Music in the movies: Danny Elfman and Tim Burton’s collaborations

This week’s Music in the movies takes a film-by-film look at the collaborations between director Tim Burton and talented composer Danny Elfman...

Whilst on your Internet travels lately you may have spotted this amazing collection of Elfman and Burton’s collaborations, a 16-CD boxset. Appreciating that $499 may be a bit too much to spend for most (well, for me at least) and given the fact that Christmas is approaching, meaning it’s about time A Nightmare Before Christmas is re-watched, I thought I’d take a film by film look at Elfman and Burton’s collaborations.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

Elfman’s first collaboration with Tim Burton came at the same time as he was still involved with Oingo Boingo, before he firmly established himself as a composer of note. He had another credit to his name with his score for Forbidden Zone, which was directed by his older brother, Richard.

The main theme for the film was composed by Elfman prior to working on the score, the score as a whole contains elements that would make his future collaborations with Burton so memorable, striking a balance between excitement, suspense and whimsy. A promising start to a wonderful working relationship.

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If I were to choose a score amongst this long list of their collaborations that most perfectly encapsulates why Burton and Elfman are so perfect for each other, it would be this score for Beetlejuice.

The main theme, that’s playful and menacing in equal measures, is among the best pieces Elfman has composed in his career, and after that has played out, the score is packed full of pieces that are of a similar quality, that match the mood of the film perfectly ,which makes this one of the most consistent pieces in the composer’s back catalogue.


The film’s producers were reportedly a little sceptical that Elfman was up to task for scoring a major blockbuster like Batman, but Burton soon changed their minds when he played them Elfman’s composition for the main theme, which would go on to become the key theme for Batman: The Animated Series.

With Burton and Elfman involved, its little surprise that Batman saw the franchise go in a darker direction, particularly when compared to the campy productions that preceded it, and the Joel Schumacher film’s that followed their efforts.

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Main theme aside, the score is packed with amazing cues, with the waltz being a particular highlight for me. It’s not a subtle score by any means, but that’s not really what the film called for. This is a dramatic and incredibly assured piece from a composer who, at the time of its release, was making a name for himself.

Edward Scissorhands

Further showcasing his ability to balance dark material with lighter themes, Elfman produced another masterpiece, which at times is absolutely beautiful and at others incredibly creepy.

Elfman’s music is as much of a character in the film as any of those portrayed onscreen by the cast. The title theme is incredibly impressiv,e but pales in comparison to the grand finale, which is an absolutely stunning piece of music that’s incredibly emotive, with a huge sense of drama.

Batman Returns

Given the success of the score for Burton’s first Batman, the temptation must have been there for Elfman to reuse much of his previous work. Instead he only reuses the main title and comes up with entirely different pieces to make up much of the score. Whilst this approach is commendable, it’s a much weaker effort in comparison to his other Burton collaborations.

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All of the key characters have their own themes, which adds to a sense of musical cohesiveness and it is, on many levels, an interesting score. But, for me, it fails to deliver the goods in the same way as his score for Batman did, even if a lot of the things he tried here were quite progressive.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

This is a film that’s been part of my Christmas rotation for a few years now and the soundtrack album is something I return to with some frequency. I think the project as a whole is wonderfully executed, making it one of the most endearing in the catalogues of all involved.

Not only does Elfman compose the music for the film, but he also lends his vocal talents to Jack Skellington’s singing parts. The musical backing itself shares thematic similarities with much of his other work with Burton, but it’s still an incredibly strong listen that’s heightened by Elfman’s rather excellent singing voice.

A cover version of the album was released a few years back, which I’m not a massive fan of, but it’s worth a look for Elfman’s demo tracks.

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Mars Attacks!

Elfman captures the feel of the sci-fi movies of the fifties and gives it a modern spin in very much the same way that Burton does with the film itself. A little more off the wall than some of his previous efforts, as elements of the score resemble the voices of the Martians and includes liberal use of a Theremin. As was expected of his work, there are elements of playfulness and creepiness here. Still, it’s not a classic Elfman score by any means, and ranks as one of his weaker efforts with Burton up to that point.

