The Englishman's Batman Returns Feature

© Feature/review by The Englishman (1999)
Document formatting notes

In an attempt to formulate an extended review without resorting to track-by-track description or analysis (it's too easy!), I structure this review of one of Elfman's most prominent and career-forming scores under a selection of issues which, far from making the score more problematic than it is popularly deemed, may, by deconstruction, actually help elucidate the complexities both surrounding and imbuing the music itself.

Contents of page:

Other pages

Obligatory author's background

As co-reviewer to a by now regularly frequented web-site1, it is often too easy to exercise the power which electronic publishing bestows upon so many in the modern world, and so I wish to avoid any misinterpretation by explaining my own reaction to the film and (swiftly) my views on the composer: I admit that I enjoyed Burton's second film, and perhaps its more grotesque humour and wittier script make it a more repeatable experience. I find the characters more at home in their environment and I think far from losing out on the freshness of its predecessor, Batman Returns has a lot to add to the franchise. In light of the two succeeding films I am more convinced that a continued emphasis on plot and sombre mood in the sequal was a component of Burton's instinctive latching onto the merits of the first film.

My views on Elfman can be found by the casual surfer by reading other reviews2, as well as my biographical details elsewhere on this site, but for the reader committed to this review and not prepared to wade through the rest, I shall summarise. I am not a great admirer of many of Elfman's early scores, still less am I a fan of his pop past in the form of (Oingo) Boingo. Both are stylistic preferences, although I am sure most readers of this feature are convinced that his scoring technique in films has, if anything, improved rather than grown lax over the years. I am a confessed admirer of the later "scores with an edge" such as Dolores Claiborne, but am equally respondent to the darker side of Elfman's so-called "goofy" style in the shape of The Nightmare Before Christmas and even The Frighteners. This review will inevitably be coloured by my own leanings and I advise all to take my somewhat pompous language with the scepticism it deserves.


References on the web

I spend admittedly little time searching the web simply for reviews, particularly when (as with most fans of film music) I feel I can make my own mind up, thank you very much. But perhaps for the reader's convenience I can sum up a few of the themes which run through most of those reviews found in searching.

There appear to have been two large setbacks to the critical success of this score, the first being that it was written for a film which failed to live up to the expectations of the 12-year-old school boys who so enjoyed the first movie, and thus was rumoured to be Elfman's final collaboration with Burton—the end of a partnership which had shown so much potential. The second setback appears to be of the composer's own making: Elfman is quoted in at least two interviews3 as being far from pleased with the dubbing of his music onto the film. This point deserves attention to which I shall devote space later, but despite soundtrack reviews supposedly being concerned with the generous (70 minute) and crystal clear recording on CD, the negative atmosphere generated by composer and project appears to have spread into the web literature.4


The leitmotif

It is Elfman's adoption of the operatic leitmotif (a technique of identifying a short theme or motif with a character, object or mood which germinated from Berlioz and Wagner in the nineteenth century, and transferred to film music quite early in the twentieth through composers such as Korngold, himself an opera composer of some renown) to the point of complete dependency that unifies the score, and indeed the film. However, it goes further than this: themes and motifs transform to match situations; they create order and direction in action cues; they also combine as two respective characters engage in conversation, etc.; and perhaps most obvious is the effectiveness of the Batman motif in unifying the two Burton films in a way that avoids the lazy self-plagiarism (or imposed contractual obligations?) of Goldenthal's second outing in Batman and Robin.

Penguin

A germinatory Penguin motif (ex2) can be heard as the film cuts from the opening Batman badge to the Cobblepot mansion at Christmas. Not the most memorable of material, it is most ingeniously reinvented throughout the score: it NEVER appears in exactly the same form twice. Immediate metamorphosis of the motif occurs from this point: through dramatic full orchestration, then rhythmic augmentation, and finally (played by organ) a more contrapuntal harmonisation. Through the film Elfman alters its characteristics to suit the character's mood and the scene (decipher the following at your peril):

