by Marc Kandel
Sonic Death BatMonkey Strikes Again!
Oftentimes it is impossible for music in a film sequel to improve on the original work. The audience is usually treated to a pleasing, competent re-use of the main themes (Superman II, any of the Harry Potter sequels), at worst another composer takes over and their attempt to be original ends up tossing off something that rates somewhere in the vicinity of Cinemax soft-core accompaniment (a la the cacophonous sac slappings of Eliot Goldenthal in Batman Forever, …& Robin), or manages not to leave the slightest impression at all, merely serving as some nondescript orchestral background (the sad departure from Michael Kamen’s original X-men score to the undistinguished X2, X3 scores, Elfman’s own rather routine and forgettable Spider-Man scores).
Some rare times, however, we delighted to hear completely original work by the composer of the first film, who takes us further along the journey by not only finding new and inventive ways to use their prior compositions, but provides us with fresh, unique suites perfectly tailored for the next chapter (Phantom Menace, Star Trek V- hey, I’m talking about the soundtracks, not the films, I’ll also add Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). “Batman Returns” is such a score. Though pound for pound I find the original Batman soundtrack the better listen, it is only so by the narrowest of margins. In truth, “Returns” is the stronger overall soundtrack, giving detailed voice and life to every moment and character, not content to simply stay on the sidelines as atmosphere and background.
The “Batman Returns” score might as well be called “Elfman Unleashed” because the trademark instrumentals, the signature styles so closely associated with Danny Elfman, the fast, trickling strings, seemingly inappropriate bongos that always end up working anyway, the ever present twisted holiday chorus, and that gleefully mischievous tempo he is so fond of, and his penchant for stirring, tragic notes, all are given carte blanche. This is an interesting parallel to the vision of Tim Burton, who has turned Batman Returns into his personal playground to explore those issues so close to his heart: alienation, nonconformity, the freak as hero, the freak driven to evil by society, satire of societal norms, and the underbelly of traditional family behavior and custom. Danny Elfman has always been the best of partners for these explorations because he has the singular ability to give voice to Burton’s passions beyond the written script. Elfman’s contribution comes out ahead in this particular endeavor, as Burton’s thematic affinities and empathy for his characters are indulged at the expense of coherent plot and cohesive story, though some sterling performances bring up the bar and help avert total disaster. But make no mistake, the real hero of this movie is Danny Elfman, and his soundtrack is nothing short of astonishing in its depth and originality.
The score is far more complex than the original soundtrack, if not equally memorable. Three distinct Fanfares control of the action, rather than variations of the single Bat Fanfare for each and every set piece and momentous introduction. This causes something of a “bleed” from one track to another, as much of the score follows the animal trifecta, overlapping each fanfare- much like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf stylings, or even the distinctive animal march of Camille Saint-Saens’ Le Carnaval des animaux (those unfamiliar with this composer can hear portions of this work in Disney’s Fantasia). The more action-oriented tracks do leave a considerable impression, but save for an early fight track, a brisk piece where the Batmobile is out of control, and a later dazzling climactic track they are far more understated.
Each track yields lustrous gold if one cares to mine the rich layers of sound. A degree of patience is needed here and there, and the creativity and originality of the Penguin Fanfare outshines the Cat Fanfare as we have heard the high, sliding strings denoting yowling, mewling cats before when dealing with felines in various film, radio and television offerings (for me the music of Tom and Jerry quickly springs to mind). This choice does not make Selina Kyle’s musical cues any less tragic or gripping, it’s simply more familiar. But the depth is there and it can hardly be labeled generic; Elfman is far too skillful to allow mediocrity into this work. The highlights of these scores are much more subtle, yet stirring and effective, despite falling short of the sustained auditory beatdown of the original score, deliberately lacking the energetic thrust. This score paces itself in order to explore three characters’ personal pain, grief, self-knowledge and drives, while providing fun, plentiful doses of mischief and justice.
