Saturday, September 24, 2011

Batman Begins: Or, Hans Zimmer Standard Score Variaton #7

Batman Begins was the last film I ever saw at the dear departed Clermont Drive-in, where I had grown up watching movies and of which I still have fond memories. As dark and murky as most of the picture is, an outdoor venue at night was not the ideal setup for watching that movie - but it didn't matter; I still had a blast watching with a bunch of friends out on that gravelly lot.

What a great movie it is, too, finally taking Batman seriously, but still managing to spin a ripping yarn out of the story. Christopher Nolan and company had just the right instincts about the property, and Nolan's deliberate Richard Donner-esque strategy of grabbing an "A" list supporting cast paid massive dividends. When you've got the likes of  Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Rutger Hauer all showing up for relatively minor parts, you get instant gravitas. Maybe it's cheating a bit, but if you've got a movie studio chomping at the bit to reboot a cash cow franchise, and willing to throw a pile of money at you to make it happen, why not?

One thing didn't sit well, though, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and still think it's an excellent entry in the Caped Crusader's filmography. I had figured out during the movie that the soundtrack was a Hans Zimmer product -- his usual bag of tricks was on display and obvious from the start. What I didn't know was that James Newton Howard had co-written the score. Yes, somehow it took two people to score a film in which the main theme consists of two notes. Two stinking notes. Not even modulated, altered in tempo, or anything throughout the film. Just the very same two notes, always played at the same tempo, on various instruments, sometimes louder than others. As the credits rolled and I saw the two names listed for the score, I remember yelling at the screen, "did each of them write one note?" (It was a drive-in; I could yell without being a complete jerk. Besides, the movie was over.)

You've got to let go of Remote Control

The problem with Hans Zimmer isn't so much that he's a talented but often lazy composer who repeats the same simplistic musical constructs over and over, regardless of the style and tone of the film he's working on -- though that is a problem, it's hardly unique to Zimmer. No, it's that he has an army of acolytes in his "Remote Control" studio* who all collaborate, and many of whom have dissipated out into the film scoring world in the last decade and spread very similar sounds all over the world of cinema -- especially the world of big, blockbuster movies, whose producers generally want simple, unchallenging sounds.

Remote Control is sort of like the Rembrandt school -- lots of Rembrandt's students painted in a very similar style to Rembrandt, to the point of making it very difficult in some cases to distinguish a genuine Rembrandt from the works of his school. Substitute some not-too-challenging musical tropes for Rembrandt's trademark chiaroscuro and you get a reasonably accurate comparison to Remote Control's output. Since they all collaborate, and Zimmer himself works in varying capacities on many scores, it all ends up sounding fairly homogeneous. Since there are so many of them, and Hollywood has loved the commercial appeal of the sound, the Remote Control style has come to dominate what the layman thinks of as "movie music." That's why, say, Transformers (Steve Jablonsky) sounds so much like Iron Man (Ramin Djawadi), and both aren't too far removed (once you filter out the superficial maritime trappings) from Pirates of the Carribean (Klaus Badelt/Hans Zimmer).

And now, The NFL This Week With Jack Sparrow and Iron Man

The trouble is that this style doesn't really fit all movies equally. Sometimes it is indeed fairly effective, or at least serviceable -- as it is, honestly, in significant chunks of the new Batman movies. It's amazingly simple - lots of 4/4 ostinatos for low strings, broad thematic statements on electronically-boosted brass, and so on - so it's just adaptable enough to fit a lot of different kinds of films. Then again, I often get the impression that the music is forcing the film to fit its pattern, rather than truly serving the film. I feel much the same way about Leonardo DiCaprio -- In the right film, he's great (see Catch Me if You Can or The Departed), but he often feels shoe-horned into roles that are well outside his range to play believably, just because he's a bankable star. (If you don't believe me about that, take a look at the trailer for the new Clint Eastwood biopic about J. Edgar Hoover. Yikes.)

It doesn't help that the style is absolutely everywhere, too, even beyond the movies. Between the Remote Control/Media Ventures brand of ballsy epic music, and the influence of a band called E.S. Posthumus, most of the blockbuster movie genre of the '00s sounds like a melodramatic orchestral rock concert. Even if you've never heard of E.S. Posthumus, you have heard their orchestral choral rock music in dozens of movie trailers, TV shows, even sports broadcasts. It's very close in style to the Zimmer brand, to the point of making the whole entertainment scoring industry sound like it has been taken over by some tedious Goth version of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Seriously, if you listen to it out of context, you can just as easily imagine a track from Batman Begins forming some dramatic intro music for an NFL football broadcast. In fact, try this one called "Molossus" (Track 10) . . .

