Mike D’Angelo revists the score of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and how the circus-like theme launched Danny Elfman’s career.


The first time I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, during its initial theatrical run in summer 1985, it took less than a minute to grab me. Visually, nothing happens during the film’s first 60 seconds—it’s just a spare opening-credits sequence, white letters on black leader (apart from the title, which is brightly colored). Even before that, though, when the 1980s-style Warner Bros. logo still fills the screen, there’s music. An insistent thud-thud-thud at first, just a single note, accompanied by a rising and falling legato pattern played on a harp. Then the piece shifts into the two-note, 4/4 mode that will characterize practically the entire score: duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh. For whatever reason, that particular sound has strong associations with the circus, and the score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has an unmistakable “step right up!” vibe from the get-go; it promises fun, excitement, and strenuous efforts to entertain. At the time, I had no idea who Danny Elfman was (or who Tim Burton was, or even who Pee-wee Herman was). All I knew was that the movie had barely even started, and I was already feeling giddy. Bring it on, whatever it is!

Nowadays, it’s commonplace for movies to draft popular musicians, with everyone from Daft Punk to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood contributing original scores to major projects. Back in 1985, though, it was a riskier move. Usually, it’d be a band—Pink Floyd for More; Queen for Flash Gordon—whose participation would be a major selling point, with a soundtrack album available in stores. Elfman, by contrast, was the singer and primary songwriter for a small cult band, Oingo Boingo, which had released three not exactly bestselling albums. (Elfman had also released a solo album, So-Lo, which was an Oingo Boingo record in everything but name, using the entire band on every track.) His only previous experience as a film composer was Forbidden Zone, a little-seen movie directed by his brother Richard. But Oingo Boingo was popular in Southern California, and Burton and Paul Reubens happened to be fans. “Let’s turn this guy into the most influential film composer of the next decade or so,” they probably didn’t say. All the same, that’s exactly what improbably happened, as Elfman’s collaborations with Burton—Batman was the tipping point—made him Hollywood’s top choice for anything vaguely idiosyncratic.

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