The overall music is a frosted cavern of dreamy harps, reverberating base drums, that omnipresent chorus of high, sad, ghostly voices bringing out gentle notes of pain and not a little self-awareness of their subversive, wicked effect on the placid, quiet holiday notes and stylings. I think it is safe to say both Burton and Elfman watched those Charlie Brown holiday specials just like me, and just like me, found that music to be shockingly lonely, strangely chilling, and inexplicably depressing. Elfman recaptures those effects here again and again in his inimitable style, playing up the holiday angle perfectly. Its Edward Scissorhands with more malice and an opera cape thrown in, and let’s be honest, there’s more than a dollop of Scrooged to be found here as well.
Birth of a Penguin begins with a tantalizing, slowed low horn rendition of the five note Bat Fanfare sounded off with a thick organ or electric piano allowing the notes to slog and reverberate into the winter season as the theatre grows dark and the snow begins to fall onscreen. Then the chorus begins, a mournful tune, the first strains of what we will come to know as the Penguin Fanfare- a classy, grand, yet basic four note riff that brings a keen sense of majesty and power hiding deep, heartrending hurt and resentment blended with sinister intellectual evil laced with the opulence and panache associated with the character. The fanfare is worked with chorus, organ, and later on and most delightfully, a tantalizingly sinful low plucked base or perhaps harp. This tune settles into alternatively echoed strings and organ during a silhouetted birth sequence, which breaks into light holiday bells and then a funereal flourish as we meet the Cobblepots, bled and broken shells of humanity over-bred to the point that their offspring is a horror. The tune picks up with low base violin and holiday bells as we see their caged child at what can only be described “at play” (it devours the family cat- a bit of foreshadowing), and then the music goes back to the low organ, a sinister message that this thing cannot continue to reside in the warmth of hearth and home.
A sprite, jingling holiday chant which deliciously straddles the line between seasonal joy and clenched mania follows the Cobblepots across a snow covered park, the music slowly turning ponderous and ominous with orchestral flourishes providing the turning points, and then the tune magically transforms into a stiff, resigned funeral march as the Cobblepots arrive at their destination and go about their dreadful business, consigning their malformed child to the black icy waterways of Gotham, a twisted revision of the Moses story, with a quick musical chirp as the bassinet hits the water, which goes back into quiet bells trickling a music box tune as the cradle is carried into the dark, picking up with tragic strings, and finally, finally, the simple, momentous low, single string reprise of the Penguin Fanfare as the infant’s fate is sealed, set forth on the path to villainy.
What a sublime composition to start things off. And barely do these notes wash over us, than Elfman reshuffles the deck and blends these riffs into a completely reworked version of the Bat Fanfare. It builds and builds with high flutes reaching out amid plucked strings, punctuated by brief chorus, and then and then soft violins and horn, with low cellos delicately hinting that tune we all know and love with flourished horns, and then a sonorous, dangerous base drum begins a bellowing cadence as the build increases, and then all come together, voice, wind, thunder, string and a string-led Bat Fanfare echoes off the sewer walls, the reassuring notes played in a different key much more subdued yet confident.
The violins and cellos are brisk, the horns muffled, but the tune still rings out true; we have traveled these streets before, but this is a different season, a different story and somehow the Bat Fanfare gives this sensation to us, at once familiar yet with hints of intrigue and fresh discovery, further testament to Elfman’s agile versatility with this, his magnum opus of character music. The melody heads in a new direction as where once we had the Vicki Vale love theme, or Scandalous reprise, we shift into rippling bongos and sliding high notes introducing us to the new romantic interest (and villainess) as we hear the first faint strains of Cat Fanfare in sliding violas and pattering bongos gradually trailing off into that rich, low harp of Penguin Fanfare, as the cradle comes to rest on cold, grey shores, and with the peal of a gong, a monster’s life begins.
To the Present trickles down with harp, ushering us into Gotham’s literal underworld, Elfman’s low, rushing double Base and quick strings hurrying us along the twisting cylindrical corridors as we follow the character of Max Schreck stumbling in the dark to meet his eventual ally, pawn and downfall. Harp/bell flourish conveys Schrecks wonder and surprise at the discovery of this odd, aquatic subterranean world, bleeding into shuddering, disturbed flutes, a gypsy-like style representing the presence of the Red Triangle Circus Gang as Schreck walks through the motley assemblage of lackeys, and then a large brassy flourish signifies journey’s end and we shift into the sinister creeping notes of the Penguin Fanfare now played with relish and commitment.
