Soundtrack Collection: Batman


Batman (Nelson Riddle, 1966): Although I am too young to have seen it during its original airing, the late 1960s Batman TV series became a childhood favorite of mine via the syndicated reruns.  The series was very campy and silly, qualities that made it very appealing to me as a pre-teen.  My fondness for the series actually made it a bit difficult for me to warm up to the much darker version of the character that was seen in the later film versions.

Nelson Riddle scored many episodes of the series as well as the full-length feature version that was released theatrically at the end of the show’s first season.  The score to the movie was released on a limited edition CD by Film Score Monthly in 2000 and was re-issued, with a few minutes of additional music, by La La Land Records earlier this year.  I have the earlier release and didn’t see a need to upgrade to the newer one.

Riddle was best known as a jazz and big band arranger, having worked with numerous big names ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra.  This background is evident in his approach to the Batman music, where he provides a highly jazz-oriented score heavily dominated by horns and guitar.  It is a fun and fast-paced score, which is pretty deeply rooted in the 1960s Rat Pack style.  The score is very thematic, with Riddle providing a separate, distinctive theme for each of the villains.  The film brought together all the major villains, so there is quite a bit of variation to the score.

The famous and highly familiar main theme to the TV series was written by Neal Hefti and is incorporated pretty regularly into the score.  The theme gets a pretty complete performance (minus the vocals) during the cue “Batmobile to Airport” and then is referenced pretty regularly, usually in shorter bursts.  The complete theme, including the “Batman!” vocals, is featured as a bonus track at the end of the CD.


Batman (1989, Danny Elfman): Although Danny Elfman had already done a handful of film scores (including his first two projects with Tim Burton), his score for Burton’s 1989 Batman film really was the one that established him as an important voice in film scoring.  The score was so successful that Elfman has frequently been the first choice for other super-hero movies, to a degree that sometimes has come perilously close to type-casting.

Elfman’s main theme has fairly iconic and is pretty instantly recognizable and associated with the Batman character, despite that fact that it was only used in the two Tim Burton/Michael Keaton films and as the theme for the early 90s animated TV series.  The darkly ominous opening fanfare that transitions into a haunting, brass-centered march is a very distinctive construction that very effectively fits the portrayal of the title character as a mix of tortured angst and heroic action.

While the main theme serves as the primary theme for the title character, he also introduces very effective secondary themes.  Jack Nicholson’s Joker is introduced with some brassy circus music at the end of the cue “Kitchen, Surgery, Face-off” and the character’s over the top nature is also reflected in the fairly extravagant cues “Joker’s Poem” and especially the self-explanatory “Waltz to the Death”.  A darkly melodic theme is provided for the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Vicky Vale, fully presented in the cue “Love Theme”.

The cue “Decent Into Mystery” introduces a wordless chorus into the score in a darkly resonant manner that has later become one of the most recognizable trademarks of Elfman’s film scoring.  Well paced and exciting action music, of course, is also a hallmark of this score in very strong cues such as “Roof Fight”, “Attack of the Batwing” and especially the thrilling “Finale” cue.

At the time that the film came out, much of the emphasis was on the songs that Prince wrote and performed for the film and the initial soundtrack release only contained those songs.  Elfman’s score came out on a separate CD release a few months later.  Interestingly, today the Elfman score album is still in print while the Prince album is not, although it is still widely available on bargain tables or used copies.  I’m not really a Prince fan and never purchased his album, so I can’t really comment on the content.


Batman Returns (Danny Elfman, 1992): I’m well aware that my view is in the minority on this one, but I actually prefer both the film and score for Batman Returns to the more popular original.  After the enormous success of the first film, both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman were given a considerable amount of free reign and the result was a much more quirky film and score.

Of course, Elfman does reprise his main Batman theme in the sequel, but little else is repeated.  The new score is much more string focused than the brassy approach with the original.  Elfman also much more prominently features wordless choir in this score, particularly with his main theme for The Penguin.  In many ways, this score actually more closely resembles Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands score than the previous Batman score.

Elfman provides very distinctive themes for the film’s two primary villains: The Penguin and Catwoman.  As noted above, The Penguin’s main theme makes extensive use of wordless (and sometimes “la la la”) choir, providing something of an otherworldly quality to the theme.  The character’s theme is introduced during “Birth of a Penguin” and “Birth of a Penguin, part 2”, which open the soundtrack album and the film.  As these play over the film’s opening title, the theme is effectively interweaved with the Batman theme, at times with the choral elements actually layered over the older theme.

The Catwoman theme is introduced in “Selena Transforms” and “Selena Transforms, Part 2” and substantially developed further in “Cat Suite”.  This theme features solo violin, giving it a pretty distinctively feline quality.  The theme is melodic and haunting and generally sticks with me when I listen to the album.  As Catwoman doubles as Bruce Wayne’s love interest in the film, her theme also serves as the film’s romantic theme.

