Book: Danny Elfman’s Batman (2004)

November 15, 2010 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Publisher: Scarecrow Press/ ISBN: 0-8108-5126-1 / Format: Trade Paperback / Date: 2004

Author:  Janet K. Halfyard

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Review:

Unlike the third volume in Scarecrow Press’ Film Score Series (“Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'”), the approach in Vol. 2 is more scholarly in assessing Danny Elfman’s breakthrough 1989 score, Batman, and heavily theoretical in dissecting each cue.

For film music fans lacking a pretty solid comprehension of music theory, the analytical section might prove to be beyond their scope, as Halfyard digs deeply into modes, keys, and technical terms that can be dry and mechanical. For musicians and composers, however, Halfyard’s insight crisply defines Elfman’s ideas in relation to more classical film composition, and the composer’s own rock music background.

With open access to the printed score, Halfyard covers the use of every major and minor theme in the score, including unused and alternate cues that only exist on paper. Her research and organizational skills are impeccable, and she precedes her analysis by a series of marvelous introductory chapters.

Beginning with Elfman’s own musical training and his work with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, Halfyard traces the composer’s development and his popularity within California – something that critics used against Elfman for years, pillorying him as a self-taught rock musician with limited writing skills. And due to the author’s examination of the printed Batman score, she’s well prepared in expanding on the qualities and creative quirks that make Elfman a respected film composer; and how chief orchestrators Steve Bartek and Shirley Walker remained faithful to Elfman’s vision, in spite of some nasty accusations that they were heavily responsible for composing the bulk of the Batman score.

Halfyard also spends a great deal of time examining the Burton-Elfman relationship, and the kind of qualities Burton has extracted from his favourite composer, while other directors have further broadened Elfman’s compositional skills. The composer’s identifiable sounds – his use of chorales, brass, and kinetic rhythms, for example – are celebrated here, and the pitfalls in being identified as a comic book movie composer – as with scores for BatmanDick TracyDarkman, and Hulk – are also addressed.

Halfyard’s book isn’t a fawning defense of a favourite composer; the author is meticulous in examining historical and professional aspects before placing the Batman score in its proper context, and one surprise that will delight fans of the composer and Prince is the role of the latter’s song album, which Warner Bros. released prior to the film’s theatrical release.

Orchestral purists can easily dismiss the Prince album as a marketing tool – which it was, in part – and as an album that stole attention away from the film’s real composer – which it did. However, in being fair to Prince, Halfyard examines each of the songs as vocal and melodic montages of the film’s ideas, and their placement within the final film score mix. Her two-pronged approach is rather amusing: moving from an initially astute examination, the author’s theoretical prose becomes almost hysterical in proscribing virtues to an acknowledged concept album; and while artistically conceived with greater sexual overtones than what director Burton explored within the final film, Halfyard flips to a colder stance, citing the minimal use Burton made of Prince’s songs. The fact only a handful of songs actually appear in the film says Prince’s songs weren’t all perfect for the film; and of those, only a few are dramatically functional. Yet the author’s assessment of the main songs – like “Party Man” and “Trust” – aren’t to be ridiculed, and she reveals Prince’s songs are far more than forced placements designed to sell a ‘music from and inspired by’ concoction. Even the album’s construction isn’t to be dismissed, as Prince’s own lyrics and soundtrack samples – namely dialogue snippets – are reflective of the first filmic translation designed to arguably  exceed Batman‘s comic book origins.

There’s no doubt this book is the result of a long and detailed effort to craft an important educational reference, and hopefully the process was sufficiently rewarding for the author, as the next gem in Herrmann’s canon deserving such sobering scrutiny is Psycho.

Other volumes in the Scarecrow Film Score Series include Vol. 1: Gabriel Yared’s The English Patient, Vol. 2: Danny Elfman’s Batman, Vol. 3: Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Vol. 4: Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet, Vol. 5: Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Vol. 6: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, Vol. 7:Mychael Danna’s The Ice Storm, and Vol. 8: Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire.


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© 2004 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

Book Reviews:  Vol. 3Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the UglyVol. 4Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden PlanetVol. 5Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

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