After 30 years as Hollywood's coolest film composer, Danny Elfman still has something to prove
If Disney ever wanted to reboot "Toy Story" as a horror franchise, they'd do well to tap the curiously creepy collection that famed film and TV composer Danny Elfman keeps in his East Hollywood recording compound.
Animators could do a tracking shot through the enclosed loading dock, into Elfman's studio and be greeted by the man himself, who'd introduce his little buddies: a pair of fist-sized, shrunken human heads that occupy space on a table in the corner of a cavernous entry room.
Protected in glass display cases a few steps away from a similar case housing an original Jack Skellington doll from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (Elfman provided the singing voice of Skellington, as well as the film's songs and score), the shriveled noggins sit among various Victorian medical devices, detached mannequin hands, busts of clowns, doll parts and other macabre curios that constitute the life-long Angeleno's aesthetic.
Recently, Elfman, who just turned 68, opened his studio doors for an extended conversation on his life's work as a composer — a resume filled with Oscar, Emmy and Grammy nominations, but best known for his 16 film scores for director Tim Burton and for the theme song to "The Simpsons" — and how all that informed "Big Mess," Elfman's first solo album in more than 30 years, which came out recently via Anti-/Epitaph.
During the afternoon, Eflman variously describes himself as insecure, competitive, hyperactive, weird and obsessive. At one point, he pulls up his shirt to reveal six-pack abs and a torso dense with tattoos.
"I thrive on negative energy," he says. "I was reviled by every other composer, understandably. I was a jerk from a rock band," referring to his punk-era art-rock band Oingo Boingo. That disdain, he continues, was "the best thing that could have happened to me because every single score I did for Tim was all about, 'I'll show those (expletive). Give me your hate. All you (expletive) are going to be imitating me in your next score.'
"I'm a little bit like Godzilla," he says. "You try to throw an atomic bomb on me, and it just makes me stronger."
"Big Mess" is the closest Elfman's ever come to making a rock album, and it's as filled with sonic incitements as his compound is with grimly alluring paintings and images by Joel-Peter Witkin, Mark Ryden and Henry Darger. Spanning 18 songs and nearly 75 minutes, it's a fiercely political work filled with bombastic peaks and strikingly meditative valleys that focuses on the internal and external strife caused by living in a country torn apart by hate, racism, ignorance and corruption.
"We reached a point in 2020 where I felt like we were living a dystopian novel version of America," he says. "Trumpism is literally 'Two plus two equals five because Trump says it's five.' I didn't think that was possible. The big mess was all around me."
How fans of Elfman's filmic work receive "Big Mess" depends on whether or not they're willing to fully immerse themselves in such a beast of a project. As if anticipating the reaction, the artist apologizes five times in the first song, "Sorry," and again in the second song, "True," a work whose opening stanza concludes with the line, "Why do I live in hell?"
In fact, Elfman lives "somewhere north of Los Angeles" with his wife, the actor Bridget Fonda, and their teenage son Oliver. Elfman also has two adult daughters, Lola and Mali, from his marriage to Geri Eisenmenger.
Oingo Boingo to soundtracks
His early band Oingo Boingo, established in 1979, mixed ska, punk, jazz and a Zappa-esque experimental streak during the rise of new wave. After the dissolution of the group, Elfman entered the world of film scoring, collaborating with Burton on the director's first feature film, "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," the now-classic 1985 movie starring Paul Reubens. "None of the old guard really accepted him," Burton recalls, describing the tension as "a rite of passage, but it was a two-way street."
Famously, Elfman fired legendary film composer and conductor Lionel Newman after a "Beetlejuice" session in which a sarcastic Newman derisively called him "Beethoven" in front of the orchestra.
Elfman's Oingo Boingo bandmate and longtime arranger Steve Bartek witnessed the Newman exchange from the control room. "Lionel thought it was his place to have an idea what the score should be like, and it was not Danny's idea," says Bartek. According to Bartek, they later learned that Newman had been telling the orchestra the opposite of what Elfman had instructed. "Danny is very adept at how to say what it is he wants," observes Bartek.
That skill has continually drawn Elfman into Burton's world, even if both have acknowledged creative tension in the past. Asked whether he and Elfman's partnership has ever devolved into screaming, Burton replies dryly, "It's more like psychological torture."
Despite the torture, Burton keeps returning to his decadeslong collaborator because his work wends its way into movies until it becomes an invisible character. Elfman's scores also perform well, which Burton first witnessed during a prerelease "Beetlejuice" showing. Producers first screened without Elfman's score. "It didn't test that well," says Burton. "Then when we put the score in it was like adding a character — it was part of (the movie). It was like missing an actor if you didn't have it in there. That's happened quite a bit."
Elfman's scores have gone on to propel hit films from Burton's "Batman" to Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting" to Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man." He won an Emmy for his opening theme to "Desperate Housewives."
When COVID brought the curtain down on live music, Elfman fell into what he called "a deep funk." Because of his anticipated concert schedule, he'd turned down all 2020 scoring projects. He was as idle as he'd ever been. "The first year that I'm finally taking no film music in order to commit to live performances — and it completely implodes."
"Big Mess" wasn't finished when Elfman invited Epitaph Records owner and Bad Religion founder Brett Gurewitz to his studio. Gurewitz likened the meeting to "having a tour of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory by Wonka himself. He showed me his collection of esoteric instruments and objects and eventually took me to a studio where we listened to highlights from the record."
Gurewitz was awed by what he heard, telling Elfman that it reminded him of "a gothic 'Sgt. Pepper.'" Gurewitz adds, "Danny doesn't really don't really have a rock background — he just sort of makes it up as it goes along. But he's taking everything he's learned on the scoring and orchestral side, and combining that with his innate goth-rock style."
"He's uncompromising," Gurewitz adds. "He has a vision. It's a bizarre vision, and we just want to facilitate it."
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