Following a stirring return to the high-art concept of symphonic motion picture music enacted by John Williams’ masterful compositions for “Jaws” (1975), “Star Wars” (1977) and “Superman: The Movie” (1978), it became clear that a true mark of cinematic excellence could be achieved not just through casting and production design…but through the choice of composer and score.
For “Batman” (1989), director Tim Burton made a gamble nearly equivalent to his own hiring for the project; turning not to an established composer such as Williams or Jerry Goldsmith…but to a total risk in the form of Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman.
Prior to the film, Elfman had cut his teeth scoring Burton’s earlier films such as “Beetlejuice” (1988) and it was clear that their respective aesthetics were quite in tune. But just as Burton had never directed a picture of such action-packed, operatic scale…Elfman was in unfamiliar territory trying to bring a voice to Gotham City.
Having read Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” mini-series and walked Anton Furst’s gorgeously designed back lot at Pinewood Studios, Elfman began the steady approach of tapping into his dark, creative well.
And needless to say, what he came up with was nothing short of baroquely gothic brilliance.
For me personally, given both the generation I born into…the Batman I was first introduced to…no one and I mean no one has musically nailed the concept or the atmosphere of Batman like Danny Elfman.
The score, in its bombastic sense of fun and mystery, seems to rely on its strength more in brass and percussion…it’s a very bold, powerful score…clearly defined.
The score takes its cues from classic film noir, a lot of gangster motifs and mysterioso canvas upon which Elfman paints a beautifully dark portrait of this hellish urban nightmare…of a crazed mob enforcer turned homicidal clown…and a man who dresses up as a giant bat to create an effect meant to strike sheer horror into the souls of criminals.
It’s everything that makes Batman the great figure of fantasy, horror, adventure that he is…in a musical sense.
And it all begins with, in my opinion, one of the most iconic themes in motion picture history.
Of course no composer is naïve nor pretentious enough to declare they’re setting out to create something that will be remembered. Heck, I’m sure composers are lucky if they can manage material that fits the footage…like all composers that was Elfman’s intent.
But somewhere along the way…in combining elements of Gothic mystery, bold heroics, broad adventure and a dash of whimsy he successfully crafted “The Batman Theme”…a powerful march that can easily stand beside other legendary movie themes such as “Superman,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “James Bond” or “Halloween.”
There’s just something so visceral…so beautiful about that theme.
It’s just like the animated sequence that opened every episode of “Batman: The Animated Series”…in so much that, without uttering a single word…it captures and symbolizes “Batman” so perfectly.
You play that theme…and it’s Batman…that’s all there is to it.
Since the bulk of the film really centers and focuses on Batman himself, the score emulates that. Most of the material is set up in similar fashions and cues, highlighting the sense of hopelessness in Gotham City (“Roasted Dude” and “Clown Attack”), the kooky sense of fun that can still be had with the character (“Roof Fight”), the futile yet star-crossed romanticism of Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Vicki Vale (“Photos/Beautiful Dreamer” and “Love Theme”), the mysterious…almost horror like qualities of Batman’s modus operandi (“The Bat Cave”) and the emotional undercurrent for Wayne’s psychological motivations (“Flowers” and “Childhood Remembered”).
Aside from the Batman-centered material, Danny does get to have a bit of playful fun with his Joker theme…namely Joker’s “Waltz to the Death.” It’s a very whimsical yet sinister piece of music and a perfect fit for Nicholson’s depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime…especially the brass version that cues in at the end of “Kitchen/Surgery/Face-Off” when the Joker first reveals himself and kills Carl Grissom.
Personal standout tracks from the score included “First Confrontation,” which runs the entire length of the shoot-out in Axis Chemicals. It’s very moody, fitting right in with the set designed at Actin Power Station as Jack Napier and his goons get caught in a face off with the Gotham Police. Elfman’s variations on Batman’s theme motif are brilliantly used here.
Another is “Roasted Dude,” as the Joker consults with the charred corpse of gangster Anthony Rotelli. For me, this always seemed to be the theme for the Joker’s dark side. Where the Waltz represents the crazed clown, the primal drum beats and distressed French horn used here fit perfect for the psychopathic monster that Napier truly is.
