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Monday, June 8, 2015

Soundtrack Review: It's Wayne's World

Lincoln Center screens Tim Burton and Danny Elfman's Batman.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Batman (Michael Keaton, l) confronts the Joker (Jack Nicholson, right) atop
Gotham City Cathedral at the climax of Batman. 
Image for promotional purposes only © 1989 Warner Bros.
In 1989, the Hollywood superhero film was born with Tim Burton's Batman, a dark, Gothic and deadly serious adaptation of the classic DC hero. And with it came the score by Danny Elfman, the self-trained composer and former frontman of the Los Angeles art-collective-turned-new-wave band Oingo Boingo. Mr. Elfman is the subject of a six-concert retrospective at this summer's Lincoln Center Festival, focusing on his many collaborations on Mr. Burton's films.

On Saturday night, a small audience was treated to a free screening of Batman in the David Rubinstein Atrium. As the Warner Brothers logo came up, and the first thematic statement rolled out of the low winds, tuba and double basses, a thrill of excitement seemed to breathe from the ceiling-mounted speakers. This was the second Elfman/Burton soundtrack screening this week, following Thursday night's showing of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in the same space.

The camera panned through mysterious, oppressive peaks and valleys, with the trombones roaring out the ten-note "Batman" motif against chattering snare drums. The music shifted into High Romantic with violas and cellos before returning to the determined, Shostakovich-like march and ending with harsh, bitonal chords and the clang of a percussion anvil. As these notes faded, the Batman symbol yielded to the matte-painted hellscape of Gotham City, a modern metropolis where the people lived in fear and the sun never seemed to come out

Mr. Elfman's soundtrack narrates this oppressive world in its early pages, with skittering, nervous violins (some of them played above the bow to unsettling effect) col legno cellos and interjections from timpani, cymbals and growling, heavy brass. Batman's first appearance ("Rooftop Fight") sets the modus operandi for the score, introducing the mysterious hero. The next set of cues set up the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his ominous mansion out of an Edgar Allen Poe novel.

This soundtrack has the task of establishing a second musical world to contrast with the Batman's brooding: that of the Joker (Jack Nicholson.) That character first appears as mob operative and hitman Jack Napier, accompanied by plucked strings playing a nervous, energetic figure. At the end of the first act, Napier is injured by a bullet ricochet and plummets into a vat of chemicals, re-emerging as the white-faced, ruby-lipped green-haired Joker.

The Joker's theme (when it finally appears) is a madcap circus waltz, leering and gibbering from trumpets and cymbals. It's developed from the thrusting pizzicato rhythm that accompanied Napier before his transformation, but now that rhythm powers trumpets and violins in swooping glissandos, indicating the character's shattered mind and chilling new aesthetic mantra: to "make art until someone dies." Mr. Elfman also blends in the standard "Beautiful Dreamer" (usually with strings and celesta) to indicate the Joker's growing obsession with heroine Vicki Vale, and finds elbow room to accommodate the music of Prince.

It was either madness, inspiration or desperation to get out of a lengthy record deal that prompted Warner Brothers to have the Purple One create a second soundtrack for Batman, one that  sold a good deal many more units than Mr. Elfman's orchestral score. Six Prince songs appear in the film, most prominently as accompaniment for the Joker on his Act II and Act III killing sprees. In fact, it is the funky, lurching "Partyman" that supplies the soundtrack for the movie's best set piece, the Joker's gleeful paint-flinging vandalizing of the Flugelheim Museum. His goons even bring the boom box.

The film's climax contrasts its two composers, with the Joker leading a parade and flinging bills into the crowd to Prince's playful "Trust," all as prelude to exterminating the "little people" with Smilex gas, carried in giant balloons. Mr. Elfman's marching drums and horns accompany "Attack of the Batwing," as Batman's wonderful toys take central stage for a moment. The contrast between action music and party tunes recalls the work of Mahler and Shostakovich, the implacable minor key hero against the giddy caperings of a would-be mass murderer.

The final sequence, a long climb up the spire of Gotham City Cathedral (the production design by the late Anton Furst intimates that nothing has been worshipped in Gotham for a long time) shifts the weight of the soundtrack back to Mr. Elfman. Taut, plucked strings and nervous chitters in the winds recall Bernard Herrman's score of Vertigo, and the Straussian circus waltz accompanies the final obligatory fisticuffs between Batman and the Joker's goons. The very last bars, accompanying the unveiling of the BatSignal and a brighter future for Gotham abruptly shift the music into major key. Mr. Elfman wrenches out the ascending fifth of Also Sprach Zarathustra complete with trumpets and church bells. But it doesn't quite convince: this Gotham City will always be in darkness.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.