Music in the movies: Danny Elfman

Glen takes a look at Danny Elfman’s finest scores, outside of his collaborations with Tim Burton…

Having covered all of Elfman’s collaborations with Tim Burton for this column towards the end of last year, a follow up has been planned ever since. And with his score accompanying The Next Three Days, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, I thought now would be an ideal time to look at some of his finest non-Burton moments. 

Forbidden Zone

This movie is best described as batshit mental, but it’s certainly an interesting watch. Elfman and the other members of Oingo Boingo were heavily involved in the making of the film, with Richard Elfman directing and Danny himself playing Satan. Elfman composed the score to be performed by his band at the time, and they work through a selection of material that shows little regard for genre convention.

Very much like the film itself, the score is a wonderful, experimental oddity. The highlight is the title track, which is perhaps the most accessible piece, as well as the most anthemic. It might be a little too out there for some, but it contains numerous moments of brilliance, and is arguably up there with the very best of Elfman’s output. On the strength of this, it’s clear why Elfman’s work appealed to Burton.

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Midnight Run

When Elfman set out to score this buddy comedy, he had come off the back of a number of strong collaborations with Burton that showcased a talent for strong and interesting orchestral work with moments of eccentricity. Here, however, he moved away from that approach, and instead, opted to introduce blues elements into what, on the surface, is a fairly standard action score.

It’s not Elfman’s best work by any stretch, but it’s an interesting comparison to what came before and after. It’s not one that’s worth picking up given that it’s far from a coherent listen without the context of the film.


This is a film that gets some love on this site, and quite rightly so, as it really is quite brilliant. It’s easy to dismiss Elfman’s score here as a clone of his work on Batman, but that’s quite lazy, and a little unfair. Sure, the orchestral approach is similar, as is the tone, but overall this is a lighter piece of work, which has enough differences to establish its own identity.

It also appears that Elfman has more of a free reign to embrace his eccentricities here, as there are quite a few wonderful moments of madness that are tonally similar to his work on Forbidden Zone. It’s a score that is one of his best, but is often overlooked; if, for some reason, you’ve missed either the film or the score, they’re both well worth checking out.

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This score presents an evolution of themes explored in the scores for Batman and Darkman, and as with the latter, it could be described as a rehash of his score for the former, but if you look beneath the surface it really does reveal itself to be one of the strongest pieces of not only that period for Elfman, but his career as a whole.

As with many of the films Clive Barker is attached to, I like parts of Nightbreed, but as a whole it doesn’t fully work for me. It’s not unfair to say that the quality of the score vastly outweighs that of the film itself. There’s a variety to the score that’s refreshing – it’s not all ominous moodiness as you might expect, since there are also some beautiful moments that really elevate the piece. 

Mission Impossible 

The first of the big screen adaptations starring Tom Cruise saw the Mission Impossible franchise brought to a new audience. Elfman was the composer hired to follow in the footsteps of Lalo Schifrin, whose theme still stands as one of the most iconic pieces of music composed for TV or cinema in the past century.

It’s not an easy act to follow, and strangely, given Elfman’s clear talent, he never seems fully confident in the task and it is the score that most obviously lacks any of the typical Elfman flourishes. Indeed, it’s fairly indistinguishable from any of the other major action scores that came out around that time, which is a shame. By no means a weak effort, it’s just one that lacks the character typical of the composer.

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Men In Black and Men In Black II

There’s little not to like about Men In Black, which strikes a fine balance between comedy, sci-fi and action and really delivers on most fronts. While Will Smith’s accompanying hit single gets much of the credit when it comes to the films music, it’s Elfman’s score that does all the heavy lifting, and carries the film and stands up as one of the best of the composer’s works to listen to in isolation from its source.

Yes, it’s similar to much of his work with Burton, but tonally, it’s a perfect match for the film.  For the sequel, Elfman returned to provide a similar approach, but like the film it accompanies, it doesn’t quite match the heights of its predecessor.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of originality and brilliance, because there are. Some are re-hashes of previous works, such as Mars Attacks, but fit perfectly, whereas others really focus on the romantic elements of the film.  Smith returns for a lead single that fails to capture the quality of the first, but most interesting is Frank Black’s cover of I Will Survive. 

Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2

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Having worked with Raimi previously on Darkman, the pair reunited for Spider-Man, and the end result, while not quite as effective as their previous collaboration, is really quite effective. By this point there was a certain expectation of what an Elfman score involved – mostly centered on his work for Burton – and it’s easy to dismiss this as just another score in that vein, or just another action score, but it’s a much more sophisticated score than many give it credit for.

Leitmotifs are used heavily to give characters their own sense of identity, and these merge nicely when characters appear together on screen. The highlights, though, are undoubtedly the action-heavy scenes that feature complex layers of orchestration to really heighten the required emotions.

As was the case when Elfman returned to work on the sequel to Men In Black, his effort for Spider-Man 2 attempted to capture some of the spirit of its predecessor, but with less success (not helped by reported disagreements between Elfman and director Sam Raimi). He goes a little more full on in terms of his eccentricities than before, but overall, it lacks the emotional depth and tension of his first outing in the franchise.

His score was given the short shrift when it came to the CD release, as his contribution was reduced to just two tracks out of 15, with the rest of the album given over to a number of awful, overproduced, MTV-friendly rock songs.

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