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.
You are a college student in 1985 dipping your toes into journalism, and it seems that every actual journalist you’ve met is reading Bright Lights, Big City, which is written in the second person.
You aren’t writing about Bright Lights, Big City but about another movie with Big in the title. But you decide to write in second person anyway — in part because you are a college student in the 1980s who doesn’t believe in his talent so you instead search for a gimmick.
The Big movie you are writing about is Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and you are attending a sneak preview you almost skipped because you were amused by Pee-wee in small doses on his TV special but had doubts about his ability to sustain 90 minutes on the big screen.
The credits are packed with unknowns. You don’t know who this co-writer Phil Hartman is. The director, Tim Burton, hasn’t made a feature before. And the score is by a guy from the band Oingo Boingo.
But the music hits you even before the Warner Brothers logo is off the screen.
It doesn’t just pull you into the crazy carnival of a movie, it puts you inside the busy brain of the title character. It simultaneously gets your heart pumping and knocks a decade-and-a-half off your age. And it speeds up as the multicolored letters of the title pop onto the screen, as if to say, “You’ve got Bernard Herrmann in my Spike Jones.” “No, you’ve got Spike Jones in my Bernard Herrmann.”
You aren’t someone who pays attention to music in movies — being of the usual feeling that if you are aware of it, it’s pulling you out of the picture. But here, you are aware of it almost every loopy step of the way. It energizes the celluloid. Playfully jaunty when Pee-wee enters the bike shop, it ramps up the strings to make you more upset and angry when his beloved bike is stolen. It offers delightfully clichéd punctuation when Pee-wee finds himself riding shotgun with a guy with a gun and sneaks up on you when Large Marge is telling her terrifying tale.
You think: On his first time working without his band, this first-time movie composer seems to know exactly what he is doing and what this wild-card picture can be.
As for the movie, well, some time in the future, you may be among those who can recite it verbatim. But while watching it for the first time, you have no idea what’s going to happen next. You are pretty sure Pee-wee isn’t going to make out with Dottie. You didn’t know how he is going to avoid getting the shit kicked out of him at the biker bar. You don’t know what’s going to happen in Large Marge’s tale.
And you are delighted when the ending is just right (and you get annoyed seven years later when that ending is essentially ripped off, to much lesser effect, in The Player).
Elfman and Burton, you think. Gotta keep an eye or two on those guys.
And you tell everyone you see back in the dorm that they really should see this one.