Here follows a collection of examples: accompaniment (track 3 00'22-37 with brass, then cheeky clarinet cadenza); weird arrangements and truncation (the flutter-tonguing flutes repeating the first bar of the motif in track 3 again, 00'43-49); transformation into a phrased theme (ex3 track 4, 00'00-18), to its further development (strings, track 4, 02'20-36). In track 7 ("Cemetery") there is a moment of fragmentation and imitation (00'32-45); later (01'22-50) rhythmic mutation into an alla breve triple time rhythm, answered by a pathetic oboe counter-melody; and at 01'50 there is a tragic rendition of the full theme. Elsewhere in track 7 we find the Penguin motif has by now permeated to a psychological compositional level: associations are made with low and dark orchestrations, plodding rhythms, and simplistic (childish?) material with the same limited melodic range. All these characteristics are employed extensively throughout track 10, and more subtly in track 11. In tracks 13, 15-18 Elfman fails to exhaust the potential of the musical thread: track 13 (03'12-04'12) mirrors the motion of the helicopter/umbrella without breaking up the atmosphere of the film; track 15 utilizes the celesta as a solo before plunging into the doom-laden background for the stealing of Gotham's first-born; track 16 creates a rousing military arrangement which builds to a climax topped by the entrance of the Batman theme (01'20)—seamless! The tension is released somewhat by touches of circus chaos, but this doesn't prevent a more war-like construction in track 17, before dropping back to an accompaniment for the end of the Penguin: tragic, somber, and pathetic in turn.

Catwoman

The music for Catwoman may not have quite the technical complexity bestowed upon the Penguin, but this is made up for in several ways: first Pfeiffer gets a motif (ex4) and two themes (ex5a track 6, 00'23-32; ex5b track 6, 00'41-43, the latter has some affinities with the Penguin's motif); second, she gets a singular sound-world, full of lush string lines and eerie glissandi (a heavy dose of onomatopoeia); third, the way in which the previous two aspects combine is astonishingly effective in generating mood and atmosphere: this is feline music—sexy, fatalistic, dangerous and fragile all at once. It can be hinted at ever so slightly (a single swooping of the motif, such as that heard in the song "Face to Face") or generate into an extensive suite following the course of Selina's "transformation" (tracks 5 and 6) or develop into a tragic and explosive character finale (end of track 17).

Batman

The main Batman motif (ex6) is obviously slower in this film. It recurs often, but in no way does it dominate the way it did in the first film. Very often it is reserved for hushed introductions to the character or to a grand scene (on CD it also appears introducing "Batman and the Circus" in track 9, but this is absent in the DVD cut of the film viewed5), but it is also a reminder of the pervasive sound-world of the two Batman movies. Elfman does create several interesting moments, however, in conjunction with other material. The Catwoman/Batman relationship, for example, such as the seductive rendition of the theme utilising strings and harp (track 12), and the shadowy reprise of the Catwoman motif juxtaposed with brooding Batman theme in track 19. A more pronounced example is the battle with circus music, reflecting the physical situations in tracks 9 and 14 (in the latter his motif is actually played in circus style!).

The Circus

Less obtrusive thematically, the circus "motif" is most evident in its instrumentation and carnival style. Although it follows the circus element through the film (see tracks 3, 9, 10, and 14), the effect is more one of backing than of a full psychological character in my view a good judgment on behalf of the composer, reflecting en masse threat rather than motivated emotional depth.

Further comments and conclusions on the matter

There are some exceptions to the leitmotif rule in Batman Returns, the chief of which is Max Shreck. A possibility is that Shreck's character and motivations are never as carefully explored as those of the other characters, and perhaps in response, Elfman never attempts to deal him into the musical game. I have one other suggestion, though, which may not occur to the casual listener: might Elfman be applying this method only to the fantasy-freakish aspects of Burton's world? For all that his name might conjure in the minds of Dracula-lovers everywhere, Shreck is in fact quite a normal guy, and not a psychological freak. In fact he has a healthy father-son relationship going, and manipulates his enemies in the most human manner possible (persuasion backed up by violence!!). When this point is digested, supporting evidence speaks for itself: Alfred has no discernible theme (a jovial clarinet accompanies him early in the film, but there is no further recurrence to support a characteristic affinity); the Catwoman motif and theme only appear after Selina has been pushed from Shreck's building—previously she has no musical accompaniment whatsoever—however, when she enters the board room where Wayne and Shreck are discussing the power plant, it is her motif which breaks the previous musical silence, suggesting that it is character and not fancy suits that dictates the foreground musical argument; additionally, in this film Bruce Wayne is almost never accompanied by his eponymous alter-ego's theme—perhaps this reflects the way in which his alter ego is repressed in normal life circumstances.

