- Stefan Riedlinger
Batman - Danny Elfman - Soundtrack Review
1989 was a good year: The Berlin Wall was coming down, Communism finally lost finally, and the world saw Tim Burton’s first “Batman” with Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. Since we have now Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, critics and movie fans are arguing which Batman actor is better, and which movies are better.
Here you can see a clip to compare both actors and movies:
Some general notes
It is hard to compare these two directors and movies. Tim Burton’s first Batman movie is more an action movie and the first serious adaptation of Batman. Michael Keaton is a fabulous actor and right for this role. He could convince the audience that Batman is not just a Dark Knight, but also a successful businessman with his manners and professional way of dealing with people.
Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors around today. His approach to creating a serious Batman movie again after the over-the-top movies by Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, 1995 and Batman & Robin, 1997) focused heavily on the dark side of the Batman universe. Perhaps to avoid anything that might point in the direction of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, Nolan avoided all humour.
Sometimes you get the feeling that his Dark Night is a character from Shakespeare, and I think the ending of Dark Knight is not convincing: Batman persuades Gordon to preserve Harvey Dent’s heroic image by holding Batman responsible for the killing. That is a not compelling idea. I think that Christopher Nolan’s non-Batman movies such as Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) are far better.
So, back to 1989: Jack Nicholson gives a marvelous performance as The Joker, but compared to Heath Ledger, Nicholson’s Joker is more of a comic character. Ledger’s character is a dangerous one because here Nolan shows us how one single bad guy with absolutely no morals could destroy an entire society. Nicholson’s Joker is a gangster, Ledger’s Joker is a terrorist and portrayed as a virus that, even though destroyed, might have infected people so that they follow his ideas. Here is the trailer:
After Burton was hired, Steve Englehart and Julie Hickson wrote the film treatments before Sam Hamm wrote the first screenplay. The movie was not greenlit until after the success of Burton's "Beetlejuice" (1988), also with Michael Keaton, and a hilarious funny ghost movie. Numerous actors were considered for the role of Batman before Keaton was cast. This casting caused a controversy since, by 1988, Keaton had become typecast as a comedic actor and many observers doubted he could portray a serious role.
Jack Nicholson accepted the Joke-role under strict conditions that dictated top billing, a portion of the film's earnings (including associated merchandise), and his own shooting schedule. The tone and themes of the film were influenced by Alan Moore & Brian Bolland's "The Killing Joke" and Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns". The film adapts the "Red Hood" origin story for the Joker, in which Batman creates the Joker by causing him to fall into chemical acid, resulting in his transformation into a psychopath, but it adds a unique twist in presenting him specifically as a gangster named Jack Napier.
The movie was a critical and financial success, earning over $400 million in box office totals. It was the fifth-highest-grossing film in history at the time of its release and received several Saturn Award nominations, a Golden Globe nomination, and won an Academy Award.
Tim Burton’s favourite composer was again hired to compose the music. Danny Elfman’s score is not very sophisticated in the sense of having a lot of melodies or artificially composed action tracks; it is simple and sometimes very loud, but in its approach very effective. The whole score is dominated by one simplistic theme – a four-note minor key ascent and two-note major key descent – the so-called Batman march.
The original soundtrack album I have consists of 21 tracks. In 2010 La-La Land Records released a complete album with two CDs. For me, Elfman’s Batman score is one of his best scores. The one he wrote for the sequel Batman Returns (1992) is slightly better because a choir is used in it and the plot gives Elfman more scenes to compose melodramatic music for. Burton directed the sequel like an opera, and the music follows suit, especially in the grand finale.
The first Batman score has more straightforward action tracks such as Roof Fight, First Confrontation, Clown Attack, Batman to The Rescue, Attack Of The Batwing (listen to the clangs at the end) and the last action track called The Final Confrontation.
Elfman used a fine combination of strings with a lot of brass and percussion and in the end a sampled organ to create a gothic atmosphere, which can also be heard in Up The Cathedral and Descent Into Mystery, one of the score’s highlights. Elfman, his orchestrator Steve Bartek and conductor Shirley Walker are good at using the choir in this scene.
Even though Batman is very much an action-driven score, there are a few lyrical tracks such as Flowers, The Joker’s Poem and Love Theme (this track includes Scandalous by Prince). A fabulous track that shows a wicked sense of humour is Waltz to the Death for a wonderful scene in which Batman is fighting against another of the Joker’s killers, and in parallel Joker Jack is dancing with Kim Basinger. You can hear this waltz, the motif for the Joker, first in Kitchen, Surgery, Face-Off when Joker Jack kills his boss Jack Palance.
