Thirty-five years ago marked the beginning of one of the most fruitful and creative musical partnerships in cinema — between Danny Elfman, the eccentric frontman of Los Angeles new wave band Oingo Boingo, and director Tim Burton — when Burton’s Pee-wee's Big Adventure hit theaters. The fantastical road-trip comedy was the first major studio project for Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-Wee), for Burton, and for Elfman, and it was an instant classic. Elfman (who recently launched his in-depth MasterClass, Making Music Out of Chaos) went on to score 15 other Burton films, including Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and, most recently, Dumbo.
But incredibly, Elfman tells Yahoo Entertainment that he never thought he’d have a career in music at all. It was only because he was “drafted” by another filmmaker — his older brother Richard, Oingo Boingo’s co-founder and director of the 1980 cult flick Forbidden Zone, which featured Danny’s original score — that he fell into music at all. And even after he landed his first Hollywood job, the younger Elfman was still convinced that it was a one-time endeavor. He genuinely never expected to become one of the most prolific and acclaimed film composers of the modern age.
“I didn’t even think it’d ever be more than just one movie. I thought it was a fluke. I couldn’t even fathom what I’d be doing in 10 years, let alone 30,” Elfman admits. “I’d aspired to do film, just not music and film. When I was younger, had I not been drafted into being a street performer and more or less pulled into music, I thought I’d go to film school and be a cinematographer, perhaps. I used to dream of making films, but never music. That never even occurred to me.”
Elfman got into music relatively late in life. “It all started with visiting my brother in France when I was 18,” he recalls. “He was playing drums with a musical theatrical troupe called the Grand Magic Circus, and I got drafted. I had only been playing violin for four months, and I had a violin with me because I was practicing. It was pure chance, happenstance. He heard me playing and said, ‘Come on the road with us,’ and so I did. I had no clue that music was going to be in my life. Then my brother started the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and he drafted me into that troupe. Then he left the troupe and did Forbidden Zone, and had me do the music for that movie. That kind of started everything.
“Forbidden Zone was technically the first time I put music to film, but Pee-wee was the first time I actually wrote it down and had an orchestra and really scored a film from beginning to end. With Forbidden Zone, I was looking at the picture and coming up with music and getting it more or less as close as I could to the picture, but I wasn't synchronizing and scoring in the real sense of a film score. It certainly was my first time doing it.”
Elfman didn’t know what was in store when he got the gig that would change his life. “Literally, I got called by an animator. I first assumed they were looking for a song, and then Tim said he’d like a score. And really, I didn’t understand. Why me? But Tim knew my work with Oingo Boingo, and he thought I could do more. And Paul Reubens knew my work in Forbidden Zone and liked that. My name somehow came up… and both of them were like, ‘Oh, that would be interesting.’ So I went and looked at some footage, and then I went home and I had a little 8-track tape player. I did a demo and sent them a cassette. I didn’t think twice about it. I never expected to hear back. But that became the main title to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
Elfman’s Pee-wee score, with its goofy oompah riffs, Looney Tunes references, and frenetic pacing, was a wild and whimsical ride; created with Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek, it became one of the most instantly recognizable scores in ‘80s cinema. Elfman acknowledges that he quickly became the movie and TV industry’s go-to “quirky comedy guy” — for instance, Matt Groening later enlisted him to compose the Simpsons theme song. It was a label that was tough for Elfman to shed when he was hired by skeptical producers to compose an uncharacteristically darker-sounding score for Burton’s Batman, four years after Pee-wee. But it turns out the most skeptical person in Hollywood was Elfman himself.
“I thought [Pee-wee Herman’s Big Adventure] was one-off thing and a cool experience, and I’d probably never do it again,” Elfman says. “Who’d want to hire me after this? In fact, I thought the score would get thrown out. I assumed Warner Bros. would listen to the score, toss it, and hire a ‘real’ composer and do it right. That’s really what I thought. But once Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out, to my astonishment, I was almost immediately offered every quirky comedy made in Hollywood. I couldn’t have been more surprised. I think it was one of those cases of being in the right time at the right place. I was happy to keep doing it.”
Looking back on is body of work with Burton — specifically their first five iconic partnerships: Pee-wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas — Elfman definitely realizes his unique and fortunate position. “Everything I did with Tim was like starting completely from scratch. There was no template to turn to. … I didn’t know at the time that I was doing stuff that had no model whatsoever. Nobody was watching us. And anything went.”
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