Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

In Film, soundtracks on May 3, 2011 at 9:30 pm

“Go ahead and scream your head off. We’re miles from where anyone can hear you.”

– Pee-Wee Herman

I love Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. I think about it everyday and probably will for the rest of my life. With each passing year, as my cynicism grows deeper and deeper for movie comedies, I am consistently reminded of this film’s genius. Oh sure, it’s not perfect. But it’s those child-like imperfections that actually seem to to accentuate its charm. Like a toddler’s self-portrait with too many fingers on their left hand — Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is too endearing not to embrace and place proudly on the refrigerator with magnetic grapes. This was the first film for three pop culture wonder kids who met on a movie playground, took one wild idea and spun it into something even more fantastic until the end result was nearly cosmic; actor/comedian Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman), director Tim Burton and rocker-turned-composer Danny Elfman. While all three men have nailed subsequent creative triumphs, it was Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure that placed them in the direction of greatness.

Tim Burton directs Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman) in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

It’s hard to imagine this film interpreted any other way, other than by Tim Burton. Pee-Wee is a loner, a rebel. There are things about him we wouldn’t understand, things we couldn’t understand, things we shouldn’t understand. But the camera never judges Pee-Wee’s world. We are allowed to frolic in the front yard as he waters the lawn and wrap scotch tape around our face while making funny faces in the bathroom mirror. It’s a place where you don’t have to put your toys away after playing and where nothing completes your pancake breakfast like a pile of Mr. T Cereal.

Burton’s visual style was the perfect match for Paul Reubens’ hellzapoppin, toy store antics, but it’s Danny Elfman’s music that had to support the action on-screen and propel it forward on a level incapable of human feet. It had match the film’s sensibilities. It had to be whimsical. It had to be great. The director explains in Burton on Burton “To be a director, you can’t have any fear. At best, you probably have to have a very healthy balance of being an egomaniac, but with enough security in yourself to just go for it.”

It’s that fearlessness that translates into the film for all three of the major creative forces. Watching the movie again and it’s clear that Burton, Reubens and Elfman felt that they may never get the chance to make another movie again. They had nothing to lose. So they fired up all the cylinders and attacked with tenacious integrity. Nothing seemed too risky according to this trifecta of outsiders. Nothing, except for Elfman…

“I was convinced that I was going to destroy their movie”, explains the composer on the DVD audio commentary. “But they (Burton and Reubens) persisted.” And thank God they did. The loony demo that Elfman came up with, wound up to be the exact same piece that was later orchestrated for the opening credits. And if there was any doubt as to what kind of movie that the audience was in store for, it was Elfman’s wonderous comic opener to set the tone. The Main Title acts as the perfect gateway for the forthcoming barrage of perpetual-motion breakfast machines, Mario’s Magic Shop adventures and creepy clown dreams.

If there is any one specific reason that I love Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure so much, it’s probably because of Elfman’s music. It was one of the first times in my life that I recognized a name as the creator of an experience that I was having. I was maybe only ten years old, but once those opening notes began, I was an instant Elfman fan and a film score junky from that day forward. Since then, I’ve slowly learned that there are two schools of thought when it comes to film scores; The first is that the music should never intrude the film. Like most factors in cinema, such as editing, cinematography, etc – they should never call attention to themselves and along with each contributing element, it should work in service to the film and create the semblance of a whole. The second school of thought is…well…the exact opposite. That the music is as much a character in the film and that they want you to recognize it. And that’s Elfman’s music here.

With Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Elfman brazenly announced his arrival to the film community with a bombastic carnival homage to Nino Rota, Bernard Herrman and Max Steiner. But his roots in the L.A rock band Oingo Boingo had some critics doubting his true ability, not to mention his longevity in the business. But naysayers be dammed, his work on the film lead to a steady flow of similarly toned musical assignments including episodes of Amazing Stories and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the long-forgotten Bobcat Goldthwait, talking horse comedy Hot To Trot, Beetlejuice and the theme for The Simpsons. Listen to any of these works and its easy to trace the musical DNA back to Pee-Wee.

The soundtrack for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was released by Varese-Sarabande in 1988 along with another early Elfman score, the Rodney Danferfield comedy Back To School (another great comic score, the kind Elfman claims to loathe). But in a moment that felt like Pee-Wee discovering that there was no basement in The Alamo, the CD was heart-wrenchingly absent of over half the music from the film. In 2000, the DVD release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure featured a ‘Music Only’ audio option with commentary by Elfman in between the music cues (which is where I ripped and custom created these accompanying YouTube clips). Finally, I could not only hear all of the moments absent from the soundtrack, (Pee-Wee’s first revelation of his beloved bicycle from a top-secret console in his back yard, the epic bath tub battle with Francis Buxton and more!) but now I could also see it with the film, playing along with the action. More than before I appreciated all of the beats and comic timing that Elfman’s musical contribution brought to the movie.

In April of 2011, The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Boxwas released. The massive multi-disc set features a book and a DVD along with 13 soundtrack CDs that include early work demos along with extended and alternate tracks to their 13 films together. And yes, the first disc is the extended soundtrack devoted solely to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure While the CD is not fully complete, my schoolgirl-sized giddy fit still went through the roof when I first heard these original studio sessions (the previous CD was a mish-mash of original and album-only music tracks). I won’t complain, as now more than ever, I feel like my aimless, movie-obsessed childhood had meaning and that I was right all along. This music is thrilling and while some of my journeys have de-mystified the source material in the past, I feel even stronger connected to the film after hearing the music in its true, virgin form.

While Burton’s interpretation of Pee-Wee’s world leaves planet earth from time to time, with idiosyncratic imagry and a non-stop cavalcade of 80s nostalgia; Elfman’s orchestra remains the heart of the film. His work reins in the child-like wonders of Reubens and Burton who get lost in the massive desert dinosaur park of movie-making, clanging the dinner bell and making sure they come back to the ranch.

In May of 2011, LACMA opens their doors to The Tim Burton Exhibit that originally opened at MoMa in 2009. Featuring original conceptual drawings from the director’s personal archive spanning his entire film career, the exhibit also features original music pieces by Elfman to heighten the experience as you wonder through his world. While “Tequila” by Chuck Rio and The Champs may be Pee-Wee’s unofficial anthem, its Elfman’s music that forever remains Pee-Wee’s identity in my eyes, ears and soul. Re-discovering it’s greatness time and time again makes me feel like I’m unraveling a giant cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting…and knitting…and knitting. No complaints here, I just pray that it never runs out of yarn.

Pee-Wee composer, Danny Elfman

  1. What an eloquent, articulate, and, best of all, heartfelt salute to a comic masterpiece… actually, make that simply a masterpiece. I remember seeing PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE in the theater as a child and being alternately doubled in laughter at the film’s humor and mesmerized by its sweet surrealism. There’s more I could probably say, but the post says it all so perfectly. I will, however, add I’m happy Elfman’s incredible soundtrack finally got a proper release.

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