Elliot Goldenthal was born in 1954 in Brooklyn, New York. Studying piano as a child, he eventually learned trumpet and was influenced by jazz and rock. While in high school, he composed a ballet "Variations on Early Glimpses". Goldenthal eventually received his Bachelor's and Master's degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music. There he studied with (film and classical composer John Corigliano) and famed classical composer Aaron Copland, the latter giving him a thorough education.
He composed music for two films in a collaboration with Andy Warhol: Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and Blank Generation (1980). Also in 1980, Goldenthal composed two Brass Quintets. Instead of films, Goldenthal turned his attention to theatre and musical theatre. He wrote incidental music for plays like The King Stag (1984) and The Serpent Woman (1988). He also wrote the musicals Liberty's Taken (1985) and The Transposed Heads 1986) in partnership with Julie Taymor.
It was with Taymor that he conceived the play Juan Darién. The breakthrough production ran off-Broadway from 1989-1990. With this work he received a special citation OBIE Award for the music. Goldenthal was commissioned to compose a piece for Leonard Bernstein's 70th birthday in 1988, which became Shadow Play Scherzo. After an absence from the silver screen, Goldenthal returned to film scoring with the Stephen King thriller Pet Sematary (1989). That same year, he scored Gus van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989).Goldenthal's unique avant-garde music led him naturally to his film breakout, for David Fincher's Alien³ (1992). His non-conventional approaches and largely atonal sections matched with orchestral romanticism fit the film's vision. The same technique was fittingly used in Demolition Man (1993). In addition to orchestrating himself, with Alien³ Goldenthal has kept a team of orchestrator Robert Elhai, conductor Johnathan Sheffer, and score producer Matthias Gohl which he continues to use.
Goldenthal composed music for Julie Taymor's off-Broadway version of Titus Andronicus, which ran in 1994. It was a banner year for him, scoring Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire (1994). Goldenthal's gothic score was nominated for both the Golden Globes and Academy Award. Taking over the reigns from Danny Elfman, he scored the action film Batman Forever (1995). His wild score incorporated several styles including jazz and traditional heroic fanfares. Also in 1995 was the score for Michael Mann's crime film Heat (1995). The inventive score features the Kronos Quartet and electronic/atmospheric moments.
1996 was another important year, with the premiere of his reworked Juan Darién A Carnival Mass on Broadway. Directed by Taymor, he composed the music in addition to writing lyrics and adapting Latin texts. The show earned many Tony Award nominations, including a nomination for Original Musical Score. That year was also the premiere of Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio, a commission from the Pacific Symphony Orchestra for the 20th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The large-scale orchestral piece also featured cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a Vietnamese children's choir. He also scored A Time to Kill (1996) and reunited with Neil Jordan for Michael Collins (1996). The lyrical score again gave him nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
Along with Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy (1997), Goldenthal returned with director Joel Schumacher with his wacky score to Batman & Robin (1997). That same year, the American Ballet Theater commissioned the ballet score to Othello. Performed by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Goldenthal provided another postmodern musical landscape. He returned to his atonal thriller style for Sphere (1998) and In Dreams (1999).
With Julie Taymor's feature film debut, Titus (1999), Goldenthal naturally scored the film. The experimental score features styles known in Goldenthal's oeuvre. The score features reworked pieces from Alien³ and even a cue from A Time to Kill. Now the score is most known for its "reuse" in Tyler Bates' score to 300 (2007). In 1999, Goldenthal and Taymor also teamed up again, this time on Broadway in the fantastical stage work, The Green Bird. The play with music features a mash-up of styles, from jazz to atonal orchestral writing.
Goldenthal's style was further enhanced by the London Symphony Orchestra for the score to the completely CGI bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). The score features bold orchestral and choral writing, matched with percussion and brass heavy moments. The next year, he composed the score for Neil Jordan's thriller The Good Thief (2002). For the next feature film directed by Taymor - Frida (2002), he uncharacteristically simplified his melodies and harmonies and captured a Mexican style. The intimate score was popular in awards season, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Song: "Burn it Blue", and winning the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Original Score.
Goldenthal's next score was for the cop thriller (and headache inducing) S.W.A.T. (2003). The aggressive electronic score would be the film he would score for a few years. In the intermittent years, Goldenthal had an accident and suffered a double hematoma, and as a result couldn't speak for a few weeks. As he went to therapy for his speech, his compositional skill continued.
Taymor and Goldenthal's next ambitious project in 2006 was the opera Grendel, based on the classic Beowulf tale and John Gardner novel. The Los Angeles Opera had the premiere in early 2006 and had its New York debut in the summer. The work was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Goldenthal returned to film with the Taymor-directed Beatles lovefest Across the Universe (2007). Since most of the film utilized songs, Goldenthal only has 20 or so minutes of underscore. He also produced and arranged the songs in the film.
In 2009, he reunited with Heat director Michael Mann for another crime thriller, Public Enemies (2009). For the film, Goldenthal provided a romantic and atmospheric score. For the next Taymor collaboration, an adaption of Shakespeare's The Tempest (2010), Goldenthal composed another non-traditional score. Jarring changes of mood and orchestration fill the score from electronic minimalism to free saxophone electronic guitar solos. He also set Shakespeare's lyrics into songs within the film.
While staying with his style, Goldenthal has had no problem being inventive in his scores. He has composed non-traditional scores, that have reached the mainstream of film scores. His approach for films have started from the orchestration and the use of electronic and exotic instruments. Goldenthal's work is often misunderstood or often deemed "inaccessible", which is understandable in the mainly traditional Hollywood system. His personal and work collaboration with Julie Taymor has provided some of the more interesting stage and film works in the past decades. He has blurred the line of postmodern classical works and film scores consistently through the years. Even as Goldenthal hops from stage to screen, his work is inventive and fascinating.