Soundtrack Review: Batman (1989)

Composed by: Danny Elfman

Orchestrated by: Shirley Walker & Steve Bartek

Although he had returned to his grimmer, darker roots nearly twenty years earlier in the comics, Batman was still often perceived by the non-comic reading community as the campy crusader of the sixties TV show, battling alongside Robin against colorful villains while such words as “POW!” and “BANG!” lit up the screen. Just as teh Superman movie franchise was dying a horrible death, Batman was brought to the silver screen by director Tim Burton, with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson giving memorable performances as Batman/Bruce Wayne and the Joker.

My favorite bat-film other than The Dark Knight, Batman had its music done by Burton’s regular composer-collaborator, Danny Elfman. It was this score that made Elfman one of the biggest composers of Hollywood, and also established him as on of the top choices for comic book movie music. Elfman was an excellent choice, his dark, impressionistic style of film-scoring a natural fit for Batman.

The music opens gloriously with “The Batman Theme”. It’s dashing and heroic, yet at the same time is imbued with a dark and sometimes tragic quality. This is my favorite superhero theme. I think John Williams’ Superman theme has a stronger opening titles arrangement, but Elfman’s theme just seems to have more dramatic energy as its quoted in the overall score. It is certainly a very malleable theme, and appears frequently, never failing to make a powerful statement. It made such an impression that it would be used for the opening and ending titles of the 90s’ animated series and in several video games and amusement parks.

A major factor in the score actually comes from Prince, who created his own collection of songs for the film on a separate soundtrack album. Many of these songs actually feature in the film, sometimes in an important way. Most important to the actual score is “Scandalous”. Elfman turns part of it into a love theme for Batman and love interest of the film Vicki Vale. The use of Prince songs also effects the material for the Joker. Since many of the Joker’s big scenes are backed by the songs, Elfman does not provide a strong overall theme. The closest he gets is “Waltz to the Death”, an awesome Gothic waltz for part of the final showdown that also dramatically closes out “Kitchen/Surgery/Face-Off”. You’d think the lack of a singular Joker theme would be a detriment, but Elfman pulls it off admirably.

After the main theme are “Roof Fight” and “First Confrontation”, two action cues which prove the effectiveness of the Batman theme. “Roof Fight” in particular sets the tone for several of the action pieces, traditional orchestra backed by urban percussion. “Flowers” is a melancholy track on piano and strings, while “Batman to the Rescue” is the most wild action cue. “Roasted Dude” is a short, haunting piece from one of the Joker’s monologues. “Photos/Beautiful Dreamer” is very atmospheric, and utilizes the tune from, as the title suggests, the 1864 song “Beautiful Dreamer”.

A definite highlight is “Descent into Mystery”. It kicks off with repeating strings, then a chanting choir. It builds into a short burst of the Batman theme and then introduces a secondary fanfare. This track is just epic, the best combination of heroism and atmosphere I’ve ever heard. Atmosphere of the more peaceful kind features in “The Bat Cave” and the carnivalesque “Joker’s Poem”. “Childhood Remembered” is an eerie piece on tragic strings for Bruce Wayne’s flashback scene.

The score’s final run is amazing, a series of big action and grand fanfares. “Charge of the Batmobile” and “Attack of the Batwing” fit in the former category, frenetic action music with the Batman theme liberally applied. “Up the Cathedral” is five minutes of dramatic darkness, with considerable use of an organ. This all builds into “Waltz to the Death”, literally an action waltz for its first half before a more subdued variation plays. “Final Confrontation” is the weakest of the final sequence tracks. It’s not bad. It’s pretty good. It just doesn’t have the wall-to-wall action of “Attack of the Batwing” or the uniqueness of the previous two tracks. It does end with a sweeping tragic motif and a final bit of circus music for the Joker. “Finale” brings back Batman’s fanfares in a big way, probably one of the best closing tracks one could wish for in a superhero movie. The last track is a reprise of the main theme from the end credits.

The original album has pretty much all the music you need, but there is a 2014 complete score release. It turns out all the score material fits onto one disc, since many of the scenes are backed by Prince songs. There is one  piece of music from the complete score I love called “Bat-Zone”, a slowly building iteration of the Batman theme.

Danny Elfman’s Batman is still the best Batman score, and in my opinion the best superhero score period. It’s got one of the best hero themes of all time, set the style for Elfman’s bigger action music throughout his career, has plenty of atmosphere, and even fits in with Prince’s songs.

Rating: 10/10

Tracklisting

  1. The Batman Theme (2:38)
  2. Rooftop Fight (1:20)
  3. First Confrontation (4:43)
  4. Kitchen/Surgery/Face-Off (3:07)
  5. Flowers (1:51)
  6. Clown Attack (1:45)
  7. Batman to the Rescue (3:56)
  8. Roasted Dude (1:01)
  9. Photos/Beautiful Dreamer (2:27)
  10. Descent into Mystery (1:31)
  11. The Bat Cave (2:35)
  12. The Joker’s Poem (0:56)
  13. Childhood Remembered (2:43)
  14. Love Theme (1:30)
  15. Charge of the Batmobile (1:41)
  16. Attack of the Batwing (4:44)
  17. Up the Cathedral (5:04)
  18. Waltz to the Death (3:55)
  19. Final Confrontation (3:47)
  20. Finale (1:45)
  21. Batman Theme Reprise (1:28)
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