Danny Elfman: On the rise -- The ''Dick Tracy'' soundtrack assignment makes the Oingo Boingo frontman the hottest young composer in the movies

Danny Elfman, film composer and rock & roller, had been in the Bahamas for only three days. He had just finished his second film score in a year, and during that time he’d also written and recorded an albumful of songs for his rock band, Oingo Boingo. He was very tired and had only begun to have fun in the sun when his agent called with an urgent message: Warren Beatty wants you. The next day, Elfman flew to Los Angeles and met with Beatty, who, as the entire world must know, is producing, directing, and starring in Dick Tracy, a movie about the jut-jawed detective of the funny pages. This could be the summer movie of ’90, just as Batman was the summer movie of ’89. Because Elfman wrote the music for the Caped Crusader, it was only natural that Beatty would want him to do likewise for the famous Crimestopper. ”In a completely different way, Dick Tracy has this unique quality that Batman had for me,” Elfman says. ”It gives an incredible sense of nonreality.”

The Dick Tracy assignment — Elfman’s second big-budget, prestige production in a row — makes him the hottest young composer in the movies. Batman was, after all, the biggest moneymaker of 1989, and Elfman’s soundtrack reached as high as No. 30 on the pop charts. That territory is rarely conquered by strings-brass-and-woodwinds movie music — as opposed to the rock/pop/dance stuff, such as Prince’s Batman songs, that are jammed into films for marketing purposes.

But despite his enviable big-screen success, Elfman doesn’t want to be a full-time film composer. As much as he likes writing his scores, with their rich instrumentation and turn-on-a-dime mood shifts, Elfman, at 36, still loves to rock out with Oingo Boingo as well. And right now he has the best of both worlds. Oingo Boingo’s seventh album, Dark at the End of the Tunnel, was released last week, and so was Nightbreed, a horror movie directed by Clive Barker and featuring an Elfman score.

Elfman’s movie career began in 1979 with Forbidden Zone, a cult movie directed by his brother Rick. Since then he has done eleven other films, including such widely different projects as Midnight Run and Scrooged. He’s also written for TV, most recently the theme music for the cartoon series The Simpsons. Elfman’s career has been boosted the most, however, by the three films he has scored for director Tim Burton: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Beetlejuice in 1988, and Batman in 1989. (Later this year, Elfman will score another Burton film, Edward Scissorhands.) Each of the Burton projects has brought Elfman an increasing number of offers.

Although Hollywood has long exploited rock & roll songs to promote movies, rock musicians have had less success writing actual film scores. Besides Elfman, only Randy Newman has sustained a major career in movie music. Elfman says the transition from rock songs to film scores is difficult: ”You can’t let song consciousness direct what you write for film. You have to resist the temptation to simplify things to verse-bridge-chorus.”

The music Elfman writes for films would never be confused with rock & roll. For the most part, it is arranged for an orchestra, not a band. ”The compositions are much thicker,” he says. ”There’s much more to them.” Elfman makes the task even more complex by writing music that reflects everything that happens on screen. ”If a character lifts his arm and swings a knife at another guy, who kicks at the first guy and sends him crashing through a door, I want the music to reflect each of those four actions,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Elfman has adapted his musical sensibilities to fit each of the varied films he’s done. His score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure had a sweet-sad quality that matched the otherworldliness of the movie’s hero, and the heavy use of woodwinds and brass was an homage to one of Elfman’s heroes, the great Italian film composer Nino Rota. Beetlejuice turned horror-music conventions upside down — just as the film did — using a hoedown fiddle at one point to play off the traditional booming sounds of a full orchestra. For Batman, Elfman says, ”they wanted a Wagnerian vibe.” And he gave it to them, relentlessly.

Now comes the Nightbreed score, with needle-sharp crescendos and creepy choral plainchants. Seldom has scary-movie music been so spiritual. Nightbreed won’t get the same hype as Batman, so it’s unlikely that this soundtrack will do as well, but no one expected Batman to scale the charts either.

It’s too soon to tell exactly what the score for Dick Tracy will sound like, but Elfman has made some preliminary choices. The two main elements of the music will be romantic, to accentuate the film’s love relationship, and ”crimestopper,” to accompany police work. For the latter, Elfman envisions something brassy, to match the primary colors that dominate the movie. Even though he’s written a central theme and three alternates for Tracy, plus the main romantic theme and several subthemes, all of this work is subject to Warren Beatty’s approval.

Generally, Elfman begins work by talking with the director about the emotional level of the movie. Then, after playing preliminary versions of major themes for the director’s approval and seeing the film in rough form, he starts writing melodies that relate to specific scenes. This takes about a month, and Elfman does most of this intensive work while sitting at a keyboard in his basement studio. He gets help from Steve Bartek, Oingo Boingo’s lead guitarist, who arranges some of the compositions for the orchestra. But Elfman still has to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to complete a score. ”When I’m in the middle of a film, I give up all sense of a personal life,” he says.

In the case of Batman, Elfman didn’t have to make any allowances for the songs that were done by Prince. Certain scenes were designated for Prince’s material and Elfman simply skipped them. No transition music was needed. The same is true for Dick Tracy, which will feature a number of tunes written by Stephen Sondheim to be performed by Madonna, the film’s female lead.

Dick Tracy
  • Movie
  • 103 minutes