Sleepy Hollow

For his score for the gothic slice of goodness, Elfman does away with much of the light heartedness of much of his previous work and instead goes all out on the darkness.

Played by a full orchestra, this is an incredible piece of work, full of tension and action that also captures a sense of romance at times. It doesn’t see a major thematic shift as it very much keeps in with the mood of the rest of the piece as a whole.

One of my favourite collaborations between the two, it’s a dark, confident and incredibly effective piece of work that pays homage to the films that inspired the pair, but brings something new and interesting to the table.

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Planet Of The Apes

By no means is Elfman’s score for Burton’s 2001 remake a match for Jerry Goldsmith’s amazing score for the original, but it’s still a solid effort, unlike the film itself. It’s an incredibly focussed score that rarely deviates from the musical core that holds it together.

There’s a simple three note reoccurring theme that is the basis for much of the score, but there are some interesting rhythms and brass works complimenting it. This is a balls to the wall score that’s loud and action-packed. Just a shame that the movie was nowhere near as exciting as the music that accompanied it.

Big Fish

For me, this film is one of the better offerings in Burton’s relatively recent back catalogue. A whimsical fantasy with a strong emotional core, the film is incredibly effective. Unlike previous collaborations, Elfman’s music wouldn’t dominate proceedings here. Instead, much of the soundtrack is made up of sourced material to help evoke a sense of time, as the setting of the film takes place over a number of decades.

Elfman’s contributions are still strong, though, even if they’re quite subtle. Whereas his last two scores for Burton explored his darker side, his efforts here are as whimsical and light-hearted as the film. Still, even with this being the case, Elfman does a great job of evoking a sense of place by having a southern feel to much of his pieces,.

However, the finest pieces on the score are Return To Spectre, which is the closest to eerie and dark as the score gets, and the rather beautiful Jenny’s Theme. Not classic Elfman, but an interesting contrast to what preceded it.

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Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

I have to admit that I really struggled with many of the songs that were written for Burton’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book. The score, I was fine with, typically Elfman throughout with key themes for the family, Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompa’s. But the songs themselves, many of which were sung by Elfman, really didn’t do it for me. Maybe it’s because I have such affection for the songs in the Gene Wilder-starring Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, but the adoption of different musical styles seemed far too gimmicky for my tastes and, as such, this is my least favourite of any of the films listed here, both for the film itself and the music that accompanies it.

Corpse Bride

Whilst visually the film shares similarities with The Nightmare Before Christmas, for me, the music in Corpse Bride never quite reaches the same heights. There’s the odd track that comes close, such as Tears To Shreds, but there’s a sense that it’s all been done before and done better, which for me, sums up much of Elfman’s latter efforts with the director.

That’s not to say that his work here as a whole isn’t without merit, though. The songs evoke the necessary moods and provide a strong accompaniment and it might be a case of me being overly critical on this in comparing it to The Nightmare Before Christmas, but such comparisons are unavoidable when they are similar on so many levels. Still, this should be an essential for Elfman completists.

Alice In Wonderland

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I didn’t mind Burton’s take on Alice In Wonderland as much as some, but, for me, it’s nothing more than an average film saved by some interesting visuals, a strong performance by Helena Bonham Carter and Elfman’s music.

The standout is the magnificent Alice’s Theme, which sets the tone for what’s to follow, a kind of mini-opera where Elfman’s imagination is allowed to run rampant in creating music as vivid as some of the imagery.

After a few efforts that were far from his best, it’s great to have Elfman back on form with this, which shows that the collaboration is far from going stale amd makes me optimistic about the pair’s future projects together.

For a more indepth look at each of the films listed (apart from Alice In Wonderland) I’d recommend checking out Carley’s retrospective on the works of Tim Burton. There are links at the bottom for the entire series.

Please provide your thoughts on the above in the comments section below. Another article on the best of Elfman’s non-Burton scores will appear sometime in the future. If there are any scores you want to see covered, let me know below or on Twitter @GlenTChapman.

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