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A return to format for Elfman

Special to The Times

It’s more Bollywood than Boingo, but Danny Elfman is back to writing and singing songs.

Having transitioned from being one of the most popular Los Angeles rock figures of the ‘80s with his band Oingo Boingo to being one of Hollywood’s leading score composers, Elfman has done little in the way of songs lately, apart from Tim Burton’s 1993 animated musical “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” in which he voiced the singing parts for lead character Jack Skellington.

But now he’s done five new songs for Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (which premieres July 15), five more for Burton’s “Corpse Bride” (coming in the fall) and a lullaby to be sung by Dakota Fanning in a new version of “Charlotte’s Web.”

While the macabre tone of the “Nightmare” and “Corpse” tunes came fairly naturally for the man behind “Dead Man’s Party,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” presented some new challenges. It was as different in tone from the “Nightmare” songs as the ultra-lean, long Skellington is from the squat Oompa-Loompa characters -- all 50 of them -- that Elfman voices in the new film.

“ ‘Charlie’ was a real departure,” the musician says. “Tim’s idea was to take each song to a different genre. That’s why it was so unexpectedly fun.”

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Elfman started with the words from Roald Dahl’s book, in which the Oompa-Loompas sing Greek chorus-like about chocolatier Wonka and the children whom he takes on a perilous, sugary adventure.

In the book the songs are epic length, so Elfman had to cut them down, but otherwise he made only minor tweaks to Dahl’s words. And before composing the music, he revisited the 1971 film version, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” which starred Gene Wilder. Although he took no musical direction from it, he figured he would take a similar approach in terms of having all the songs sound pretty much the same, to give a thread throughout the story.

“The first song I wrote for this was for the character Augustus Gloop,” Elfman says. “I was inspired by the big Bollywood musical numbers and I expected I’d do four more songs based on this, with one theme and variations.

“But Tim was, ‘No! When you’re watching the Bollywood musicals, one song is a ballad, one is a rock song, you get each song not knowing where they’re going to be coming from.’ ”

With that agenda set, Elfman drew on various over-the-top retro styles.

“The second one I wrote was ‘Veruca Salt,’ in which we’re going almost ‘60s folky-rocky,” he says. “For ‘Mike Teavea,’ it was inspired more by Queen and hair bands. Finally, when it was time for ‘Violet Beauregarde’ I said, ‘Let’s do ‘70s funk, a little blaxploitation movie style.’ I knew Tim loved that music as much as I do.”

But nothing was more over-the-top than the recording sessions themselves. The Oompa-Loompas are clones in this telling, so it made sense to have one person sing all the parts. Elfman worked out the lines in marathon sessions at his home studio that got so out of control that his wife, actress Bridget Fonda, came to check on him.

“It was really insane, sitting in my studio, holding a microphone and improvising the voices, 50 at once,” he says. “There were times I almost couldn’t continue, laughing so much I could barely do the parts. Some are baritones, some tenors, some Munchkin-ized.... My wife would sort of hear it through the floor and sometimes would come in wondering if I was OK. There were moments she thought I was losing it.”

These kids are feeling their oats

No scantily clad heiress will be cavorting in Quaker Oats’ upcoming commercial for its oatmeal, but the spot is set to feature a national debut by a couple of young musical heirs -- very young.

Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy’s sons Spencer and Sammy (ages 9 and 5, respectively) recently filmed an ad for the cereal with their own band, the Blisters. Shot in Hollywood, the ad features the kids playing an original song.

This is not a case of Tweedy rushing his sons into the family business. In fact, both Tweedy and his wife are staying in the background and declining to comment on it.

Rather, the connection of the Blisters and the company -- both based in Chicago -- had nothing to do with Wilco at all. According to Wilco’s publicist, the gig came about via a creative director who has a child in school with the Tweedy boys, and who had heard that Quaker Oats was looking for a kid band for a commercial.

An account on a blog kept by the boys’ uncle, Danny Miller, though, gives more detail. The commercial, directed by no less a figure than Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line,” “The Fog of War”), has the Blisters performing on a set decorated with giant oatmeal packages. And the campaign was created by Scott Smith, who was one of the finalists in this year’s Project Greenlight filmmaker competition.

Per Miller’s tale, the quote of the day came from 5-year-old Sammy: “Oatmeal makes you rock more efficiently!”

Small faces

* Former “American Idol” contestant Constantine Maroulis (the other “rocker”) has parlayed his televised rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” into a prime gig: doing the song on the official, Queen-approved tribute album coming out Aug. 9 from Hollywood Records. Maroulis’ contribution is slated to be the first single from the album, which also features Sum 41 (“Killer Queen”), Gavin DeGraw (“We Are the Champions”), Jason Mraz (“Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”), and a second “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Flaming Lips.


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