30 years ago this summer, Tim Burton’s Batman hit cinema screens around the world. It wasn’t without controversy, as diehard fans of the Dark Knight had been busy decrying the film before it was even released: everything from the choice of Burton as the director to Michael Keaton being cast as Batman was not only under scrutiny, but also full-frontal assault. It’s a blessing that the internet wasn’t around in those days.
Another unconventional decision was the use of Prince to put together an album of themed songs to be used throughout the movie. For the most part, any superhero flicks up to this point had relied upon the use of a traditional orchestral score to accompany proceedings; when Batman was released, it was only 11 years after Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, with its soundtrack by the legendary John Williams. Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman performed a similar role here, giving us a memorable score for the dark, gothic fairytale Burton presented, including a Batman theme which ended up not only being used in Batman: The Animated Series, but was also revisited by Elfman for 2017’s Justice League.
One of the first occasions that orthodoxy had been challenged in terms of musical scores for feature films came with 1980’s Flash Gordon; alongside Howard Blake’s orchestral pieces, Queen produced one of the first contemporary rock or pop music soundtracks specifically composed for a movie (the story of which is included as part of the recent documentary Life After Flash). It was later repeated when Queen were used to put together some tracks for Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander (in place of original choice Marillion); oddly, there’s no official soundtrack album, with all the songs being featured instead on Queen’s A Kind Of Magic. Freddie Mercury was also featured as one of the contributing artists for Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis, along with Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler and Adam Ant.
As such, these sorts of endeavours were still relatively rare for films at the time of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. In putting together an initial cut of the film, Burton – a Prince fan – had used ‘Baby I’m A Star’ and ‘1999’ to accompany scenes where a pop or dance music track was required to underscore the action taking place, with an intention that they might end up being replaced in the final cut; as the story goes, it was Jack Nicholson who advised Burton to approach Prince about doing something specifically for the film. Although it had been hoped Prince would redo both these songs for the movie, as well as possibly contributing an original track, he actually ended up producing a whole album’s worth of material.
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As it turned out, by the time that Prince had been approached, it was too far into the post-production process for all of the songs to be incorporated into the finished release; while ‘Partyman’ and ‘Trust’ are used predominantly in two scenes, most of the other tracks are used throughout in the background, such as during the party at Wayne Manor. However, neither film nor soundtrack album suffer from this, as Prince actually presented a high-concept work, which didn’t just help add colour to the movie, but also adopted the characters and made them a key part of the musical narrative, as if they were actually being sung by them, or – at the very least – told from their perspective.
The album is explicitly divided up in the liner notes, with Batman being linked to ‘The Future’ and ‘Scandalous!’; the Joker as the viewpoint for ‘Electric Chair’, ‘Trust’ and ‘Partyman’; ‘Vicki Waiting’ coming from Bruce Wayne; Vicki Vale herself in ‘Lemon Crush’; and Bruce and Vicki both sharing a duet in the (co-penned) track featuring Prince with Sheena Easton. It could all have been a very different beast, had a mooted plan come to fruition which would have seen the album split as a duet between Prince and Michael Jackson, with Jackson as Batman and Prince embodying the role of the Joker. Perhaps thankfully, contractual issues, time pressures and touring commitments nixed that plan at an early stage.
With the recordings being put together in just six weeks, and finished only around five months prior to the movie’s release in August, it’s perhaps understandable that the album not only isn’t seen as being one of Prince’s strongest works, but also that he ended up cannibalising his catalogue, possibly in order to hit the tight timescale rather than out of strict creative choices – in ‘Batdance’, he incorporated B-sides, as well as as-yet-unreleased tracks that he’d been working on, along with others which never saw the light of day.
‘Batdance’ is probably the ‘odd man out’ of the whole album – it’s something of a novelty track in some ways, as it wouldn’t easily fit anywhere into the film, being so filled with samples of dialogue, as well as having a not-so-subtle reference to the 1960s Batman TV theme thrown in; this was apparently the first piece of music that young Prince Rogers Nelson learned to play on the piano, so it seems he was a natural fit to bring musical life to Batman for his big screen reimagining. Given that Prince was only able to get a workprint of Batman while he was putting the album together, some of the dialogue snippets he used are the original, undubbed versions, and that’s particularly noticeable at the start of ‘The Future’, when using Keaton’s “I’m Batman” speech.
Although not a classic Prince album, he’d managed to at least include plenty of his trademark flourishes, as well as giving a range of styles – in ‘Batdance’, the tempo shifts and drops mid-track, whereas with ‘The Arms Of Orion’ and ‘Scandalous’, he gives us softer, more tender and sensual pieces, with more minimal orchestration. Ever the complete artist, Prince even went on to adopt a new persona – Gemini – for the videos for ‘Partyman’ and ‘Batdance’, being a mix of half-Batman, half-Joker. It seems that The Purple One was perfectly suited when it came to (half-)wearing the traditional colour of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Revolutionary in its day, Prince’s Batman set a precedent for Hollywood releases to have separate albums for the orchestral, instrumental score and the vocal pop or rock tunes used during the course of the movie (especially if they happen to have been specially written or curated). Prince saw the future, and it works.