Sequels are always a daunting task…both in the director’s chair and the recording studio.
For Danny Elfman, “Batman Returns” (1992) was the equivalent of being asked to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.
Low and behold…the son of a b*tch pulled it off!
While not as rallying and bombastic as its predecessor, the score for “Batman Returns,” in turn, is actually more haunting and operatic than the original (at least in my opinion).
Its sense of macabre and theatrics is played far more broadly than before. This might have to do with the fact that the film’s locations seem to come off feeling more like stages than actual locales.
Like a giant stage production, the curtain is pulled up as the cast of “Batman Returns” delivers their performances…and it truly feels like Danny and his conductor Steve Bartek are held up in some orchestra pit beneath the streets of Gotham having the score played live right then and there.
Where “BATMAN” (1989) relied on brass and percussion, “Returns” seems to be an interesting parallel as its strengths reside more often in the strings and woodwinds.
And, thanks to the presence of more characters, there’s more ground for Elfman to cover as he successfully composes two separately poetic themes for the Penguin and Catwoman.
Unlike the first film, which is truly dominated by Batman’s theme, all three of these themes are primary and independent…neither giving in to the other. The Penguin’s theme is exceedingly sinister with just a touch of nobility to echo his socialite beginnings as the discarded bastard child of the esteemed Cobblepots…while Selina Kyle’s theme, played with high-screechy strings, is deadly yet erotic…very sensuous.
Things get started with “Birth of a Penguin,” dripping with all of the hauntingly regal nature of Cobblepot Manor and Oswald’s tortured upbringing. Right off the bat, you can clearly get hints at aspects of the Penguin character quickly.
The organ is a definite key point here, which will be used later on to highlight the Red Triangle Circus.
Another highlight is the beautifully effervescent chorus. Chorus is used to a far higher degree here than the original “Batman” score.
The cue is so chilling, it almost begs to showcase Penguin as an outright Anti-Christ upon his birth…condemned to the sewers in shame by his parents. What makes it even more off-hilter is the small injections of Christmas charm…particularly when the chorus masquerades as caroling when the Cobblepots are confronted by another young couple before it dips right back into somber madness as they toss their child over the bridge.
As the Penguin baby’s wails echo his descent into the sewers, Elfman pulls out all the stops to re-introduce a beautiful rendition of the Batman theme with the “Opening Titles.” The addition of the chorus plays beautifully with the horns and strings in this variation of the march. This version isn’t as bombastic as the original…but on the flip side, I think there’s much more pathos in this one and I like it a lot.
From there, several noteworthy cues stand out.
“Selina Transforms,” which begins as a resurrected Selina Kyle returns to her apartment…mind warped beyond reason after being “murdered” by Max Schreck…is easily the best example of the Catwoman theme in the film. It’s off-balance with high strings fluttering until Kyle completely snaps, allowing the Catwoman theme to fully emerge in all its perverted yet domineering glory. Pfeiffer plays the scene so well and Danny certainly reflects that in his material.
There’s also “The Cemetery,” which begins with two wonderfully downplayed cues as, respectively, Bruce investigates newspaper archives in the Batcave and then, as Batman, slowly drives through Gotham pondering his skepticism over Penguin’s intentions. The cue then is taken over by the Penguin with a touch of noble sadness as he kneels before the graves of his parents, parlaying a final, silent farewell to them. This is really the backbone of the “Batman Returns” score…it’s strengths are played more, I feel, in the emotional scenes then the action sequences.
But that’s not to say Elfman doesn’t dynamically handle the action scenes.
Much like classic Warner Brothers animation, Elfman at this time was scoring action in a very visual method with a wonderful technique of musically highlighting certain beats and events as they were occurring on the screen.
Key tracks that provide examples of this include “Batman vs. The Circus,” whose use of old-time bizarro Carnival instruments is quite inspired and put to great use in displaying the anarchy of the Red Triangle Circus Gang as Batman battles them in the street.
There’s also “Rooftops” as Batman deals with the ensuing madness of the Tree Re-Lighting Ceremony. Again, the Carnival motif shows up…but more importantly, there’s that wonderfully downplayed moment between Batman and Catwoman when, thanks to being under mistletoe, Catwoman gives Batman a Cat-Kiss. As Batman pushes her off, there’s a lovely moment of low, vibrating strings and a very percussive take on the Batman march as Batman unsheathes his glider and descends upon Gotham City.
Another is “Wild Ride,” which is quite appropriate given its use during the scene in which the Penguin remotely controls the Batmobile…with Batman inside!