Once those synthesizer-enhanced trombones kick in around 0:12, can't you just see some flashy sports graphics and highlight reel shots, perhaps accompanied by Bob Costas dramatically introducing the combatants in this week's Big Important Prime Time Game?

The big problem here is that when everything "cinematic" sounds so similar, then there's little room to carve out an individual identity for any given film - which is precisely the failing of a score like Batman Begins.

"It's not who I am underneath; it's what I do that defines me."

The music does have a heart somewhere, though, and to the extent that it does, I suppose it's probably due to the influence of James Newton Howard on the writing. Zimmer is a frequent collaborator, and it's not unusual that the distinctions between his scores often have to do with the contributions of his collaborators within and around his habitual stylings - like, for example, Lisa Gerrard's haunting, earthy vocals in Gladiator. (Not surprisingly, there are portions of Batman Begins that strongly resemble portions of Gladiator, especially sweeping melodic statements by low strings like those near the end of "Lasiurus" (Track 12).)

In Howard's case, it seems his contribution helps anchor some of the gentler, more intimate moments of the film. There's a fair bit of tinkly-piano sweetness that accompanies Bruce's memories of his parents, and a warm string theme that ties his memories to his relationship with Rachel Dawes (try "Macrotus" (Track 7) for a sample). It's not too far off from Howard's compositional style for something like The Sixth Sense, though obviously not as sinister. Beyond that I can't tell exactly how much influence Howard had on this design - in general, he is a subtler composer and more inventive orchestrator than Zimmer, so it may simply be the case that his ideas were drowned out by the overwhelming power of Zimmer's synth-enhanced orchestra.

Beyond that, the score doesn't have much to offer, as I've already mentioned. Much of Batman Begins comes off sounding more like sound effects than a musical score, with gimmicks like slowed-down and amplified samples of flapping bat wings providing percussive propulsion, or some buzzing, fluttering acoustic mayhem underlining the Scarecrow's disorienting nerve gas. Zimmer is a very intelligent composer, and I think he tends to intellectualize scores rather too much, getting excited about a sonic gimmick like the bat wings and letting that be his musical statement. He also gets "cute" with track names for his albums, none of which is more annoying than Batman Begins, in which each track is named but for a species of bat -- see the titles of the tracks I've already cited. They're all like that. He even arranged the names of tracks 4-9 so that the first letters of each bat species spell out the word "BATMAN." It's clever, but serves no purpose but to be clever, because even though the score is arranged more or less chronologically, you can't easily identify tracks on the album with scenes in the film.

A Brief Experiment

I can easily understand why Nolan and company would have wanted to start with a clean slate musically for the Dark Knight, especially with the specter of Danny Elfman's unique sound (and Shirley Walker and Elliott Goldenthal's later variations) hovering all over the franchise. Of course, that was the one part of the Batman identity that was still sound (no pun intended) after Joel Schumacher finished trashing the franchise in the late '90s. It wasn't broken, and might have merited some more careful consideration. As a little experiment on the topic, some clever person on YouTube has re-edited the Batmobile chase sequence with some passages from Elfman's 1989 Batman score. I was tremendously surprised at how well it works. See what you think of it here. (Sorry, I can't embed this one.)

Obviously, since Elfman's tracks weren't written for the scene, it doesn't always sync ideally, but I was impressed by how many points just happened - by lucky chance or a bit of editing sleight-of-hand from the video's creator - to offer some punchy punctuation for the on-screen action. If you watch the corresponding chapter on the Batman Begins DVD or Blu-Ray (it's chapter 28, for reference), though, you'll notice that the Zimmer/Howard score doesn't really sync up meaningfully with any of the on-screen action anyway. Most of it is written as a fairly consistent string ostinato with a pulsating electronic rhythm. It takes a lot less work to score a scene this way, since you can move around whatever melodic statements or rhythmic punctuation you want to include without upsetting the musical groundwork for a scene. Honestly, it takes more talent and dedication to do what Elfman did for Batman.

Perhaps I'm too hard on Batman Begins, but I feel that both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard are capable of producing better scores than this. Does it work for the movie? I suppose, but it doesn't make it any better -- it was just lucky that the film was already good enough on its own. It does have a certain simplistic appeal, but for a film that attempts to plumb the psyche of a realistic Bat-man, it could have done with some more ambitious musical commentary on the subject.

Next, we'll revisit Elfman and Burton's last take on the Bat and joyously rejoin Batman Returns!

*Formerly known as "Media Ventures"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Batman Theme and 19 Hefti Bat-Songs: Holy Retro-Kitsch, Batman!