With Batman Elfman was becoming a high-class composer, and this score was the first step towards becoming an iconic figure in the film music industry. With Beetlejuice (1988) and four years earlier Pee-wee's Big Adventure, both directed by Tim Burton, Elfman showed that his effective and often unusual orchestrated music underscored Burton’s weird stories perfectly. With Batman, Elfman made a huge leap forward and this soundtrack is still very popular today.
For me, Danny Elfman’s music to Batman is better than Hans Zimmer’s contribution to the series: it is more dynamic, has a better theme, is astonishing in the use of various percussions and has a better sense of humour.
Danny Elfman was the composer Burton worked before with, and Elfman’s score for “Batman” was his rise in the hall of fame of film music composers. Elfman’s score is not sophisticated, it is not a score with a bunch of melodies, and it is finally not a very complicated score. Elfman’s score is loud, simple because easy composed, but very effective.
The whole score is dominated by one simplistic theme - a four-note minor key ascent and two-note major key descent -, the Batman march, but Tim Burton loved it as you can read in an interview with Elman on empireonline:
“Scoring Batman was my great test of fire. It was rough. […] It was only my tenth film and all I'd done to that point was comedies, so I had less experience than anybody should have in that situation and neither the producer, Jon Peters, nor the studio wanted me. The only comment anyone would make at the beginning was that they didn't want me, they wanted John Williams. I really had to fight to win everybody over, but I still approached it very aggressively. On my third presentation to Peters, Tim Burton got very excited and kept saying, 'Play the march! Play the march!', so I played the piece of music that ended up becoming the Batman theme. Suddenly, Peters leapt out of his chair and started conducting. After months of trying, I finally had him! He went from being totally adversarial to very supportive and from then on he was a great ally for me.”
Here you can listen to the main theme, the Batman march:
The soundtrack album consists of 21 tracks. For me, this score is one of the best scores of Danny Elfman. His score for the second Batman movie is just better because Elfman uses a choir and this gives the score a great attitude in some parts.
You will find great action music on the first Batman album such as track 2 “Roof Fight”, track 3 “First Confrontation”, track 6 “Clown Attack”, track 7 “Batman To The Rescue”, track 16 “Attack Of The Batwing” (listen to the clangs at the end) and the last action track, nr 19 “The Final Confrontation”. My personal highlights are Nr. 2, Nr. 7 and Nr. 16 and Nr. 19. Elfman uses a fine combination of strings with a lot of brass and percussion and in the end an organ for creating organic atmosphere.
This gothic atmosphere you can hear also in track 17 “Up The Cathedral”and track 10 “Descent Into Mystery”, also one of the highlights of the score. Elfman, his orchestrator Steve Bartek and conductor Shirley Walker is really good at using this choir.
Because “Batman” is a highly action-driven score, there are just a few lyrical tracks such as “Flowers” (track 5) and “The Joker’s Poem” (track 12) and track 14 “Love Theme” (this track includes “Scandalous” by Prince). A great track is also the “Waltz To The Death” (track 18) for a wonderful scene: Batman is fighting against another killer of the Joker, and during this Joker Jack is dancing with Kim Basinger, a great example for the wicked humor of this “Batman” and for Tim Burton’s humor in general. You can hear this waltz, the motif for the Joker, first in track 4 “Kitchen, surgery, Face-Off” when Joker Jack kills his boss Jack Palance. I found a nice live performance of a Vienna concert:
With “Batman” Elfman was becoming a high class composer and this score was the first real step into becoming an iconic figure in the film music industry. With “Beetlejuice” and “Pee-wee's Big Adventure”, both directed by Tim Burton, Elfman showed that he can compose effective and often unusual orchestrated music that underscores perfectly Burton’s weird stories. With “Batman” Elfman made a big step forward, and this soundtrack is still very popular. There is some discussion which part Steve Bartek and Shirley Walker had, but there is no time to discuss this here.
In 2010 La-La Land put a limited 2-CD edition together that offered the original album on the first CD and a newly mixed album with a decent presentation. I do not have this album, but I heard even though there is new material, you can question if this album is worth the money. I am happy with my album from 1989.
For me, Danny Elfman’s music to “Batman” is better than Hans Zimmer’s. It is more dynamic, has the better theme, it is astonishing in the use of various percussions and has a better sense of humor. So, if you are able to get Elfman’s music, buy this score and enjoy this amazing movie music of the first real Batman movie.
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