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.
Big Fish is a story about stories or, rather, a story about storytellers and why they tell the tales they do. Even when we know a story is a farce, we often go along with it. After all, if we were only eager to devour true stories, every fiction writer would be out of a job (or at least $787.5 million).
Stories, of course, are more than words. Anyone can read a story. It takes a master to tell one. An excellent storyteller will have you attached to their tale like barnacles to a ship, letting the tension in your body build and cascade by drawing out their pauses, bubbling up your laughter with a slight grin, pushing and pulling you gently into the vortex of their world until you forget everything outside it.
My dad was a storyteller. He couldn’t tell a joke even if Johnny Carson were coaching him, but he loved telling stories. The last time I tried to watch Big Fish was shortly after he died. I’ve always found great comfort in Tim Burton movies because fish-out-of-water tropes with awkward protagonists make anxiety feel quirky and manageable. They’re fun and surreal and fanciful with a healthy dose of the macabre, and it makes feeling weird feel OK.
But in this case, I think I wanted to let old memories flow forth and hear a father tell a son a story.
Movies can leverage narrators like traditional storytelling, but they also tap into the visual and benefit from using music as a vessel to accentuate our emotions. What else but music can turn the common riddle joke about the chicken and the road into a heart-wrenching tale of hope and loss? With Burton and composer Danny Elfman seemingly separated at birth, the latter’s contribution to accenting the Burtonesque never goes unnoticed. In a movie that covers both great, big stories of wondrous accomplishments and the all-too-real sense that a large life still ends, Elfman’s ability to sail between them was doubtlessly responsible for garnering the composer one of his too few Oscar nominations.
Big Fish (Titles)
As he launches into the importance of water, Thomas C. Foster writes in How to Read Literature Like a Professor: “Have you ever noticed how often literary characters get wet? Some drown, some merely get drenched, and some bob to the surface. What difference does it make?”
Oh, all the differences we find. Big Fish begins and ends in the water. Water purifies. Water nourishes and provides. It is life-giving stuff by itself and home to other sustenance for us like fish. Edward Bloom (this film’s father) fishes in the opening credits to the accompaniment of Elfman’s title-sequence piece, which is a masterclass in music approximating water. The track is shining, shimmering, splendid — replete with chiming, metallic sounds juxtaposed against warm strings. It gives the sense of sitting on a mildly windy day out on a lake as the sun begins to rise.
Eflman is able to catch a hearty and folksy line, echoing the Alabama setting in which most of the film takes place. It’s warm in the same sense composer Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” is in The Lord of the Rings but less conspicuous. It’s Elfman at some of his most epic. The strings build as the movie reveals the larger-than-life fish Edward attempts to catch and helps set the tone for the legendary nature of the story, which is Edward’s life.
Stories sustain us. We find meaning in them and expand meaning within ourselves. Meaning is without end in simple water here. Edward tells a story about catching fish on the cusp of the birth of his son, William, perhaps seeing himself as a provider. He isn’t just in the water. By film’s end, he seems to work to become the water.
Those might be the stories we love telling the best — the ones in which we are the star.
The Growing Montage
My dad memorized The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he was in grade school. He’d often launch into his favorite stanza:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
I would find a love for the written word as well. I’d even pour over the set of encyclopedias we had because they were some of the only books we owned and the Internet wasn’t really a thing yet. I got into the habit because I asked a lot of questions because that’s what kids do. My dad’s answers began to grow rare and became replaced with “Well, maybe you should look it up,” which I did eagerly.
Edward Bloom did the same, telling a likely tall tale of being in bed for three years because he grew too fast, making it all the way to the G volume of the encyclopedia trying to find a cure for himself. He discovers, instead of “Gigantificationism,” that he may be compared instead to a goldfish. “Kept in a small bowl, the goldfish will remain small. With more space, the fish will grow to double, triple or quadruple its size.” Perhaps he was meant for larger things.
This montage, accompanied by Elfman’s triumphant track, ends up shadowing the unspoken rivalry that develops between Edward and William, and perhaps all fathers and sons. Elfman moves from his strings through choral voices to brassy horns and percussion. Critics will sometimes draw comparisons between Elfman and the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. “The Growing Montage” might be easily compared to Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from Das Rheingold. Given Edward’s mythos, the comparison to the gods themselves seems apt.
