If I had to make note of where the absolute zenith for superhero symphonic exercise occurred…I’d honestly have to hand it over to the period from 1989 to 1993/1994.
The reigns of Danny Elfman and Shirley Walker.
Elfman brought the comic book sensibilities of fun and momentum from John Williams’ work for “Superman: The Movie” (1978) into the contemporary realm with the gothic manifesto compositions of director Tim Burton’s “BATMAN” (1989) and its sequel “Batman Returns” (1992). The ground Elfman had broken quickly grew fertile as his quirky balance of comic flights of fancy and seedy melodramatic grit became the go-to junction for comic book adaptations. Director/Star Warren Beatty tapped the composer to create the score for his delightfully over the top “Dick Tracy” (1990) while producers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo brought him on to compose the theme for their television incarnation of “The Flash” (1990)…the latter of which re-teamed Elfman with fellow composer and “BATMAN” conductor Shirley Walker.
Walker, a lyrically stylish orchestrator in her own right, was no stranger to high-quality scores having worked on the revolutionary approach to the method for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979).
When producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were given the greenlight by Warner Brothers to create “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995) they, to their insurmountable credit, felt that the quality of the show they wanted to produced could only truly be realized by NOT treating it like an average cartoon.
Among such techniques as competent storytelling and dramatic art design, the choice to treat each individual episode as a 20-minute motion picture led to the ambitious decision to have a fully developed score created for every single script that would be produced.
Thanks to her work both on “Batman” and “The Flash,” Timm and Radomski eventually chose Walker for the job of heading the musical department.
For the direct-to-video turned theatrical dazzler “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993), Walker saw to the score herself for the most part…and in turn, she crafted what I’d say is honestly one of the most underrated Batman scores ever.
The composition opens with “Main Title,” a very moody and atmospheric rendition of Shirley’s “Batman Theme,” complete with thundering percussive techniques and a haunting chorus (according to rumor, the chorus is simply bellowing the names of the film’s producers backwards!). Next to “Batman Returns,” this is probably one of my favorite renderings of a Batman theme…fortunately it still gets a lot of love from fans.
Overall, the chorus is the main undercurrent throughout the score…really playing as the backbone for the piece on the whole.
Given the film’s romantic angle, I think it’s a bit more sophisticated than the more action-oriented scores that usually populated the television series. That’s not to say that the episodic scores aren’t incredible, but since “Phantasm” was on a theatrical venue, clearly more symphonic attention was placed.
Examples of this theory include “First Love,” a lovely chorus-powered cue set up as a theme for Bruce and Andrea’s relationship. While it is an uplifting theme, there’s just a touch of sadness in the track…perhaps meant to remark on the inevitability of the relationship’s failure.
Other cues highlight various aspects…
The Phantasm character is given a wonderful theme by Walker…part ghostly malaise, part quirky B-horror movie the theme has a fitting “boogeyman” vibe for one of the film’s title characters. The theme makes its most prominent statements in “Phantasm’s Graveyard Murder” when the Phantasm slays mobster Buzz Bronski and “Phantasm and Joker Fight” when the Clown Prince of Crime is confronted.
There’s also the wonderfully iconic cue “The Birth of Batman.” Along with the romance he had, Bruce’s dilemma over choosing between love and duty plays a pivotal focal point in the picture…and it’s beautifully orchestrated in this one track. Following a sequence of strings and chorus as Bruce’s marriage proposal to Andrea is interrupted by a legion of bats emerging from the Wayne Manor grounds, the “Love Theme” is given a poignant rendition by flute as Bruce’s heart is broken by Andrea’s abandonment.
Suiting up with Alfred at his side, the Batman theme makes a somber introduction into Wayne’s life as he looks upon his cowl and slips it on for the very first time. One of the greatest moments in the movie made that much better through score!
Of course, for all its romance and pathos, the score still retains its sense of flight and action.
There’s “Ski Mask Vigilante,” played for Bruce’s initial foray into vigilantism as he attempts to take down a group of thieves sans the Batman persona…donning only a jacket, gloves and a ski-mask. Even as a small flashback vignette, Walker manages to craft a theme for this early incarnation of Wayne’s crusade (heard most prominently when Bruce is walking atop a semi during a chase through Gotham City).
A personal favorite HAS to be the “Police Chase” cue as Harvey Bullock leads four precincts in pursuit of the dark knight…the theme is given great forward momentum as Batman flees for his very life…only to be aided by an unlikely ally. There’s also some great brass work in this track.
The score takes off with the kick ass “Batman’s Destiny” as Batman and Joker duel in the air above the defunct Gotham World’s fair. It’s a beautiful climactic ending to the score that escalates right up into its final movements…complete with a bombastic chorus as the Fair Grounds are engulfed in flame from the Joker’s rigged explosions.
Ultimately, the score ends with a triumphant re-statement of the “Main Title” as Batman, despite his recent heartache, is once again called upon by the Bat-Signal…and in turn, goes to work.
As you can see, this look at the “Phantasm” score is based off of the initial 11-track studio release. Fortunately, La La Land Records has released an Archival Edition of Shirley’s work that is expanded…whenever I get my hands on that, a more in-depth review can be made.
However, I can comment on the lyrical theme that truly ends the studio release.
Performed by singer/actress Tia Carrere (film buffs will recognize her as Juno Skinner from James Cameron’s “True Lies”…not to mention the girl of Wayne Campbell’s dreams from 1992’s “Wayne’s World” film adaptation), “I Never Even Told You” is a beautiful R&B ballad played off of the torment and longing that Bruce and Andrea have for each other. It’s lyrics are a wonderful representation of how simultaneously tumultuous yet passionate their love for each other is (I had to keep my feelings locked away…I couldn’t whisper, no I couldn’t say…) and, despite the flack I know fans give it, I think it’s a great Batman-inspired song.
How great? Well I’m planning on having it at my wedding reception someday…it’s that romantic.
Collectively, the “Mask of the Phantasm” score is a beautiful and haunting composition that fits the animated Batman quite well…showcasing the brilliance and talent of a composer who might be gone…but will never be forgotten.
“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Shirley Walker, 1993)
“I Never Even Told You” – Tia Carrere
Composed and Conducted by … Shirley Walker
Orchestrated by … Ian Walker, Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis, Peter Tomashek, Harvey R. Cohen and Larry Rench
Score Synthesized by … Hans Zimmer
“I Never Even Told You”:
Composed by … Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard
Produced by … David Gamson
Executive Produced by … Michael Ostin
Produced by … Shirley Walker
1: Main Title (1:35)
2: The Promise (:43)
3: Ski Mask Vigilante (3:00)
4: Phantasm’s Graveyard Murder (3:35)
5: First Love (1:32)
6: The Big Chase (5:28)
7: A Plea for Help (1:51)
8: The Birth of Batman (4:15)
9: Phantasm and Joker Fight (4:03)
10: Batman’s Destiny (3:42)
11: I Never Even Told You – Tia Carrere (4:21)
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