anny Elfman has spent a dozen years struggling with the rock-and-roll muse as lead singer and songwriter for California's quirky cult band Oingo Boingo. In half that time he's become the hottest young composer in Hollywood, with a list of screen credits that includes "Batman," "Beetlejuice" and "Dick Tracy" (which opens on Friday). He even managed to come up with the theme for the year's hottest new television show, "The Simpsons."

Ironically, it was a longtime Oingo Boingo fan, Tim Burton, who sparked Elfman's second career when he got his first shot at a director's chair in 1985 with the movie "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

"I got a phone call," Elfman recalls. "I didn't really know who Tim was, but of course I'd heard about Pee-wee Herman and I was curious to meet the real Pee-wee. Though I never took it seriously as a potential job, I thought it would be fun to 'do a meeting.' "

Elfman's first question to Burton was: "Why me?"

"Tim said he was interviewing primarily nontraditional composers, that he had heard my music with the band and thought he heard bits of orchestral or filmatic potential. I didn't agree with him," Elfman says, observing that the three Oingo Boingo records out at the time mostly featured "driving, intense, one-dimensional" rock-and-roll, a hyper West Coast variation on Talking Heads.

"But I'm glad that he persisted, because I have a career out of it."

Indeed he does, and a continuing partnership with Burton as well -- they subsequently worked together on "Beetlejuice" and "Batman" and will do so again with "Edward Scissorshand," currently being filmed in Florida. It's a casual arrangement, not a formal one, but it holds much promise.

"Every time we finish a movie, I'll hear Tim talking about another project he's got going, but there's never any pressure," says Elfman. "I respect his judgment, and I'd like to think we can accomplish together what Nino Rota and Federico Fellini did, or Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. To have enhanced such an unusual, original director is very exciting. After three movies I've come to know Tim well enough to know never to expect what I'm expecting. He's always going to surprise me."

What's not surprising is their shared sensibilities. "Tim and I, aside from having grown up with a lot of the same movies, both still have a lot of kid in us," says Elfman. "When I can't figure out what to write, I go back to myself 12 years old in a theater watching a movie: Would 12-year-old Danny Elfman like that? Tim does the same thing. Neither of us {cares} what anybody thinks of us or what we do; we're just out to do something interesting and do our own aesthetic. It's great."

For "Big Adventure," Elfman timed the music to the moods and actions of the film, opting for simple melodies, counterpoint and harmonic structures to capture Pee-wee's sweet/sad persona. "I had a whole orchestra playing childlike music," Elfman explains. "That's why Nino Rota was a major inspiration, because there's no need to apply dense harmonic structure to things that don't need it."

Elfman talked "concept" with Burton and Pee-wee (Paul Rubens), and did a brief demo to part of the rough cut. "I was still surprised when I was hired. Then I panicked, and tried to beg off.

" 'The jump from doing it on keyboard to writing it out for orchestra is too grand -- I'll never pull it off,' " Elfman thought, suddenly aware of the difference between an 80-second demo and a 60-minute score. "But then I decided to give it a go. If worse came to worse, I could go running back to rock-and-roll with my tail between my legs, having destroyed a perfectly good film, feeling very sorry about it, and having proved a point I'd always made that rock-and-rollers make lousy film composers."

It wasn't really Elfman's first score: That honor belongs to "Forbidden Zone," a non-orchestral effort for a 1980 film directed by his brother Richard. But "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" got Elfman out of the starting gate. "The weekend that movie opened, I started getting calls from just about every comedy that was in production. I was barraged with these offers I couldn't believe."

As Elfman soon found out, however, it's one thing to contribute to a hit-fueled pop soundtrack, another to suddenly arrive on the scene as a rock-educated film scorer.

"I have no formal training," Elfman says. "I've learned by doing, and it's made me a much-hated composer in Hollywood, where the music field is the most elitist in all of film. You can be a self-taught synthesizer composer, but not a self-taught orchestral composer, and I just ended up on that side of the fence and got successful just a little too quickly. It's common knowledge in the music community in Hollywood that I don't 'write' any of my own music, that I hire other people to do it and just tag my name on at the end.

"But that's not what makes the score," Elfman says. "Writing the theme is easy. How you put it on screen -- the style, the nuances and the energy you apply to the screen -- is what makes it film scoring."

Elfman is quick to credit his collaborators: Steve Bartek, who is also the guitarist in Oingo Boingo, and music editor Bob Adamy. "Steve had done some arranging, mostly rock-and-roll horn parts, but I felt he could be an arranger and orchestrator. I work visually, instinctively, rather than intellectually, so I provide just enough information as to what I want and leave the details to Steve.

"On 'Pee-wee,' Bob Adamy guided me through the technical side and has been with me ever since, so I've been lucky to have a good team to help me. It was like Oingo Boingo -- we got together and have stayed together through 11 years. With my film {collaborators}, it's now been six years."

