Soundtrack Review: Batman Returns

Composed by: Danny Elfman

Conducted by: Jonathan Scheffer

Following the smashing success of Batman, Tim Burton was given more creative freedom in the sequel. Batman Returns has good acting and great visuals, but Burton infused a little too much of his own style, resulting in a film that, reportedly, caused many children expecting a normal action film to come out of the theaters crying. For its faults, it has a pretty strong cast, with Danny Devito as an odd mutant take on the Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and Christopher Walken being awesome as always as evil business and power mogul Max Schreck. Among the Burton tropes in Batman Returns are a circus, plenty of pale faces, gothic designs, and a dark Danny Elfman score.

The score is quite different from the first, which is more traditionally heroic. Its emphasis is on bleak darkness, as represented by its two new, liberally quoted themes. Both are sinister, but with a strong hint of tragedy. The Penguin’s theme debuts in “Birth of a Penguin” and gets extensive treatment in “The Lair” and “The Cemetery”. It’s used so often that how much you like the theme will effect how you feel about the whole album. Catwoman’s theme has two parts. The first is high-pitched strings representing the feline meowing and screeching of a cat. The second part is a more tragic motif that dominates the more sweeping portions of “Selina Transforms”. Christopher Walken’s character doesn’t get a theme despite his prominent relevance to both Penguin and Catwoman. The Batman theme itself takes a much more subdued role. Whereas the 1989 film had plenty of lengthy, heroic iterations, this one sees smaller references, often without any of the heroic brass. There is an amazing version for the opening titles, with a dark choir lending some extra gravitas and atmosphere.

“Birth of a Penguin” opens with a short, low snippet of the Batman theme before an oohing choir and an organ introduce the Penguin’s theme. The track climaxes with Elfman’s familiar “la-la” choral work to represent the film’s Christmas surroundings before “Opening Titles” takes over. The Penguin and Catwoman themes get lengthy treatments for the next few tracks, which can get tiring at points. “Batman vs. the Circus” is the first moment in the score where the hero’s theme plays out in any major way. This track starts off with a great build into the Batman theme. The rest of it is Batman’s theme battling circus music. Tracks 10 and 11 contrast two moments for the Penguin’s character. “The Rise…” starts off sinisterly, but ends with a triumphant fanfare, while “…And Fall From Grace” ends with a very tragic rendition of the Penguin’s theme.

There is no love theme this time around, since the main female interest is Selina Kyle/Catwoman, who already has plenty of her own thematic material. Elfman still delivers a twisted romance track, “Sore Spots”, which plays out like an old-time Hollywood love theme, but keeps getting intruded on by Catwoman’s high-pitched strings.

“Rooftops” moves between different tempos, starting off with more carnivalesque action music, going into dark villain territory, a choral outburst of the Batman theme, some sinister choral material, and then a few violin screeches. “Wild Chase” is another action cue where Batman’s theme battles circus music. “The Children’s Hour” is features the Penguin’s theme as a lullaby. “The Final Confrontation” kicks off with a military drumbeat. The rest of the track see the Batman and Penguin themes duke it out. “Penguin Army” (this and the next track are misnamed), sees the climax while “Selina’s Electrocution” gives the Penguin a tragic send-off. “Finale” is interesting in how it contracts with the same-named cue from the previous score. While that one was heroic and uplifting, with Batman rising to save the city, this one is unclear, tragic, and somber. The end credits suite sees all three major themes get a last play.

The album features sixty-five minutes of score and a song by some early nineties guys called the Banshees at the end entitled “Face to Face”. In a very perplexing move, the track titles are listed only on the CD, with many of the tracks renamed to fit on it! This almost takes away a point from the soundtrack merely just for giving the listener confusion about what piece of music he is listening to unless if he’s heard it while watching the film. Thankfully, the proper track listing can be found online at several places, though even then most of the last tracks are misnamed (For example, the Penguin’s somber farewell is called “Selina’s Electrocution”). There’s also a complete score release, but aside from a couple more references to the less used Batman theme, I can’t think of anything that the original album doesn’t already have.

Batman Returns is not the exciting, dark yet heroic thrill ride its predecessor was, both in film and score. The music is much more Burtonish, but this doesn’t make it bad. The new themes are strong and any faults with Elfman’s score can be chalked up to the more weird and dark atmosphere of the film. As I stated earlier, one’s opinion of the new themes can determine an opinion of the overall product. I think they’re good and encompass a wide variety of emotions with ease. The action music isn’t as good here, maybe because of all the circus and carnival material, but I think “Final Confrontation” is a great dramatic build to the film’s climax. Overall, Elfman’s Returns is a very different score, but a good one.

Rating: 8/10

Tracklisting

  1. Birth of a Penguin (2:270
  2. Opening Titles (3:09)
  3. To the Present (0:57)
  4. The Lair (4:49)
  5. Selina Kyle (1:11)
  6. Selina Transforms (4:16)
  7. The Cemetery (2:53)
  8. Cat Suite (5:41)
  9. Batman vs. the Circus (2:34)
  10. The Rise… (1:41)
  11. …and Fall from Grace (4:08)
  12. Sore Spots (2:18)
  13. Rooftops (4:19)
  14. Wild Ride (3:34)
  15. The Children’s Hour (1:47)
  16. The Final Confrontation (5:12)
  17. Penguin Army (4:54)
  18. Selina’s Electrocution (2:40)
  19. The Finale (2:19)
  20. End Credits (4:44)
  21. Face to Face (performed by the Banshees) (4:17)

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)