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‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’ score was its own wild ride

Pee-Wee Herman and Diane Salinger in "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

On April 23, the Brattle Theatre will screen “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” the 1985 big-screen debut of Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), the first feature from director Tim Burton, and (most germane to this space’s usual subject matter) the film-scoring breakthrough of composer Danny Elfman. Today, the cultural landscape is full of Elfman’s music, both the genuine article (his scores for “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” and “The Unknown Known” can currently be heard in theaters), as well as countless imitations. But Burton and Reubens took a risk in hiring Elfman, who, at the time, was better known as the frontman for the perpetually curious rock group Oingo Boingo.

Elfman had done the music for his brother Richard’s cult film “Forbidden Zone” (of which Reubens was a fan). But, while he had grown up revering the work of film legends like Bernard Herrmann, or Ennio Morricone, or Fellini’s favorite, Nino Rota (whose influence is particularly strong in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”), Elfman—self-taught and inexperienced—didn’t think he would have the opportunity to follow their path. “Film composing was something that dropped into my lap from heaven,” he said at the time.

Indeed, Elfman has often admitted that scoring “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” was as much a learning process as a job. In retrospect, though, one can hear Elfman’s style almost fully-formed: motoric, thumping accompaniments; abrupt shifts from chord to chord; spinning-wheel arpeggiated melodies; brash jostling of major and minor; even a characteristic Elfman melodic tic, emphasizing the tritone, an interval both cheerfully piquant and harmonically volatile. (The tritone practically saturates what is possibly Elfman’s most familiar composition, his theme to “The Simpsons.”)

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The orchestration, too (done by Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek, who still collaborates with Elfman), is immediately and familiarly Elfman-esque, bright and percussive, with often decorative instruments—harp, celesta, glockenspiel—elevated to overgrown-music-box prominence. Partially redolent of the glassy sound of then-new digital synthesizers—which Elfman proved adept at weaving into an orchestral texture—it also evoked an artifact of American childhood, the treble-heavy tone of cartoon soundtracks through television speakers.

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And, even as he raced to catch up on the ins and outs of film-scoring technique, Elfman demonstrated an innate knack for capturing a film’s inner musical tempo, converting storytelling clockwork into a tailor-fit rhythms. (“Let the film conduct,” Elfman once advised.) The score to “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” slips into the movie’s sense of time, turning the visuals into a gleeful, manic, elegant ballet.

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge screens “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” April 23 at 3:30, 5:30, 7:30, and 9:30 p.m. Tickets: $7-$10. www.brattlefilm.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.