The album ends with the song “Face to Face”, which was performed by  Siouxsie and the Banshees and was used in the film during a ballroom sequence when Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle (Catwoman) are dancing together.  The song was co-written by Elfman and fits in very well with the score, including incorporating some brief references to the Catwoman theme.


Batman Forever (Elliot Goldenthal, 1995): Tim Burton and Danny Elfman (as well as star Michael Keaton) departed after the 2nd film and Joel Schumacher took over as director for the next two films, bringing along composer Elliot Goldenthal to take over the scoring.  I don’t know if it was a decision made by Goldenthal, Schumacher, Warner Bros, or some combination (or if it was a rights issue), but none of Elfman’s music, including the main theme, was retained.

The decision not to keep Elfman’s theme is all the more puzzling since Goldenthal ended up writing a pretty close approximation of it for his own new theme.  Structurally, it is very similar to Elfman’s theme with the same dark fanfare and march construction.  The similarity is definitely stylistic and not plagiarized in any way, but it is natural to wonder why such a similar new theme was constructed instead of simply adapting the extremely well-known and effective one that they already had.  This also established the precedent for the unfortunately lack of any musical continuity in the series.

Outside of the similarity of the theme, and a general “dark” quality, the rest of Goldenthal’s score doesn’t much resemble Elfman’s.  Goldenthal’s approach is less thematic and much busier and, often, over-the-top.  This matches Schumacher’s approach to the film.  The result is a score that is often interesting and which covers a broad range of styles, but which ultimately comes off as rather disjointed.

While the score is orchestral, it also makes pretty extensive use of synthesizers to present a rather dissonant sound.  The most interesting cue of the score is the lengthy cue, “Nygma Variations (An Ode to Science)” which runs through a broad range of styles including simple piano melodies, jazzy orchestral music, extremely dissonant synthesizer tones, and even classic sci-fi theremin music.  It is a fairly bold and kind of outrageous cue, but consistently fascinating.

As with the first film, the original soundtrack released with the movie was a song album with the score album hitting stores about a month later.  The song album included a couple of fairly prominent singles by U2 and Seal along with other songs that are mostly probably only known by those that bought the album (which doesn’t include me).   Goldenthal’s score to Batman and Robin, the second and final Schumacher film in the series, has never been released on CD.  I would be very surprised if one of the soundtrack specialty labels isn’t already working on bridging that obvious gap.


The Batman Trilogy (Joel McNeely and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, 1997): This Varese Sarabande compilation album contains re-recorded excerpts from Danny Elfman’s two Batman scores, Elliot Goldenthal’s Batman Forever and Neal Hefti’s theme from the 1960s TV series.  Although the CD was released around the same time that Batman and Robin was released to theater, it doesn’t include any score from the film.  That is definitely a shame as the inclusion of some excerpts from that unavailable score would have been a major selling point for this CD.

The CD isn’t a bad sampler of Elfman and Goldenthal’s music, although it really doesn’t have a lot to offer for anyone that already has the soundtrack albums.  The music is generally organized into concert arrangements that differ somewhat from the originals.  For the most part, I think Goldenthal’s compositions benefit a bit more from these arrangements than Elfman’s.  Hefti’s theme is presented in a fully orchestral arrangement and does not include vocals.

Note that the suite from Batman Forever was originally recorded for the Varese Sarabande compilation “Hollywood ‘85” and is presented identically on both albums.  The Elfman music and the recording of the Hefti theme were both newly recorded for this album.


Batman Begins (Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, 2005): Christopher Nolan’s 2005 reboot of the Batman franchise once again brought new composers and a completely new score.  This time, two of the industry’s top film composers, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, collaborated on the score.  There isn’t a clear delineation between the contributions of the two composers (reportedly, they sat in a room together and bounced ideas off one another rather than splitting the work), but Zimmer’s style definitely is the dominant one.   

This first time teaming of two renowned film composers was an exciting prospect, but honestly the end result was kind of a disappointment.  The score generally works alright in the film, although I’m not convinced it wouldn’t have been even better served by a more thematic and heroic score.  On its own, I don’t think the score provides for an especially satisfying listening experience.  Nolan has shown a strong preference for keeping the score very firmly in the background in his films and the key way that Zimmer and Newton Howard accomplish this is to basically avoid establishing themes.

That isn’t to say that the score isn’t melodic, but it never establishes any consistent themes for the listener to grasp onto.  The music ends up being pleasant at times, but never manages any of the heroic scope that the Batman character would seem to suggest. The score includes substantial amounts of electronics along with some very deep strings and percussion and the score is almost entirely written in minor keys, emphasizing the darkness of the material.  The end result is a pretty low-key experience that couldn’t be much further removed from either Elfman’s or Goldenthal’s scores.

