Outside of enthusiast circles, I don’t think many people are aware of Shirley Walker. It feels like a crime that so many people have no idea of this kind and infinitely talented woman who stepped into the mix of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman and the like and excelled in what has always been seen as a boy’s club, contributing to some of the most popular film and television scores around and working with such diverse collaborators as Francis Ford Coppola and John Carpenter. She had many jobs in the film music industry, but her foremost was composer, where she not only wrote fantastic scores for different mediums but also shaped many people’s musical perception of one of the biggest comic book characters around.
After working on music for industrial films, Shirley Walker’s first job in the world of film scores was to work with the notable Carmine Coppola, firstly playing the dreamy and foreboding synthesisers on the score to Apocalypse Now (directed by Coppola’s son Francis), and then composing additional music for Carol Ballard’s The Black Stallion, which was produced by Coppola. More conducting and orchestrating continued as she built fruitful relationships with composers such as Brad Fiedel (The Accused, Gladiator) before beginning a collaboration that would eventually help her make her name in the world of film music.
It is the stuff of film score legend. A lonely foreboding horn line starts to develop and subsequently sets off one of the greatest opening credit sequences in cinema history, with the camera travelling into a cavern of shadow and stone. As the music speeds to a gigantic crescendo we enter the darkness and the title is revealed: B A T M A N. Suddenly the score is off at a gallop with the orchestra at full blast, with the theme developing and swirling before coming to a manic halt as we pull out to see the the bat-symbol in all its glory. It’s been forever known as Danny Elfman’s Batman, and while the composition is never in doubt (unless you ask the ghost of Bernard Herrmann), the piece was orchestrated and conducted by Shirley Walker.
Still relatively new to the film scoring world – and certainly the arena of big studio pictures – Elfman asked Walker to accompany him to London to conduct the score. Batman was not only a smash-hit at the box office but also threw Elfman into film music fame, so Elfman recruited Walker to conduct and orchestrate other scores for him, including Darkman, Dick Tracy, Nightbreed, and a score many see as his masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands. With these scores Walker showed her flair for dramatic symphonic material, with a sense of heightened fantasy while still maintaining a relatable emotional core.
Her work with Elfman led her to work on what she is known for today – but we’ll move onto that shortly. As well as Elfman, Walker also worked on scores for another massive composer – Hans Zimmer. Her touch on scores like Black Rain, Days of Thunder, and Backdraft gave Zimmer’s music a specific flavour that his contemporary music arguably hasn’t matched. She also struck up a relationship with genre fave John Carpenter, collaborating with him on the score for Escape From L.A. and scoring Memoirs of an Invisible Man, becoming one of the few people to compose music for a Carpenter film without any score from himself. Other relationships included Glen Morgan, who utilised her on Space: Above and Beyond, Willard, and the first three Final Destination pictures.
But if you ask most score fans what part of her legacy they most remember, they will immediately name the same thing – Batman: The Animated Series. Following the outlandish success of Tim Burton’s film in 1989, Warner Bros. Animation ran with a small screen translation that would not only redefine Saturday morning cartoons for a generation but also launch a rich and creative universe that continues to have influence to this day. B:TAS (as it’s known) took its cues from the Fleischer brothers Superman cartoons of the forties as well as film noir, creating a show that was rich in drama and character without sacrificing the sense of action and adventure that kids demanded.
Because of this, Walker was in her element. She provided exhilarating chase music for ‘On Leather Wings’, where Batman is pursued by Gotham’s police after being mistaken for a gigantic murderous bat, real dramatic tension for ‘Two-Face’, where Harvey Dent’s alter-ego was not only a physical trait but a mental one, and the beloved ‘Heart of Ice’, where her mournful score for the tragic Mr Freeze remains a reason why it is regarded as the greatest B:TAS episode ever. The lighter side of things were not ignored however, with comedic music for the Joker providing an interesting counterpoint for his psychotic acts.
While the opening titles for the show used a new arrangement of Elfman’s Batman theme, Walker created her own theme for the character, which she used as the main theme for the first feature-length Batman adventure, Mask of the Phantasm. Regarded by some as the greatest cinematic incarnation of Batman, the film is masterfully scored by Walker, who not only adapted her own theme but also created new material for the Phantasm villain and a love theme for Bruce Wayne and his fiancee Andrea. But the greatest piece of music in the film – and my favourite piece of Batman scoring ever – is for ‘The Birth of Batman’, where Walker scores the moment when Bruce Wayne first puts on the cowl and the cape, and the terrifying visage of Batman is seen for the first time.
From the success of B:TAS, Walker went onto write the theme for the follow-up series, Superman: The Animated Series, where she also wrote several scores, including ‘World’s Finest’ which teamed up Batman and Superman for the first time, and ‘Legacy’ which ended the series by pitting Superman against his greatest villain, Darkseid. During both shows, Walker mentored composers such as Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuiston, and Kristopher Carter, and overseeing the DC Animated Universe as it was called, with shows such as Justice League and Batman Beyond continuing the great work done. Even now, DC’s animated movies and shows continue the type of creative symphonic scoring Walker had ushered in with Batman.
But above scoring, Walker also did important work in championing composer’s rights, and was a true trendsetter. Even when faced with gender bias she was a consummate professional, and she made film music history several times while playing down the effects her work had on scores of other composers. She was a brilliant conductor, orchestrator, musician, and composer, and to function as she did in a world like she did was nothing short of heroic. Wonder Woman and Supergirl would be proud.
Shirley Walker passed away in 2006. Her name resides on the wall of the Warner Bros. Eastwood scoring stage, remembering her achievements. On International Women’s Day, we are proud to remember her talent and the great legacy she has left. And we sure do miss her.