Disney’s live-action re-imagining of Dumbo was directed by Tim Burton. You know what that means. The music had to be written by Danny Elfman.
When Dumbo flies, Elfman’s score becomes triumphant. That’s now how he wrote it though. The Dumbo theme is based on a very sad song for a sad moment in the film.
“When I wrote Dumbo’s theme, I wrote it as a bittersweet sad theme because that’s always what makes me excited,” Elfman said. “The sadder it is writing it, the happier I get as a composer.”
Just like in the animated classic, poor baby Dumbo is separated from his mother. That’s what inspired Elfman.
“I remember that baby elephant loses his mom, “Elfman said. “That’s going to be bittersweet, sad. I had a musical idea and before I started, I went and I wrote it, played it, finished it, put it away.”
When the time came to score Dumbo, Elfman did test his bittersweet music against the other emotional moments of the film.
“I do try to put my themes a bit of an acid test,” Elfman said. “Can I make it triumphant? Can I make it quirky? Can I make it silly? It’s like I’ve got to put it through each of these things. Whatever it is going to be asked to do, I need to know that it will do that.”
So Elfman knew his sad Dumbo music could be triumphant. He was still surprised when that version of the music was used so prominently.
“I didn’t know at that point there would be quite as much triumph,” Elfman said. “. Very early on, Tim was like, ‘I like that. And whenever Dumbo is in the air, do that thing.’ Once I hit on that once, Tim really caught onto that moment.”
Let’s be honest. Dumbo does more flying than crying.
“The word [Burton] used the most in the score was soaring,” Elfman said. “He really wants to make sure that Dumbo soars. And I go, ‘But don’t we want Dumbo to be heartbreaking?’ [Burton said,] ‘Oh, yeah, you got that, that’s fine. But I really want to make sure he soars.’”
After 17 films with Burton, Elfman knows that’s a sign he’s on the right track.
“It will be like that,” Elfman said. “There will be one element of the thing that he’s really focused on and the rest of it will be, that’s fine. You’re doing fine. It’s all fine. Sad stuff is all fine.”
Elfman is also a regular composer for Sam Raimi and some of his most memorable scores have been Midnight Run, Good Will Hunting and The Simpsons theme.
“I’ve done over 100 films and most of my favorites will have been Tim’s movies,” Elfman said. “I won’t say that many of those weren’t without great challenges. If I like the result, whether it was like a slam dunk easy thing or it really took a long process to find, it becomes irrelevant to me.”
The frontman for Oingo Boingo can now also add concert composer to his resume, but he really only got into music to score films.
“I started out as a film composer,” Elfman said. “So I didn’t start out writing orchestral music for myself. I had never heard an orchestra play until I heard Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
The Elfman solo shows sprung out of a concert tour Elfman and Burton did performing the music Elfman composed for Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.
“I remember when we were at the Lincoln Center playing and this guy was there from the Met,” Elfman recalled. “He was going. ‘God, I would kill to get this audience into the Met.’ Because our audience tends to be a younger and very energetic audience, frequently in costumes.”
Now Elfman can write his own ticket musically and he keeps a hand in both worlds.
“It was really in the process of doing these concerts of Tim’s music that I started to get this idea of writing concert music, which I needed to do for myself anyhow,” Elfman said. “Finding somehow a bridge between these two worlds which I love both very much.”
Dumbo opens March 29.