From its earliest incarnation, Oingo Boingo never adhered to any particular formula, equally at home performing Cab Calloway covers and Zappa-esque instrumentals — all filtered through the ghoulish theatricality of German expressionist theater.
That stylistic diversity drew the attention of a then-nascent director named Tim Burton, who saw in Elfman an ideal sonic foil for Paul Reubens, for whom he was helming “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
“Danny’s stuff didn’t make sense to everyone, but it did to both Tim and Paul,” says longtime Elfman manager Laura Engel, who met the composer in the late ’70s when she was stage manager at L.A.’s Westwood Playhouse. “Tim really wanted to work with the Boingo guy and Paul was really interested in working with the guy who did ‘Forbidden Zone.’ At first, they didn’t even realize they were talking about the same person.”
The notion of split personality soon became all too real for Elfman himself. As Oingo Boingo was reaching its commercial zenith, Elfman was experiencing a seven-year itch — a feeling he says brought him to the brink of a psychic civil war. “Those two personalities didn’t like each other,” Elfman says. “The film composer saw the Oingo Boingo guy as silly and the Oingo Boingo guy thought the composer was stuffy.”
From the bouncy, Italianesque sensibility of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” to the massive gothic melodrama of “Batman” to the children’s-choir charm and innocence of “Edward Scissorhands,” Burton and Elfman developed an artistic kinship that’s rivaled by few other director-composer teams, including the much vaunted partnership between John Williams and Steven Spielberg.
With 12 film collaborations over two decades, the kinship between Elfman and Burton represents the natural melding of two seemingly twisted minds.
“I used to go and see his band in clubs before I even had the thought that I would be able to make movies,” recalls Burton. “I had an affinity for his music long before I had the opportunity (to hire him).
“It’s a certain fit of sensibilities. We like a lot of the same things. He’s always been a good kind of guidepost, to try and help set the tone of the movie, capture the spirit of it.”
Elfman is straightforward about their long and successful collaboration: “If a director finds a composer who can interpret their vision, and do it more than once correctly, they may find a comfort level. All I know is that Tim is going to give me a much longer leash (than most directors).
“It’s not a slam-dunk,” Elfman admits. “We go through a process. But he allows me to experiment, to invent, and he’s unlikely to be thrown by something coming from a little bit off the mark.
“The thing that I like most about working with Tim is that all of his responses to my music are visceral. He either feels it or he doesn’t. But he’s never going to hit me with ‘logic.’ And if there’s one thing that’s a music destroyer, it’s logic — too thought-out, too intellectual.”
On last year’s twin bill of Burton-Elfman movies, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Corpse Bride,” Elfman “was kind of schizophrenic,” Burton says, writing multiple songs and scores for two complicated, effects-filled pics. “Two different things, and he literally had to juggle both at the same time. At the end of it all, he did a great job on both.”