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BATMAN – Danny Elfman

batmanMOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 1989 Danny Elfman was a 36-year old newcomer to the world of film music, still better known for his days as the lead singer of the alternative rock band Oingo Boingo than his scoring exploits, which by then had included titles such as hit films like Back to School, Beetlejuice, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Scrooged, but gave no indication of the composer he would become. Then came Batman, director Tim Burton’s gothic re-imagining of the old camp Batman story that, prior to this movie, was something of a joke, known for Adam West and his day-glo costume and Neal Hefti’s kitsch theme music. To say that Burton took the Batman story in a different direction was an understatement in the extreme: instead of being a wisecracking comic figure with a Bat-gadget for every occasion, he became a tortured, tragic anti-hero clad in black leather, struggling with his own inner demons while simultaneously dealing with master criminals in a dirty, dangerous Gotham City.

With Michael Keaton playing superbly against type in the lead role, Jack Nicholson chewing the scenery in a memorable supporting role as The Joker, and ample support from Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams and Robert Wuhl, the film was an enormous success, grossing half a billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, and forever transforming the careers of the geeky director and his offbeat musical sidekick. Looking back, that fateful meeting between Burton and Elfman at an Oingo Boingo concert in the mid 1980s – Burton had been a fan of the band – had a profound effect on both men’s lives, with one eventually becoming a superstar director and the latter becoming one of the most critically lauded and popular film music composers of his generation.

The first film music review I ever wrote, sometime in August 1997, was of Danny Elfman’s score for Batman. The entire text of that fledgling, faltering review was as follows: “A slam-bang action score by Elfman, which many consider to be his best and which was the music which really put him on the movie scoring map. Batman is a very entertaining and rousing album, with the now-famous, militaristic, exciting ‘Batman Theme’ and touching ‘Love Theme’ the best cues.” Clearly, judging by those words, the idiot who wrote that would never have a functioning film music website more than ten years later, but despite those early shortcomings here I am, revisiting the score which started it all for me. And what a score it is!

My opinion of the score hasn’t changed at all; it really is one of the best action scores of the 1980s, and one of the best scores of Elfman’s career, and the main theme – “The Batman Theme” – is utterly compelling. But there is clearly much, much more to the score than just a big main theme. What continually impresses me about Batman is how intricate it is, how cleverly structured the action music is, how ebullient the orchestrations are, and how much talent Elfman showed at such an early point in his career. How much orchestrators Shirley Walker and Steve Bartek contributed the sound and style is up for debate, and has been hotly contested for years, but despite that the level of sophistication and style inherent in the score is remarkable.

The Batman theme features heavily throughout the score, appearing prominently whenever the man in black does something heroic. Its performances in the phenomenal “Batman to the Rescue” and “Charge of the Batmobile” are definite highlights, while the choral chanting, enormous brass chords and noble tolling bells make “Descent into Mystery” one of the album’s standout cues, and raises the score to a whole new level.

In addition to the main Batman theme, Jack Nicholson’s demented Joker character gets his own theme, a twisted waltz which first appears in the Face-Off part of “Kitchen, Surgery, Face-Off”, and comes across like the music for a bulbous, manic fairground attraction or the entrance music of a deranged Circus ringmaster. It is briefly restated in a deconstructed music box-like variation in “The Joker’s Poem”, before bursting into magnificent chaos during the “Waltz to the Death” part of the finale, eventually ending with an almost mournful finality at the end of “The Final Confrontation” as the Joker’s broken body lies at the bottom of the cathedral spire, laughing in spite of everything.

There’s a great deal of Bernard Herrmann in the action music, with choppy string rhythms and clever movement of motifs around the darker edges of the orchestra that pay an obvious homage to Elfman’s hero. Throughout the more frenetic parts of the score Elfman has a blast, especially with his percussion section, using multiple layers of drums, pianos and orchestral flourishes to give his score a wonderful sense of depth, power, and energy. “Roof Fight”, our first sight of the new caped crusader, has some fiendish passages for low end pianos and bubbling metallic percussion, as well as some delightfully anarchic woodwind performances, buried under all the swirling string and triumphant brass-led performances of the Batman fanfare. “First Confrontation” opens with an ostinato which passes from basses to brasses and underpins almost the entire first half of the cue, overlaid by tremendous echoing call-and-response horn effects, gradually emerging into an action piece of impressive density.

