Friday, October 14, 2011

Tim's Soundtrack Corner: Batman (1989)

Danny Elfman at his grandest

Tim Burton's Batman remains to this day one of my favourite movies. Throughout the entire flick we can sense the energy and originality of the young director's dark vision. Although there are a number of downright funny scenes, it still carries a strong undercurrent of menace, just like the other Joker dominated entry to the franchise, The Dark Knight. Danny Elfman's score is at once heroic and lyrical, pitting the grand action sequences of the caped crusader with his alter-ego's attempts to woo Vicky Vale, the journalist/photographer. The third element of the score is the lurking menace of the Joker (more on that below).
Elfman is known for being allowed to let loose with opening credits, where it's the job of the music to set the mood for the audience for what is to come. The main theme is a minor chord going a minor 6th above the root, and then satisfyingly hitting the perfect 5th. In normal non-music nerd speak, he creates a theme that is dark (the minor chord), creates tension (sitting on the minor 6th), and then relieves that tension (by going down to the 5th). Elfman is a master at using minimal motifs and putting them together to form larger forms (like lego pieces). Although this is much more thematically powerful then say, his Mission Impossible score, he still employs this technique. That main theme is transformed numerous times throughout the score, in different variations and directions.
Track 4 (Kitchen, Surgery, Face-Off) is a perfect mix of lyrical, bittersweet music, and menacing terror. Any romantic relationship with Batman will be doomed, and despite all of his advances, the music tells us it will never work out with Vicky. The middle part is full of dissonant, crunching chords and awkward melodies, as Jack Napier is turned into the Joker by haphazard surgery. The third part of the track, introduces us to an intriguing element of the Joker's music, the use of the waltz. It recurs later with the epic fight at the end of the movie at the top of the church. The reason behind the use of the waltz format is unknown to me....perhaps it indicates the theatricality of the Joker, even when he is doing terrible things. He just wants to have a good time, and is a romantic at heart.
The other element of whenever the Joker appears is the use of the Stephen Foster song, Beautiful Dreamer. Again, this coupled with the waltz paints a 'hopeless romantic' picture of the Joker. The sweet, simple song is coupled with the on-screen imagery of the Joker doing terrible things, and we hate to love him. The depth of his character makes him one of the more fascinating of on-screen villains.
There are a great many other wonderful tracks, including the awkward and screwball 'Jokers Poem' (track 12), and the thrilling 'Attack of the Batwing' (Track 16). What we get is not your typical large-scale action music, but rather one with incredible depth, lyricism and menace. As always, the fascinating duality of the characters provided the inspiration.


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