[20 July 2012]
Sound Affects Editor
From his inception, Batman has always been a very cinematic character. Though borne of and forever linked to the comic book medium, his early exploits drew liberally from filmic inspirations ranging from noir to German Expressionism to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, cribbing their odd camera angles and generous shadows to convey, drama, dread, and excitement on the four-color page. So it should be no surprise that more than any of his superhero peers, Batman has become an icon on both the big and small screens, one who has starred in everything from low-budget serials to summer blockbusters to stylized animated adventures.
As the masked vigilante is poised to conquer movie screens worldwide once again this week with the release of the much-anticipated The Dark Knight Rises, Sound Affects would like to shine a Bat-Signal on one particularly essential component of any Batman film or TV series—the music. Be it strum und drang orchestrations or the latest pop sounds, the music that accompanies the Caped Crusader’s extra-comic exploits has always played a key role in crafting the right atmosphere, upping the stakes, and punctuating the narrative developments—not to mention the on-screen fisticuffs. Quibble all you want with the make-up of the final list (Hans Zimmer’s formless and indistinct score for the Christopher Nolan films is nowhere in sight, and Shirley Walker’s character motifs for Batman: The Animated Series would assuredly have numbers 11 and up all sewn up if this article was doubled in size). But if you are going to take anything away from this countdown, it should be confirmation that Batman, perhaps more than any modern fictional hero, has proven to be a steady source of inspiration for a wildly divergent array of great theme music for well over half a century.
No, wait, hear me out on this one. Yes, in many respects Prince’s “Batdance” is a mess, a sprawling, multi-section mash-up of synthfunk grooves, squalling guitar histrionics, and dialogue from the film that made for one of the most bizarre songs to ever top the charts (and make no mistake, it did indeed top them, as did the soundtrack it was spawned from). “Flawed genius” is a perfectly apt label for “Batdance”, as it constantly flirts with moments of transcendent awesomeness and overindulgent musical wankery, never allowing either to win in the end. You could say such a dichotomy perfectly reflects the Batman/Joker relationship, one which the musician reinforced in a music video where his wardrobe was stylized so that each character was represented on halves of his body. Or you can say Prince was off into the stratosphere on a yet another freaky flight of fancy when he recorded this. Either works.
Omnipresent back in 1995, the hit that briefly made Seal an international superstar hasn’t aged that well, its breathy R&B sensuality reeking of a decidedly mid-‘90s vintage. For a moment in time, though, it was the perfect action movie love theme, one that was passionate without being soft—just like Batman. And for those insistent that Batman’s dedication to his crime-fighting mission should leave his adventures bereft of romance, might I suggest digging through some early ’70s comic book back issues starring a globetrotting Dark Knight as what writer Grant Morrison succinctly labeled a “hairy-chested love god”. James Bond would be jealous of some of the dalliances Bruce Wayne has had, and none of the British secret agent’s many title themes have ever been as smooth as this.
Simplistic almost to the point of idiocy, the theme to the infamous ‘60s live-action series is remarkably enduring, as synonymous with the program—indeed, the decade at large—as star Adam West. The deadpan Technicolor campiness of the show is perfectly reflected in the insistent mod bass riff and “Na na na na na na… Batman!” chants that shift pitch to match the chord changes. As dark and serious as depictions of the Batman mythos have become over subsequent decades, the long shadow cast by Hefti’s immensely infectious tune can never be fully exorcised (see U2 guitarist the Edge’s theme music for first two seasons of the WB’s The Batman cartoon for an instance of its spirit living on in the 21st century). And why should it be? Even if your favorite incarnation of the Caped Crusader is of the gravely stoic variety, you’re probably singing this to yourself right as you read these words.
