Danny Elfman’s most successful compositions
Composition connoisseur Danny Elfman has a unifying power over TV and film consumers. Whether they notice it or not, viewers with opposing tastes have each heard his work complement their beloved program or film.
One could be a strict DC devotee or a Marvel-only movie buff. Both bases have seen their favorite superhero swashbuckle to the tune (literally) of Elfman’s brainchild.
The theme for The Simpsons can elicit laughter over sheer anticipation. Elfman was behind that as much as he has driven moving Oscar-nominated drama scores.
For the bulk of their respective careers, he has been Tim Burton’s musical batterymate. To that point, he won his second Primetime Emmy in 2016 for a Lincoln Center special titled “Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton.” Yet his discography is almost equally rife with non-Burton projects.
One of few household names in his vocation, Elfman has at least two composer credits still to come. He will turn 65 this Tuesday, but shows no intention of slowing down.
In that vein, this is an opportune time to catch up on his best career highlights so far. His top works are ranked based on quantity of awards, nominations and a given guild’s prestige.
The Simpsons theme earned Elfman his first Emmy nomination after the show’s inaugural season in 1989-90. It has since yielded three BMI awards for television music.
Elfman’s first bid for a Golden Globe came courtesy of Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1994. Other Burton-film soundtracks have garnered Grammy nods, including Edward Scissorhands, Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The year he left his imprint on Spider-Man and Men in Black II, Elfman also contributed two tracks to Chicago. By year’s end, his work on the silver-screen adaptation of the Broadway hit gained BAFTA consideration.
Back stateside, the musical earned Elfman another crack at the BMIs, to which he is no stranger. Since 1987, he has claimed 48 BMIs for TV or film scores, and he upped his total to 20 in 2003. One of the three movies to help nudge him to the milestone that year: Chicago.
9. Dick Tracy
On the heels of complementing the feature-length adaptation of a larger comic-book icon (more on that soon), Elfman reached his second straight Grammy ballot in 1991. While the 1990 Dick Tracy film score did not get him glory there, it did fetch him a BMI film prize.
8. Good Will Hunting
Elfman’s debut at the Academy Awards was a double dip. At that 1998 show, Good Will Hunting made the top five under “best music, original dramatic score.”
In that same award cycle, Elfman took home three BMIs for film music, including one for the Robin Williams-Matt Damon blockbuster. The soundtrack also drew consideration from the Awards Circuit Community Awards.
For his work on the entire mid-2000s trilogy, Elfman amassed 11 award nominations. Of particular note, the first installment’s soundtrack yielded a 2003 Grammy nod.
By 2007, the films had drawn a Saturn win, two BMI wins and five more nominations in less-than-mainstream circles.
Sean Penn’s 2008 biopic of Harvey Milk was the third and most recent project to bring Elfman both an Oscar and Grammy nomination. The Critics Choice, the Gold Derbies and seven less-mainstream academies gave the score equal recognition.
Although Elfman did not beat out the competition on any of the 2009 or 2010 ballots, the sheer quantity of 11 nominations is noteworthy on its own.
5. Men in Black
The satirical sci-fi flick accounted for Elfman’s other 1998 Oscar nomination (for best original musical or comedy score). It also yielded his sixth career Grammy nod, and his first in four years.
Four lower-rung panels put the soundtrack on their respective ballots as well. Two of them gave him their hardware. The BMIs bestowed a film music award while the Saturns, who focus on sc-fi, fantasy and horror, named his work its 1998 music champion.
4. Alice in Wonderland
Of the 10 guilds to nominate Elfman’s score for Alice in Wonderland or its sequel, the three most noteworthy were the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Grammys. All three had the 2010 film’s soundtrack among its finalists in 2011.
Meanwhile, Elfman’s three victories from the series included a BMI for the original and for 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. In addition, one track from the original, “Alice’s Theme,” won a 2011 International Film Music Critics Award (IFMCA) for composition.
3. Big Fish
Though he did not come out on top, Elfman earned his greatest quantity of qualitative nods for the 2003 tearjerker. He was up for an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 2004, then a Grammy in 2005.
Eight smaller-scale committees, including the Critics Choice and the Gold Derby, likewise considered the score for hardware.
2. Desperate Housewives
Following the ABC dramedy’s first season in 2004-05, Elfman won his first Emmy for outstanding main title theme. In the same cycle, he picked up his first of three BMIs for the series. He claimed the other two back-to-back in 2008 and 2009.
In addition, Elfman won two more awards via two smaller guilds before the first season was half-finished. The Online Film & Television Awards and IFMCAs both crowned him for the new theme in 2004.
“Batman has only had one theme,” Elfman told Flashback FilmMaking in 2017. (Warning: The clip contains an NSFW word.)
Out of 12 career Grammy nominations, Elfman scored his lone victory through the 1989 Burton blockbuster. Besides claiming the 1990 prize for best instrumental composition, he was nominated for best original background score.
For his later work on the sequel’s soundtrack, Elfman earned a 1993 BMI Film award. And beyond the live-action movies, his take on the Caped Crusader hit the small screen. In 1992, the same year Batman Returns hit theaters, Warner Bros. Studios enlisted Elfman to compose the theme for Batman: The Animated Series.
More recently, the compositions from the two movie soundtracks have resurfaced in the Lego Batman video games. And not surprisingly, Elfman was summoned to score the all-DC superhero film, Justice League.
For that, in his chat with Flashback FilmMaking, he admitted to drawing inspiration from previous Superman and Wonder Woman composers for those characters. But with Batman, he stuck with what has worked in the three decades since he helped instill a darker take on the time-honored character.