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Because he hailed from the annals of rock music and was never a classically trained musician, Danny Elfman struggled to gain acceptance among his peers on the road to becoming one of Hollywood's most prolific and respected film composers. Elfman began his career in the late-1970s as the singer-songwriter of the acclaimed rock band Oingo Boingo, which developed a significant following in Southern California, but failed to reach national prominence. Unable to quell occasional rumors that others had written his own scores, he found success to be the best revenge, particularly in his long-running collaboration with director Tim Burton. In fact, Elfman worked with the director on most of his films, including "Batman" (1989), "Sleepy Hollow" (1999) and "Big Fish" (2003) - the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Though he often cited Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Bartok as his favorite classical composers, Elfman felt greater affinity to classic Hollywood composers Bernard Herrmann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa and Franz Waxman, whose influence were heard in his scores for "Men in Black" (1997) and "A Simple Plan" (1998). By the time he composed his Oscar-nominated score for "Milk"...
Because he hailed from the annals of rock music and was never a classically trained musician, Danny Elfman struggled to gain acceptance among his peers on the road to becoming one of Hollywood's most prolific and respected film composers. Elfman began his career in the late-1970s as the singer-songwriter of the acclaimed rock band Oingo Boingo, which developed a significant following in Southern California, but failed to reach national prominence. Unable to quell occasional rumors that others had written his own scores, he found success to be the best revenge, particularly in his long-running collaboration with director Tim Burton. In fact, Elfman worked with the director on most of his films, including "Batman" (1989), "Sleepy Hollow" (1999) and "Big Fish" (2003) - the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Though he often cited Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Bartok as his favorite classical composers, Elfman felt greater affinity to classic Hollywood composers Bernard Herrmann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa and Franz Waxman, whose influence were heard in his scores for "Men in Black" (1997) and "A Simple Plan" (1998). By the time he composed his Oscar-nominated score for "Milk" (2008), Elfman had gained the respect of his critics while becoming one the top echelon composers working in Hollywood.
Born on May 29, 1953 in Los Angeles, CA, Elfman was raised by his father, Milton, a teacher, and his mother, Blossom, a noted author of children's books and a screenwriter. Elfman spent a lot of time in his youth going to movies and learning music from film composer Bernard Herrmann, whom he considered to be his mentor despite never having met with him or even studied with anyone else. After his parents moved from Baldwin Hills to Brentwood, Elfman attended University High School in Los Angeles, but he dropped out and moved to Paris where his brother, Richard, was living. While in France, he played his violin in the streets and joined Le Gran Magic Circus, an avant-garde musical theater group. Elfman then spent an entire year wandering about western Africa with little contact with his family. It was on this quiet, lonely sojourn that he discovered African pop called Highlife - a mix of reggae and salsa with horns - that proved to be influential on his later style. Meanwhile, Elfman reunited with Richard in Los Angeles, where the brothers assembled the bizarrely-named Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a musical troupe that was a semi-theatrical band that offered both improvisational music and dramatic performances.
In 1976, Elfman stepped forward to become the band's primary songwriter and lead vocalist after Richard began moving towards filmmaking. Two years later, the Mystical Knights broke up and Elfman reformed the band as simply Oingo Boingo, a high-energy polyrhythmic band with frenzied horns that burned up the Los Angeles club scene throughout the 1980s. Though wildly popular in Southern California, Oingo Boingo failed to catch on nationally to the same extent. Meanwhile, he began composing film scores with "Forbidden Zone" (1980), a weird mess of a movie that only appealed to fans of Elfman's band. Five years later, Elfman began a long and fruitful creative collaboration with director Tim Burton on "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" (1985), for which he composed a zany fun house score. After writing the memorable title song for "Weird Science" (1985) with Oingo Boingo, Elfman reunited with Burton to compose the music for "Beetlejuice" (1988) and "Big Top Pee-Wee" (1988), both of which allowed him to hone his skills for creating impish, antic and even lush symphonic scores that added a wrinkle of wry wit, dark grandeur and twisted sentimentality. By the time he composed the score to "Batman" (1989), the relationship between Elfman and Burton was forever solidified.
