Garbo talks, Danny Elfman sings
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Anyone who was young and hanging out in the club scene in 1980s Los Angeles--OK, like me--couldn’t escape the delirious energy of Oingo Boingo, a huge circus carnival of a rock band that dominated the KROQ airwaves with such hits as ‘Only a Lad,’ ‘Dead Man’s Party’ and ‘Just Another Day.’ The band’s redheaded lead singer and resident musical wizard was Danny Elfman, who’s now a top film composer, having collaborated with everyone from Ang Lee to Sam Raimi to Gus Van Sant--he’s also worked on nearly every Tim Burton movie known to man, all the way back to ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.’ Elfman is so busy he has two movies coming out virtually back-to-back this summer, as the composer for both ‘Wanted’ (June 27) and ‘Hellboy 2' (July 11).
But the real surprise is that ‘Wanted’ features a new song, ‘The Little Things,’ that’s written and sung by Elfman. (You can listen to it here.) No one thought he’d ever sing again, least of all Elfman. But then, no one should underestimate the persuasive power of the always colorful Kathy Nelson, the veteran music supervisor and president of music at Universal Pictures who is famous in industry circles for all sorts of things, from keeping the peace between Spike Lee and Brian Grazer on ‘Inside Man’ to showing up at screenings with one of her dogs in her purse.
In the midst of working on the music for ‘Wanted’ with director Timur Bekmambetov, Nelson encountered a problem. Bekmambetov loved the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army,’ which he’d placed as a temp track in a key spot in the film. But the band wouldn’t license the track, which had become something of a signature song. Looking around for something new, Nelson finally went to Elfman and asked him. If anyone could get Elfman to sing, it was Nelson, who’d been a music supervisor on John Hughes’ ‘Weird Science,’ which had one of Elfman’s best-known Oingo Boingo compositions as its title song. (For a true ‘80s flashback, just go here .)
‘I said, ‘Danny, why don’t you write a song?’ ' Nelson recalls. ‘He said, ‘I don’t do that anymore.’ Of course, that didn’t stop me. I kept asking him and he kept blowing me off.’
But did she give up that easily?
Of course not. Finally, one morning Nelson checked her e-mail and found the first verse of an Elfman song, with the classic Elfman-esque lyric: ‘Someone has to pay for the little things.’
Elfman wanted someone else to record the song, but while he was off working on ‘Hellboy 2,’ Nelson had a listening session where she played a bunch of new songs for Bekmambetov and ‘Wanted’ producer Marc Platt. One of the tracks was Elfman’s still-unfinished song. It was a hit. ‘Timur said, ‘I like it. I can see it in my head,’ '' Nelson recalls. ‘Marc Platt couldn’t believe it was Danny’s voice. Having them really enthusiastic made a big difference, because Danny was extremely nervous. He didn’t want to force himself on them.’
Elfman finished his vocals while he was in London, working on ‘Hellboy,’ with Trevor Horn producing the track. But he wasn’t done yet. Bekmambetov, a young Russian filmmaker who made the eye-popping ‘Night Watch’ series, asked him to also sing the song in Russian for the film’s Russian release. (Apparently, in Russia there has to be at least one Russian-language song in a movie.) Elfman’s family is originally from Russia, so it was a kick for him to use the language in one of his own songs.
‘We got Danny a Russian vocal coach because it was so hard to get the language right that he had to do a half a line at a time,’ says Nelson. ‘But he made it work. Danny and Timur went around, being Russian together all the time. It wasn’t just like seeing the director and the composer. It was like having two crazy Russians hanging out, bonding together.’
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