The Lair underscores the dialogue between Schreck and the Penguin, the omnipresent, wicked Penguin Fanfare broken by various bell-styled flourishes and a very strange synthesized “Hypnotic” sound during a sillier moment that sets the stage for a joke. Its pleasant, compelling music with some nice usage of the harp that serves the scene, (the Fanfare is actually played section by section from each part of the orchestra which keeps it from dragging into monotony), but does not reach the character insight later uses of the Penguin theme will reach. For now we leave the waters to hear the sounds of a very different animal.
Selina Kyle is less about Selina herself and more the catalysts of her transformation: the sudden stop (its not the fall that kills you, after all), and the horde of alley cats that nip, lap, and hiss life back into her. We have a loud, scattered assemblage of strings and creaking, shuffling wood percussion (Elfman even manages to capture death’s quiet chill amid the falling snowflakes), slowly, tremulously coming together in a squealing conglomeration of unsettling, primitive, swarming sound. The Catwoman theme or Cat Fanfare, an inspired eight note melody peeks its head out briefly amid the noise in strings, but it is a ringing, shrill rendition, more about Selina’s feline resuscitation than her metamorphosis. The track works as atmosphere and active musical narrative, not so pleasing on a walkman, but effective just the same.
Selina Transforms is where we really begin to enjoy the cat theme. Elfman’s Cat Fanfare is an obvious use of high and low, quick and careful strings as meows, pattering, and prances, but it is those eight notes worked and reworked in unique and clever styles ranging from sexy to sinister to sorrowful to shellshocked that shed light on the woman behind the claws and whiskers. The tune steams with need and desperation, always a high, strained register in violins, clarinets, and the softer, clean instruments. When Selina first enters her apartment going through the motions of her mundane persona, the tune is very flat (clarinet), but pricked with the string meows as her beasts follow her home, effectively becoming her chorus. The tune builds in intensity and rippling sorrow as Selina finally breaks, tearing apart her straw life and stitching together a fresh start. Despite the frantic goings on, the rise in volume and addition of more orchestral elements, Elfman keeps the tune restrained, not timid, but almost loving, childlike, as tears of exhaustion and determination stain Selina’s cheeks. The fanfare is the hollow hurt in one’s chest at a life that has not met expectations, the soft notes stroke those prickly areas of the sternum and throat that always ache and throb when the hitched sobs come. Selina weeps over wasted opportunities, over betrayal, over self-disgust, and over hope as she destroys and creates. The music becomes a brief passage of time with bells, again stroked with the mewling strings. Then, with a wood percussion chuckle and drumtop rustling, something sleek, sexy and different rises up in the sad little apartment of poor Selina Kyle. Hell Here.
