Danny Elfman on scoring Batman and refusing to collaborate with Prince: "It was a miserable period of time"

Michael Keaton on the set of "Batman"
(Image credit: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

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Best of 2023: "I've never done anything harder than Batman," reflects Danny Elfman on the 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster he scored. A lot was riding on the film as the first big-budget superhero franchise since Superman. And it's hard to believe now he's one of the most celebrated film composers around but Elfman was relatively new and untested in the frequently brutal Hollywood machine at the time, but the former Oingo Boingo founder had already worked on the Scrooged and Beetlejuice soundtracks by this point. 

There really was no superhero music – there was just Superman

"First off, I had to prove myself. Ok, he's quirky / comedy guy and here I am doing this Batman movie, Elfman reflects in a new interview with GQ in the video below. "Understandably they were [unsure] and [thought], we need somebody who does this kind of music. But nobody knew what kind of music it was. There really was no superhero music – there was just Superman. And we said, 'We know we don't want it to be Superman John Williams [who scored the original series of films]. And then there was an element with the producer in the studio of wanting it to be a pop score."

I knew that if I collaborated, he'd be writing tunes and I'd be orchestrating his tunes and I'd be essentially a glorified arrange

This proved a major bone of contention when Prince entered the equation. He had been hired to produce the soundtrack for the film as a Warner Bros artist, while Elfman was hired to write the score. The idea was suggested Prince could extend his remit into the latter. 

"There was definitely this moment of, 'Danny we want you to collaborate with Prince and co-write the score.' And I go, 'I can't do that'. I love Prince but not for that score. I already knew what the score was and I knew that if I collaborated, he'd be writing tunes and I'd be orchestrating his tunes and I'd be essentially a glorified arranger, rather than a composer. Because he was world famous and I was still nothing."

Elfman insisted he needed to stick to his own vision for the score; a position that saw him walk away from the project. 

"I was so depressed," he reflects. "I felt like I just blew up my own career. Then a month later I got the call, 'Danny, you're back on, we've got to get moving. Come on, come on.' This gamble paid off but it was a miserable period of time. On the other hand, I'd already heard the music in my head – I knew what it was and I was determined that was going to be the score.

"The producer was so hard on me, John Peters, and then finally, I think it was the third presentation [of the music], I didn't know how to do presentations. Tim [Burton] says, 'Play the march, play the march,' That's what he called the titles."

Elfman played them the Batman theme. 

"Of course now I know you lead with your headline," he reflects. "Obviously I didn't understand that back then. I put this piece of music on and John starts conducting in his chair. And at a certain point he stands up, Tim looks at me and he's like [thumbs up]. Yep, we got it."

Elfman was invited back to score 1992's equal Batman Returns and in a full-circle move, he's scoring Burton's long-awaited sequel to Beetlejuice. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.