Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Sounds of Batman Then and Now

Before the year 2000, the comic book fan had relatively little to be excited about at the box office, Most superhero movies simply were not possible on a reasonable budget without some serious imagination. Back in 1988, Tim Burton certainly had that to offer, and his take on Batman generated quite a bit of excitement in certain circles. The dedicated comic fan will doubtlessly argue the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, but its influence on the character’s ongoing evolution has been undeniable.

The score to Batman was composed by Danny Elfman, who at the time was better known, at least to me, as the lead singer of Oingo Boingo. Elfman has gone on to have quite a bit of success as a movie composer, but Batman was probably his breakout moment - his Star Wars, so to speak. As a much younger musician, and one who judged orchestral music mainly by what it would sound like on the marching field, I thought it was brilliant. Certainly, Elfman’s playful, imaginative style clearly brings back imagery from the film and in small doses, it’s electrifying.

I revisited this soundtrack recently and was initially quite exhilarated. The opening theme is now, in retrospect, iconic. Burton’s dark imagination may have changed Batman visually, but Danny Elfman’s attendant soundtrack shaped the way Batman sounded for the next decade. The Batman Animated Series, which was arguably one of the finest renderings of the Batman mythos, featured a variant theme by Elfman. This tied the series into the same world as the movie, and as the DC animated universe grew, the shadow of Elfman’s themes stretched further and further.

Despite its influence, over the course of the Batman OST, as a more mature listener I began to feel less and less engaged. It’s pervasively nervous, anxious energy soon becomes exhausting, and the themes that were so compelling at the outset are repeated and reinvented endlessly with relatively little harmonic or rhythmic variation. By the album’s end, it starts to feel like the whole thing has been nothing more than that one theme over and over again, dressed up in Elfman’s characteristic flurry of strings.

These days the cinema is a much different place for those of us that grew up reading comics. There are many amazing movie adaptations, not the least of which was the genre-defining Dark Knight trilogy from Christopher Nolan. His gritty, real-world take on Batman appealed to both comic fans and non-fans alike. Like its concomitant movie, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s soundtrack to the second of these films, The Dark Knight, is a much different rendering of Batman’s soundscape.

The Dark Knight OST often has more in common with the moody, minimalistic ripples of Phillip Glass than the thematic bombast of John Williams. This impression is doubtlessly due to its use of repetition as a compositional tool. At no time, however, does it sink to redundancy (which, taken as a whole, Elfman’s score does). The Dark Knight uses melody sparingly, instead conjuring a sinister, cerebral mood through a staggeringly broad spectrum of timbres and sounds. Perhaps because it is relatively sparse, it is still possible to hear vague outlines of Elfman’s thematic material if you are imaginative. Mostly, however, The Dark Knight is a defiantly original tightrope walk between contemplative focus and terrifying, explosive fury.

Because melody is not at the forefront of The Dark Knight, Zimmer and Howard’s score is not as immediately memorable as Elfman’s, but it is in some ways more engaging. Its strengths are far more subtle, and are not overused to the point of exhaustion. Unlike the Batman OST, which fatigues the focused listener, The Dark Knight gives the listener enough room for their own place in the soundscape. It feels as if it is over too soon, which infuses it with an aesthetic value outside of its status as the accompaniment to an amazing movie.

EDIT: This review became an episodic project that formally started HERE.

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