By Karol Krok
As comic book writer Dennis O’Neal once pointed out, Batman always attracted the best writers around. This remark is true not only in context of strips but also numerous adaptations for different media. Just as (a year older) Man of Steel, Caped Crusader was reinvented countless of times for each another generation – sometimes quite drastically. In the early 90’s Warner Bros. decided to rejuvenate their animated studios and tried to create their take, drawing inspiration from old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. The results were excellent all across the board – from its trademark “dark deco” design to fantastic writing. And while Christopher Nolan’s films created an appealing realistic version for modern generation, it wasn’t as successful in merging so many different aspects from different decades into one powerful package. Not in the way Batman: The Animated Series did, anyway. Indeed, this series took only the best elements from every incarnation and created a completely new whole. And all of that appealed to both children and adults.
Integral to its success was the music department. A group of young orchestrators/composers tackled different episodes and worked with base thematic material as envisioned under the supervision of Shirley Walker. She created a sound palette and would oversee the musical production of every single episode. Now, thanks to La-La Land records we’re treated to the third volume of music from this series – which, at the moments, amounts to impressive twelve and a half hours being available for listening enjoyment. One more set and the entire show will be represented. Hopefully.
The producers Neil S. Bulk and John Takis made a wise decision to arrange episodes out of chronological order, so that each one of them contains its own popular highlights among smaller and less imposing entries (which doesn’t mean “less interesting”). Among those moments is Shirley Walker’s contribution for an early episode P.O.V. She makes a use of Danny Elfman’s theme from Tim Burton films alongside her own original one. The score feels more boisterous in its Dvorak-like thematic development, often recalling more action-based portions of her own feature length Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm. Impressive, given much smaller ensemble. Similarly, composer’s own See No Evil also intrigues with its ominous lullaby material. It’s interesting that those episode create such a unique soundscape and yet neither of them includes any colourful villain tunes from Dark Knight’s rich rogue gallery. Or does it in a very limited manner, as it happens in The Man Who Killed Batman.
Speaking of Batman’s opponents, many of them return – musically, that is. We’re reintroduced to alluring Catwoman theme in Tyger, Tyger and Cat Scratch Fever. The former is notable for not containing Batman’s theme at all and, instead, focusing on its own unique, slightly off-kilter, material for a mutant creation. The exotic orchestrations of composer Todd Hayen are really interesting – high pitch string passages remind this reviewer slightly of Mica Levi’s Under the Skin (or should it be the other way around?). Selina’s material is never overused and appears quite sparingly. In Cat Scratch Fever, she receives a secondary elegant waltz-like idea to address different aspects of her character. Other villain themes also get expanded upon to match their development – Man-Bat and Clayface being most notable. Any musical appearance of the latter is always welcome.
Joker’s own themes returns in Be A Clown but, similarly to Catowman’s, his melody takes a backseat and makes room for episode’s unique identities. It’s an unique and subtle approach of this composer ensemble – not to oversimplify the narrative by constant reusing of same tools and try new ways to adapt them and let the viewer find connections on their own. Surprisingly un-patronising for an animated series. In one of the coolest musical moments, clown’s theme is played alongside those of Penguin and Two-Face. All of that while Batman suffers from hallucinations inflicted on him by Scarecrow. This episode, titled Dreams In Darkness, features some of the darkest and most operating scoring (from Todd Hayen) this series has to offer. After all, Batman faces his darkest demons and the music follows suit. All of that while Scarecrow’s own silly tune keeps mocking him all along the way. It’s interesting that Batman’s sidekick, Robin, doesn’t really receive his own theme in the series. Even the two character-centric episodes (two-parter Robin’s Reckoning) focus on his thirst of revenge, rather than trying to represent him with his own signature tune. The way Batgirl was, for example.
Occasionally, the series would employ some less obvious compositional touches. Southern harmonica (performed by Tommy Morgan) and guitar add a lot of colour to The Forgotten – quite different from nourish sound of other episodes. In this episode, Walker makes a really interesting use of Batman’s theme over pizzicato strings. Disc three presents two Asian-influenced scores. Night of the Ninja features shakuhachi performances from Masakazu Yoshizawa, whose great talent John Williams employed in both Jurassic Park and Memoirs of a Geisha. Day of the Samurai also uses this soloist, who apparently gave composer Carlos Rodriguez few lessons as to how to write for this unique and difficult instrument. On top of that, different ethnic colours were also incorporated in order to conjure a mysterious and beautifully textured sound for this eastern adventure – a wonderful highlight of this set. There are plenty of puns sprinkled all over the set: subtly Holst-inspired Prophecy of Doom utilises Mars ostinato in its climactic sequence, while Heart of Steel hearkens back old s-f films like Metropolis.
The 36-page booklet offers detailed liner notes from La-La Land’s Batman expert John Takis, while Dan Goldwasser’s design matches animated series’ simple but elegant look. The set itself lives up to the excellent Vol. 3 from a few years back and sets a bar high for another products like this. Finally, the mixing is fantastic. After an entire childhood spent on whistling all those themes for various characters, listeners can indulge themselves with those lavish releases that present their favourite pieces in crystal clear clarity. In television scoring history, this series represents a towering achievement. Modern Batman incarnations, both on big and small screen, have yet to receive a musical treatment to match this level of quality. Hopefully, one day they will.
Batman: The Animated Series Vol. 3 is out now from La-La Land Records