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.

Thirty-five years ago, macabre maestro Tim Burton directed his second feature and what would still remain one of the finest achievements of his career. The horror comedy Beetlejuice set up many motifs Burton would continue to explore for years to come – gothic imagery, creepy visual effects, spooky setpieces and the sending-up of all things “normal.” 

The film also continued Burton’s collaboration with composer Danny Elfman, with whom he had teamed up three years prior for his feature debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman led the new-wave band Oingo Boingo at the time, and Pee-wee was the first time Elfman had written music for a mainstream production. But he seemed to get the hang of things quite quickly. Since then, he’s gone on to score nearly every project in Burton’s filmography, and Elfman’s music has become a significant part of the director’s idiosyncratic brand.

Beetlejuice begins with lovebirds Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) on a two-week vacation at their home in the New England countryside. Things take a turn when their car swerves off a bridge during a trip back from town and neither ends up making it out alive. Slowly coming to terms with their transition into the afterlife, the Maitlands watch in horror as their residence is overtaken by New York yuppies Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara). Although Charles and Delia aren’t able to see the phantom Maitlands, their daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), is somehow able to confer with the apparitions and wants to help them adjust to their altered state. Along the way, the Maitlands get in touch with Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a boorish “bio-exorcist” who offers to scare the Deetzes away from Adam and Barbara’s earthly abode.

From the first frame – the production logo for The Geffen Company – Elfman is front and center as one of Beetlejuice‘s brightest stars. As Burton and cinematographer Thomas E. Ackerman take us through a bird’s-eye tour over the fictional town of Winter River, the score undulates with a busy tuba bass line and a manic trumpet melody to match. The half-time percussion along with the bouncing piano figures recall the exhibitionist novelty of a carnival barker, a prelude of kookiness with promises of the freakish delights to come. It’s off-the-wall and triumphant at the same time, a ghoulish amuse-bouche that also serves as one of Elfman’s most iconic pieces of movie music. “Main Titles” is a perfect sonic introduction to this strange and singular world but Elfman doesn’t stop there.

The upbeat “Travel Music” offers a peppy counterpoint to the deadly car crash that ends our protagonists’ mortal lives early in the film. The lopsided tango of “Obituaries” suggests the Maitlands’ dance with death has only begun while “Enter … ‘The Family’ ” underlines the buffoonish nature of the new well-to-do homeowners. Composer Michael Andrews must have had “Lydia Discovers?” in mind when he wrote “Liquid Spear Waltz” for Donnie Darko, another film about a troubled teen communing with the dead. “The Incantation” coincides with the film’s climax and appropriately pulls out all the stops, weaving together haunting harp lines and wondrous trombone fills with a creepy organ underneath it all.

Of course, Beetlejuice fans will also note the indelible mark the music of the recently departed Harry Belafonte has on the movie as well. We hear Adam listening to two of Belafonte’s calypso classics when he’s working on his model city in the attic, which sets up how two more of his songs will be used later. At a dinner after they’ve completely transformed the house, the Deetzes and their snobby guests become supernaturally possessed to sing and dance along with “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Originally, the forlorn “If I Didn’t Care” was selected for the scene, but the rowdy “Day-O” is clearly a much better pick. “Jump In The Line (Shake, Señora)” was eventually selected as the song Lydia would dance along to during the film’s conclusion, wisely replacing the Percy Sledge serenade “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

Beetlejuice is such a bizarre concoction of lavish morbidity and offbeat humor that it’s somewhat surprising the movie found a big audience. Grossing just under $75 million in the United States alone, its box office take puts it in the top 10 of 1988’s highest-grossing films. It also has the distinct honor of being the first disc shipped via Netflix’s soon-to-be-defunct DVD-by-mail service when it launched 25 years ago. Warner Brothers has announced that a follow-up is officially underway, with Burton and Keaton set to return along with Elfman as well. In fact, the iconic composer even quelled fears regarding Keaton’s age difference between the two movies. “That’s the beauty of the Beetlejuice makeup,” Elfman opined. “He already looked like he was 150 in the first one!”