“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
Tim Burton’s Batman announced many things: the beginning of our modern obsession with superheroes at the multiplex (becoming the year’s number one movie, taking in $411 million, will have that effect); a gloomier take on the iconic comic book character after the campy Adam West years; and the debut of Danny Elfman as a serious, fully-formed film composer. Elfman, a mischievous rock ’n roller with his highlife band Oingo Boingo, crashed into Hollywood in 1985 with his score for Burton’s debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure—having never scored a film before, and completely self-taught as a composer for orchestra. That score, full of homages to his hero Nino Rota, threw the doors open, but only to the realm of wacky comedies. Not only was he typecast, Elfman also faced instant suspicion from the film composing community about whether he, in fact, wrote his own music.
No one expected much from Batman when it was announced. Here was the oddball director of Beetlejuice making an expensive blockbuster about a character famously unserious in previous incarnations, in a genre that had rarely been successful—starring the diminutive comic actor from Mr. Mom. But then it came out in the summer of 1989 like the Batmobile bursting out of a cave on the Wayne estate, and silenced all naysayers with its new mold of superhero, its outrageously grotesque art direction by Anton Furst and Peter Young (which won an Oscar), a career-highlight performance by Jack Nicholson as the maniacally giddy Joker, and a brooding, gothic action score by Danny Elfman that cemented Batman’s musical identity and set the template for the masks-and-tights genre for decades to come.
Elfman got the inspiration for Batman’s indelible theme while walking around the palatial Gotham set in London. Flying home to Los Angeles, the tune came to him when he was “half asleep and groggy and on sleeping pills,” as he recounted to Australia’s Sunday Morning Herald in 2010. “To write something down I have to have some kind of instrument—I can't just draw lines on a napkin, because I am an untrained composer. So I have a tape recorder everywhere I go and, in that particular instance, I ran into the bathroom about thirty times because I kept having a new idea—the next part of the harmony or the melody. . . . Every time I would walk out of the bathroom, all the flight attendants would be standing there looking at me saying, ‘Can we help you sir?’ They were eyeballing me the whole time wondering what I was up to. I am sure they must have figured I was a junkie.”
The only addictive substance was that theme: a minor key melody that slinks out of the shadows and then catapults into action with an artillery of percussion and trumpets barking at its heels. In the Wagnerian leitmotif tradition, the theme always heralds Batman’s arrival or furls behind him like a cape. In the opening titles it twinkles with mystery, swirling and pounding like an approaching storm before the big thunderclap as the word “BATMAN” fills the screen. Elsewhere it achieves an operatic and almost religious quality with the use of church organ; most often charges it into a martial fanfare for scenes of battle and pursuit. In and around the development of the theme, Elfman scored the many action scenes with ricocheting low piano figures, snarling muted brass, and—retaining his trademark quirkiness—xylophones.
The love theme for Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is based on the rising intervals that begin the Batman theme, but resolves into chords more tender and optimistic. Introduced by piano on a romantic bed of strings as they lie in bed together, the theme resurfaces when Alfred leads her into the Batcave and she confesses her love for Bruce, and finally reprises when the two lovers swing in the air after battling the Joker. But this film isn’t, at heart, a romance—as evidenced by the choral mystery and terror that accompany Vicki as Batman takes her on a wild, dangerous ride back to his cave.
Elfman didn’t give the Joker a theme, but rather scored his demented antics with jarring, schizophrenic music: the circus oompah that plays when he puts an unnecessary number of holes in the crime boss Grissom, or the sparkling lullaby that accompanies his scenes of plotting. (The Joker’s malicious glee was given additional punch by several songs written for the film by Prince.) For the climactic showdown in the church belfry, Elfman channeled the villain’s sickness with a romantic waltz that plays while he dances with a captive Vicki and Batman fends off his acrobatic goons. The final shot of the dastardly character with the freakishly frozen grin, now a pancake on the streets of Gotham with laughter still emitting from his person, receives a final music box statement of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” Touché.
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.