This week I have gone all in on the music of Danny Elfman – and though I can’t say I’ve been all-in before, not in this way (devouring the scores, finding rarities, searching deep) I can tell you that I’ve been obsessed with Elfman’s music for about 30 years. It was probably the 1989 Batman film that hipped me; I’d have heard his music before but possibly without really knowing the name. After Batman I was all in, because that film was massive for me. Prince’s songs, the cast, the director, the bubblegum cards. It was time and place.
And because in that 1988-1992 period there was so much Elfman stuff for me. Well, for all of us, but I was at the right age – Batman and its sequel, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Darkman, Dick Tracy, The Simpsons…
It’s a staggering body of work. And in some ways it’s just the very beginning.
Of course the actual beginning is the band Oingo Boingo – something I would backtrack to, and realise I loved the song Weird Science (who doesn’t?!) And then find that it was under Oingo that Elfman first scored a film. He made a solo album – it’s really a Boingo record but it just carries Danny’s name alone – and then he was off and into the world of film-scoring; his partnership with director Tim Burton one of the great composer/director couplings. So much so that a film like The Nightmare Before Christmas is now as well known for its music as for any other aspect. Elfman has taken to the stage across the years to perform the music, and to inhabit the lead character ‘Jack’. He’s really only ever on stage as Jack. Never as himself.
That was until the last couple of weeks. Elfman appeared at Coachella. I watched the live stream on YouTube. My mouth on the ground, it suddenly weighed a lot with my heart sitting right there inside it.
I have loved this music for three full decades and for some of a fourth – which is most of my life. This is the same sort of impact as the music of Prince, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and very few others. And in terms of film composers it’s really only Ennio Morricone, John Williams and John Carpenter that have had anything close to the impact of Elfman – for me. Hans Zimmer too, perhaps. But it’s a very small club.
For his Coachella appearances, Elfman was leading a kick-arse rock band with Josh Freese on drums and Wes Borland on guitar. He was playing guitar and percussion himself. There was a choir and giant orchestra, and in 80 minutes they moved seamlessly from his new return to rock music (a 2021 pandemic album) through some of the highlights from the film scores, to plenty of Oingo Boingo’s weird and wonderful music. I watched it all twice. Instantly just rewound to where it started and watched it all over again.
So much joy. So bonkers. And brilliant. Beautiful. Weird. Wonderful. Just everything!
When I was at university, I had the two volumes of Elfman’s Music For A Darkened Theatre. The first collects up the 1980s, that initial purple patch, the second is the early 1990s – a bit more serious and when he starts to wander away from Burton, as well as returning to work on plenty of things with Tim. Those two compilation albums were so crucial to my understanding of great film music, part of what moved me towards listening to classical music, and just a special part of my listening diet – two compilations I sincerely wish I had not parted with; oh to find them again one day!
So, as is always the case for me, as much as it was about watching the 68-year-old Elfman ripping through this amazing selection of ‘hits’ from his various catalogues, it was also about thinking about 13-year-old Batman-obsessed me, thinking about when the theme from The Simpsons first entered my head (and how it’s never really left). And that beautiful suite of music from Edward Scissorhands. The film is quite one thing, the music is something else – a beautiful and crucial element of it, but on its own it is one of the things that has helped me to understand artistic beauty and vision. I sometimes think it’s one of the most perfect albums to ever exist, one of the truly special things in music. (I quite often start my day in the early hours with a cup of tea, a good book, and the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack on my turntable).
Watching Danny Elfman’s set over the weekend – and then again (and again) – was emotional. And it’s set me off. I’m working back through the catalogue, hearing a few things I’ve never heard before, listening deep to albums I know and love so well. And of course this is work that I’ll probably never finish…there’s around 100 film scores. Some of them are only oncers too, but most of them have some element of that special something.
I’m still only in the first golden period, up to the early 1990s – so I’m hearing how it’s no stretch to connect the composer of The Simpsons theme with the guy that made the music for Beetlejuice; how Batman, Darkman and Dick Tracy are so obviously linked, connected.
I guess this is all just to say that I still love how music does this to me. And how I do this to music in return. I seek it, crave it, try and care for it. I hold it (for as long as I can) and always try my best to acknowledge that what’s really happening is that the music is actually holding me.