This track, along with a handful of others, gets very whimsical and I think it’s clear that Elfman might’ve been having a bit more fun this time around…at least in the recording I suppose, since he’s always been one to find scoring film an almost superhuman effort on his part.
But “Wild Ride” is very zany and catches a ton of cues as I said before…and my favorite moment has to be the final stanza as Batman, once again in control of the car, attempts to flip a lone switch and evade police. However, several attempts show that the switch isn’t operating.
“Alright now I’m a little worried.”
And with a final try, Batman pulls it off in the nick of time as the Side panels of the Batmobile give way to the Bat-Missile, allowing Batman to safely maneuver through the alley and race back to Wayne Manor. It’s has a great little nod of the Batman theme and a kick ass, triumphant riff of brass as Batman manages to make it through!
Things wrap up boldly and heroically…albeit tragically…with the final collection of cues that set up the film’s climax and ending.
“The Children’s Hour” might be the creepiest and yet the saddest track for the Penguin as his theme is beautifully rendered in a twinkling “silver bells” motif for an instant just before it is then introduced as an industrial, organ-grinder variation. This is most likely meant to simultaneously interpret both sides of Penguin’s psyche…the hurt infant tossed away by his parents, abandoned and unloved…and the man-monster hybrid self educated and fueled by his need for revenge against society.
This segues right into “The Final Confrontation” as the Penguin…his scheme to kidnap Gotham’s children foiled…leads a rallying ‘Patton’-esque speech to his army of Penguins before dispatching them to the City surface to fire a battalion of missiles and destroy Gotham Plaza. This track re-echoes the whimsy of “Wild Ride” and gives us an awesome, militaristic driving beat as the Penguin’s make their way topside and Batman pilots the Bat Ski-Boat to the Penguin’s Arctic-World lair in the Old Gotham Zoo.
Things finally come to a close with “Selina’s Electrocution” as Penguin’s theme makes its final appearance through bravado strings harkening on his death…the theme’s last official use plays as a woodwind variation on the opening of “The Children’s Hour” as the Penguins lead their master to his final resting place in the water…which is one of the most moving moments in any Batman film or score.
The film closes with a quiet and lovely flute motif on the Batman March for the “Finale” cue…as well as a hauntingly poignant and tragically romantic tinkering of Catwoman’s theme before the “End Credits” bring about the Batman, Penguin and Catwoman themes in all their respective glory.
Rounding on the studio soundtrack release is the lyrical theme of the movie: “Face to Face” written by Danny Elfman and performed by Siouxsie Sioux and her band the Banshees is one of the best Batman-centered songs crafted for the character…though it’s clearly being sung from Catwoman’s perspective (the Catwoman theme underscores the song).
The songs overall themes of duality and masquerading is very psychologically powerful (the masks they slide…to reveal a new disguise) and it’s an amazing track.
According to Danny, the score for “Returns” is nearly twice as much material as the first film, and it shows both in positive and negative ways.
Negatively it means that a lot of the material, from time to time, can feel a bit scattered…certainly on the studio release (and in the film to an extent).
Several fans, myself included, have been begging and petitioning for a special edition release of “Batman Returns” and maybe someday, courtesy of Screen Archive or La La Land Records that can happen.
On the plus side, however, this means that the film…when you look at it this way…is musically layered with far more dimension than you’d ever consider for a comic book film.
To this day, “Batman Returns” remains one of my favorite comic book motion picture scores.
“Batman Returns”: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1992)
Composed by … Danny Elfman
Orchestrated by … Steve Bartek and Mark McKenzie
Conducted by … Jonathan Sheffer
Executive Produced by … Tim Burton
Produced by … Steve Bartek and Danny Elfman
1: Birth of a Penguin (2:27)
2: Opening Titles (3:09)
3: To the Present (4:43)
4: The Lair (4:49)
5: Selina Kyle (1:11)
6: Selina Transforms (4:16)
7: The Cemetery (2:54)
8: Cat Suite (5:41)
9: Batman vs. The Circus (2:34)
10: the Rise… (1:41)
11: …and Fall from Grace (4:08)
12: Sore Spots (2:15)
13: Rooftops (4:19)
14: Wild Ride (3:34)
15: The Children’s Hour (1:47)
16: The Final Confrontation (5:12)
17: Penguin Army (4:54)
18: Selina’s Electrocution (2:40)
19: Finale (2:19)
20: End Credits (4:44)
21: Face to Face – Siouxsie and the Banshees (4:17)
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