CD Review: The Dark Knight

Composers: Hans Zimmer / James Newton Howard
Label: Warner Sunset
Suggested Retail Price: $12.99 ($14.99 limited edition)
Grade: B

In an age when it seems that every cinematic superhero’s flight is the equivalent of a couch trip, then director Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman is a Superman-sized serving of psychosis where no one can wear a cape with pride. With utter professionalism, Nolan paints every filmmaking department with a troubled scowl on its face- much like some manic-depressive joker who’s determined to suck the fun, though not the excitement from the room.

Sure darkness has always been part of The Batman’s intimidating power, though certainly not to the point of utter bleakness in the extraordinarily effective, if somewhat numbing DARK KNIGHT. And if no light can escape from its cowl of betrayal and screwed-up good intentions, then it’s only right that the music reflect Nolan’s unvarying tone of tragedy. Here it sounds as a gutshot of percussion, nerve-jangling tones and ominous heroics that more than do the job- even if you’re desperately hoping for just a little bit of sunshine to sing in the darkness that Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have in their second Batman outing together.

The sound of these two composing titans couldn’t have been more different. Zimmer had virtually created “alt” scoring with the African funk of his Oscar-winning RAIN MAN, and even his more “traditional” scores like THE LAST SAMURAI and GLADIATOR still sounded off his rock roots with their genetic synthesis of symphonics and high-tech samples. Though Howard has also accomplished this, he’s far the more Luddite of the pair, with scores like PRINCE OF TIDES and KING KONG showing off an old-fashioned love of orchestral melody. When Nolan put them together on BATMAN BEGINS, their sound became one- a surging engine of rhythm and “bat flap” effects, all driven by a vengeful theme for Batman and a lushly romantic one for his impossible love of d.a. Rachel Dawes.

All of these are back in spades for THE DARK KNIGHT, with some particularly effective additions, especially the high-pitched evil effect that plays the Joker’s madness. This is the soundtrack equivalent of a long, hard metallic drag of a bronzed violin string down a chalkboard- music concrete that becomes villainy at its foulest and most insane. Power guitar, strings, piano chords and god knows what all become the high-pitched squeal of fear before the Joker’s knife slash. It’s easily the most terrifying sound a soundtrack super villain’s ever had, without real shape or melody.

If beatdown rhythm emanates from Zimmer’s batcave, then it’s in the noble Americana of Harvey Dent where Howard probably lurks. With a trumpet that practically spells out his tragic fate to become Two Face, Dent’s music has the kind of beautifully melodic, old school score that I wish had gotten more of a workout on the soundtrack. But then again, it’s doubtful if Nolan would have allowed that kind of musical individuality in his utterly bleak universe.

As The Joker so astutely cackles, “It’s all part of the plan.” For the kind of musical stand-out moments that make this summer’s other superhero scores like HANCOCK, HELLBOY II, IRON MAN and WANTED more “fun” listens aren’t going to happen here. This DARK KNIGHT is an intense experience, sequenced so that one theme and motif flow into the other like a bleak, ominous river that percussion heads will delight in bathing in. Those used to Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal’s more eccentric takes on the character will have a more problematic dip.

That isn’t to say that Zimmer and Howard’s work here doesn’t achieve moments of pure geek-asm thrills, as Rachel and Harvey’s themes sing to the heavens with orchestral irony, or the Batman theme gets an amazing symphonic workouts in the Imax-viewing required action scenes. Eventually, every theme crosses paths in clever, and sometimes brilliant ways as the score building with dexterous, and inexorable momentum to the expected tragic payoff. All of this certainly makes this a more interesting, and cohesive listen than BATMAN BEGINS- and probably a better score at that.

At 73 minutes (with maybe even more music to come in the future), THE DARK KNIGHT soundtrack is more than generous helping of Hans and James’ wall of sound, one which fans will be nitpicking for years to come as to who did what. One can only hope that this super team will truly get to strut their stuff in a score with just a tad less angst. Heck, even the Joker would probably approve of letting them lose after a good scrubbing from this KNIGHT’s darkness.

Dance with THE DARK KNIGHT in the pale moonlight HERE

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