Soundtrack Review: The Dark Knight

Composed by: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight is still considered by many to the not just the greatest Batman movie but the greatest superhero movie of all time. For me the film does live up to the hype, and was certainly better than Batman Begins with stronger villains (especially the deceased Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker), clearer action scenes, a heavily intense story, and great performances by Gary Oldman as James Gordon and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent.

One area that did not  necessarily improve from Batman Begins is the music. Once again collaborating with James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer and Media Ventures was now in even more control, with Howard only rarely showing his style. When deciding who would get what of the two new main character themes (Joker and Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Zimmer got the big main villain.

Hans Zimmer announced that the Joker would have a one-note theme, which caused much annoyance among film score fans and accusations of laziness. This turned out to be an unfair accusation, as it is merely just one of many motifs for one of cinema’s greatest villains. The Joker’s material comprises a nine-minute suite which opens up the album in “Why So Serious”. The one-note theme wails like a siren for the first minute and leads into random noisy percussion and electronics, including several short motifs for the Joker.  I actually have to say that upon seeing the movie the Joker’s theme actually works very well and is appropriate for the anarchist lunatic. The one-note theme excellently builds up a great sense of unease, the imminence of chaos about to be unleashed. There are other motifs showing different sides of the Joker. There’s a repeating four-note piece which appears during the villain’s twisted monologues on his chaotic worldview. There’s another four-note motif (the entrance motif) that bangs away when he makes his sudden appearances. In short, all these motifs create an anarchic soundscape, perfect for Nolan’s interpretation of the character. The Joker’s theme is easily incorporated throughout the action cues, just like the shark’s theme in Jaws.

James Newton Howard gets his chance to shine in “Harvey Two-Face”, where he takes a short bit of music from Batman Begins and mixes it with an Americana motif to show the noble character of uncorrupted Harvey Dent. Halfway through, things get more suspenseful and tragic before a nice swelling version of the previous film’s love theme emerges for a grand climax.

Batman once again has a confusing plethora of themes. Carried over from Batman Begins are the two-note theme and the dark synthesized beat, with the latter playing a far smaller role. “I’m Not a Hero” introduces a somber fanfare which has the two-note theme at the end (and has drawn comparisons to Danny Elfman’s Batman theme). A dramatic motif from Begins’ “Eptesicus” is turned into a heroic fanfare in “Like a Dog Chasing Cars”. If there is one serious problem with these new themes, it is that they fail to pop up more than three times at the most, as they are all fighting each other for space. The last thematic addition is a fast suspense rhythm which sounds reminiscent of some of Michael Giacchino’s motifs from Lost (think the Others’ theme from season three of that show).

The album production is not chronologically correct and the music often doesn’t appear as it did in the film. However, this makes for a very good seventy-minute suite and has nearly all of the highlights. Many of the track titles seem to mostly be randomly chosen quotes from Ledger’s Joker, though not mismatched to the attached cues. This does make it hard to find specific music on the first couple listens if one wants to relive a certain scene.

The first three tracks establish the themes in lengthy suites and then the CD goes into suspense mode for a while. “Aggressive Expansion” is a great build-up cue which climaxes in the Joker’s entrance motif. “Like a Dog Chasing Cars” is the action highlight, which builds up with the suspense rhythm and a heroic fanfare from Batman Begins, climaxing in one of the new Batman themes and then the Joker’s discordant style. “Agent of Chaos” features the love theme backed by tense action (and is actually an unreleased cue from Begins with the Joker’s theme inserted).

“Watch the World Burn” is a dark, tragic piece and can count as a suspense track as well, as it builds towards something before cutting off. “A Dark Knight” is the last track and runs for a whopping sixteen minutes. Included are many variations of Batman’s themes and one of the dramatic highlights from the film, in which the Joker’s one-note theme builds up tension between dark tragic flourishes. “A Dark Knight” can be tiresome when listening to the whole album as it extends the ending, but on a separate listen proves to be very effective.

The Dark Knight in some ways is an improvement over Batman Begins. Its certainly more interesting in its original material and has more defined motifs for the side characters. On the downside several cues seem to have been completely lifted from Batman Begins, though this problem is somewhat mitigated since several of these cues were not released on the first album anyways. Zimmer’s themes still seem fairly lazy in comparison to the complexity of Goldenthal or the sweeping heroism and tragedy of Elfman. The music is more effective in the film, enjoyed outside it if you’re a big fan who wants to relive the scenes and atmosphere from the film. For those who want the music as heard in the film, there is a two-disc limited release which features several new tracks. “The Two Ferries” is a personal favorite, covering the climax. It has part of “A Dark Knight” and after a heroic flourish ends with the Joker’s monologue motif backed by the one-note theme. A good, but not great score that benefits more from bringing memories of a fantastic film to your ears.

Rating: 7/10

The album can be bought here.

Tracklisting

  1. Why So Serious? (9:14)
  2. I’m Not a Hero (6:35)
  3. Harvey Two-Face (6:17)
  4. Aggressive Expansion (4:36)
  5. Always a Catch (1:40)
  6. Blood on My Hands (2:17)
  7. A Little Push (2:43)
  8. Like a Dog Chasing Cars (5:03)
  9. I Am the Batman (2:00)
  10. And I Though My Jokes Were Bad (2:29)
  11. Agent of Chaos (6:555)
  12. Introduce A Little Anarchy (3:43)
  13. Watch the World Burn (3:48)
  14. A Dark Knight (16:15)
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