But all this abuts interesting previous scenes. William’s wedding is somewhat overshadowed by Edward telling his own romantic love story, shifting the center of attention to himself and causing a rift between father and son that is only addressed as the elder nears death. William returns to his boyhood home and views photographs from his childhood, shaking his head in embarrassment.
As William attempts to assert what is true and what he values, he also combats what makes him feel lesser. Elfman’s scenes for Will tend towards the softer and more nostalgic (like “Pictures”) than the triumphant
We communicated indirectly, I guess. In her letters and Christmas cards, my mother wrote for both of them. And when I’d call, she’d say Dad was out driving or swimming in the pool.
True to form, we never talked about not talking. The truth is, I didn’t see anything of myself in my father. And I don’t think he saw anything of himself in me. We were like strangers who knew each other very well.
— William Bloom
Leaving Spectre / Return to Spectre
Dad and I started disagreeing more after I moved away to go to college. But even as William returns to Edward after years of silence, I would never say our schism was permanent. We did know each other very well.
As my dad experienced poorer health, my parents moved to Indianapolis from my childhood home. The cliché is that you can never go home again, and my parents’ move finalized that. My visits to them grew rarer and rarer, and I was better able to spot all the small changes stacking up. A new, yellow staircase on an old, familiar building. Aging faces. Stores out of business or growing moldy and stagnant. Things that seemed so permanent faded away or changed.
Spectre is a lot like that in Big Fish, a town initially emblematic of peace and idleness. The townspeople take an immediate liking to Edward even after being surprised by his arrival there. They tell him he’s too early, but he’s welcome. Edward, however, is destined for big and bold adventures. He leaves Spectre, saying “This town is everything a man could ask for. And if I were to end up here, I’d consider myself lucky. But the fact is, I’m not ready to end up anywhere.” When he does return, the symbols of industrialization have broken the shining surface of the town, wrecking the town and landing its people in poverty.
Elfman’s dual tracks of “Leaving Spectre” and “Return to Spectre” are nearer to his work in movies like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (especially “Victor’s Piano Solo”) than his more whimsical fare in Big Fish or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The tone is more longing and forlorn. Instrumentation shifts to piano and deeper strings like cellos. The key changes to minor and becomes less melodic, eventually sounding more like an out-of-tune piano to show the disjointed contrast between the ideal Spectre once represented and its current nature. Even upon the “Return,” the musical styling is more in line with “Leaving” than calling back to the other pieces. What once seemed permanent is now irrevocably changed.
Dad seemed permanent, too. On many occasions, the thought intruded that this may not be the case. There were long droughts where everything stood on edge. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea, had gone 87 days without a fish before and then caught big ones every day for three weeks. Dad’s health was feast or famine as well. The end was always an abstract thing until it wasn’t.
As Santiago reels in his greatest fish after another long dry spell, he is unable to bring it back in one piece. He floats into the harbor with just bones and a story. Once everything is finished, we are left with the story.
Death certainly is a funny thing. A funny, predictable, unpredictable thing. It’s surreal. Perhaps sometimes like a pastel goth or a landscaper with scissors for hands. It has a strange way of shifting perspective. I mourned a lot about the fact Dad and I didn’t have the close relationship found in the functional families of popular entertainment and that perhaps we couldn’t be much more different than we were.
But I like to tell stories, too. I’ve got a great one about an ill-fated tour of a Wizard of Oz attraction in Liberal, Kansas, that features bikers, children scared of animatronic monkeys and a very disinterested tour guide. I express care for others in a way Dad always tried but perhaps never quite realized. And these things that are integrated within us, these realizations that there is some truth to the myths of our lives, are the cargo we carry through all the flotsam and jetsam of life.
Elfman’s ultimate and longest piece from Big Fish is “Finale,” which is paired with Will’s own tall tale: He tells his dying father a story of rescuing Edward from the hospital to take him down to the river with everyone he has ever met in his life. Choral voices are used again, and that Shore-ian way of warm, Hobbit-like strings comes back. And always, always in the back, the chimes of water.
Water purifies. Water nourishes and provides. It is life-giving stuff. And what else should we try to become? To what else should we give our all besides life?