The Cemetary begins with the most interesting and understated music of the entire score, due in no small part to the curious images onscreen, and then moves into heartrending melody that again is betters its visuals. Its important to recognize those visuals here, because Elfman scores it perfectly- beyond perfectly- it is uncanny. The alleys and thoroughfares of Gotham are still. The streetlights are low and warm. A blanket of soft snow coats the asphalt and flakes continue to soundlessly float to earth. Through this placid scene the Batmobile coasts quietly, uncharacteristically at ease in these surroundings, not in pursuit, not tearing through the streets and making its rumbling presence felt. Bells echo two sets of notes, one set low and high, one set high and low. The tone is part grandfather clock and part holiday fireplace accompaniment. For the briefest of moments, all is well in Gotham. The music conveys a very careful empathy, a cautious connection between Bruce Wayne and Oswald Cobblepot. Despite suspicions, Batman sees a kindred spirit, a fellow orphan, and this brief, tender arrangement mirrors his reticence about having suspicions over Cobblepot’s motives. The music here is so well considered, so thoughtful, that I wish the film had taken a similar contemplative path drawing closer parallels between these two men- a stronger film would have certainly resulted. Instead, easy, obvious paths are taken to the detriment of the tale. But back to the music…
Within the City Hall Archives, we are treated to a quiet, furtive reprise of Penguin Fanfare done with simple plucked string, though I cannot tell if it is a base or simply a low guitar. Low Xylophone keys back this simple reprise up, and this moment is about as benign and subdued as we will get for this particular melody. There is a short build as Penguin rifles through files, compiling an index in a dusty ledger, and then Elfman brings in the rest of the orchestra taking it up… up…. And then Bam da da Bam da da a base drum kicks off a funeral march backed with an elaborated Penguin Fanfare again done in xylophone and doubling its notes high low, high low, as we follow a processional to the city cemetery to the Cobblepot plot. The notes take us graveside with the Penguin, and here, despite the obvious sympathy ploy to the Gotham press and rubberneckers onscreen, the music tells a different story, flutes go high for three harmonious notes, and then a solitary pipe plays a childlike tune full of innocence, loneliness and remorse, and for a moment, one might believe Penguin’s grief sincere. The story says otherwise, but there is no denying the truth in the music; A bravura, soulful piece by Elfman. A cynic might say it's a manipulative, disingenuous tune but hey, fuck his mother, right?
Cat Suite begins with a merry track following Selina on her first full rampage through Gotham. Interestingly enough, the first bars we hear are not actually Cat Fanfare, but are feline pattering, plucked string versions of Penguin Fanfare. This fascinating mix n’ matching of the various animal themes as the characters overlap; Catwoman’s playground is amid the riots and distractions of the Red Triangle Gang, and therefore she is helping to carry out Penguin’s work, hence the collaboration of melody. The first part of the suite remains light and bouncy, full of mischief, and provides some wonderful, unexpected layers to Catwoman’s character when, while using her whip as a jump rope while skipping around a department store, Elfman does a soft, playful bell rendition of the Cat Fanfare- Selina is having fun and experiencing true joy for perhaps the first time in her life, and even amid the breaking and entering and destruction of property, it's a lovely, innocent moment of simple child’s play. The explorations of Catwoman’s character often begin and end with seduction and devious wantonness. Here, both through Burton and Elfman’s choices, we also get to see the liberating, impish freedom of Selina’s alter ego.
The track takes a complete turn however, as trumpets push us into a different scene, the first open confrontation between Batman and the Penguin as the two test each other’s mettle. The Penguin Fanfare takes center stage, plucked with deliberate sinister intent, and backed with a lone soft horn giving warning in the background of the dark strings. This is the Penguin’s hour, the fruition of his manipulation of the city of Gotham, and the musical undercurrent completely belongs to him. Then all three players are brought together as with the thudding of a base drum, the two opponents are interrupted in their palaver by frantic strings building as a sleek figure gracefully flips towards them, finally revealing herself by those cooing high strings. The Cat, the Bat The Penguin. The music stops and the city begins to scream as fire rips through it.
Answering this mayhem on the recorded score, but not sequentially accurate to the movie is Batman versus the Circus, the first big confrontation in the film. A thick organ purrs the Bat Fanfare then backed by horns and bells. From here we have dueling themes: Bat Fanfare versus Red Triangle Circus Music. The Circus Music is most noticeably Elfmanesque, low blatting horns, zany wood and bongo percussion and out of control carousel pipes aggressively undermining the iconic Circus/Carnival music. In Elfman and Burton’s hands, this Circus is not acrobats and white tigers, but bearded ladies with cleavers and clowns at midnight. Breaking through this rotted perversion is the Bat Fanfare weaving in and out of the wild, wicked calliope and smashing through the corruption with brutal, relentless structure. At the end of each bar of corrupt, frightening circus melody are the five notes that enable us to kick in the teeth of these garish abominations masquerading as playful childhood icons (not that I nor Elfman, nor Burton nor anyone I can even think of ever trusted circus folk). A truly fun track, though lacking the subtle, fascinating intricacies of its closest thematic counterpart from the original film, the First Confrontation suite at Axis Chemical. Ironically, the Circus Music would have been most apropos for the Joker and his ilk, but for use with the Penguin’s marauding freakshow, it works perfectly. Only Tim Burton could so perfectly have a monster defend us from clowns. Only Danny Elfman could illustrate this through music, the track needing no visuals to tell its story.