Given the gothic finery that draped Tim Burton’s Batman films (and virtually anything else the director touches), it was inevitable that the soundtrack to at least one of them would feature a contribution by a proper goth group. Co-written by Batman Return composer/frequent Burton collaborator/former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman, “Face to Face” was the last noteworthy track from the Banshees’ long and storied career before they disbanded in 1996. As sung by a smolderingly seductive Siouxsie Sioux, the lyrics relish in Batman and Catwoman’s tempestuous and erotically charged relationship (“Face to face / My lovely foe / Mouth to mouth / Raining heaven’s blows”). The singer even throws in a few throaty purrs for good measure, never sounding anything less than cool when she does.
Unlike the other animated depictions of Batman in the last two decades, Cartoon Network’s team-up-themed Batman: The Brave and the Bold was bright, humorous, and fun, taking its stylistic cues from playful Sliver Age comics instead of grimmer modern interpretations. Suitably, Sturmer’s theme for the show is a brisk, jazzy number that recalls 1950s and ‘60s jet-set modernism. Once this number starts up, you know you’re in for some exciting two-fisted high adventure. Extra kudos should be given for those dramatic horn stabs at the end.
By 1997, the Smashing Pumpkins were kings of the mid-‘90s alternative rock heap. They would soon lose their stature, but before they did they hit another one out of the park with their first post-Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness single. Suiting a film squaring Batman off against Mr. Freeze, this pretentiously titled rocker is suitably icy and overblown, mixing heavy metal bombast with the band’s then-increasing fascination with electronic music. (Too bad the casting of an endlessly-quipping Arnold Schwarzenegger as the frosty villain undercut any semblance of danger the character posed). “The sewers belch me up / The ethers spit me out / From ethers tragic I am born again”, Billy Corgan sings, evoking the Dark Knight’s origin and purpose in florid fragments of imagery.
Between the Edge’s theme for The Batman and his and Bono’s songwriting for the troubled Spider-Man Broadway musical Turn Off the Dark, it’s safe to say the members of U2 are big superhero fans. Of all the Irish megaband’s comic book-related dalliances, it’s this contribution to the Batman Forever soundtrack that is its most, ahem, thrilling. “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” was the last great gasp of U2’s deconstructionist ‘90s incarnation, a sinister sneer of a song that still found a way to incorporate a classicist arena-ready chorus. More laudably, this single was the best thing to come out of this uneven film, its gaudy glam rock damage acting as a more effective synthesis of the gothic and camp aesthetics that director Joel Schumacer strove to mesh together than the hammy neon blockbuster he put up on the cinema screen. Hell, the music video for this is better than the whole of Batman Forever.
Don’t let “Batdance” fool you: Prince’s Batman soundtrack album had its share of svelte, snappy pop tunes, among them “Partyman” (the song from the museum vandalism scene) and “Trust”, the backing to the Gotham City 200th anniversary parade Jack Nicholson’s Joker put on as a cover for his fiendish final plan. The Purple One is in comfortable territory here, crafting a funky and festive party starter for that other notorious purple-clad mad genius. I’ll be honest: if I saw a supervillain playing this song while tossing out millions of dollars onto the street, I’d trust him.
If you watched the Fox Network’s children’s lineup in the early ‘90s, this theme is etched in your brain note-for-note. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could instantly recall every silhouette cast and every punch thrown from the title sequence this music scored, either. Having already done a phenomenal job on the orchestration for Tim Burton’s live-action blockbuster three years before, Danny Elfman took another crack at crafting a definitive Batman theme. Astonishingly, his second pass was almost as amazing as his first.
All Batman-related music (aside from the number two item on this list) pales in comparison to this, as perfect and succinct an encapsulation of a character in musical form as you can get. The distinctive main motif is there from the start, rendered in wafting, ominous tones that steadily build up to one well-timed cymbal crash. With that, the orchestral march is off at full power, charging ahead to vanquish the forces of evil in time for the opening credits to wrap up. Elfman’s superb theme is dark, forceful, melodramatic, and heroic—all essential elements of the Batman character. Only John Williams’ overture for the Christopher Reeve Superman films can match this in the annals of superheroic musical accompaniment.