My esteemed editor Mark Asch suggested that I, as part of my weeklong countdown to The Dark Knight, mount a track-by-track comparison of the alt-rock dustbin soundtracks Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Though I do not own these soundtracks, and do not wish to spend the seventy-five cents plus shipping that would be required to procure them, I was certainly in high school when they came out, so I feel qualified to run through the complete live-action Batman movie soundtrack experience.
Would this be a bad time to admit that I don't really get Prince? Maybe I can blame repeated viewings of this movie at a young age for that, because I know people think he's a genius and stuff, and I like a couple of songs, but really, that numbers-as-words thing drives me up a wall. Anyway, Danny Elfman's Batman theme is one of the best orchestral themes of the past quarter-century, but that only appears on the score album, not the soundtrack to Batman, which is one hundred percent Prince and apparently topped the charts for weeks on end, regardless the completely incongruous nature of Batman and Prince. A single song for Joker's money-tossing parade scene, OK, it's weird and annoying, but the Joker is evil, so I can party with that. But nine tracks?! Just as Batman was one of the first movies to be priced to buy as soon as was out on video, it was a leader in the "soundtrack that has little to nothing to do with the movie" phenomenon (which is obviously way worse).
Batman Returns (1992)
This is the only Batman soundtrack I actually own (on cassette), and in fact, it was one of my first albums ever. You see, back in 1992, I was well on my way to becoming one of those movie nerds who only listens to film scores. I'm not sure if this has any relation to those computer nerds who only listen to Rush; I'll leave that thesis to someone else. The hitch came when I realized I didn't actually enjoy listening to film scores all the way through, for which I have Batman Returns and Raiders of the Lost Ark to thank; they're awesome, so clearly if I couldn't hack it for an hour of those, this soundtrack stuff wasn't for me. The Wonder Years soundtrack eventually nudged me towards the likes of the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel and off I went. Anyway, about this soundtrack itself I will say that, like most of the rest of Batman Returns, it does things better than its immediate predecessors and followers: it's all score, save for one thematically appropriate, credits-played cut: "Face to Face" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. I'm surprised that the executives who had the depressed and disturbed characters for this movie placed in Happy Meals (much to my twelve-year-old delight) didn't insist on a ridiculous soundtrack to match Prince's bestseller. Then again, given the Schumacher output, I'm surprised Tim Burton got to direct Batman movies at all.
Batman Forever: Music from the Motion Picture (1995)
The execs hopped back on the soundtrack train for this cross-demo attack, which brings together nineties remainders (Mazzy Star), indie spirit (P.J. Harvey, the Flaming Lips -- one of those bands like Elastica that seems to be on about twenty soundtrack albums), shrill mainstream rock (The Offspring), R&B (Brandy), and rap (Method Man). All in all, it's not actually a bad line-up even if the Batman connection is negligible -- though Method Man's contribution is titled "The Riddler." I assume it's a boast rap. Shouldn't all of the rogue's gallery be awarded boast raps? Two of the singles, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" from U2 and "Kiss from a Rose," by Seal, were actually massive hits, and also -- with their vaguely-to-overtly romantic overtones -- the most hilariously ill-matched soundtrack flagships since R. Kelley sang an inspirational tune for a Bugs Bunny movie. Still, as money-machine soundtracks could, you could do a lot worse.
Batman & Robin: Music From and Inspired By the Batman & Robin Motion Picture (1997)
Like this, for example, which starts with the most awesomely redundant title of soundtrack title soundtrack and never looks back. Remember that R. Kelly fellow I just mentioned? They actually got him, fresh off of his Space Jam triumph, to write a song called "Gotham City." If I understand the lyrics correctly, this song contains several misconceptions about Gotham City, including: (1.) that it is a city of justice; (2.) that it is a city of peace; (3.) that it is a city of love; and (4.) that it is a place that offers shelter. Apart from that, though, the soundtrack isn't as terrible as I remember; it's more like a slight downgrade from the previous CD. I think this is sort of like how the soundtrack to The Crow had Stone Temple Pilots and Nine Inch Nails, and the soundtrack to The Crow: City of Angels had Seven Mary Three and Korn (though note that it did not have an R. Kelly track in which he tries to encourage people to move to the actual City of Angels). Instead of a mediocre U2 song, Batman & Robin subs in a terrible Smashing Pumpkins song called "The End is the Beginning is the End" which in the context of this movie sounds vaguely like a threat. Elsewhere, Jewel and the Goo Goo Dolls replace Seal and The Offspring (kind of a toss-up, right?), and R.E.M. and Soul Coughing are the attempts at cred (I think). It also pays lip service to the movie's score, with a suite sampling of Elliot Goldenthal's music â an unexpected upgrade from the Batman Forever soundtrack, though probably also having to do with the lack of a full Batman & Robin score. Still, it's not often actual movie music turns up on one of these "inspired by" discs. All in all, Batman & Robin: Music Inspired By the Massive Marketing Budget for the Batman & Robin Motion Picture Also Called Batman & Robin is more of a typical soundtrack than the whorish nadir I remembered (that must've been the following summer's more concise Godzilla: The Album, although "Brain Stew (Godzilla Remix)" still rules).
Batman Begins (2005)
Even musical scores can have big-time collabos: witness Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard teaming up for the Batman Begins score, now tastefully free of a hit single, which is good, because it would've been Coldplay. Their work is less thrilling than Danny Elfman's, but it gets points for subtlety. If you had asked me after I saw Batman Begins a few times to hum the theme, I don't think I could have, yet when I heard it swell again in those Dark Knight trailers, it gave me big-time chills. The orchestral trend continues for the Dark Knight album, which is great, though I admit feeling a twinge of pity. Some poor rapper is getting denied his shot at a Joker boast track.
Of course, it's all relative: no all-star roster of composers, rappers, or alt-rockers can compete with maybe the catchiest song since "Happy Birthday" â na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na BATMAN.