The Rise… is a brief interlude which intertwines Cat and Penguin Fanfare as the two villains scheme. Its interesting to hear the two themes weave and dart around each other, much like the onscreen one-upmanship between the two characters, but it is the second half of this track that truly kicks things up a notch, and we are familiarized with better versions of both antagonist fanfares by this point where this simply doesn’t cut the mustard as much more than background. Plus, viewers paying attention to the film at this point will find themselves with mouths agape with incredulity, wondering how exactly it is that the Penguin possesses detailed blueprints and technical schematics of the Batmobile. Lame.
and Fall from Grace is a music journey through the Penguin’s attempted political coup. This is the most differentiated track from the score, full of proud pomp and beneath it, intrigue and deception. For the Penguin’s debut in the political arena, we have a melody not unlike a Bullfighter stepping out into the arena, loud seductive horns blaring a distinctly Spanish tune as Cobblepot fences with the masses. The melody then becomes something even more formal, more like actual royal fanfare. Underneath, played in careful plucked strings and high sustained notes suggestive of a tightrope is the underbelly of Penguin’s campaign, and Batman’s plotting to ruin Cobblepot’s gambit. Bruce Wayne beats Cobblepot at his own mudslinging stratagem, exposing him, and the music quickly ripples to out of control frenzy, ending with a dramatic flourish of Penguin Fanfare played in a key of fury, disappointment and betrayal, then edged by calculative cellos promising retribution for this intolerable reversal of fortune.
The score now swings completely around by providing a tender, yearning piece, Sore Spots and all too brief track spilling the intimate melody of Bruce and Selina, unable to consummate their relationship, but expressing their severe wants in violins and cellos rippling with tension and desire and terrible unfulfilled need. This is a melody we have heard before, the Scandalous version of the Bat Fanfare, played soft and rich, tweaked here to reflect a different kind of woman. The instruments are more shrill, threatening to break into Catwoman’s theme at any moment as Selina struggles to find some middle ground in her fractured psyche that will allow some small degree of happiness. Both the Cat and Bat themes mesh together, and there is a sexy, keening moment where both themes simply dissolve and the cellos moan softly while the violins trickle and stroke. The sound is warm, inviting, and tantalizing, made all the more poignant as it never leaves that high, strained key; This love will not, cannot work. Ultimately a sad tune, Sore Spots is the closest we come to a love theme (notice it can’t even title itself that way), and certainly has more character and levels to it than the longer, sustained love theme from the first film.
Rooftops brings the holiday themes to the fore, heavy on chorus and Elfman’s signature jocular, styles as Batman chases Catwoman and the Penguin through the frosted vistas of Gotham’s buildings. This is all atmosphere, the flourishes reserved for two moments, the killing of the Ice Princess and Batman’s retreat, a holiday version of the Bat Fanfare subverting the soft Christmas themes as Batman glides over panicked citizenry, his name blacked by scandal and the holiday celebrations brought to a horrific conclusion.