Although he and Oingo Boingo have had songs on a dozen soundtracks -- and provided the theme songs for "Bachelor Party," "Summer School" and "Weird Science" (the last is the biggest Boingo hit), Elfman's not a fan of the pop soundtracks that became the norm in the late '70s and through the '80s.

"Most soundtracks aren't soundtracks," Elfman says. "Now it means 'roughly associated with the movie' or even 'inspired by the movie.' It doesn't mean 'this is the music you heard in the film.' It's unfortunately lost all sense of meaning."

It's a situation Elfman's familiar with. After all, the release of his critically acclaimed score for "Batman" was delayed while Warner Bros. Records hyped the Prince collection of songs "inspired by" the film (though Prince had only two songs on the soundtrack, both quite intrusive). Poetically, it was Elfman's score than won a Grammy this year, while Prince had to make do with nominations.

Now, with "Dick Tracy," Elfman's going through it again, and worse. There's already Madonna's much-hyped "I'm Breathless," containing the three Stephen Sondheim songs written for the film and eight others "inspired by" it. Soon there will be an unlikely collection of contemporary songs "inspired by" the '30s-era film and featuring hot acts such as K.D. Lang, Take 6, Jerry Lee Lewis, August Darnell, Tommy Page, Erasure, Ice-T and Al Jarreau. In July, last on the schedule, there will be Elfman's "original motion picture score."

"I'm at the point now where I don't write songs for films," says Elfman. "I'm so sick of that, because it has nothing to do with music or filmmaking.

"I had a song {'Flesh 'N Blood'} on the 'Ghostbusters II' soundtrack, and they swore it was featured," he says. "But it's just four bars in background, and the only reason it's there is as an excuse to put it on the album. I got paid for it, but I would have pulled it in a second. Same thing with 'Beverly Hills Cop II.' I made good money, but the song wasn't really in the movie, and I took no pride in it."

The genuine connections between music and filmmaking were still in place when Elfman was growing up in the '60s in Los Angeles. "I spent every weekend at the movie theater when I was a kid, and that was a great time to be a kid in movie theaters because some of the best, most imaginative fantasy movies came out of that era.

"I was about 13 when I realized all my favorite films had the same composer, Bernard Herrmann," he says. "In fact, I became aware of film music through Hermmann's contribution to so many of the movies that I deeply loved -- 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,' 'Jason and the Argonauts,' 'Journey to the Center of the Earth,' 'Mysterious Island,' '7 Faces of Dr. Lao' and 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.' They also featured Ray Harryhausen's effects -- what a great imaginative team! Those were six major films in my upbringing. They stood out, they were unique, and I saw them many, many times. I lived for those films."

As Elfman realized that music was one of the reasons these films affected him so strongly, he became "a critic of good scores and bad scores at 17. And I went from film fan to cinema buff," he laughs, recalling a sudden focus on "non-English-speaking" films, particularly Fellini (and therefore Rota), before he "rediscovered Hitchcock and thus Bernard Herrmann in a whole other phase."

Before following in their footsteps, Elfman enrolled in the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a multimedia music theater company. "We were once described as dark, surrealistic cabaret," Elfman says. "We did very little contemporary music. Most of it was weird, percussive, strange, based on Stravinsky and '30s jazz, like the 'Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto No. 1 1/2.' That's where I started to write, because the pieces were starting to get too complicated to remember and hum to everybody."

After a few years, seven of the Mystic Knights opted for reality, leaving some musicians and half a name. "There was no connection other than five of 12 stayed with the band. The only link is we stole the name," Elfman says.

Oingo Boingo recorded its first album in 1980, gradually building up a cult following, mostly on the West Coast, which is where Burton became a fan. The band has persevered -- it appeared in Washington in April -- but even while he's on the road, Elfman is thinking film, with a visit to "Edward Scissorshand" on location in Florida and last-minute writing and editing for "Dick Tracy," some of it conducted over the phone from his hotel suite.

Now that he's become a hot property, Elfman has more offers than he can possibly handle. Like an actor, he's offered scripts, though he seldom makes judgments "because I've seen {the finished films} look or feel very different from what I imagined reading the scripts. Also, the biggest musical moments are not when people are speaking, but in between.

"And scripts are very deceptive. You can have a line and then a little description and then another line, but that description could represent 4 1/2 minutes of blistering music. The visual emotions and the action between dialogue scenes -- that's where we get to express ourselves."

But the hardest part of being a composer, Elfman says, "is learning the director." "You're talking in emotional terms, in abstract terms, and you have to convey that in the music, so you have to be able to climb inside the director's head and figure out what that is. By the end of 'Dick Tracy' I was reaching that point with Warren {Beatty}."

