Who is Danny Elfman, the composer behind The Simpsons?
There’s one iconic telly tune you’ll probably know by this American composer, whose music graces the BBC Proms for the first time this weekend; but there’s a lot more to Danny Elfman than The Simpsons…
Eclectic is a good way to describe Danny Elfman’s career, colourful too… Surprising? To him, maybe. Elfman started out as a rock star and ended up a classical composer. He is an artist who has always defied labels, and logic, and if you don’t know the name (though it’s a pretty memorable one) you must know at least some of his music.
Who is Danny Elfman?
If you’ve sat in front of a television in the last three decades you’ll surely have come across The Simpsons, the world’s longest-running animated series. It’s rambunctious theme tune was written by Danny Elfman way back in 1989 and though it was born of a request to create something catchy and multi-coloured, a la The Flintstones, it represents the composer’s style very well. That style is flamboyant, a little chaotic – often colouring way outside of the lines – but also delighting in complex melodies and rhythms.
As a screen composer Elfman has enjoyed a long career, quickly becoming one of the most distinctive of voices to emerge in the 1980s. His first film score was 1980’s Forbidden Zone, a quirky horror directed by his filmmaker brother, Richard. The pair had performed together in the punk-rock band Oingo Boingo (aka The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo), which they had formed in the late ’70s. Danny cut his teeth in that ensemble, composing, arranging and singing lead vocals, something he has returned to in recent years with a new solo rock album last year and a sell-out run of shows at the Coachella festival in California.
How old is Danny Elfman?
Danny Elfman was born on May 29, 1953 in Los Angeles.
How did Danny Elfman become a film composer?
Cinema was a childhood passion, and the local movie theatres a regular hangout. Elfman’s penchant for fantasy and horror can be traced back to these hours spent in the dark, and he’s cornered the market in darkly delightful genre scores. It’s a passion he shared with film director Tim Burton, who approached Elfman to score his first feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). The pair went on to form a creative bond which has given us the likes of Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Mars Attacks! (1996), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), to name a few.
The composer formed other director partnerships with visionary storytellers like Gus van Sant, Taylor Hackford and Sam Raimi, which opened the door to more serious, dramatic narratives. Indeed, Elfman revealed himself to be a master of pathos and riveting drama in scores such as Dolores Claiborne (dir. Hackford, 1995), Good Will Hunting(dir. Van Sant, 1997), A Simple Plan (dir. Raimi, 1999) and Milk (dir. Van Sant, 2008).
The big screen has loomed large, with further blockbusters like Men in Black (1997), Spider-Man (2002) and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022) on his CV, but in recent years Danny Elfman has increasingly spent time away from the screen. His 2004 symphonic suite Serenada Schizophrana allowed the composer to scratch an itch; could he compose an original piece of music that wasn’t dictated by frames and reels? The answer was a resounding yes, and since 2017 the commissions have kept on coming. He has so far written a Piano Quartet (2017), Violin Concerto (2017), Percussion Quartet (2019), Cello Concerto (2022) and Percussion Concerto (2022), Then there’s Wunderkammer, written for the National Youth Orchestra in 2020. That work will finally receive its world premiere in Manchester this week followed by a repeat performance at the BBC Proms on Saturday (6 Aug).
One thing’s for sure… there’s never a dull moment for Danny Elfman.
Top image by Getty Images
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.