It’s been nearly 38 years since Pee-wee Herman began his day accompanied by the live-action Looney Tunes sounds created by composer Danny Elfman. More than 100 credits after that definitive daffiness, Elfman remains among the few household composers in the film industry — delivering indelible works of love and lunacy, wit and woe, and other music for dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight. In honor of Elfman’s 70th birthday on Monday, May 29, Midwest Film Journal offers a selection of reflections on his work called The Elfman Cometh.

It’s unquestionable that Ethan Hunt, the legendarily righteous rogue of the Impossible Mission Force, is a hero. It’s also undeniable that, regardless of all the virtue in his velocity, Hunt is often a fool rushing in. Hunt benefits as much from pure blind luck as the collaborative strength of his intrepid colleagues or the ingenious inspiration behind an international incident he’s inciting.

The primary excitements of later Mission: Impossible installments are, of course, watching Tom Cruise cheat variations of death in the guise of playing super-spy Ethan Hunt — battling the character’s mortality, staving off the demise of the moviegoing experience and, given the severity of the stunt work, challenging Cruise’s own drawn breath. But across what will be four films by 2024, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has also keyed into Hunt’s occasional half-cocked Hail Marys as a character-driven throughline: Part of the fun is wondering if, when and how the many hounds set loose on Hunt’s jackrabbit of justice will eventually snare him.

With respect to the pulse-pounding proficiency of Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, Joe Kraemer and Lorne Balfe’s work across later entries in the franchise, Danny Elfman’s score for 1996’s Mission: Impossible remains the only compositional complement to this crucial note on the character. And just as a crashing helicopter’s jagged blade narrowly avoids Hunt’s jugular vein here, Elfman’s work came this close to never happening.

Alan Silvestri had completed scoring work that was eventually tossed in post-production. Its remnants are readily available online, with some industrious folks even attaching cues to the scenes for which they were intended. Silvestri crafted commendable but rigidly traditional work that would have sonically stranded Hunt’s inaugural adventures in a 1990s house style.

Silvestri’s work also doesn’t convey anything important about Ethan Hunt. If Elfman’s work is not necessarily intended to reflect the sounds in Hunt’s head, it races at the tempo of his hurtling headspace as he determines who to believe or deceive. 

With bongo flutters here, sawed piano strings there and static-squawk bursts of brass everywhere, it might seem like Elfman — himself pressed for time and a plan — turned over his bag of tricks and, in almost experimental found-sound style, recorded its contents as they clattered to the floor. (That unpredictable nature also makes Mission: Impossible a prime candidate for the trend of live-accompanied film screenings; you can envision the enjoyable sight of percussionists and players scrambling from station to station to keep pace.)

Instead, Elfman creates a distinct imprint of near-miss intersections and on-the-fly improvisations as Hunt perceives them. Frequently as haunted and harried as it is high-spirited and heroic, Elfman’s score careens in real-time through Hunt’s cognitive analysis of who has betrayed him and his team. Working in tandem with a hairpin narrative, Elfman perpetually suppresses Hunt’s progress beneath propulsive momentum that this pointman cannot always control.

During “Big Trouble” — as Hunt’s team falls prey to a catastrophic mission in Prague — Elfman undermines the typical connotations of confidence in a trumpet voluntary. He upends the lone-hero motif as a bit of brassy bravado; as fast as Hunt can run, he can only arrive at prime vantage points to watch his colleagues picked off one by one. Burbling timpani and skittering-scorpion auxiliary percussion add to the sense of inescapable dread, like Hunt’s heartbeat aggravated into arrhythmia. Elfman holds the tether with the faintest instrumentation before a car explosion segues into a full-blown, fog-thickened tragedy.

Later, in “Mole Hunt” — as IMF director Kittredge puts the squeeze on Hunt, whom he believes sold out his team — Elfman addresses the accusations like an ascending scale of anxieties for a man still reeling from seeing his colleagues slaughtered. And through dynamics and sound alone in “Biblical Revelation,” Elfman suggests Hunt is hallucinating the reappearance of his supposedly dead mentor, Jim Phelps. These darker passages feel like a variation of Hunt’s vitals, from amplified anxiety to the comforts of certainty he derives amid so much deception.

It’s all the more impressively oppressive given the playfulness of other passages. As director Brian De Palma does with the film itself, Elfman nails the delicate balancing act. 

When it comes to Hunt’s nigh-magical acts of spycraft, Elfman puts the presti in his prestidigitation. Accompanying the film’s prologue, “Sleeping Beauty” opens with a martial, percussive momentum. It’s a deceptively hefty introduction, yielding to trilling flutes, jaunty cello and plucked bass (the latter for just a bit of that bottom-end heft Elfman brought to his band, Oingo Boingo). Castanets conjure the fast finger-work of a grifter lifting and pinching, only here it’s the question of the reality we see — blooming into full heroic flourish once Hunt commits his first of the series’ many mask-pulls. Before “Big Trouble” brings the carnage, “Red Handed” rolls off rollicking roundelays amid the typically cheery chatter on back-channel communications. Although the film’s centerpiece CIA robbery sequence unfolds largely in silence, “The Heist” is an emotional pump-primer for the clenched teeth and clapped hands it commands. And when the hammering triplets hit for a swoop in on a bullet train during “Train Time,” it’s simply electric.

Elfman is also judicious with Lalo Schifrin’s iconic but indispensable theme he did not compose — deploying it only for the opening credits, the establishing card for the CIA headquarters and the climax of the furious helicopter-versus-train finish. Even in that latter moment, Elfman’s own “Zoom B” first erupts into a major key as Hunt leaps onto a helicopter skid — a sonic sunburst through the clouds and a full, unfettered act of derring-do as Hunt takes down the bad guys with an homage to his fallen friends. Elfman’s nuanced handling of the staccato-earworm theme only renders its techno-fied end-credits treatment by U2’s Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. more conventional.

In ways unexpectedly delightful and delightfully unexpected, Elfman becomes a compositional conspirator alongside the hero we cheer. It’s a mission we’re glad he chose to accept.