Home > Reviews > PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE – Danny Elfman


September 10, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

peeweesbigadventureTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The story of how Tim Burton and Danny Elfman met has probably been turned into an urban myth, Chinese whispers-style, by now, but here’s my understanding of how it went down. In 1984, Burton was an aspiring filmmaker, a former animator for Disney who worked as an artist on films such as The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, and Tron, and who had impressed many with his animated short film Frankenweenie. One fan of Frankenweenie was actor and comedian Paul Reubens, who actively sought Burton out to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the planned big-screen spinoff of his popular Pee-Wee Herman character, which has become a cult-success on stage. Burton was a fan of the theatrical rock band Oingo Boingo and its charismatic lead singer Danny Elfman and, when it came time to decide on a musical direction for Pee-Wee, he approached Elfman to offer him the gig. Unknown to Burton, Elfman had basically grown up as a ‘film music fanboy’, having a special affinity for the work of Bernard Herrmann, and jumped at the chance to work in the genre that had fascinated him all his life. The rest, as they say, is history.

As far as I can remember, Pee-Wee Herman never crossed the Atlantic when I was a kid, so I was blithely unaware of its legacy and impact for a long time; this despite the fact that the film grossed over $95 million (adjusted for inflation), and quickly became an iconic American cultural touchstone following its release in July 1985. Reubens’s character is essentially a six year old boy in the body of a man with a squeaky voice and eccentric personality, and in this film Pee-Wee embarks on an epic road trip to recover his beloved red bicycle, which he believes has been stolen. The film, which co-stars Elizabeth Daily and Mark Holton, is basically a whimsical remake of director Vittorio De Sica’s classic 1948 Italian neo-realist film Ladri di Biciclette, and Elfman channeled the Italianate element of the film through his score, which pays homage to the music of composer Nino Rota – especially his scores for Federico Fellini – and blends them with the first appearances of what would go on to be several of his signature musical devices.

To match the tone of the film, the score is intentionally wacky and zany, featuring a multitude of unusual percussion items – both drums and lighter metallic thingamajigs – combined with solos for organ, saxophone, harmonica, guitar, an omnipresent rampant piano, and a decent-sized orchestral ensemble. Having never really attempted to marshal orchestral forces of this magnitude before, Elfman and his long-time Boingo collaborator Steve Bartek sought the help of veteran arranger Lennie Niehaus to give the orchestra more heft, and conduct the Los Angeles musicians, and the end result is magic. The score is built around a trio of themes: an 8-note theme that acts as the recurring musical identity for Pee-Wee himself, a circus-like action theme with oompah rhythms and a flamboyant sense of fun, and a more somber and funereal theme for Simone, the wistful waitress who helps Pee-Wee and dreams of visiting Paris.

Pee-Wee’s theme anchors the opening “Overture,” jumping from clarinets to strings, and accompanied by all manner of zany orchestrations, before segueing into an unexpectedly triumphant fanfare full of sports movie heroism in “The Bike Race”. Pee-Wee’s theme returns in the carefree “Park Ride,” is re-orchestrated for mouth organ in “Hitchhike,” and forms the cornerstone of “The Drive-In” and the conclusive and upbeat “Finale”. Elsewhere, the circus theme first appears in “Breakfast Machine,” and re-appears with weighty monstrosity in “Dinosaur Dream,” while the unusually metered and rambunctious “Clown Dream” features an array of ostentatious percussion effects and creative call-and-response chords that jump between keyboards, brass, and what sounds like a Wurlitzer organ.

The keyboard-led “Simone’s Theme” has the dusty waltz rhythms and slightly downcast romance aspect that would later feature heavily in scores like The Nightmare Before Christmas, specifically the music accompanying the rag doll Sally. Meanwhile, in cues like “Stolen Bike” and the happy-go-lucky “Studio Chase,” Elfman can’t hide his inspirations, getting Bernard Herrmann’s famous slashing strings from Psycho to perform Pee-Wee’s Theme in the former, and emulating the jazzy riffs of Nino Rota’s Amarcord in the latter – James Horner would later go on to also appropriate this theme in his score for Honey I Shrunk the Kids in 1989.

It’s fascinating to hear the genesis of things like the cookie factory theme from Edward Scissorhands, and a great deal of the score for Beetlejuice, here in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. From the very beginning of his career Danny Elfman clearly had a deeply personal musical style that he cultivated from the outset; small wonder that his originality and creativity catapulted him to superstardom with his score for Batman just four short years later.

Having been originally recorded with union musicians in Los Angeles, the soundtrack album for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure actually features a re-recording, undertaken by members of London’s National Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor John Coleman, to get around the pesky re-use fee issue that was still very much a factor in the 1980s. It runs for just over 20 minutes, and is coupled with an additional 13 minutes of score from the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School, which Elfman also wrote, and which features three standout cues, the “Overture,” the “Love Suite,” and the “Study Montage”.

As much of a landmark score Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is, the fact remains that the score is very much an acquired taste: an affinity for Nino Rota’s Fellini scores is helpful, but beyond that, it’s important to remember that it’s basically a score for a children’s comedy, and one with a very unique sense of style at that. If you, as a listener, have any intolerance for music which can be variously described as madcap, screwball, crazy, or any synonyms thereof, you may have a hard time connecting with it. Personally, however, I view it as one of the great film music debut scores, which introduced the world to the iconic soundtrack sound of Danny Elfman, and which should be an integral part of any serious soundtrack collection for that reason alone.

Buy the Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture/The Big Race (3:07)
  • Breakfast Machine (2:36)
  • Park Ride (1:14)
  • Stolen Bike (1:44)
  • Hitchhike (0:56)
  • Dinosaur Dream (0:48)
  • Simone’s Theme (1:35)
  • Clown Dream (1:58)
  • Studio Chase (1:24)
  • The Drive-In (2:02)
  • Finale (3:12)
  • Overture (2:12) – from Back to School
  • Do Not Go Gently… (1:07) – from Back to School
  • The Brawl (0:52) – from Back to School
  • Action Medley (1:28) – from Back to School
  • Classroom Secretary (1:01) – from Back to School
  • Triple Lindy (2:03) – from Back to School
  • Love Suite (2:28) – from Back to School
  • Study Montage (2:00) – from Back to School

Running Time: 33 minutes 47 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCD-47281 (1985/1986)

PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE: Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Lennie Niehaus. Album re-recording conducted by John Coleman Orchestrations by Steve Bartek and Lennie Niehaus. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Album re-recording recorded and mixed by Mike Ross. Edited by Bob Badami. Score produced by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek.

BACK TO SCHOOL: Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Lennie Niehaus. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Bob Badami. Score produced by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek.

Album produced by Tom Null, Michael Bowler and Richard Kraft.

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