Even in the End Credits Elfman surprises in his reprising of the three main characters' material, this time arguably in their most complete and memorable form.


Operatic and symphonic: chasing the vocabulary of classical music

The introduction of more obvious classical techniques to film music is a part of the fusion of quality and diversity which the genre is capable of. In the realm of criticism and comment more drastic and potentially quite damaging ploys are infiltrating. I have personal distaste for the use of the words "operatic" and "symphonic" used out of context and without justification with reference to both the best and the not so good film scores of our time. It seems uncertain quite what is meant by such comments, as it is rare for any attempt to be made towards detailing beyond the supposedly congratulatory. (Still further, perhaps there is some ploy here of lifting a film composer or his score out of dirty commercialism and into art?) In context, I generally take "symphonic" to have some kind of emphasis on fine orchestrations and thoroughgoing thematicism, and "operatic" to mean anything from a constantly noticeable continuous score to an overindulgence in drama.6

I hope that in listening to Batman Returns some elements of both these thoughts might occur, particularly in the consistency and economy of thematic material, matched with a devotion to detail and flamboyancy that can only originate in a wild, cynical delight in the absurd. With a darkly humorous mood consistently laid on thick by the writer(s), director and a fine cast (the visual treats and anti-philosophical one-liners fly thick and fast), the door is open for a more temperamental and experimental score. Although the leitmotif "trick" is older than film, the delivery is as sharp and refined as it ever has been.


In answer to Elfman's despondency

Elfman made no secret of his disgust with "action films" when questioned over Batman Returns and his relationship with Burton (all appears to have changed since, with Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow, although the degree of "action" they contain in comparison with Batman Returns is an arguable point). He is reported to have said:

I don't want to write music that will compete with an opera (!!) of sound effects. Contemporary dubs to my ears are getting busier and more shrill every year. The dubbers actually think they are doing a great job for the music if a crescendo or horn blast occasionally pops through the wall of sound.7

A possible explanation for why he has intermittently returned to the loud blockbusters of the nineties (one that might attract him more than the prospect of further money and big-name directors) is his adoption of the MIDI soundworld, with its capacity for sampling sounds which might give the "action" score an edge over invading sound effects and poor dubbing. However, in Batman Returns the so-called standard orchestra with some novel extras (such as wordless chorus, celesta, xylophone and harp) holds sway, and yes, it might lack some of the punch which more recent scores have dealt.

I have a problem with this accusation, though. Perhaps because of my interest in the composer I may be mistaken, but I assure any readers who are not familiar with both films (there must be a deaf-blind hermit with a Braille-directed Internet-accessed computer out there somewhere who has an interest in film music) that the soundtrack on Batman is of distinctly inferior quality to that of its sequel. In fact Batman Returns has one of the most audible musical scores of any movie of its time. Its themes are both distinct and recognisable; it is heard above dialogue (miraculously, considering the second movie had a LOT of snappy lines and denser plot); and benefits from fewer sound-effects-driven action scenes. In my view Elfman's comments should have been directed towards his music's treatment in the first movie: the only reason it can be heard and so readily remembered there is because its sound is so strikingly original and so loud in the dense use of orchestral forces. Furthermore, the orchestration in Batman may have caused great interest and excitement among soundtrack fans (myself included) but in retrospect it is full of easily muddied textures, and clouded by loud and unsubtle vocal and effects soundtracks, which leave it a shadow of its glorious CD self. What lets Batman Returns down is its performance by an orchestra of contracted musicians - uncredited, and therefore highly unlikely to be a regular performing orchestra.8 This is incontrast to Batman's usage of The Sinfonia of London Orchestra: committed and virtuoso playing (and conducting, through the now recognised Shirley Walker) which somehow makes sense of the first movie's cacophony of sound.

In Batman Returns both Elfman and the mixers appear to have learned their lessons: in Elfman's case there is a new sense of transparency to the music which follows along the lines of the clearer textures of Beetlejuice. In addition, the image-to-music synchronisation could scarcely have been bettered, although a few moments such as the taking of Gotham's first-borns hint at the odd wrangle (the CD's excellent transition from Penguin to plot is marred in the film by clumsy editing).