Okay, let's get this straight right from the start: This "Batman" album may be the single goofiest, cheesiest album I own of any kind of music at all. Most of it isn't really music that was ever used on the Batman TV show of the 1960s, but Neal Hefti did indeed compose the indelible "na-na-na-na-na" theme and thus must have felt entitled to release a whole album of nutty '60s jazz-pop riffing on its popularity. Batman Theme and 19 Hefti Bat Songs was the result. I picked it up back when I was working for the Bloomington Playwrights Project ten years ago when I needed some silly "superhero" music for a show, and this fit the bill perfectly.

Space age bachelor pad music

Someone on the Amazon page for this album describes the genre of music to which most of this album belongs as "Space Age bachelor pad music," and I'm not sure I can come up with a better term for it. The mainstream jazz-pop of the '60s has largely faded from pop culture memory, thrown over for rock 'n' roll - and for good reason as far as I can tell. While a lot of people seem to have a soft spot for the likes of Bert Kaempfert or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, I just can't take that stuff seriously. 

While that genre must have been just groovy circa 1966 for some swingin' dude in a mustard-yellow turtleneck and plaid pants bopping to the hi-fi set, it just makes me flash back to KMart or JC Penney in the early '80s, hearing the remnants of that musical style dying slowly over their tinny PA speakers while Mom shopped. I think this genre of music must have been what the Big Band genre of the '30s and '40s eventually morphed into once it ran headlong into the rock era and ran out of creative gas.* It just got . . . silly.

"Hand me down the shark repellent Bat-spray!"

Of course, Batman never took itself seriously to begin with. I'm not sure how I missed it when I was a kid watching Batman reruns. I mentioned already that I took in a lot of these reruns in the Bat-mania of 1989 when I was 10 1/2 and wanted everything about Batman to be Very Serious, and besides, kids generally aren't equipped to grasp tongue-in-cheek humor. I found the action exciting, but I wanted the characters treated . . .well, more seriously, darn it! I'd get my wish soon enough with the movies and the great animated series of the '90s. Meanwhile, I got the camp version.

Even the Batman of the comics was a pale, cartoony version of the original character in the 1960s, in the Comics Code era that followed the EC paranoia of the '50s. That Batman most strongly resembled the incarnation seen on TV in the '70s in Superfriends, smiling and completely non-threatening. Meanwhile, the character achieved a rebirth in the DC comics of the '70s that would lead to the more serious tone of the films that started with Tim Burton. But for a generation, Batman was associated with a slightly out-of-shape guy in an ill-fitting leotard and on-screen sound effects (POW! BLAM!) for fight scenes. It's no wonder, in the interim, why Richard Donner had so much trouble getting the big-screen Superman funded and taken seriously, and why the series took a left turn into absurdity so quickly thereafter.

Now, of course, I can watch the Batman series or the movie from 1966 - the series' pilot episode - and appreciate Adam West masterfully deadpanning his way through lines like "some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!" . . . or Cesar Romero's Joker, with white pancake makeup over his trademark Latin 'stache . . . or the fact that our intrepid hero just happens to carry shark repellent spray in his Bat-copter. It's wonderful stuff that I enjoy in much the same way I love the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons - ever so slightly subversive, campy, and well over the line into self-parody.

"Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed!"

It's in that vein that you have to appreciate Hefti's Bat-music, including the dance break on the Hammond organ during the main theme presentation, or the "Batusi (Track 7)," which wouldn't sound all that out of place in a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movie from the '60s. Indeed, that '60s surf guitar sound does infect some of the generally jazzy-poppy sound of this album in ways that sometimes threaten to give it a cool edge. Tracks like "The Mafista (Track 4)" and "Mr. Freeze (Track 10)," for example, do have a bit of a sinister aspect -- the former actually approaches a John Barry-like quality that you could almost imagine showing up in one of the later Sean Connery Bond flicks.

Mostly, though, the album swings between things like the retro-exotica-style "King Tut's Tomb (Track 17)" and purely dreadful third-rate Mancini imitations like "Gotham City Municipal Swing Band (Track 13)." It's kitsch, and manages to be pretty fun as such.

Anyway, there's not much more to say about this album, except that I'm glad in a way that I kept it in the collection, if only as a reminder not to take everything so seriously. That will be nice when we move to the next entry and the crushing disappointment of Hans Zimmer's Batman Begins . . .