Wild Ride is exactly that, a smartly structured, furtive beginning played with tubas and low horns as the everpresent threat of the Circus as Batman seeks the safety of the Batmobile where he can regroup and defend himself. The tempo kicks up as the Batmobile roars to life, under the control of the Penguin, which careens into a dangerous, pulsing Bat Fanfare similar to that of Batman to the Rescue, the strong horned rendition of the main fanfare that introduced the Batmobile in the first film. Here, the music once again provides for the strength and inexorable power of the machine, but swerves into Elfman’s most fun use of the Circus music, a devilish, up tempo, completely madcap calliope and booming drum romp countering and undermining the relentless Bat Fanfare. The Red Triangle Circus Music is played with such verve and abandon, one can barely repress a smile, and its clear the Penguin is having the time of his life (the scene itself is absolutely hilarious, Penguin straddling a quarter-fed storefront child-size Batmobile, cackling and veering back and forth like a topheavy, inebriated metronome). The music pulls itself back as Batman attempts to rest control of the vehicle back, tense strings twisting the mood of desperation and fear, and a flourish as Batman rips control of his war machine back in the nick of time. But the danger is not over. Pursued by the law now, the Batmobile not altogether responsive and a dead end looming, the Bat Fanfare is played very lightly and repeated, not in confidence but in hesitant, warning beats as death closes in. There is a serial movie feel to the tune here, terse and dramatic, then descending trumpets bring the tension down and replacing the sharp, nervous notes with an assured, triumphant Bat Fanfare sustained trumpet reprise as the Batman pulls another trick out of his hat, ingeniously reconverting the Batmobile into a speedy getaway torpedo, roaring away from the scene, beaten but not done.
The Childrens Hour, like The Joker’s Poem in the first film is a charming, unnerving subversion of the gentle, calming strains of a music box underscoring the hideousness of the onscreen imagery. A soft chimes rendition of the Martial Penguin Fanfare, a distinctly militaristic seven note reorganization of the original Penguin Fanfare which we will hear played to great effect very soon, delicately strokes our ears as the Penguin details his plans to escort the children of prominent Gotham citizens to their watery deaths, a vicious echo of Oswald Cobblepot’s origins. Again, Elfman’s charming, light music captures both the cruelty of the act with unsettling accuracy but at the same time the tune itself is a tearful inner monologue of the Penguin’s childhood abandonment and his desire for vengeance against a society that would allow such a thing. Just when we are prepped for another bar of the charmingly sinister little piece, the sound of a chugging train guns its way into the delicate melody, and the full orchestra quietly takes up the tune as Penguin’s sickening carnival train snakes through the streets for the mass abduction. There is an abrupt stop to the orchestral build as the train pauses to begin its wicked work, and, and a familiar tune reaches out from the dark as the serrated shadow of a batwing halves the wicked engineer’s terrified visage. We then have some of that nice blaring horn comedy from Elfman as the Penguin learns of his lackeys’ failure via messenger, punctuated by a bell riff on the Bat Fanfare. A sustained blat of horn leaves us with Penguin’s tantrum over his failure.
And so we come to my hands down favorite of the score entire: The Final Confrontation. Elfman quietly takes the stage with low trumpets and a snare drum cadence; a military address to the troops. The scene is ridiculous to the extreme, the Penguin prepping his pets for war, and Elfman’s melody is well aware of this fact, laying down a serious Pattonesque beat to underscore the moment, but at the same time there is a distinct whimsy in the horns, as if the muted notes are suppressing laughter. Underneath these percussive strings, trumpets and snares, a sinister foghorn-like instrument begins to slowly play the Martial Penguin Fanfare as the Penguin’s oratory lathers his birds into squawking fury (Urf. Did I just write that?).
Finally, with one last triumphant Martial Penguin Fanfare refrain, a tight, quick snare cadence takes over as a war march begins and the penguins launch. Muffled trumpets scatter out an active flourish, and then the piece transforms into orchestral magnificence. Low brass draws out the Martial Penguin Fanfare which is overlapped by the higher trumpets and then taken up in a third overlap by the rest of the orchestra. You can feel the strength of the music tearing through brick and mortar and savaging the cold waters of the sewers. Higher and faster the music pushes outward, the Fanfare now used with all force, prominently using the trumpets and trombones, and out of this a particularly marvelous, brilliant surprise, a shrieking peak reached by a combination of flutes and snare drum reminiscent of something you might hear chirped and spattered out in the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, backed with the brass taking the low road, a glorious, blaring march of destruction and vengeance swarming up to the open streets of Gotham.