In his Film Score Monthly interview Elfman claims:

An audience very seldom realizes when they're hearing a terrible score, any more than they realize when they're watching terrible editing. If they could magically see a scene edited much better, they would notice the difference, and likewise, if they could suddenly, magically see the same scene with a very effective score, they would find themselves unconsciously more involved.9

It really is such a pity we do not have a soundtrack-only option for the DVD format, given that the sound is so well difined. However, what we do have is a good CD release, which, I concluded, fails to confirm Elfman's views on the matter. The sound on both is brilliant, if sometimes lacking a little bass, and as for the film, the score appears to dominate the proceedings rather than be hidden by them: this is pure fantasy, and in fantasy the music is a primary source of escapism's anchor. Contrary to Elfman's statement, it appears that Burton after all knew what he was doing.

The verdict delivered

The Gramophone Film Music Guide (a publication for which Elfman wrote a forward10) describes the score for Batman Returns as "quintessentially 'Elfmanesque'", a remark which may now appear outdated, but for the time this score represented, if anything, a superficial stylistic step back from the thick "gothic" textured soundworld of Batman, towards Beetlejuice. First impressions are so rarely accurate for Elfman scores, and Batman Returns is by no means an exception: even for us today the essence of Christmas crossed with Halloween is an identifiable trait which resurges periodically in works such as Scrooged and A Nightmare Before Christmas, but this is no more than a patchy trademark, perhaps a "Burtonism". In fact the trade-off between experiment and self-convention11 is a reward in itself for this score. Elfman works well with clichés, turning them to his own mischievous ends: Batman is reformed, darker but less war-like, descending further into psychological and visual fantasy. The almost passé leitmotif method of Hollywood film music is brilliantly re-worked with a skill that sometimes makes Star Wars sound heavy-handed. This carefully constructed poly-thematicism (in opposition to an almost mono-thematic Batman) permeates the whole score, and such is the execution that both CD and film scream quality and inventiveness.

Surely this was a convincing, positively directed evolution from the former score. The fallout from the movie may be seen, in context, as influential in the composer's career (Elfman's range of genres, directors and styles took on a distinct experimentalism in succeeding years) but from an equally distanced viewpoint we may see this score for what it really is: perhaps not a masterpiece, but certainly a pivotal point in Elfman's compositional approach. No score since has ever been entirely what the Elfman fan has expected, and in my opinion both film score and CD deserve prominent status in his oeuvre.

For further comments on the first three Batman films, please also see Mr Perrine's feature
"Music for a Darkened Knight" at http://www.msu.edu/user/perrinet/elfman/dark_knight/index.html


1 The Elfman Zone ed. Tim Perrine (aka. Groovy Yak) http://www.msu.edu/user/perrinet/elfman/index.html

2 ibid. http://www.msu.edu/user/perrinet/elfman/filmography/index.html

3a) "Adventures in Weird Sound: An Interview with Danny Elfman" by Joyce J. Jorgenson. http://www.emu.com/elfman.html

b) "Sound Effects Suck" article by Lukas Kendall for Film Score Monthly #64, December 1995

4 e.g. "Batman Returns" review in http://www.filmtracks.com "...Elfman delivers a dud..."

5 The DVD used in this feature is classified Region 2, totalling approximately 121 minutes according to the cover, and classified a 15 certificate by the BBFC. Click here for a full run-down of track-by-track music on DVD and CD.

6 NB. "symphony/film", see British Symphonists (eg. Bax, M. Arnold, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Alwyn) and Bernard Herrmann, etc.; "opera/film", see Britten, Korngold, etc.; "Operatic", perhaps see "indulgent", "opulent", "highly romantic"...

7 Film Score Monthly #64 December 1995

8 Batman Returns' end credits read: "Music Produced by Danny Elfman, Steve Bartek; Orchestrator Steve Barkek; Conductor Jonathon Sheffer; Music Recording Engineer Shawn Murphy; Additional Orchestrations Mark McKenzie; 'Face to Face' Words and Music by Danny Elfman and Siouxsie & The Banshees"

9 Film Score Monthly #64 December 1995

10 Gramophone Film Music Good CD Guide ed. Mark Walker (3rd Edition - Harrow, Middlesex: Gramophone Publications Ltd., 1998)

11 Elfman rarely comes close enough to self-plagiarism to be criticised at length.


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