*In fact, according to Wikipedia, Neal Hefti actually did play with one of the most innovative and entertaining bands of the swing era, Woody Herman's Thundering Herd.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Batman: Freaks, Geeks, and Capes

Anyone who was alive in the summer of 1989 will vividly remember the ubiquity of Bat-paraphernalia in America. The full-court press of marketing surrounding Tim Burton's Batman was unprecedented, or at least it felt like it. Certainly, nothing that momentous for merchandising tie-ins had come along since the Star Wars saga wound down early in the decade, and I'm not sure anything topped it until the return of the Star Wars saga ten years later. It was perfect timing to whip a ten-year-old boy into a Bat-manic frenzy -- especially one who was beginning to think he could become a comic book artist, which I did at the time. I drew lots of pictures of Batman that year, and absorbed everything I could about the movie -- and of course, I got the t-shirt. I even soaked up a bunch of reruns of the '60s Batman TV show, which I was only beginning to realize wasn't entirely serious. More on that in our next entry.

The one thing I didn't do right away was actually see the movie -- my mom was worried because it was rumored to be quite violent. She relented later and let us rent it on VHS -- at least I think that's what happened. Oddly enough, she let me read the novelization of the movie, which contains descriptions of the movie's violence that are quite a bit more vivid than what appeared on screen, especially for a kid with a wildly overactive imagination.

Feeding that imagination was the hovering presence of Danny Elfman's churning, bombastic Batman theme, which was also everywhere that summer, thanks to all the TV commercials for the movie and all of its commercial tie-ins. I even remember a Taco Bell commercial featuring Batman in all of his Elfman-accompanied glory.

"Who are you?" "I'm Batman."

I was already a fan of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman at the time of Batman, though I didn't know it yet. I absolutely loved Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, the breakthrough film for both of them, so I was already primed for the style of Batman even though I hadn't put together the connection to the director and composer. It's a mark of the particular genius of both men that their wacky, carnival-like style could adapt itself successfully to the gothic noir universe of the Batman.

Burton and the writers of the 1989 Batman were the first screen adapters of the Caped Crusader to ask the question, "what kind of freak would actually dress up in a bat suit and beat up criminals by night?" Burton's films are always about outsiders, loners, and freaks anyway, and Burton's Batman/Bruce Wayne is unquestionably a freak, as played with crazy-eyed intensity by the improbable Michael Keaton. And of course, the film belongs just as much, if not more, to Jack Nicholson's Joker, a freak directly created by Batman's meddling and unhinged in a completely different direction.

As much as Burton and the actors contribute, it is Elfman who answers the question musically about what kinds of freaks engage in large-scale costumed crime and crimefighting. His musical treatment of both Batman and the Joker reveals their underlying psychological problems while providing a thrilling backdrop to their duels.

"You want to get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!"

The main Batman theme is more than just a rousing heroic statement; it's the story of a man who takes himself and his quest much too seriously. The rising minor key four-note phrase, most often stated by strident brass, tenaciously clings to a serious, brooding identity, before resolving itself with two descending notes into the fanfare of a hero, at least as he perceives himself. Elfman uses variations of the main theme and another sentimental theme for Bruce Wayne to maintain a tone of mystery throughout the film, as Vicki Vale and the whole city of Gotham strive to understand what Batman represents. Early statements of the Batman theme are grand but unresolved, accompanied by frenetic rhythms and grinding low strings, as in the first two action cues, "Roof Fight (Track 2)" and "First Confrontation (Track 3)." As the film progresses, the theme takes on a more openly heroic tone, as in "Batman to the Rescue," marking the first time Batman rescues Vicki Vale from certain death, or a fate worse.

The dark, brooding identity of Batman and the heroic identity evolve in parallel throughout the film, with the heroic themes coming more and more to the fore, even as the mysterious dark side manifests itself in full glory, perhaps never more so than in "Descent into Mystery (Track 10)." In this moment (accompanying the Batmobile's high-speed return to the Batcave, which I've always felt looks a bit like Tim Burton's version of a car commercial), Carmina Burana-inspired choral chanting gives rise to a harrowing brass choir statement of the main Batman theme, peering into the dangerous identity of Batman with a subtext that's buried deep in our musical heritage.

"Did you ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?"

If I were a music scholar, I could launch into a discussion of Elfman's use of whole-tone scales and the dark, scary interval known as Diabolus in Musica, i.e., "the Devil in music." But I'm not a music scholar, so I'll simply talk about how Elfman evokes liturgical music in cues like "Descent into Mystery," particularly the portions of a Requiem mass describing the horrors of Hell and Judgment Day, to emphasize the subtext of Batman as a demonic character. The nocturnal figure of Batman borrows imagery that the West has always associated with evil: bats are of course reminiscent of vampires, whose lifestyle Batman emulates, and Burton connects Batman consciously with gargoyles, both by literal juxtaposition in the final scene and through the sculpted style of his black costume.

