Review Summary: A dark, gothic carnival
Before Chris Nolan’s arrival, everyone’s going to, was Tim Burton’s duology of films. The gifted storyteller brought Batman back to his original dark roots, and for a long time, his universe was the de facto cinematic portrayal of the dark knight. And for good reasons, too. Before the 1989 film, everyone who wasn’t into comics knew the character through the campy Adam West show. Burton’s vision revived the character and erased the ‘60s series from people’s minds. To this day, every single component surrounding Batman’s mythos that the general audience loves comes from these two movies. Burton single-handedly established that language. It’s his very own creation.
I was merely five years old when I first saw the 1989 film. Even younger, maybe. I remember being overwhelmed, the images of a charging Batmobile stuck in my head. I had never read -or even touch- a comic book, but seeing this movie was like reading one. Burton’s world was so intrinsic to how I view the character and his lore; the gothic touch, the metaphysical realism, the grim whimsical tone, all of it. The visual style made my imagination galloping wild. I was immersed in a gothic fairytale full of mystery and horror. Burton made me fell in love with this world. Very few movies have had such a lasting impact on me. I have seen it countless times, and only in recent years I began noticing the brilliance of its direction; Michael Keaton, a man of short stature inside a most absurd costume, transforms literally into a menacing nightly figure thanks to the incredible camera work and lightning. Keaton is by far the best cinematic interpretation of Batman. His stoic version of the character is like a phantasm, a creature always blending in the shadows and never fully revealed. He barely talks; most of the time, he whispers. His ways of intimidation are purely psychological; He ambles, approaching his victims like Michael Myers. Keaton’s demeanor breathes life into the character. His psychotic glare, speech, and even restrictive way of movement make him the most fear-inducing and compelling Batman I have ever seen on the big screen. Arton Furst’s Gotham City design is breathtaking, penning down a surrealistic portrait of a decaying society without structure or purpose. It’s a hellish jumble of architectural styles, a steaming cesspool that evolved in a bubble somewhere beyond space and time. The anachronistic style of the city prevents the movie from looking dated. Furst’s drawings blend styles from the ‘30s and the ‘40s, and Roger Pratt’s cinematography brings an aura of a noir/crime film. On top of it, Burton borrows some horror movie tricks which make the experience even more remarkable.
I can go on. My love for this film can make me discuss it endlessly, which reminds me that I’m getting ahead of myself. The cinematic style certainly deserves its own analysis, but this review is about the music. And like every other feature of this film, the score is also uncannily unique
. Tim Burton treats his film as an opera, and likewise, Danny Elfman’s score is mostly theatrical. It’s also grandiose, and in parts, carnival-like. Anyone who listens cannot deny that there’s something about it that draws your attention immediately. It’s a kind of music that takes you deep into the world of Gotham, a place of masquerading personas where danger lurks behind every corner of this criminal-infested, rotten city. And like the motion picture, layers of motifs and themes lay before you to unwrap.
Elfman had little experience in grand scores - even his previous collaborations with Burton were of a smaller scale. There was certainly a risk involved with his appointment, but it somehow paid off. His central theme is regarded today as the unmistakable musical voice of Batman. It’s so recognizable and overplayed that years of exposition resulted in a backlash from a particular portion of fans. But that goes to show how suitable this theme is for Burton’s world. The composer once claimed that he struggled to develop the (now famous) opening music, which he wrote during a plane flight. One can assume that Elfman might have been watching a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth
because his cue borrows a few segments from Bernard Hermann’s classic score directly, without much alteration. That is the last time we see any signs of plagiarism, though. No matter the source of inspiration, Elfman goes to great lengths to ensure the music’s distinctiveness by sending it to numerous paths.
The Batman Main Theme
is simple in its core, just a four-note minor key ascent followed by a two-note major key descent. Yet, in its simplicity, one can marvel at the number of layered emotions. What baffles me to this day is the full range of moods you explore as you listen. You can never be sure of its premise; the music feels dashing and heroic yet, at the same time, gloomy and desperate. It tells the story of a hero, but in places, it feels so blatantly antiheroic, the exact antithesis of what John Williams’ Superman score stands for. Both themes are scored to reflect their perspective characters; Williams’ orchestration might be compelling and brighter in the arrangement, but here the music’s fundamentally dramatic and tragic. Despite the contrast, both of these scores never fail to make a powerful statement, which self-explain their iconic status.
Elfman’s broad approach isn’t very sophisticated in terms of musicianship; it’s relatively straightforward, occasionally very loud
, but efficient. His orchestra functions as a grotesque backdrop, adding depth to an artful, visually-pleasing metropolis. The gothic/urban aesthetic is fully supported by a combination of strings, a lot of brass, and on top of it, a pipe organ. Elfman uses every trick up his sleeve to counterweight the visual sensation with aural fulfillment. Cymbals, pianos, and even some orchestral bells paint a colorful, child-like bounciness, and the mixing of looming action intermingled with the systematic strings provides a sense of urgency, taking the audience on a memorable ride.
There’s a lot of awesome percussion to be found on this score. When music is altogether absent, Elfman is relentless in varied percussive instruments, dressing many silent moments. Throughout the action pieces, the Batman March
is interspersed on the orchestral parts’ outskirts, always prowling at the right moment to come forward. A common complaint is that the villains do not share a strong musical theme, which is partially true; There are many action-driven motifs, but they are somewhat obscured compared to the main theme. An exception would be the darkly comedic Waltz to the Death
, an exceptional track with a wicked sense of humor. All the lavish flourishes aside, one thing I find totally engrossing is that church organ. Combining that instrument with images of cathedrals, gargoyles, and foggy landscapes borders on genius. It makes me feel I’m watching Coppola’s Dracula
, but with Batman on the lead role. It’s such a treat for our senses.
Things change. Trends come and go. Nolan’s trilogy changed how people view superhero movies, just like Tim Burton did in the late ‘80s. There was a time when this film was lauded by the fans. Nowadays, it’s one of the most controversially divisive films of its genre. However, Danny Elfman’s work remains largely untarnished. His swooping score represents Wayne’s duality far better than anything we’ve heard in future films. Its legacy goes beyond that. The soundtrack made such an impression that it was reworked for the animated series in the early ‘90s. In return, the music got cemented in people’s minds as the definitive Batman music, and rightfully so. It goes without question that there will never be a better musical representation of the winged crusader.