So, as a favor to curt_holman, who asked nicely, I shall use my Danny Elfman fandom to recommend particularly interesting work of his.
You almost can’t go wrong with his Tim Burton work – he’s scored all but the upcoming Sweeney Todd (which already had all the needed music) and Ed Wood (made after the two of them had a falling-out, which didn’t get patched up until Burton was filming Mars Attacks!; Howard Shore scored Ed Wood and did a wonderful job).
Seeing 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas again last weekend reminded me what an achievement that was; Elfman was as much the auteur of that film as Burton and director Henry Selick. As Elfman tells it, Burton wasn’t happy with the early drafts of the Nightmare screenplay, so the two of them spent six weeks (in early 1991, I think) going through the story, figuring out a song at a time, and recording demos (with Elfman singing every voice but Sally’s), so that Selick and his crew finally had sequences to animate. They fleshed out the original poem-length story into movie-size shape through that process (creating Oogie Boogie, for example), and gave the later screenwriters more to work with.
I’m especially fond of his music for Edward Scissorhands (which goes without saying), Corpse Bride (emotive, lovely, often delicate and even rather droll, with lyrics like “our daughter with a face/ of an otter in disgrace”) and, because I’m a weirdo, Planet of the Apes. Horrible film, maybe the worst flick Burton’s ever made (or will ever make (I mean, seriously, stealing the silliest plot twist from Star Trek: The Motion Picture?)), but Elfman got to deploy an array of wonderfully weird electronics and percussion instruments and make music that seemed more alien than anything else in the film. (See if you can find the CD, and just don’t listen to the Paul Oakenfold track at the end; it uses dialogue from the film that reminds me of how the film is both cheesy and pretentious, a deadly combination!) I’m not so big on Sleepy Hollow; except for its more romantic moments, it’s a little too unrelentingly noisy for me, to the point where I can’t sense a musical shape to it. Batman Returns led Elfman to give up on action film scoring for years (until Mission: Impossible); he thought the second Batman film had far too much music, far too many sound effects, and just too much noise. That score, I think, works better on the soundtrack CD.
One of my favorite Elfman scores is a more offbeat choice, the period drama Sommersby (1993). At the time, he was doing less film work – around then, his agent rejected outright a score assignment for Elfman just because the ending had the hero, the bad guy and a woman fighting in a high place, same as at least five films he’d already scored! – and seeking out a wider variety of movies (like 1992’s “veterans and doctors take over a VA hospital” drama Article 99). Pace-changing included this Reconstruction-era retelling of “The Return of Martin Guerre,” with Jodie Foster, Richard Gere and Bill Pullman. He calmed down his usual style (“potent and manic-depressive,” as Lukas Kendall described it) and kept the music restrained, but trying to surge: his “Main Title” is not quite the main theme; the main theme’s kind of hidden. And when the emotions get bigger and the music needs to surge, oh my yes it surges. It’s pure, perverse Elfman romance, and I love it. (Sommersby had a post-production schedule crunch when the producers re-edited the film to emphasize its romance and make its disturbing aspects subtler. Elfman had already written and recorded most of his music, and had to choose a relatively small number of cues to re-score completely and other cues that he could simply lay more music on top of, to “sweeten” the overall effect.)
His next “intimate epic,” and another of my favorites, was Dolores Claiborne in 1995. It’s likely the single longest score he’s written (100+ minutes, 30 of which are on the well-rounded soundtrack from Varese Sarabande), and much of that music washes over you like the film’s time-lapse cloud photography. It’s unrelenting, gray mood (oh he’s good at moody), mostly strings with some disturbing percussion, and for the film’s climax the music really hits you in waves, pounding at you. The film and the score (and the soundtrack CD, too) help you decompress from that climax, letting you breathe again, which is good and needed. (That’s still a really solid film, by the way.) Edit: I can still pimp the score: The soundtrack CD is available online from Varese.
Over time Elfman’s grown more textured in his musical approach, with his melodies less obvious and the instrumentation more offbeat and varied. Mission: Impossible, a replacement score he wrote quickly in 1996, let him combine that “weird-ass sound” approach (including some brass moments that would’ve been at home in a Godzilla score) with the famous melodies Lalo Schifrin created for the original series. (By the way, Mike, I believe Elfman did use Schifrin’s “The Plot” in his score, despite what J.J. Abrams told you.) I’ve followed along with him in this evolution, so the resulting music sounds “right” and interesting to my ears, though I know it’s not for everyone. And he can bring back his more melodic side when it’s needed, like the intentionally schizophrenic score to Red Dragon (2002), which I also recommend.
I’m actually not a fan of Elfman’s Spider-Man work; I “got” his approach intellectually, but it never grabbed me the way much of his other work does. (And when I first heard he’d been hired for the first film, I thought it wasn’t a good hire, despite his good working relationship with Sam Raimi. I could more easily imagine Basil Poledouris scoring Spider-Man, as he’d worked with Raimi on For Love of the Game.) I was really second-guessing his score while watching the first film, which detracts from the watching experience and which I try not to do any more. And unfortunately for Elfman, his working relationship with Raimi didn’t survive Spider-Man 2, which is a shame. I even wondered if he should simply avoid superhero films after Spider-Man, but later I developed a soft spot for his work on Hulk. His music for that is maddening…in a perfect way; think Bernard Herrmann on hallucinogens and speed. (And how’s this for a challenge: he had to score the music-heavy Hulk in about three weeks, following the tossing of Mychael Danna’s first score, with director Ang Lee telling Elfman to try to write music that sounded less like Elfman music. He really didn’t have time to intellectualize his approach; he just had to write like mad. I’m not sure I can really recommend Hulk’s soundtrack to anyone who’s Not Me, but I like it!)
I don’t know how available his two Music for a Darkened Theatre collections are – the first came out in 1990, the second in 1996 – but they are nicely eclectic, with popular and obscure Elfman work sharing disc space. (The 15 minutes from Dead Presidents (1995) and the seven minutes sampled from Freeway (1996) include some of the most disturbing music he’s ever written; eye-widening stuff, especially “Nam,” “Nightmare” and the two films’ opening titles.) Volume One is probably easier listening overall; the second, a full two discs long, is a little more all-over-the-place, but it’s the best sampling of Elfman’s work you can get on disc.
I could go on. Maybe I will. After sleep. Because I can think of two other particular Elfman scores worth discussing, 1998’s A Simple Plan (which made me gasp on hearing the first few notes) and the truly weird-ass 1980 cult-fest Forbidden Zone. Maybe they should get another entry!