Elfman says he bases his choices more on the director, and the style of film, and that he's "at the point now where I want to only work with interesting directors."

Of course, nothing breeds access to such directors like success, and recently he's worked with horror-meisters Clive Barker (on "Nightbreed") and Sam Raimi (on "Dark Man," to be released in July).

"I sought out Clive Barker seeing 'Hellraiser,' and Sam after seeing 'Evil Dead II,' " says Elfman, who loves horror films but admits "it's a roll of the dice to get a good horror film. I could have done bigger-scale films with more famous directors in the same period, but I was looking for the imagination out there."

The dice rolled low with "Nightbreed," which had budget and production problems and died a quick death in the theaters (it comes out on video this week). Despite the problems, Elfman calls it one of his favorite scores, full of needle-sharp crescendos and creepy choral plainchants.

Other Elfman scores have died in the movies themselves, notably "Scrooged" -- take out the "g" and you'll sense Elfman's mood after his dark fantasy score was eviscerated and replaced by a pop soundtrack when the producers opted for low comedy. "I wanted to take my name off and couldn't. Of course, some composers -- Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Maurice Jarre -- have lost whole scores in recent years."

If "Scrooged" was Elfman's biggest disappointment, "Batman" was his biggest challenge, on levels far beyond the six-week schedule and 75-minute score.

"I had no experience as an 'action picture' composer," he explains. "It was the kind of movie that would have automatically gone to a John Williams, not to me, so there was a lot of skepticism, and I had to prove myself. There was a lot of pressure from producer Jon Peters and Warner Brothers head Mark Canton, and people were sitting in my studio saying, 'Play us some music, convince us.' "

How did he get the plum assignment? "It was Tim. He said, 'This is who I want.'

"Jon Peters told me the first time we met, 'I'm going to ride you real hard on this movie -- it's not going to be easy," Elfman says with a chuckle. "And he fulfilled that prediction. But winning him over was really great, because to win over a skeptic is always a really great feeling in any project that you do."

With his ambitious, Wagnerian score driving the $30 million production, Elfman was under a microscope. "It's not like nobody was going to notice if I screwed up -- they had too much invested in the movie to let the last guy in the line screw it up. And the composer is the last in a very long chain -- you're scoring right on top of the dubbing session, so that even to ask for two more days to write is impossible. And it's too tight a schedule for a replacement.

"But I work well under pressure, which is good because in this profession it's usually that way. 'Beetlejuice' is the only one that sat for a few months before coming out. Everything else has been bam bam bam.

"After 14 scores in five years, I'm used to it."

Jon Peters was so impressed with the "Batman" score that he pushed for the simultaneous release of Elfman's and Prince's soundtracks, though that wasn't to be. Elfman says that didn't bother him, because without the dual release "there would be no orchestral score released, period. It's either pop songs or nothing, so I'd rather have them market the pop album and make the whole score available for a smaller audience, so they can remember their way through the film that way."

While Prince's soundtrack went to No. 1, Elfman's went into Billboard's Top 30, something that none of Oingo Boingo's seven albums has ever accomplished. And if "Beetlejuice" opened some doors, "Batman" kicked in a few more on the fantasy-action-adventure front. Still, Elfman had second thoughts about doing "Dick Tracy," another comics hero come to live action. In fact, he was not the original choice, but after the first composer dropped out, Warren Beatty came calling (also with some second thoughts, but with an appreciation of Elfman's work).

"They convinced me I could write a score that went beyond 'Batman,' outside of it being more romantic," says Elfman. "And I had to be convinced I wouldn't be repeating myself."

When you're hot, you're hot, and Elfman understands that he's a part of a new wave of serious scorers that includes James Horner, Michael Kamens, Alan Silvestri, George Fenton and David Newman. "We do a lot of the films made each year and we're all within three or four years of each other," says Elfman, who is 36. "In a few years there may be a younger generation who will dethrone us."

"It's the roller coaster of Hollywood," he adds. "Except for John Williams, everyone else I can think of has had ups and downs. He's the only one to come in with a bang and hang in there with a bang." As for second-generation masters, Elfman points to Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone as "the two guys who have had the most versatile careers and whose body of work is phenomenal and unpredictable."

So far, Danny Elfman has managed parallel careers in two unpredictable fields. A balance is achieved, he says, "with great difficulty, because they're both very active careers. I really envy Randy Newman, because he's the only other person out there that I'm aware of who carries the two careers simultaneously as an orchestral composer and rock-and-roller. But he doesn't tour a lot, and he's a solo artist so he can tour when he wants. I don't have that luxury... .

"It's made things more difficult," Elfman concedes. "It would be much easier if I just did one film, an album and a tour, but interesting projects keep coming up and people are hiring me a year in advance. It's wild, it's crazy."