Elfman continues to evoke religious associations, rather more obviously in the final cues of the film, which literally take place in a cathedral. He foreshadows Batman's fate at the cathedral in "Attack of the Batwing (Track 16)" with chiming bells to accompany the outlandish airplane's flight, and brings a massive pipe organ into the mix in "Up the Cathedral (Track 17)," which adds tremendous spiritual weight as the film builds to its climax -- a great dramatic contribution to a scene that's basically about trudging slowly up stairs. The threatening nature of much of this music taps into our well-programmed musical unconscious, and underscores the uncertainty of Batman's motives and modus operandi. Is he a hero or just a well-equipped psychopath on a suicidal revenge mission? Even Bruce Wayne doesn't really seem to know.

It's worth noting that Batman finally finds both revenge and redemption atop the church tower. His malevolent dark side is quelled by the death of the Joker, and the heroic theme emerges triumphant by the end of the film, when Gotham has acknowledged him as an ally. "Finale (Track 20)" leads the camera up a dizzying skyscraper, where it finds Batman, still a gargoyle-like figure, but for now, in a benevolent rather than a morally troubling posture. That's the beauty of Elfman's Batman theme: it's simultaneously grand enough to present a heroic image, and complex enough to express the fundamental tension of Batman's identity.

"You can call me Joker. And as you can see, I'm a lot happier."

Meanwhile, of course, we have Jack Nicholson chewing the scenery with ruby red lips and a latex rictus of a grin. Nicholson's Joker isn't so much a psychopath as a megalomaniacal narcissist. He's the kind of individual who's figured out that he doesn't have to play by society's rules, and he can get a lot of attention by dodging them, so he flouts them as flamboyantly and violently as possible. Basically, he's Lady Gaga with an adolescent sense of humor and a murderous streak.

The Joker encompasses a wide variety of musical styles - he accompanies himself with music within the film fairly often - but the one that Elfman seems to associate most closely with the character - or at least most ostentatiously - is a demented little waltz tune, befitting his clownish appearance, and offsetting his homicidal mania with a disturbingly gleeful twist.

The first time I heard the Joker's music in the movie, as he playfully blows away Jack Palance's absurd Boss Grissom (in "Kitchen/Surgery/Face-Off," Track 4), I thought it was all wrong. Being an adolescent at the time, I thought the film should have a more uniformly "dark" tone. I didn't quite grasp the satirical edge of Burton's style yet, and circus music suddenly blaring forth from the screen was a curve ball I wasn't ready to handle. Now, of course, I'm more than capable of embracing complexity, so I love the choice. (This is also why I despise the Hans Zimmer scores for the new Batman films, precisely because they do cling to an adolescent, unsophisticated notion of "darkness" from beginning to end. More on that later.)

Of course, that's the point. Between the insane waltz and the appropriation of "Beautiful Dreamer" as a faux-love theme for the Joker's infatuation with Vicki Vale, Elfman reveals a man with delusions of grandeur, reshaping his own life like a circus ringmaster calling everybody's attention to his bizarre antics. His imagination has fled to a childish, cartoonish world, in which everything is done with a flourish -- as in the grand full orchestra salute at the end of "The Joker's Poem (Track 12)."

By the end of the film, just as Batman's theme has evolved musically into an evocation of moral conflict and heroism, the Joker's grandstanding personality has developed into a full-blown Viennese waltz. Over the years I've grown to love "Waltz to the Death (Track 18)" almost above any other portion of the Batman score, because of its tight structure, its element of genteel formalism in a scene of brutal violence, and its perfectly deranged tone - just dissonant enough to let you know that there's something very wrong with this otherwise lighthearted ditty, and flexible enough thematically to accommodate Batman's strident theme as the freaks battle it out atop the church. It's one of those rare perfect cues - of which there are more than a few on this album.

"I just . . . like the sound of it."

I could type for hours about this -- well, actually, I already have. People have written books about this score alone. It's acknowledged as a modern classic for a reason. Elfman's score elevates, deepens, and expands Burton's film into a grotesque masterpiece. While it was a high-budget film, Batman was limited by the technology of its time. Elfman knew precisely where all the work on miniatures and soundstages was going in the film, though, and painted on a much grander canvas to lend the whole enterprise a feeling of operatic weight and drama. The achievement hasn't quite been equaled since, with the possible exception of Batman Returns. But we'll return to that later. Up next, I'm moving on to the next Bat-entry in the alphabet . . .a distinctly different take on the character from that silly period in his past.