Later, edgy piano and pizzicato string effects dominate the “Clown Attack”, and a lamenting solo violin makes “The Bat Cave” a mysterious place to be, while ghostly voices and dark percussive effects give “Childhood Remembered” a great deal of threatening, tragic weight – this incident, remember, is the one which made Batman become Batman in the first place. Of course there are moments of down time in the score too, notably a lovely piano-and-cello variation on the Batman motif in “Flowers” as the embittered Bruce Wayne reminisces about his dead parents, or in the more conventionally romantic “Love Theme”, where Elfman’s music combines with the melody for ‘Scandalous’, written for the film by popular rock star Prince and John L. Nelson.

The album’s final six cues – from “Attack of the Batwing” through the “Batman Theme Reprise” – represent some of the finest and most emotionally satisfying action music of Elfman’s entire career, a 20-minute mini symphony that never fails to enthrall. Enormous, apocalyptic performances of the main Batman theme are offset by little moments of instrumental genius which creep up unexpectedly from out of the huge performances from the Sinfonia of London Orchestra. Listen for the feverish xylophone runs, the woodwind chord which sounds like a train whistle, and clanging death-knoll bells in “Attack of the Batwing”. Listen for the pipe organ chords and rhapsodic pianos which elevate the Gothic atmosphere of “Up the Cathedral” to new heights. Listen to the way different percussion elements pick up the internal rhythm of the score in “The Final Confrontation”, while the layers of string and brass writing stack up on top, giving the whole piece a sense of epic grandeur. It’s simply marvelous. And then, to cap it all off, the “Finale” presents the most spine-tingling version of Batman’s heroic motif, replete with more tolling bells and a dark, brooding aspect that raises goosebumps every time.

In the opinion of many film music aficionados – myself included – Batman initiated the golden period in the music of Danny Elfman which ran through to the end of 1993, encompassing scores such as Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and Sommersby, culminating in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. While Elfman has grown and matured as a composer since then, and has undoubtedly written some tremendous scores, none of his recent work has ever truly captured the brazenness, the in-your-face thematic beauty, or the wicked darkness of Batman and its immediate successors. The influence of both the movie and the score in terms of the way comic book characters are depicted on screen is immeasurable, and while others may seek to emulate their style and tone, they remain two of the best examples of the genre in the history of cinema. As for Elfman’s score – no self-respecting film music fan should have it missing from his or her collection.

Rating: *****

Buy the Batman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Batman Theme (2:38)
  • Roof Fight (3:20)
  • First Confrontation (4:43)
  • Kitchen, Surgery, Face Off (3:07)
  • Flowers (3:51)
  • Clown Attack (1:45)
  • Batman to the Rescue (3:56)
  • Roasted Dude (1:01)
  • Photos / Beautiful Dreamer (2:27)
  • Descent Into Mystery (1:31)
  • The Bat Cave (2:35)
  • The Joker’s Poem (0:56)
  • Childhood Remembered (2:43)
  • Love Theme (1:30)
  • Charge of the Batmobile (1:41)
  • Attack of the Batwing (4:44)
  • Up The Cathedral (5:04)
  • Waltz to the Death (3:55)
  • The Final Confrontation (3:47)
  • Finale (1:45)
  • Batman Theme Reprise (1:28)

Running Time: 54 minutes 54 seconds

Warner Bros. 7599-25977-2 (1989)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Performed by The Sinfonia of London Orchestra. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Shirley Walker and Steven Scott Smalley. Includes extracts from “Scandalous”, written by Prince and John L. Nelson, and “Beautiful Dreamer”, written by Stephen Foster. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson and Shawn Murphy. Edited by Bob Badami and Robin Clarke. Album produced by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek.

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  1. December 12, 2010 at 6:38 am

    Great score from 1989. Danny Elfman is a genius.

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