Composer Danny Elfman flies high with Tim Burton’s 'Dumbo'

  • Music
  • Saturday, 06 Apr 2019

Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Danny Elfman has been involved with the music for 17 films directed by Tim Burton, going all the way back to 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Since then, they have collaborated on such projects as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Their latest offering is Dumbo. (Read our review here.)

That’s 34 years of working together, enough time for Elfman to become familiar with the director’s musical likes and dislikes. But Elfman never guesses at what Burton is going to want with each new project.

“He is always full of surprises. Anyone who thinks they have Tim figured out and knows exactly what he is going to want doesn’t know Tim.

“He’s always looking for something that he can’t figure out, and it is during the process of working that we will figure it out. I have learned never to take him for granted,” Elfman said.

Burton’s constant inventiveness wasn’t the only factor Elfman had to consider when working on Dumbo. The live-action feature starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell and Eva Green is based on the 1941 Disney animated movie about a baby elephant with ears so large he can fly.

Music for that film by Oliver Wallace includes some iconic numbers including Casey Junior, Baby Mine, Pink Elephants On Parade and When I See An Elephant Fly. Elfman didn’t feel any pressure to use original music or not, having gone through a similar process with Burton on Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Planet Of The Apes and Batman. He laughs and explains how adamant Burton was that the theme from the Adam West TV show never be heard in the 1989 Batman movie.

Danny Elfman
Burton had been adamant that the theme to the 1966 Batman TV series was not heard anywhere in his 1989 Batman movie.

“Usually, Tim doesn’t want to make references to anything,” Elfman says. “With Dumbo, I felt like we should make some references. I went back and watched the movie when Tim came to me. Funny thing is, I had never actually seen it all the way through.

“But, I recognised Elephants On Parade right away. I also recognised Casey Junior, but I didn’t know how I knew it.”

The process of then trying to figure out what Burton wanted started. Burton had a fantasy sequence planned with elephants, which gave Elfman the opening to bring music inspired by that number.

Burton hadn’t planned to use any of the Casey Junior number, but Elfman slipped little musical moments from the tune into the musical soundtrack.

Generally Elfman doesn’t like to use other music in his score, but Dumbo provided two distinct elements that were natural places to use such material: The circus world and the train.

He was happy to use as much other circus music as possible because he finds it all fun. He mixed bits of Casey Junior with the kind of train music he says would have been found in a “John Ford movie.”

The circus scenes gave Elfman a chance to use as much circus music as he could.

Coming up with something different every time would be like reinventing the wheel with each project. What Elfman tries to do is find the elements that make the work feel fresh, and in turn that will make the final score fresh.

Coming up with the material has meant some projects with Burton have been easy and some took more time. Either way, there’s only one thing about which Elfman cares.

“It’s only the end product that matters, really. It’s all you remember later, anyhow. It’s kind of like having kids. If you remember the first year, you never want to look at another kid again.

“But then they’re so cute and it’s so great. You forget all that part. Then you go yeah. Kids are great,” Elfman says. “I find film scores to be somewhat similar.

“In the middle, I often say I’ll never do this again. I’m done. And then at the end, if it came out well, then I go yeah, sure, I’ll do this again. It wasn’t so hard. Was it hard? I don’t remember. It kind of gets erased.”

It’s erased in time for when Burton calls on him again. – Tribune News Service

Dumbo is showing at GSC cinemas nationwide.

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