Sight & Soundtracks: Batman (1989)

Prince, Tim Burton, Superhero Movies, Seal, Francis Bacon... no one is safe from the wrath of Blake.

Sight & Soundtracks: Batman (1989)

By

Blake Haarstad

4/15/2021 12:00 PM

Movies have always been made better by music. From the silent era, where vaudeville pianos filled empty space to the strings and brass bands of the jazz age, music progressed with moving image art to reflect the popular tastes. But ever since the 1960s, pop music cemented its cultural dominance and the pop song became centrepiece to countless movies. From then on flows a rich history of sterling songwriters penning original songs for Hollywood and the avant-garde alike.

Sights and Soundtracks is a SMACK column dedicated to the marriage between pop music and film. Rather than review a particular soundtrack album as a standalone work, S&S focuses on a pop song written specifically for a film, with reference to the surrounding work. The goal is to analyze the film and the song, and discuss why the two pair so well – or so poorly – together. Whether the song or the film is good or bad, the songwriter’s response to the film, or director’s response to the song, can serve as the focal point to two works. Stay tuned to SMACK Media for regular additions to this series.

The anomalous pairing of Prince and Batman is difficult to imagine in 2021 when superhero movies like Joker (2019) hit you over the head by licensing “Send in the Clowns.” Instead, Prince’s reimagining of the Caped Crusader as the Caped Philanderer in “Batdance” is more akin to “WAP” penned as an original number for Aquaman (2018). While I won’t argue with the financial problem this creates for modern producers’ adherence to mass-appeal fan service, the part of me that loves unrestrained creativity reels at such laughable dissonance. And dissonance abounds in the union of Batman (1989) director Tim Burton and the Purple One, whose inexplicability reveals itself not as a dynamic duo of cinematic and musical artistry, but rather an awkward unity of intellectual property and mismatched visions.

American superstar Prince Roger Nelson had a long and convoluted career from DIY-funk wunderkind to stadium-status soft-core pornographer. The run from Dirty Mind to Diamonds and Pearls is an envious hot streak. He took popular sensuality to dizzying new heights on tracks like “Do Me, Baby,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “Darling Nikki”. For an artist who was so completely musical, it’s easy to forget that some of Prince’s best work was sountracking feature films of his own devising, such as Purple Rain (1984) and Under the Cherry Moon (1986). This cinematic vision produced greatness even when there was no actual film to accompany it (see 1987’s Sign "☮︎" the Times). Despite this, Prince’s soundtracking of Batman is a hard sell, one that needs a bit of explaining.

Long before the modern cinema landscape became a franchise theme park, superhero movies were the exception not the rule. Your average moviegoer would have seen a few Superman movies, a Spiderman cartoon or maybe the campy Adam West Batman as a kid. The genesis of our current subject’s unlikely collaboration was birthed from the corporate interests who owned both Prince and the Batman. Prince had long been tied to Warner Bros in a demanding contract that could only be satisfied by his extremely prolific output. The soundtrack idea came to Albert Magnoli, Purple Rain director and part-time Prince manager, who saw Warner’s production of Batman as the perfect opportunity to satisfy Prince’s contractual obligations while exposing him to an even wider audience. Warner was only too happy to oblige, as enlisting Prince turned out to be only part of the gargantuan promotional rollout for Batman in an attempt to overwhelm audiences with the arrival of the movie as a cultural event. Boatloads of merchandise were sold and “Batmania” reached a sort of ubiquity that, while nauseatingly familiar today, had been hitherto unseen in movie promotion.

As for plot, Batman is a movie about trust-fund heir Bruce Wayne’s spandex-clad alter ego (the titular Batman) facing off against his arch rival, the Joker, who is humorously disfigured when Batman drops him into a vat of acid. In an attempt to get back at the rest of the entitled normies in Gotham City for his own misfortunes, the Joker poisons the entire population with various dispersions of a fictional chemical compound called “Smylex”, which causes its victims’ zygomaticus major to stiffen into a smile whilst they die from laughter. Batman embarks on a race against the clock to defeat this incel clown yadda-yadda. 

Prince’s promotional tie-in to the soundtrack is hardly covert. While the Batman OST itself is standard vintage Prince, obligatory references to Batman appear seemingly at random and at odds with the classical conception of Batman as a noirish detective. Bruce Wayne is supposed to be an eccentric, brooding recluse who has taken up the mask of vigilantism to violently suppress criminality and terrorism. Prince on the other hand is an eccentric, coquettish recluse who has taken up the mask of artistry to incite funk and bacchanalia.

