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.

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