark moments in his colorful career as a film composer so far? Here’s ten of the best…
10 best film scores by Danny Elfman
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Elfman’s 12th feature score for director Tim Burton saw the composer use a large orchestral palette to support the wide-eyed, blindingly technicolor world of Wonderland. It’s a robust, colorful score full of action set pieces that are – dare I say it – rather forgettable. Elfman’s trump card, though, is his main theme and that’s why it’s in the list – ‘Alice’ is up there as one of the very best things he has ever written. At once haunting and exciting, it features a girls choir singing atop Elfman’s typically topsy-turvy harmonies and rhythms.
Long before the current comic-book blockbuster craze, Danny Elfman somewhat cornered the market in music for superheroes (and antiheroes). Sam Raimi is another director Elfman has bonded with creatively, the pair reconnecting a number of times since their first outing on 1990’s Darkman. Elfman is a bit of a master when it comes to a great ‘Main Title’ theme, and Spider-Man‘s is one of his very best – it has a great, youthful energy and its power is really subtle. Rather like Spidey himself. The wider score features a well-executed balance of orchestra, synthetic elements and guitar, an overall sound world that became typical of the composer in the noughties and beyond.
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
By the mid-’90s Elfman had truly established himself as one of film’s most individual talents, particularly in the realm of fantasy. He had also begun to prove his talent in more ‘grown-up’ drama, with scores like Article 99 (1992) and the brilliant Sommersby (1993). Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne allowed the composer to dig even deeper, with Elfman delivering a score that was light of touch (pianostrings, harp) but remarkably adept at creating a sense of introspective, brooding drama. Ten years later Pee-wee’s Big AdventureDanny Elfman had come of age.
Black Beauty (1994)
This was such a fertile period for Elfman, who was juggling regular high-profile projects for the likes of Tim Burton with smaller dramas. Black Beauty is another high watermark moment for the composer, composing what is perhaps one of his most traditional scores. It features lovely thematic material, with a lilting flute melody, gossamer strings, playful woodwinds (the most recognizably ‘Elfmanesque’ of the score’s elements) and a lot of piano. The music has a warmth and homespun folksy quality hitherto unheard, and it’s a winning tone Elfman would return to in later scores like Big Fish (2003) and Charlotte’s Web (2006).
Planet of the Apes (2001)
It’s time Tim Burton’s take on Planet of the Apes was reassessed. Pre-dating the performance-capture technology that made the most recent Apes franchise so visually stunning, it really made the most of just how far practical make-up effects had come. Burton’s Apes might have its flaws, but it is a feast for the eyes and ears. Elfman’s contribution to the film remains one of his most underrated works. He employs a staggering amount of percussion and unusual instrumentation, which joins the orchestra and top-notch synthetic nodes to create a thrillingly muscular soundscape.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Tim Burton, Danny Elfman and Gothic Horror are a match made in heaven. Burton’s film is truly one of his most beautiful to look at and Elfman’s music matches it on a sweepingly large orchestral canvas. He employs choral forces to spinechilling effect and unleashes a battery of symphonic blood and thunder as the Headless Horseman works his way through the townsfolk. There’s a childlike fairytale quality to the main theme, and an awesome sense of horror – it’s almost like everything the composer has loved, and learned, was building up to this moment.
Elfman set out his stall with Burton’s feature debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventurein 1985. That score was a preview of coming attractions in terms of Elfman’s colorful approach to film music, replete with nods to Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann, and so their second feature is perhaps more self-assured – though no less colourful. Beetlejuice (both the film and its music) is weird, wacky and wonderful. Yes there are starring moments for a pair of Harry Belafonte songs, but Elfman’s mad-cap musical accompaniment is breathless, bonkers and brilliant.
Batman (1989) / Batman Returns (1992)
Cheating here somewhat; how can you choose between these two? Batman was a leap into the unknown for Elfman, who set about taking on his biggest project yet. And he almost walked away when execs wanted Prince to participate in scoring duties – as it was the late icon produced some songs for the film and a top-selling soundtrack album. Elfman, thankfully, looked after the film’s musical light and shade, and there was plenty of the latter. One of Elfman’s most iconic themes sits at the heart of the first score, which otherwise saw the composer create a thumpingly good score, full of gothic drama and some carnivalesque hijinx. The sequel found Elfman more comfortable in his skin, having more fun with his music and delivering a score even more vivid and thrilling than the first.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This was something of a magnum opus for Danny Elfman, who not only wrote the original score for this animated cult classic, but penned all the songs and even performed the singing voice of Jack Skellington. The film itself is a work of art, and Elfman’s contribution is key to its impact. Musically, it sits well within the sound world we came to know and love from the composer in this period, orchestra, choir, color and wit. The songs, though, are something else, the likes of ‘This is Halloween’ and ‘What’s This?’ just beautifully conceived, and executed with love for the characters and world they inhabit.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
After the heaviness, and production stress, of Batman, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman went back to basics with this unusual little suburban fairytale. Like anything to come from the mind of Tim Burton, it’s a curious story, but it’s also very beautiful in its simplicity – a love story, really, and a sweet fantasy. Those core facets inspired Danny Elfman to create his most enduring score, with its music-box-like introduction, swirling waltz theme, strings and choir creating a true sense of wonder. It perfectly underscores Edward’s childlike view of the world, the sweetness of his nature and also the great sadness we feel at just how misunderstood he is. There’s subtle drama, pathos and moments of comedy, too. No wonder it was adapted into a ballet by Matthew Bourne in 2005.
Beetlejuice – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Geffen Records)
Danny Elfman – Violin Concerto; String Quartet (Sony Classical)
Planet of the Apes – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Sony Classical)
Danny Elfman: Music for a Darkened Theater – Film and Television Music, Vol. 1 (MCA Records)
Edward Scissorhands – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCA Records)
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