While this description frames Batman and Prince as two costumed superheroes in their own right, Prince’s club-ready anthems are clearly against the grain of Burton’s vision of Gotham City as a gothic, art-deco nightmare. Prince’s signature colour pallet is better suited to the Joker’s goofy purple outfits and Broadway flamboyance. As a result, the only time Prince’s soundtrack has any chemistry with the film is in Joker-starring scenes. The most memorable placement, undoubtedly being when the Joker and his boombox-toting henchman storm a bougie restaurant and deface its decorative paintings, save except Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat which the Joker unsurprisingly admires. Prince’s “Partyman” plays diegetically - the only way the music could fit within the film - and adds a sense of manic festivity, but hardly the menace that the viewer should feel with love interest Vikki Vale facing imminent peril.

Jack Nicholson stays true to the maximalist and resentful Joker that one is accustomed to today. Nicholson received top billing and is justifiably the most memorable presence in a film filled with unmemorable characters. In contrast, Michael Keaton’s performance fails for its wooden and clunky portrayal of a character intended to be dynamic and superhuman. Where George Clooney’s Batman had a debonair kitsch and Christian Bale’s had a studied athleticism, Keaton is flat and unsuited to his extraordinary alter ego. The underwhelming result is Burton’s admirable-but-neutered visuals adorned by a bland cast carried by the heavy Nicholson – a tradition that has led to an inordinate amount of critical praise dolloped on the various actors playing the clown who goes tête-à-tête with a cartoon billionaire.

Prince circa 1989 had just discovered sampling and was cleverly splicing clips from the film into his soundtrack, and always with an ear for the erotic. “Vicki Waiting” opens with the Joker amorously placing a call for some “mookie” before sliding into a crude set of lyrics about waiting for a girl to come of age. Had the album artwork not been stamped with the bat symbol, you would have no idea the song had anything to do with Batman until he sings “All is well in Gotham City”, a line which is demonstrably false; the entire premise of the film is that all is not well in Gotham City, leading one to question whether Prince had followed the narrative of the film at all.

“Trust” and “Scandalous” are forgettable B-sides. Where the former is a suitable party anthem for the Joker making it rain on the citizens of Gotham City before gassing them, the vibe on “Scandalous” can’t help but feel like a rerun of the far superior Sign "☮︎" the Times cuts “Slow Love” or “Adore”. The sole interest of “Lemon Crush” is Prince’s coy reframing of venerable bluesman Robert Johnson’s crude innuendo of “squeezing his lemon.” One wonders why Pepsi Cola didn’t tap Prince for a Crush soda endorsement here as well given the wonders that Michael Jackson did for the brand (While that commercial has unfortunately not aged well, it does point to the broader tendency of artists in the 1980’s to shill crappy products, but I digress).  

Closing the album is “Batdance”, which features a sample of the film’s tepid love scene raised by what turns out to be Prince’s best song on the soundtrack. It mutates the groove across six minutes and climaxes with Jack Nicholson shouting, out of context, “This town needs an enema!”. Prince’s familiarity with the Batman universe is unknown, but Batman is a soundtrack eminently more fitted to the Batman TV series.

Despite the failed chemistry of the Batman OST, one has to admire the sheer weirdness of Prince envisioning Batman as less of a narrative film and more of an afterhours XXX venue. True to form, upon viewing a rough cut of the film, Prince simply ran with his muse and delivered a soundtrack that, while surely not what Burton or fans would have wanted, is Prince on Prince’s terms. It’s difficult to imagine this happening today when superhero IP props up cash-flush but creatively bankrupt mega-studios. Would a renegade like Prince be able to go crazy over box office assets like this ever again?

As it turns out, the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean that the studios shied away from the Billboard Hot 100. The surreal oddity of Prince’s musical characterization would be replaced in subsequent Batman films by the apparent directive that soundtracks should be mere celebrity window-dressing capitalizing on passing trends for box office bank. Batman Forever (1995) was graced by the tiring schmaltzes of “Kiss from a Rose'' and U2’s “"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me;" throw in momentary mainstream-adjacent Nick Cave and Method Man and you’ve got a setlist that defies any notion of coherence. At the very least, the Batman & Robin (1997) OST can be said to have featured original contributions by both Billy Corgan and R. Kelly (now that’s a dynamic duo).

While modern superhero movies may be bloated, sexless mobilizations of IP assets at the behest of skyscraper moneymen, they are capable of doing right in the fan service department. The polis is happy with this and I won’t be the one to gatekeep the genre. But what I do miss is that thrill of seeing a genuine maverick forge a work of his own imagination, even if it was just part of Batmania.