As the force of the Martial Penguin Fanfare continues to build and overlap, build and overlap to climax, underneath this rush, low tubas and staccato trumpets suddenly chatter out a familiar reassuring tune rising through the war chant, and then fire answers fire as the orchestra bursts forth in Bat Fanfare, also done in a snapped up, militaristic style, snares and flutes driving the charge of the… well… the Bat Sewer Boat™. Complete with Giant Rubber Duck Quacking Radar ™. It defies description. Really. But the music, ah the music… That tune again, that relentless musical bravery and defiance charging into the depths, and now we have the finest culmination of dueling themes as the war is joined above and below as Elfman is allowed to fully vent his particular gifts of chaos and melody. The vibrant piping Circus/Martial Penguin Themes charge into the streets, and the flaring Bat Fanfare beating it back with verve.
Elfman weaves these melodies together, twisting and turning them through the action. The music is soon telling so many stories at once, Elfman using each tune to dart in and out of each character segment and action piece, that it is ultimately not the signature suite “Attack of the Batwing”, its counterpart from the first film is, but it will not easily be forgotten. The greatest highlight of the piece after a brief quiet as the armed penguins assemble in the center of town and take aim has Batman taking the fight to the streets, beating back the penguins and foiling the missile launch- the triumphant, memorable music here is not the Bat Fanfare as one might expect, but a holiday bells rendition of the Penguin Fanfare ringing out in the streets as Batman launches up from the depths and confronts the Penguin Army, which of course is the title of the next track. It is an exquisite, unforeseen climactic turn in the music, an appropriate reversal of musical fanfare and another brilliant maneuver by Elfman, who seems never to run out of ideas. The music brims with glee and mania, a clash of holiday cheer and violence, the pinnacle of the Buton/Elfman subversion of good ol’ Americana.
Of course nothing is absolutely perfect (except for the Conan the Barbarian score), and Penguin Army, the music that concludes the Bat/Penguin war is a less effective counterpart to the Up the Cathedral theme from the first film. It is a series of long, drawn orchestrations as Batman turns the Penguin’s own weapons against him destroying his lair and sending him tumbling into the depths culminating in a climax of brass as the Penguin’s missiles are launched not into the heart of Gotham but concentrated upon his very own base of operations, followed by a trombone heavy Bat Fanfare dénouement as Batman swings down to confront the two loose ends, Catwoman and Max Schreck. The music then turns towards the playful plucks of Cat Fanfare as the two lovers confront each other in front of Schreck, the music slows for a moment, with a glimmer of hope that love will triumph over vengeance.
Selina’s Electrocution puts an end to this hope as trombones and trumpets ring out, repeated as sparks fly and dreams shatter. Selina chooses a side (perhaps not for the first time depending on how you want to read her culpability in the death of the Ice Princess), Shreck gets his just desserts and the Batman watches helpless. Hard brass reprises a long industrial Penguin Fanfare which is used here as the musical illustration of Schreck’s machinations coming to a halt. Note that Schreck does not actually warrant his own fanfare, but usurps Penguin’s, an interesting facet considering the film plays Penguin as such an incompetent opponent that an extra antagonist had to be included to present a reasonably effective front against Batman.
A cymbal crashes against bells as the Penguin erupts from the chill, slick water, dying. Melancholy cellos follow his staggered progress to his unlikely arsenal with his fanfare, dignified, stately, defiant to the last, this absurd little man. This is a surprisingly moving, tearful piece, using the Penguin Fanfare, drawn out by somber cello backed by rich oboe, capturing the final breaths of a flawed, petty being, hinting that there might have been a human underneath the pale arctic flesh once. High violins sear the eyelashes while lower strings stroke the lids as we are placed deep within the Penguin, where we find an angry child, denied love, denied friendship, advancement, acceptance, denied even revenge.
The music brings us away for but a moment, as Batman combs the wreckage for Selina the menace of Penguin played softly behind him but ignored, only to find that she is gone with a crash of cymbal, and so ends the promise of this love story, Selina alive but having crossed a line that will forever separate the justice of the Bat and the vengeance of the Cat. The Penguin Fanfare rises as Oswald attempts one last assault, and a trumpet flourish is for naught. Wrong umbrella. He falls.
