Composer: Danny Elfman
Label: La La Land
Suggested Retail Price: $29.98
There’s something about clowns and circus evil that brings out Danny Elfman’s best, giddy darkness. Combine that with the first non-superhero to most popularly embody all that is good and brooding, and you’ve got a landmark score that wiped away the smirks of Elfman’s detractors, establishing this art rocker as a symphonic composer of the first order. Since he roared out of that Batcave in 1989, Danny Elfman’s powerhouse work has arguably stood as the most influential “comic book” score of the past two decades. And for just about as long we’ve had a pretty good distillation of his BATMAN soundtrack to dance in the pale moonlight with. So what better place this week to finally roar in with a complete, two-CD set of Elfman’s masterwork than the San Diego Comicon- the superhero geek event that prides itself on unveilings. And it’ll be La La Land Records’ booth #429, that will be the next best thing to getting into the Batcave for those film score fans lucky enough to attend an event only slightly less insane than The Joker.
Back in 1989, few would have thought that the leading member of Oingo Boingo could have attacked a score of BATMAN’s magnitude. After all, Elfman was more pop jester than John Williams, at first winning acclaim for the bouncy, calliope rhythms of such hits as “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science.” But it was exactly that sense of near-demonic, child-like fun that director Tim Burton was looking for when he hired Elfman in 1985 for their respective Hollywood feature debuts on PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. Elfman’s delightful, tinkertoy sound matured to new orchestral dimensions on their next teaming on 1988’s BEETLEJUICE. When Burton announced that film’s star as his Dark Knight for his biggest picture yet, Elfman could have considered himself lucky enough to have his attachment to BATMAN fly under the radar with all of the fan outrage that accompanied the unlikely casting of Michael Keaton. Hollywood naysayers drew their venom for what seemed like a colossal mistake in handing these enfant terribles the key to the big budget kingdom. But armed with the muscular orchestrating talents of an ersatz Robin in Shirley Walker, Elfman was going to prove his critics dead wrong.
There are few movie music moments when you know a big gun has entered the room- the sweeping orchestral strains of Williams’ SUPERMAN among them. Now a “new” hero was arriving with an attitude for a far more jaded generation of fans. And when those menacing strings rose with glistening percussion, before bursting into a galloping, instantly memorable theme, you knew this was one of those holy shit musical moments- the sound of major talent arriving on the scene like a bat out of hell. Better yet, for all of the snark this upstart composing punk took for his rock origins, Danny Elfman was a guy who actually knew his classical symphonic antecedents. And Burton was just the kind of director who was going to place that music front and center.
In just about every respect, the first BATMAN reboot was all about giving the finger to the camp excesses of the TV show that had made comic books, and their adaptations, synonymous with goofy kids’ stuff. But where most superhero films and scores now equate that with being bleaker than bleak, what distinguished BATMAN’s brand of Frank Miller / Bob Kane-inspired darkness was that it wasn’t afraid to have fun- just not the stupid kind. And for all of its brooding symphonic grandeur, Elfman’s music was well aware of its two-color origins- the fact that he wasn’t making a Freudian statement with all of this.
Instead, the key word here was Wagner- a composer who knew one thing or two about the concept of the leitmotif. One could even say that his Ring operas were the first movie scores, driving the hero on his quest with tightly constructed melodies that delineated characters and their emotions beyond a doubt. Yet Elfman used that Wagnerian technique with a big, twisted grin, its straight melodic line often spinning into action riffs more fitting for what Carl Stalling would’ve done on a Warner Brothers’ Merry Melody. For Elfman’s funkily costumed Siegfried was a romantically forlorn social misfit, charging into battle with off-kilter militarism. And when it came to his cackling foe, the Joker was musically cast as the ultimate evil clown. His sound was half movie score, half Boingo as Elfman embodied his dastardly acts through a warped lullaby, calliope rhythms, a wee-ooo Theremin, swooning waltzes and an inspired bastardization of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” Yet in the end, the opera was the thing about BATMAN’s score, the score never failing to nearly scream “Pow!” with booming church organs, a Latin-inspired chorus for the batmobile, and themes always charging into the fray like an avenging dark angel.
The success of BATMAN forever established a playfully twisted, grand guignol vibe to Elfman’s work in the superhero genre, one that would get even more carnival crazy for BATMAN RETURNS. It’s a trademarked sound that’s appeared in stylistic permutations for every time Elfman has been pulled into the comic book world for the likes of DICK TRACY, DARKMAN, SPIDER-MAN and WANTED, not to mention what will undoubtedly be an off-kilter score for THE GREEN HORNET next year. But BATMAN would always remain the trendsetter. And while the original album (remastered on the second CD) did an exceptional job of editing Elfman’s 75 minutes of score into two sides of an LP, hearing it all here (with outtakes to boot) is even more of a revelation. But it’s the Joker’s music that seems to get the last laugh within the previously unheard and extended material, particularly in his creepily satiric percussion, not to mention the music of his lethal cosmetic commercial. But if there’s a real prize to be had for fans in this archival BATMAN, then it’s in the uncut action sequences, especially for the Joker’s climactic balloon parade, as the heroic strains of the Batwing swoops in between the villain’s skull n’ bones shenanigans, as typified with gas-spewing balloons that sound like xylophones having a head-on collision with an orchestral choo-choo train.
In an age when the mature, musical sophistication of Elfman’s BATMAN has evolved into something that’s positively grim (if barely melodic on purpose at that), there’s something elating in listening to the composer’s superhero score-cum-fractured fairy tale in all of its knowingly imposing, neo-Germanic glory. The maestro probably wouldn’t have approved of how Elfman drew on his style to become Hollywood’s most successful musical Joker. But that’s the career-making joy of BATMAN, a great subversive superhero score if there ever was one.
Dance with the Dark Knight in the pale moonlight at this week’s Comicon first, then get it afterwards at LaLaLandRecords.com. Also be sure to check out La La’s Comicon exclusives for James Horner’s KRULL and John Debney’s PREDATORS at booth #429. Learn more about the label’s Comicon guests and signings at http://twitter.com/LaLaLandRecords
Composer: Danny Elfman