Elfman continued to work with some of Hollywood's top directors, including Sam Raimi, who hired him to compose the score for his superhero action flick, "Darkman" (1990), and Warren Betty on "Dick Tracy" (1990). But because he was an untrained composer and the lead singer of a rock band, Elfman was not embraced by the industry's film and television composing community, some of whom he referred to as being elite. In fact, around the time "Batman" was released, Elfman was criticized in Keyboard Magazine for his lack of musical education. He was even accused of using ghost composers for the film; an accusation he deftly countered in an open letter that ran in the same publication. Meanwhile, Elfman continued working with Burton, scoring the music for "Edward Scissorhands" (1990) and "Batman Returns" (1992). In addition to his collaboration with Burton, Elfman was noted for composing the theme for "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) and working with Todd Rundgren on the music underscoring the antics of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" (CBS, 1986-1991).
Despite being shunned by his contemporaries, by the mid-1990s, Elfman was a highly sought composer by filmmakers looking for something less ordinary. He had a good year in 1993, scoring the features "Sommersby," Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness," for which he wrote the "March of the Dead" theme, and "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," a rather personal and demanding project that had him providing input on the story and script, composing lyrics and music for 10 songs, and providing the singing voice for the protagonist Jack Skellington. Elfman's prolific output expanded in the mid- to late-1990s, which included the lovely underscore to "Black Beauty" (1994), as well as the appropriately understated, but nonetheless thrilling music for "Delores Claiborne" (1995). Also that year, Elfman announced that Oingo Boingo was dissolving after having been dropped by their record company and undergoing a lineup shuffle. The band performed their final concert on Halloween - one of their staple shows - in 1995 and amicably parted ways. A decade later, Elfman was asked about a possible reunion, which he dismissed out of hand, citing irreversible hearing loss as being one of the causes of Oingo Boingo's breakup. Though it was the end of an era, Elfman continued to thrive, once again working with Burton on the campy sci-fi spoof, "Mars Attacks!" (1996).
After collaborating with director Brian De Palma on the score for "Mission: Impossible" (1996), Elfman was finally welcomed into the Hollywood mainstream with his work on "Good Will Hunting" (1997), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, and "Men in Black" (1997), which earned an Academy Award nod for Best Musical or Comedy Score. Because of Elfman's ability to create haunting and offbeat scores, he became a favorite of directors who made films of a similar vein, including Sam Raimi, who hired the composer a third time to write the music for "A Simple Plan" (1998). Not only did Elfman help Raimi build the tension between three friends torn apart after finding $4 million in a crashed plane, but he met actress Bridget Fonda, whom he eventually married in 2003. While Elfman's highest profile work was in features, he made numerous contributions to the small screen over the years, including writing the theme music to such animated series as "The Adventures of Batman & Robin" (Fox, 1992-99) and "Dilbert" (UPN, 1998-2000), many episodes of the horror anthology series "Tales From the Crypt" (HBO, 1989-1996), and the main title theme for the hit comedic drama, "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004- ).
But films allowed Elfman the widest canvas and the most recognition. Following in the footsteps of idol Bernard Herrmann, Elfman recreated the music for Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho" (1998), then reunited with Burton on the eerie, Gustav Mahler-like score for "Sleepy Hollow" (1999). As the new millennium approached and came into being, Elfman found himself accepting more mainstream studio projects; doors that largely seemed closed before his two Oscar nominations in 1997. He scored such movies as "Never Been Kissed" (1999), starring Drew Barrymore, the coming-of-age drama "Anywhere But Here" (1999) with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, the romantic thriller "Proof of Life" (2000) and "The Family Man" (2000), starring Nicolas Cage as an investment broker who learns that having a wonderful family is more important than money. Following a brief detour into low-budget documentaries to write songs for "Condo Painting" (2000), a look at the life and work of painter George Condo, Elfman worked with jack-of-all-trades Robert Rodriguez on "Spy Kids" (2000), then embarked on his eight collaboration with Tim Burton for "Planet of the Apes" (2001).
