Sunday, May 31, 2009

This is What Crazy Sounds Like: The Music of Batman

Batman's theme song. What's the first melody that comes to mind? I'd guess that most of the world's population would go with the pop culturally entrenched camp anthem of the 1970s: ba nananananana BATMAN!

But for those of a geekier stripe, there are other options. The classic minor ascent by Danny Elfman, or Shirley Walker's emotionally wrought variations on the theme. Aficionados of the Nolanverse might even be able to recall Hans Zimmer's two note motif from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. If you're a child of the 90s you might even come up with Elliot Goldenthal's booming score from the Joel Schumacher films; it's a far, far more recognizable theme than the average nerd might care to admit.

My point is that many fine composers have taken a shot at scoring the most emotionally rich superhero of our time, The Batman. An overview of these attempts can be found on "The Music of Batman", an album recently released by Silva Screen Records that takes a cross-composer tour of Batman scores as performed by the Prague Philharmonic. After several listens, I've come up with a unifying therom of what characterizes a Batman score.

Individual looks at each composer's take on the Dark Knight, and my shocking conclusion, after the jump....

Danny Elfman (Batman, Batman Returns)
As the first composer tasked with creating a dark theme for the recently re-imagined Dark Knight, Elfman knocks it out of the park and sets a standard that all subsequent composers had to have taken into account. The Batman of Tim Burton's world is a cold, intensely violent vigilante, who has the distinction of being the only movieverse Batman to actively attempt to kill the villain. Accordingly, Elfman's theme is that of a madman. The classic five note theme arcs up like a sneer, only to descend into a minor resolve.

The theme eventually speeds the pace up to galloping march, a headstrong "going to war" theme that could easily place in the mind of a psychotic with delusions of grandeur. This is just barely a hero's theme; there is something cruel and dangerous lurking beneath the false nobility of the french horns and string sections.

Elliot Goldenthal (Batman Forever, Batman and Robin)
Say what you will about Schumacher's Batman movies, but Eliot Goldenthal's score is solid. Goldenthal had the unenviable task of evoking Elfman's iconic score without repeating it, as well as creating a new theme more suited to Joel Schumacher's dayglo comic-strip idea of what Batman is about.

Given these parameters, Goldenthal's theme (making only a modest showing on the disc with the "Batman and Robin Main Titles") is a success. The motif still arcs up and back down like Elfman's, but the feel is much more grandiose. This is still the music of an outcast hero, but one who embraces the pageantry of his crimefighting ways. Bold
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight)
The fascinating thing about "Eptesicus", the lone track from Batman Begins, is that it introduces a theme not so much for Batman, but for Bruce Wayne. The first several minutes are pure sorrow, stuck in the sort of numb trance of grief that Bruce existed in before he realized his insane destiny. Only in the last 1/4 of the track does the music rise to the call of vengeance, ending in a fearsome resolve.

Then we get an idea of what Zimmer and Howard think Batman proper really sounds like, with "Aggressive Expansion" from The Dark Knight. The reoccuring "hero" motif is only a grim pulse of two notes, but it subtly captures both the menace and determination that defines Nolan's more realistic Batman. The track ends with a high tension "ticking time bomb" beat, which speaks more to the feel of the movie at large than the character of Batman, which is to say it is almost unbearably tense.

The CD also includes Shirley Walker's gorgeous hymnal reworking of the Elfman theme, Neal Hefti and Nelson Riddle's swingin' theme songs from the 1970s TV series and film, and even Christopher Drake's credits music for the direct-to-DVD Batman: Gotham Knight, which has lots of Elfmanesque flourishes and flat out repeats the first four notes of Goldenthalfs central motif.

The Unifying Factor

Every theme on this CD has one thing in common; repetition and momentum. I'm not talking about the simple repetition of a motif in a song; I'm talking about tightly looped musical phrases and that are pounded out over and over again. You hear it in underscore of Elfman's march, in the shrill, escalating string section of "Aggressive Expansion", and in the up and down waves of melories in Goldenthal's central melody line. These themes explore on the human ability to focus and keep going, no matter what. Even the campy 70s theme is fixed on a very distinct track, and I think this is because it's that sort of tunnel-vision stubbornness that defines Batman. Batman does not have the advantage of magic, alien technology, genetic anomalies or being born with the powers of a god. His only power is determination and mental sickness, and in these songs, we hear what righteous determination of a madman sounds like. Who could resist?


Nick SantaCroce said...

Great review, Ana!

I would probaby take a Bullet for Danny Elfman, so I'm biased...

Funny to think that for a while, Prince was credited with that theme.

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