Here is a partial list of the films Danny Elfman had scored by the time he accepted the job on Dolores Claiborne:
- Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
- Beetlejuice (1988)
- Midnight Run (1988)
- Scrooged (1988)
- Batman (1989)
- Nightbreed (1990)
- Dick Tracy (1990)
- Darkman (1990)
- Edward Scissorhands (1990)
- Batman Returns (1992)
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
What you've mostly got there is a list of colorful/moody fantasy films of one type or another. Most of what's left is comedy; some are both. I would argue that a minimum of five are stone-cold classics of film scoring.
I'm not sure you'd be able to argue that a filmography like what Elfman had at the time would make one an inherently good choice for a film like Dolores Claiborne, which is neither a comedy (and how) nor a colorful fantasy film. It's a psychological drama with expressive elements; and that's not true of, say, Dick Tracy.
However, Elfman had been working up to make a transition of this nature. He'd scored the underrated Jodie Foster / Richard Gere drama Sommersby in 1993, and had done a good job of putting himself in supporting mode; many of his previous scores had (and this is in no way a sleight of his phenomenal work) been much more front-and-center. That sort of approach can work for dramas -- Taxi Driver, anyone? (I'd answer "yes" if I were you) -- but most directors opt not to go quite that expressive with the music.
Case in point: Dolores Claiborne, which has virtually nothing in the way of hummable themes. One thing you could NOT accuse Elfman of is being deficient in the hummable-themes department in the course of scoring those films listed above.
Of course, this in no way implies that Dolores Claiborne lacks impact or is deficient. It's impactful and really rather terrific; just not in the way Beetlejuice is, you know? And I think it's worth going on a bit of a deep dive here, and closely examining the role the music plays in the movie. So what I'm going to do is this: I'm going to rewatch the movie, and take notes on each and every scene in which Elfman's score appears, and then pass my thoughts about it along to you. After I'm finished, I'd then like to compare that to the soundtrack album (which, like most score albums, contains only some of the music Elfman wrote and recorded).
I might be about to test the patience of some of my readers, but I think it might be a useful experience for me personally to go on a brief tour of Elfman's career as I understood it around the time of Dolores Claiborne's release. There's no better way of doing that than going track by track through the contents of this album:
This is Music For A Darkened Theatre: Film & Television Music Volume One, which for my money is one of the great film-composer compilations of all. It might well also be one of the most-played CDs in my library; I got this sucker when it came out in 1990, and it got featured heavily in my rotation. (Technically, my first copy was on cassette, but let's not be pedantic, shall we?)