Finally, soft violins play out the last soft echoes of the Penguin Fanfare as cellos mist the eyes and soft, sad childhood bells trickle down the cheeks and Penguin sinks slowly into the dark waters, escorted by his namesake flock, the only creatures from whom he has ever been given and reciprocated any sort of affection. His body sinks in a deep, dark sea of cellos and violins, returning to his birth waters and remaining still.
The scene is completely absurd. Ridiculous. Over the top to the extreme. And because Danny Elfman imparts such tenderness and import in this stirring instrumental requiem, the moment can still evoke terrible loss and dignity for this undignified, unsympathetic character. Note that not once does the Penguin show remorse for any of his actions, far too vulgar and corrupt (in action more so than appearance), to truly elicit any empathy from the audience. Elfman fills this blank throughout the film with his mournful tune that posits a solitary, deformed child brought up bereft of love and exploited by the masses. Only through the music to we have any insight whatsoever into what comprises the monster’s innermost being. All at once, it affords Oswald Cobblepot his dignity, his grief, his hurt, and any spark of the abandoned child within. Without Elfman’s sure hand, we simply have a gurgling, drooling, opportunistic cretin with no admirable or pitiable traits. Again, music gifts what the script does not. Elfman gives us Oswald Cobblepot’s naked soul.
The Finale sports an appropriately depressing slow sax and flute holiday version of the Bat Fanfare as Bruce and Alfred search the city for any trace of Selina, horribly wounded yet apparently still at large. The music quickly reverts back to a build towards the end credit fanfares, though Selina’s “Cat” strings mew throughout, even as the fanfare builds and we rise up to the skies of Gotham once again, searching the night for some sign that Batman will remain with us. Ingeniously, though the music stays the same, Burton now injects a nice surprise for the audience, as the climactic flourish does not leave us with the visual of Batman himself, but with the cowl of Catwoman rising into frame and promising us we’ve not seen the last of her (Sadly, we did not, and if this version of Catwoman knew of the disgraces to come, she would have certainly borrowed a technique from one of her feline peers, one Sylvester the Cat Jr., and put a paper bag over her head, slinking away as quickly as possible. For Shame, Halle Berry.)
End Credits is the up tempo Bat Fanfare that quickly reprises the main themes of the film. It was a surprise in the first film to have such an inventive reworking of the themes as a solid sendoff for the audience. Here, it is a great listen, but not the blowout farewell Elfman wowed us with the first go-round.
Whereas the first Batman score had more appropriately generic “action” moments owing more to Wagner and Holst (and be clear that this is not a criticism, merely a stylistic observation), Batman Returns is unadulterated Elfman digging deep into his repertoire of unusual instrumentation, cartoonish, playful lunacy, gothic flourishes, innovative percussion, and melodical subversion (joy as pain, evil intermixed with loneliness) culminating in his finest signature work to date. I’ll state for the record that the music is better than the film that it scores; The Cat, the Bat, and the Penguin are all blessed with emotionally rich music that gifts the listener with a very private, insightful melodic journey into these damaged souls. The assemblage of notes convey information much more successfully than the greater portion of the dialogue or action, and the score masterfully gives the picture another layer, that of a magically twisted Dickensian holiday carol which the film at once satirizes and glorifies.
Had this composer not taken a hand, we would be left with a very airy, overly cartoonish Batman film—familiar imagery, a smattering of substance, solid action, but no soul to speak of (though still vastly superior to the two ghastly sequels that would crash and burn this series). The music replaces those elements so painfully absent, and keeps the audience engaged through every moment of the film. Of late I haven’t really been wowed by Elfman’s entries, which all seem to draw from the deep well of his work on Batman, mere apes of these masterpieces. The last post-Batman work I can remember being truly wowed by was his subdued yet poignant work on Sam Rami’s Darkman a big recommendation from me to Elfman fans out there. Alas, that score falls during the period of the Bat Scores, and therefore I have to wonder if this composer still has fire left in him. These scores remind me of what this man is capable of, and I’d like to believe we’ve not heard the last stirrings of greatness from The Elfman. Thanks for your time and attention.
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originally posted: 07/20/06 00:24:20
last updated: 08/03/06 14:18:54