Pee Wee’s Big Adventure/Back to School: Vinyl (Danny Elfman) – Score Review

Decades later, it is hard to deny the impact of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which would introduce the world to not only the titular character, but also director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. Paul Reubens would continue to find massive success with his character through movie sequels and shows, while Burton and Elfman would quickly ascend to Hollywood’s A-list.

Much of their quick rise can be credited to just how much both director and composer’s styles clashed with the Hollywood mainstream, with their embrace of the macabre alongside the cartoon-ish gaining quick notice. Revisiting Elfman’s score on its own, one finds that time has done nothing to dampen its unique spirit and sound, remaining a memorable, if brief, work that defies genre categorization.

A rockstar who had only dabbled in film scoring, the hiring of Danny Elfman was a huge creative risk for a newcomer director and a project as odd as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was. Musicians had crossed over to scoring in the past and even won Oscars for their works by this point, but few had forced a musician with no formal music education to write for a full orchestra in this way.

The resulting sound is almost indescribable, an odd synthesis of carnival music, memorable melodic content, and strong influence from Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann. The bouncy rhythms, the oom-pah counterpoint, and the other trademarks that would define Elfman’s early compositions are all present here in perhaps their most pure form, which is why Elfman fans have continued to seek out this score for decades.

There are a handful of themes present, primarily for Pee Wee and the waitress Simone, and Elfman is appropriately loyal to them. The Simone theme in particular is a great example of his ability to capture the macabre sound that perfectly matches much of Burton’s style. The true album highlights, though, are cues that introduce and explore their own memorable personalities. “Clown Dream” previews Elfman’s comic horror approach, while the bombast and rhythms of “Breakfast Machine” became so iconic that Family Guy parodied them in the late 2000s.

These highlights and the score’s unique sound are more than enough to maintain interest for its brief presentation here, which comes in around 20 minutes. To fill the remainder of the album, Varese Sarabande decided to include Elfman’s brief score for the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School.

While not the main draw for most, Elfman’s Back to School is a true delight, providing a more streamlined version of his sound and blessed with a catchy primary identity. The theme is hard to miss, debuting in “Overture” and receiving a full airing in the conclusive “Study Montage,” both worthy entries in any Elfman playlist.

The rest of the score selections maintain a consistent tone and feature surprisingly robust orchestrations, but do struggle to match the heights of the bookending cues. Hints at what would come for the composer, including his signature saxophone phrasing and the rattling percussion that would pop up in Beetlejuice, further add to the album’s attractiveness to fans of the composer and his early works.

The presentation of these scores suits the vinyl format well, giving each score a side of the record to itself. Almost 30 years after this presentation’s first appearance on CD though, it is slightly disappointing that fuller presentations of the scores, and the original recordings of them as heard in film, remain unavailable to the average consumer.

That said, any fan of Danny Elfman simply must have this fantastic album in some form. While diehard fans will enjoy picking up this flashy vinyl release, the CD album remains a fine choice for those who have yet to experience it. For the rest of us, we can continue saving our money in hopes of a future expanded release.

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