In 2002, Elfman had a banner year, teaming with Sam Raimi on the blockbuster comic book adaptation for "Spider-Man," scoring the sequel "Men in Black II," creating the haunting music for the Hannibal Lecter thriller "Red Dragon," and writing two original instrumental pieces for the award-winning musical, "Chicago." After working again with Raimi on the music for "The Hulk" (2003), Elfman earned his third Oscar nomination for his umpteenth collaboration with Tim Burton on the whimsical fantasy, "Big Fish" (2003). Elfman stayed with Burton for his next two films, "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" (2005) and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), then composed all the music for the Jack Black sports comedy "Nacho Libre" (2006). Now one of the most productive and respected composers in the business, Elfman worked on some of Hollywood's biggest movies, including "Charlotte's Web" (2006), "Spider-Man 3" (2007) and "Meet the Robinsons" (2007). Elfman earned his fourth career Academy Award nod for his music in "Milk" (2008), Gus Van Sant's compelling biopic about slain San Francisco politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). Continuing his exemplary work, Elfman scored "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) for director Tim Burton, which led to a Grammy nomination for Best Score Soundtrack and a Golden Globe nod for Best Original Score - Motion Picture.
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"I'm the nay-sayer, the voice of doom. I see film music getting worse every year. I see more and more music factories building up now--faceless composing where composers can become extremely successful by doing nothing but imitating existing scores." --Danny Elfman quoted in LOS ANGELES TIMES, November 23, 1997
Elfman's fellow Oingo Boingo member, Steve Bartek orchestrates his scores, and music editor Bob Badami and conductor Shirley Walker have been involved with most of his projects as well. Elfman has recording and screening facilities in his home.
"My greatest criticism of film music is of my own generation: the Synclavier composers who just come up with themes and turn them over to orchestrators. It's the ultimate irony to me that I am accused of that which I detest the most. I get myself wrapped up in these scores that take so much time and energy that every time I finish one I swear I'll never do another one. On the other hand, whenever I listen to the wonderful scores written between 1940 and 1960, it reminds me, 'That's why I do it. That's what I love about it.' It's not the money and it's not the prestige--it's somehow tapping into what inspired me when I was young and watching these movies and loving film music so much." --Danny Elfman interviwed by Frank Thompson in "Settling the Score" in THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, January 18, 1993
"Dolby sound was the death of the classic film score, the single worst thing that ever happened to film music, because it marked the end of film music being a major character and the beginning of sound effects being a major character." --Danny Elfman quoted in an article written by Stephen Rebello in MOVIELINE, November 1993
"The fact is I taught myself notation because I had to. It's sloppy and I often slip in and out of proper key signatures but every note that I want to hear is there. And as laughable as my scores may look to a very well-trained musician, I do work 12 hours a day, often seven days a week writing the goddamn stuff down and getting it to sound exactly like I want it to sound." --Danny Elfman interviewed by Frank Thompson in "Settling the Score" in THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, January 18, 1993
"His compositions for Burton's movies are stuff that seem to navigate the Burton mindscape the way Nino Rota's do Federico Fellini's and Bernard Herrmann's do Alfred Hitchcock's." --Stephen Rebello, MOVIELINE, November 1993
"I'm trying to redefine something that's very popular at the moment. I knew that I'd catch a lot of heat from people saying, 'Where's the hit?', I'm trying to explain that's not the idea. Songs should be glued to their musical and have no life outside of it." --Elfman on his views on what a musical should be (from VILLAGE VOICE, November 3, 1993)
"All I can hope is that I have the ability to keep expanding musically, because when I tire of a certain style, I can't keep doing it. I'm not the type of professional who can just go, 'What the hell, it's a job.'" --Elfman quoted in PREMIERE, January 1991
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