Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Batman: The Animated Series soundtrack: A Walker to remember

Batman fires his grappling hook and pisses off the Five-0 in the Batman: The Animated Series pilot episode 'On Leather Wings.'
As a fan of Batman: The Animated Series, I've waited 15 years for the score cues from the groundbreaking show to be released on an album. Now the wait is finally over, thanks to La-La Land Records' Batman: The Animated Series score compilation, which the label released as a limited edition two-CD set on Tuesday (a week after Warner Bros. Records double-dipped the Dark Knight soundtrack with additional score cues). I'll be adding some of the music from La-La Land's release to rotation on A Fistful of Soundtracks' "Assorted Fistful" block.

Modeled in tone after Tim Burton's somber-looking, dark-humored Batman films but much more faithful to the comics, Bruce Timm's B:TAS was the first American superhero cartoon show that felt cinematic. B:TAS writer/producer Paul Dini, who scripted the landmark, Emmy-winning Mr. Freeze revamp "Heart of Ice," says in the soundtrack liner notes that the show's crew constructed each episode like a mini-movie.

The B:TAS crew must have heard Peter Bogdanovich's anecdotes about how Samuel Fuller mentored him during the making of the low-budget 1968 thriller Targets ("Never think about limitations! Only think about what you want!") because like Fuller, they clearly didn't let a TV budget stop them from doing what they wanted. They brought a cinematic approach to everything, from the way they paced the dialogue--B:TAS' minimal and terse dialogue was different from other superhero cartoons, especially the '90s Marvel shows, like Saban's X-Men and Marvel Films Animation's Spider-Man, which had nonstop, hurriedly delivered, Speed Racer-ish dialogue--to the original score music. Unlike past superhero cartoons, B:TAS didn't recycle the same four or five score cues or repurpose creaky old library music. Shirley Walker and her team of B:TAS composers, which included Lolita Ritmanis and Michael McCuistion, composed an original score for every ep and used a full orchestra at a time when most other animated action shows relied on chintzy-sounding, cost-saving synthesizer music.

Danny Elfman's B:TAS main title theme, a reworking of his own brooding and dashing-sounding main theme from the Batman movies, set the tone for the show's "dark swashbuckler" sound. Walker, who conducted Elfman's 1989 Batman score and worked for him as an orchestrator, wrote a new eight-note theme for the Batman character that sounds equally thrilling and kickass. It eventually supplanted Elfman's theme in the opening titles when Warner Bros. Animation made B:TAS into a feature film (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm) and then brought the show back to the airwaves under a new title, The Adventures of Batman & Robin.

Walker and her composers crafted a different motif for each villain. Mr. Freeze was accompanied by a mournful waltz (which can be heard during the 14-minute "Gotham City Overture," track 1 on the first disc), Two-Face was represented by an eerie soprano recorder melody ("Harvey's Nightmare/Dent's Soap Box" and "Bruce Wayne's Nightmare/Two-Face Remembers"), and the Penguin received a lumbering brass theme to match his bluster ("Birds of a Feather").

The Joker is such a beloved adversary that Walker gave him not just one but two motifs, a carnival-style melody and a secondary "Fanfare for Rocky"-style crime spree theme that was used only during the "Last Laugh" ep. The liner notes refer to the Joker's "Last Laugh" crime spree theme as "a hip-hop jazz theme," but it doesn't really sound like hip-hop. It's a middle-aged white person's idea of what they think a hip-hop beat sounds like. As an FSM Board poster says, it's more rock/funk than hip-hop. Still, Walker's "Last Laugh" theme is a lot of fun, and like all the other cues, I'm jazzed to finally have it on disc.

La-La Land Records' Batman: The Animated Series soundtrack coverAfter a solid film and TV score career that saw her alternating between the Timmverse and James Wong/Glen Morgan productions (Space: Above and Beyond, Final Destination), Walker died in 2006 and didn't live to see her B:TAS material get the kind of release that La-La Land has devoted to it. Though this release is loaded with over two hours of music, it's missing Walker's memorable Catwoman theme from "The Cat and the Claw, Part I," the first B:TAS ep that ever aired, Carl Johnson's lively score from the excellent "Beware the Gray Ghost" ep with special guest voice Adam West, and McCuistion's Lawrence of Arabia-style epic score from the "Demon's Quest" two-parter, which gives me hope about a Volume 2 from La-La Land.

The final track on the La-La Land album is a fitting tribute to Walker, in which she gets to finally speak, via an archival recording of her explaining her eight-note Batman theme and playing it in different variations on the piano. The subtle differences between each variation--like when Walker alternates between a somberly played second half of the theme and a more uplifting second half--are incredible. They show how much care was put into the music and the show itself.

1 comment:

  1. This a wonderful and insightful review, I appreciated it. It's good to hear from someone who appreciates the work, care, and detail that went into the series and its music. I was floored listening to her talk about the themes and the somber and heroic "answers". This wasn't just another franchise to them, this was a work of art, something lovingly crafted, which is why it has endured the ages.