Thursday, December 20, 2012

Batman Forever: So that happened.

There's a hilarious moment in David Mamet's film State and Main, when Alec Baldwin crashes a car in which he's driving with an underage girl he's hoping to seduce. After the crash, he staggers out, approaches a pair of eyewitnesses, and deadpans, "So that happened."

That's approximately how I feel about watching the movie Batman Forever. Warner Brothers, apparently wondering how they'd managed to let anything as gleefully transgressive as Batman Returns into theatres, turned over the reins to the franchise to the flamboyant Joel Schumacher in the late '90s, and Batman became silly all over again. Robin comes into the picture, the production design gets slathered with tacky bright colors and neon lighting, Jim Carrey does his rubber-face schtick, and Val Kilmer rather glumly stumbles through the whole endeavor without much of a clue what he's doing. It's a wreck, though compared to its successor in the series, Batman and Robin, it's a bloody masterpiece. There's not much you can say after it's over besides . . . "So that happened."

Enter Elliot

Meanwhile, Elliot Goldenthal stepped in to replace Danny Elfman and gave the film's score probably more panache and creativity than the film really deserved. Goldenthal, throughout the score to Batman Forever, maintains much of Danny Elfman's Gothic and carnival-like sensibilities, and tosses in an extra dimension of slightly warped film noir to the mix, with frantically wailing trumpets, swinging rhythms, and sultry saxophones.

Of course, Goldenthal can't help tossing in some more of his avant-garde tendencies as well. He's an immensely intelligent and well-educated composer, and if there's one fault that many of his scores share, it's a tendency to be a bit too clever.

For instance, in the off-kilter mini-suite of themes called "Nygma Variations" (Track 6), Goldenthal crams in references not only to his predecessor's carnival style -- a near-perfect rendition of an Elfman-like passage at about the one-minute mark -- but also to some wacky dissonant jazz, and passages reminiscent of John Corigliano, Stravinsky (direct quotes of The Rite of Spring starting around 4:45), Philip Glass, and Bernard Herrmann. There's plenty of mixed-up instrumentation, too - everything from traditional instruments to a Hammond organ, synthesizers, and if I'm not very much mistaken, both a theremin and and Ondes Martenot. And that's all in the space of six minutes! He repeats this trick in "Mr. E's Dance Card" (Track 13), a wild dance which lurches between a louche bossa nova, an unhinged polka, a delicate waltz, and a tango. Other passages in the score seem to owe at least a spiritual debt to Jerry Goldsmith and the Gustavs Holst and Mahler.

A mesmerizing mess

As for Batman's primary musical identity, Goldenthal goes with something that's structurally and melodically similar, but far more complex, than Elfman's main theme. Whereas Elfman's Bat-motif has just six notes, Goldenthal's "Fledermausmarsch" seems to have at least twice as many, combined with a jauntier rhythm and a wide variety of flourishes from every part of the orchestra. As messy as Schumacher's film is, Goldenthal seems to have been let loose to indulge similarly messy impulses, letting his musical imagination run wild over a blacklight-washed canvas of campy, pseudo-Gothic comic book adventure.

Ultimately, the Batman Forever score seems thoroughly stuffed with musical ideas, perhaps more than any single film score can bear. Of course, when one is trying to compete with Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey chewing garish scenery for two hours, one might feel the need to throw as much at the screen as possible, just to get a note in edgewise. It's fun, in a disjointed and frenetic sort of way. That's about all I have to say about it - except that it's better by far, in terms of sheer musical quality, than anything Hans Zimmer turned in for the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise.

Speaking of my old pal Hans, I saw a trailer for the new Zack Snyder Superman movie Man of Steel last weekend. It looked far more impressive than I expected it to be, but then I saw the credit flash by: "Music by Hans Zimmer." My stomach sank. If the music for the trailer is any indication, he's not reaching too deeply into his bag of tricks, either. If Zimmer wasn't right to follow Danny Elfman's lead for the Batman character, he's not worthy to hold John Williams' baton for the Superman character. As a film composer, John Williams is like a sommelier, carefully matching a wine to the meal in ways that will enhance its flavor in a perfect balance, but will knock your socks off by itself, too. Zimmer, by comparison, merely shows up with a case of Bud Light every time. He's thoroughly incapable of coming up with anything as stirring and iconic (or as instantly recognizable) as Williams' Superman theme, and the film will be poorer for it, I think. I hope I'm wrong.

Anyway, enough about superheroes. We're going to space next time. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.

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