Danny Elfman’s new big adventure in music

Grammy Award-winning American composer Danny Elfman. Picture: Getty
Grammy Award-winning American composer Danny Elfman. Picture: Getty
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Danny Elfman has written some of the most famous soundtracks in film and TV, but has never played them live – until now. 
By David Pollock

For the in-demand Hollywood film score producer with an award-strewn back catalogue, playing their music live can be a simultaneous boost to profile, visibility and annual salary. Yet it’s something that, until now, Danny Elfman has resisted.

“I’ve been putting it off for two decades,” Elfman says on the line from his home in Los Angeles. “I began to get asked back then, shouldn’t you be working on concert suites like John Williams does? And I was like, I can’t, it’s too much work. I have this weird thing, I have an incredibly difficult time looking back at anything I’ve done. I never listen to any of my scores, and taking the time to go back through them and rework them would mean looking in the other direction.”

It’s not as if he hasn’t had enough to keep him busy in the meantime. In the 28 years since Elfman, 60, started working as a film composer on his friend Tim Burton’s directorial debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, his extensive work has included Academy Award-nominated soundtracks for Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black and Gus Van Sant’s Milk, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and the world-famous theme songs of the television series The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives (that last one an Emmy winner).

Yet his most enduring body of work continues to be his collaborations with Burton, which total 14 to date, from Beetlejuice and Batman up to last year’s Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie. Big Eyes, next year’s biopic of kitsch painter Walter Keane, is in progress just now. It’s this catalogue which will feature in Elfman’s debut concert suite next week at the Royal Albert Hall in London, before it travels north for three more dates, including one at Glasgow’s newest venue, the Hydro.

The idea stemmed from a 25th anniversary Burton/Elfman audio boxset which was released in 2011. “That really forced me to listen to everything again,” says Elfman, “and suddenly it was like, my god, I’d forgotten half of what I’d done. So that kind of opened up my head, and my agent then started pestering me, how about some concert suites? When the offer came in to put on this concert at the Albert Hall it was more than I bargained for, a suite of all the films, but it was the motivation to do it.”

He says the process of compiling the show took around three months. “Going back to the early scores was really quite startling,” he says. “They felt extremely raw, the orchestration sounded almost like I was listening to somebody else, but just because it’s naïve doesn’t make it bad. For these concerts I didn’t want to mess it up and make it sound too slick and overdone, just because I may know a few more tricks now than I did on my first score.”

The Glasgow show will feature at least four or five background film sequences compiled by Burton from his own sketches and storyboards, although Elfman won’t see them until the days before the first show, and Elfman himself will play alongside the BBC Concert Orchestra and sing onstage for the first time since his formative post-punk group Oingo Boingo split in 1995, reprising the role of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The original plan was to play the Albert Hall and tentatively wait for offers of more dates to come in, but already the producers have added these dates, three Hallowe’en nights in Los Angeles and more to follow in North America and Europe. “I’m really looking forward to this being something that I’m doing all the way through next year,” he says. “I didn’t expect that I’d ever be on the road again (after Oingo Boingo), but it looks like that’s what I’ll be doing and I’m really excited about it.”

His upcoming workaholic schedule also includes scoring David O. Russell’s next film American Hustle and the forthcoming DreamWorks animation Mr. Peabody and Sherman, as well as being a dad to eight-year-old Oliver, the youngest of his three children (the only one with his wife, Bridget Fonda). It isn’t bad going for a career he had to be persuaded to enter by Oingo Boingo fan Burton way back when.

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out of the blue,” recalls Elfman now. “It was my first score and from that point I was hooked. It was the first time I’d ever heard an orchestra play while standing in front of them, and I loved the experience. You have to remember, I was a big fan of film music since I was maybe 13 years old. If you can imagine, it was like being a football fan your whole life and then suddenly being thrown into the game, and realising you could actually play football. It was that kind of exhilaration.”

Ask him why he and Burton work so well together, though, and he’s still stumped after all these years. “Chemistry,” is the best explanation he can offer. “It’s like saying, why did you meet your mate, fall in love and get married? It’s hard to answer that, other than there’s an undefinable thing between you that makes the partnership work.”

• Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton is at the Hydro, Glasgow, 9 October.