On the soundtrack album, all of the cue titles are actually the names of various species of bats.  This odd decision makes it difficult to associate them with the actual parts of the film that they scored unless you happen to know the film very well.


The Dark Knight (Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, 2008): While this obviously doesn’t fit here alphabetically, it also seems obvious that it makes the most sense to discuss the most recent Batman movie score with its predecessors.  The Dark Knight reunited the principals responsible for Batman Begins, including director Christopher Nolan and composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, who delivered a score fairly similar to the one they wrote for the previous film.

The Dark Knight ended up being an enormous hit, becoming not only the top-grossing Batman film, but the third highest grossing film of all time, domestically.  Of course, those grosses aren’t adjusted for inflation, but the film is still unquestionably one of the all-time top movie hits and, even with the adjusted numbers, it remains the most successful entry in the series. 

With all that in mind, I have to confess that I haven’t actually gotten around to seeing the movie.  It is certainly on the list of movies that I’d like to see, and I even bought the Blu-Ray disc, but I just haven’t found a good opportunity to sit down and watch it.  Obviously, I really should rectify that before too long, but for now I want to make it clear that these comments are strictly related to the score as it plays on CD.

The soundtrack CD get off to a fairly different start with the 9 minute cue “Why So Serious?” which is very heavy on electronics, including some segments that have something of a hard rock style.  The cue also has some segments that are so quiet that I have to strain a bit to tell if there is any sound at all. It is pretty dark, intense material and is pretty interesting, even if it isn’t necessarily what I would consider to be an overly enjoyable listening experience.

The rest of the score continues to be comparable in style to the previous one, although it does seem heavier on electronics overall.  James Newton Howard’s composing style is much more evident in this score than it did in the previous score, particularly in the theme introduced during the cue “Harvey Two-Face”.  Zimmer’s style still dominates, but this one does come closer to sounding like a collaboration than the previous one did.

While I do think this is a better (or at least more interesting) score than Batman Begins, I still can’t say that I’m all that crazy about it.  I will note that an expensive (over $50) 2-CD special edition containing additional music was released, but I didn’t bother to buy it as the standard edition contains enough of this music for my taste.  The cue names on the regular soundtrack are an improvement over the Batman Begins album as they are descriptive this time.  The only slight impediment to matching the music to what it scored is that the final cue is over 16 minutes long and simply entitled “A Dark Knight”.


Batman: The Animated Series (Shirley Walker, Lolita Ritmanus, Michael McCuistion, 1992-1995): Following the success of Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, Warner Bros went forward with a syndicated animated series that, rather successfully, attempted to duplicate the dark tone and style of the films.  The series received a lot of critical acclaim for effective casting, smart writing, and very good production values.

Shirley Walker, who had conducted Elfman’s Batman score, was brought in as supervising composer on the series.  An arrangement of Elfman’s theme was used for the main title, but the remaining music was original music done in a somewhat similar style.  Walker scored a few episodes and provided some stock cues and general supervision over the musical direction of the series. 

She and the other composers did a good job of remaining true to the musical style established by Elfman while still allowing the series’ music to have a voice of its own.  The music does sometimes kind of straddle the line between the fairly dark, gothic styling that Elfman used and lighter, more cartoonish music.  In particular, some of Walker’s music for the episodes “The Last Laugh” and “Joker’s Favor” (which features a catchy, circus-like theme) occasionally sounds more closely related to Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes music than to Elfman.  The cues on the album also occasionally mix in some source music, such as the cleverly utilized Christmas carols during the music from “Christmas with the Joker”.

In 2008, La La Land Records released a 2-disc limited edition (now sold out) containing roughly 2 1/2 hours of music from the series.  Walker’s music is heavily featured, but the CDs also contain music from composers Lolita Ritmanus and Michael McCuistion as well as the series’ arrangement of Elfman’s theme.  Even with the multiple composers, the style is pretty consistent.  Elfman’s theme is occasionally interweaved into the scoring and Walker also wrote a stylistically similar secondary theme that is also used pretty regularly.

Not too surprisingly for an animated series like this, the majority of the score cues are short, most in the 1-4 minute range.  This does limit the amount of thematic development in the scores, but the music is well arranged on the soundtrack and doesn’t feel exceptionally disjointed.  The album opens with a lengthy suites (credited only to Walker) entitled “Gotham City Overture”, which runs over 14 minutes in length.  This suite provides an excellent sampling of the musical approach of the series.  The set ends with a 7 minute interview cue entitled “Music of the Bat 101”, which features Walker explaining and demoing the musical approach tot he series.

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