Danny Elfman is easily the most successful of those rock musicians who have made the jump to serious film composition.
Born Daniel Robert Elfman on May 29, 1953 in Amarillo, Texas and raised in Los Angeles, his mother, Blossom Elfman, was a novelist and later a screenwriter. Elfman was always musically inclined, and while living in France with his brother Richard in the early 1970s, he joined a theatrical company, where he first began learning how to orchestrate. He also spent some time living in Africa, until a bout with malaria forced him to return to the United States in the late 1970s. In 1980, he was asked to write the music for the low-budget horror-fantasy spoof Forbidden Zone, which was directed and co-produced by his brother Richard. This marked more the beginning of a career in rock music for Elfman than in film music -- Forbidden Zone, which didn't see wide release until 1983, never acquired more than a tiny cult audience, but the ensemble that had been assembled by Richard Elfman for the film, The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, remained together and achieved a following as a New Wave band under the name Oingo Boingo
. Danny Elfman continued with the group as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter for the next few years, establishing himself as a rock musician. Then, in 1985, he was approached by director Tim Burton to score his first full-length feature, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Elfman's first chance to work on a film with a substantial budget, for a major studio, opened a new chapter in his career, as both the film and the music succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. His music, orchestrated by his fellow Oingo Boingo
member Steve Bartek, was a mix of the comical, offbeat, and serious, and seemed to capture every nuance the Burton was looking for in a movie that was, essentially, a cartoon brought to life. Thus began Elfman's career in movie music, which at first had him confined to more of Tim Burton's fantasy films, including Beetlejuice, and offbeat comedies like Jonathan Demme's Something Wild -- the closest he got to mainstream, frontline movies were the comedies Back To School and Summer School. Over the those next few years, he honed his own skills as a composer, and when Burton approached him with the movie Batman, he was ready. It was with Batman that Elfman showed what he could really do as a composer, establishing his ability to justice to a major film -- his music, almost all of it dark hued in keeping with the subject, yet laced with warmth and humanity, was vital in fixing the dramatic tone of the film and keeping its human dimension, despite the larger-than-life characters and ominous look to the movie. The film became one of the top-grossing movies of all time and in the wake of its success (which earned him a Grammy Award), Elfman found himself in demand for a vast range of movies and subjects, from the mega-budgeted Dick Tracy in 1990 to period dramas such as Sommersby in 1993. His knack for scoring offbeat movies wasn't lost, however, as evidenced by his Academy Award nominations for comedy spoof Men In Black and for the drama Good Will Hunting, both from 1997, the same year he scored the gimmick comedy Flubber. Elfman has also occasionally returned to musical idioms somewhat closer to his original roots in rock music, as with his songwriting and singing in his score for Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.