The fun gets rolling yet again in “Batman to the Rescue,” when Batman retrieves Vicki from the Fluggelheim Museum. This is a very kinetic track and a particularly wonderful cue resides in the percussive symbols when Batman is confronted by the Joker’s Sword-wielding Ninja Henchman.
Of course a fan favorite HAS to be the monolithic “Descent into Mystery” as Batman drives Vicki back to the Batcave. Noted for being only one of the two uses of chorus in the score (a technique Elfman would utilize more prominently in “Batman Returns”), “Descent into Mystery” is exceedingly operatic…probably the most theatrical track in the entire composition next to “Waltz to the Death.”
Chorus is utilized once more for the most haunting cue…“Childhood Remembered.” It’s a wonderfully brilliant dichotomy of the torment Bruce retains over his parent’s murder and the dedication he has to his mission as Batman. I also love the balance of strings in the cue…this is probably the best string work in the entire score.
But Elfman packs his biggest bang collectively in the film’s finale cues… “Charge of the Batmobile,” “Attack of the Batwing” and “The Final Confrontation.”
“Charge of the Batmobile” begins Batman’s final assault against the Joker’s reign of terror by destroying Axis Chemicals and Napier’s Smilex Toxin operations with tons of explosive panache, both literally and musically. I love the cue right after the explosion as the Batmobile makes its escape with the insistent trumpets playing to catch every single explosion in rhythmic aggression.
“Attack of the Batwing” is the same way only a bit bolder…a bit broader (perhaps meant to note that the battle is taking place now in the vastness of the Gotham skies and not the cramped chemical works) and I love the finality of it as motifs for both Batman and Joker become laced; one instance it’s the dark strings and brass of Batman the next it’s the cartoonish instrumentations of the Joker…as if they, like the characters, are on a collision course heading for the film’s outcome. The final straw of the track…the foreboding church bells as the downed Batwing crash-lands on the steps of the cathedral…is simply breathtaking. WOW!!!
It all comes to a genuinely powerful and gripping point with “The Final Confrontation” as a desperate Batman simultaneously tries to keep Vicki safe while figuring out how to stop the Joker once and for all. In a beautiful moment meant to startle the audience with one final sting Elfman gives his protagonists a fleeting beat to breathe easy after the Joker’s demise…only to stir up the chaos yet again as Batman and Vale are caught in free fall! As expected both Batman and the score make it in just the nick of time and the cue ends with a tinkering final gesture for Joker…
As the film ends, we’re given a wonderfully triumphant “Finale” as the Bat-Signal is lit and the citizens of Gotham commend the efforts of their new-found hero. The Batman theme makes another appearance but this time in a much more victorious, uplifted variation that caps off beautifully with a powerfully octane moment of sheer elation as the camera veers up the skyscrapers to find Batman himself, keeping vigil over the city as the signal shines through the ebony clouds.
In the end, what could I possibly say? I can’t speak more highly about Danny Elfman’s work for “Batman.”
It’s adventure…it’s mystery…it’s intrigue…
It’s Batman…pure and simple.
“Batman”: Original Motion Picture Score (1989)
Composed by … Danny Elfman
Orchestrated by … Shirley Walker, Steve Bartek and Steve Scott-Smalley
Conducted by … Shirley Walker
Performed by … The Sinfonia of London Orchestra
Executive Produced by … Jon Peters and Peter Guber
Produced by … Steve Bartek and Danny Elfman
1: The Batman Theme (2:38)
2: Roof Fight (1:20)
3: First Confrontation (4:43)
4: Kitchen/Surgery/Face-Off (3:07)
5: Flowers (1:51)
6: Clown Attack (1:45)
7: Batman to the Rescue (3:56)
8: Roasted Dude (1:01)
9: Photos/Beautiful Dreamer (2:27)
10: Descent Into Mystery (1:31)
11: The Bat Cave (2:35)
12: The Joker’s Poem (0:56)
13: Childhood Remembered (2:43)
14: Love Theme (1:30)
15: Charge of the Batmobile (1:41)
16: Attack of the Batwing (4:44)
17: Up the Cathedral (5:04)
18: Waltz to the Death (3:55)
19: The Final Confrontation (3:47)
20: Finale (1:45)
21: Batman Theme Reprise (1:28)
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