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BATMAN BEGINS – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

batmanbeginsOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The general consensus about the fifth modern Batman movie, Batman Begins, is that the franchise has finally been revitalised. Personally, I always considered Joel Schumacher, the director of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, to have completely undermined the effectiveness of the series, shattering the feelings of gothic grandeur Tim Burton initiated and replacing it with gaudy, neon-lit overkill. In the hands of director Christopher Nolan – whose previous films include the excellent thrillers Memento and Insomnia – Batman Begins is a more introspective film that tempers its large-scale action scenes with a thoughtful, serious edge that marks, for me at least, a step in the right direction.

English actor Christian Bale takes over the mask and cowl from Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney to tell a story which is effectively a prequel to Burton’s 1989 classic. Having seen his parents gunned down in the streets of Gotham City, young Bruce Wayne (Bale) seeks solace from his pain: travelling to the East, and with his mind set firmly on revenge, Wayne encounters master ninja Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), and learns to channel his anger into ancient martial arts. Returning to Gotham years later, he finds his city overrun by organised criminals, most notably mob boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and scientist Jonathan “Scarecrow” Crane (Cillian Murphy). With the help of the Wayne family aide Alfred (Michael Caine) and ambitious young cop James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne transforms himself into Batman, and begins to tackle the criminals responsible for the city’s demise…

With an astonishing supporting cast that, as well as the aforementioned, also includes Ken Watanabe, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache and 1960s British supermodel Alexandra Bastedo; with a screenplay by intelligent writers like David Goyer, and in the hands of a competent director like Nolan, Batman Begins looks set to be one of the biggest box-office draws of 2005, with the potential even to rival Revenge of the Sith. Musically, Batman Begins offers something of a surprise in that it marks the first time in several decades that two Hollywood A-list composers have collaborated on the same movie – one of the last times this happened was way back in 1954 when Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann collaborated on Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have in the past often expressed a desire to work with each other, and then this project came along, it seemed to them that it presented the perfect opportunity for them to finally get together. Unfortunately, I can see how many will find the end result slightly less than overwhelming; it most certainly NOT a return to Danny Elfman territory. Nevertheless, I personally found that there was a great deal of music in Batman Begins that is hugely enjoyable.

Warner Sunset’s album includes 12 tracks of score, all of which are named after the Latin classifications of different kinds of bat. Where Zimmer’s work ends and Howard’s work begins is unclear; whether they actually sat down together and co-wrote the cues, or whether they each tackled specific scenes individually is similarly ambiguous. There are certainly moments when Zimmer’s distinct musical personality comes shining through, whether it is in the way a certain theme is structured, or in the choice of orchestration. There are also moments where Howard’s talent for beautiful theme-writing comes to the forefront, as well as some very clever transitions between the two composers’ styles. If you know your Zimmer and JNH history, you could say its sort of Black Rain meets The Ring meets The Thin Red Line meets Snow Falling On Cedars meets The Village. An interesting mix.

To address the negative side of the score first: Batman Begins is unremittingly downbeat. There are no rousing super-hero anthems, very few monster action cues, and little in the way of recurring themes. If you need your Batman scores to be filled with Elfman-style Gothic majesty or Goldenthalian excess, you are likely to be disappointed. To match Nolan’s view of Batman as a young man trying to come to terms with his bleak past, Zimmer and Howard look inwards through their music; this is the film score equivalent of contemplating your navel. There are lots of electronics, there is synthesised sound design, and there are long periods where very little happens beyond sustained ambient noise. I can see many listeners being turned off simply because of the first track, “Vespertillio”, which gives the CD an inauspicious start with its electronic heartbeat effects, synthesised percussion and Don Davis-style brass clusters. “Artibeus” is scarily dissonant, all whispery effects, stingers and skittery instrumentation, and Martin Tillmann showcases his electric cello during the swooning opening to “Tadarida” before being overrun by more harsh electronically-enhanced discord.

But there is much more to the score than droning and chaos; the first hint of Howard’s exceptionally beautiful string elegy appears during the opening moments of “Eptesicus”, before bursting to the forefront of the score during the achingly emotional “Macrotus” and the swooning, lamenting “Corynorhinus”, easily two of the best cues on the album. An angelic boy soprano enters the fray during the first half of the moody “Barbastella”, and re-appears deep in the mix during “Tadarida”, the second half of “Macrotus” as if lamenting for the fate of the boy whose innocence was blown away that fateful night in Gotham.

The first action sequence comes during “Myotis”, a cue which picks up all the familiar Zimmerisms his fans have grown to love through scores such as The Rock and The Peacemaker – fast pacing, bold brass writing, synthesised percussion – and shows why he remains a master of his game at this kind of writing. Further cues – the second half of “Barbastella” with its fat brass motifs, the majority of “Antrozous” with its stylistic throwbacks to Black Rain, the relentlessly driving and effortlessly energetic “Molossus” – will stir nostalgic feelings in Zimmer fans; although he’s been writing this kind of stuff for well over a decade now, when it’s done right, there’s no denying its effectiveness. The conclusive cue, “Lasiurus”, may not have the cathartic release of the finale from Elfman’s Batman, but it still delivers the goose bumps, and even though it is more than a little reminiscent of “Journey to the Line” from The Thin Red Line, one can still envisage the caped crusader prowling the rooftops of Gotham, cloak billowing in the wind, watching over the populace of his city, to the strains of this soaring, moving music.

While I can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Batman Begins, I can’t help wondering to myself “is this Batman music?” It’s certainly not like anything Elliot Goldenthal or Neal Hefti might have written, and it certainly doesn’t have the personality or sense of majesty inherent in Elfman’s seminal works. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. I expect purists to be dismayed, but we have to remember that this is Batman for the new millennium, a world away from the excesses of the 80s and 90s, intended to speak to a whole new cinematic audience, many of whom weren’t even born when Michael Keaton first stepped into the bat suit. From this reviewer’s point of view, it gets a tentative recommendation. Howard has always been a favourite of mine, but this score also highlights just how good Zimmer can be when he relies on his own compositional experience rather than that of his underlings.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Vespertillio (2:52)
  • Eptesicus (4:20)
  • Myotis (5:46)
  • Barbastella (4:45)
  • Artibeus (4:19)
  • Tadarida (5:05)
  • Macrotus (7:35)
  • Antrozous (3:59)
  • Nycteris (4:25)
  • Molossus (4:49)
  • Corynorhinus (5:04)
  • Lasiurus (7:27)

Running Time: 60 minutes 26 seconds

Warner Sunset 71324 (2005)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter and Bruce Fowler. Additional music by Ramin Djawadi and Mel Wesson. Featured musical soloist Martin Tillman. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.

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