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"

No comments:

Post a Comment