“I am the Night” — Music From Batman: The Animated Series!
I can’t believe that Batman: The Animated Series is over twenty years old. Oy vey, that means I am getting pretty old myself! I immediately loved Bruce Timm’s animated Batman series, and as a kid I watched and re-watched those episodes incessantly. To this day, I think that Batman: The Animated Series remains the finest on-screen depiction of Batman, and so many of the show’s versions of Batman’s familiar supporting cast and cadre of villains still stand as the most iconic, most definitive version of those characters.
One of the many ways in which Batman: The Animated Series excelled was in its gorgeous music. Overseen by Shirley Walker, each episode of the series had its own fully-original, scored-by-an-orhcestra soundtrack. The music of the series was so rich and expressive and memorable. It was a HUGE element of the series’ success.
Back in 2009, I was delighted by La-La Land Record’s 4-disc CD collection of music from the series. Click here to read my thoughts on that release. The CD set was labeled “volume 1,” leading me to hope that a “volume 2” would be on its way. Sure enough, last year La-La Land released volume 2, and I must say I think this collection is even stronger than the first.
Disc One — This first disc begins with music from “Beware the Gray Ghost,” the wonderful episode in which 1960’s Batman Adam West portrays Simon Trent, an actor who years earlier played a Batman-like TV superhero “The Gray Ghost,” who inspired Bruce Wayne as a boy. I love how the peppy “Gray Ghost” TV theme heard in track 2 turns forlorn and mournful when we catch up with washed-up actor Simon Trent in the present day. This theme becomes a haunting motif that runs through the rest of the episode. The two-parter “The Cat and the Claw” (which, although it was the fifteenth episode made was actually the first episode aired — I remember watching it that first night!) begins with a great four-and-a-half minute-long piece of music (track 13) that scores the depiction of Batman and Catwoman’s first encounter. It’s a great piece of music that introduces the show’s playful Catwoman theme. In track 33 on the disc, which contains music from the Scarecrow episode “Nothing to Fear,” it’s interesting to hear Shirley Walker quote Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Then, a little later in that episode, in track 37 we hear the Elfman Batman theme transition into the Batman: The Animated Series Batman theme, which is very cool! The disc concludes with music from “Heart of Ice,” one of the finest episodes of the entire series (it was written by Paul Dini, who I feel was TAS’ strongest writer) and, in my mind, the definitive version of Mister Freeze. The poignant snowglobe theme (heard in tracks 4o and 45) is perfectly heartbreaking.
Disc Two — One of the biggest surprises for me in this collection was how much I enjoyed the music from “Appointment in Crime Alley,” a fairly mediocre episode of the show. That episode features a rollicking heroic action theme that can be heard in tracks 3, 5, and 8. It’s incredibly catchy and really stuck with me while listening to this collection. I enjoyed re-listening to those tracks several times. It’s too bad this great action music wasn’t re-used later in other episodes! This disc also features the score I was most looking forward to listening to on this set: the music for the Clayface origin two-parter “Feat of Clay.” Even as a kid I was struck by the incredible music for Clayface’s theme in that episode, and it’s one of my best-remembered pieces of score from the entire series. We first hear this Clayface theme quietly in track 37, and then it builds very slowly, taking us to an incredible musical climax at the end of the episode. Marvelous stuff.
Disc Three — One of my very favorite episodes of the series is the Ra’s al Ghul two-parter, “The Demon’s Quest.” There are many outstanding elements of that particular show, and the score is certainly one of them. I really enjoyed the lush, globe-trotting themes found in tracks 26-28. I will note, though, that even as a kid watching those shows, I found the Lawrence of Arabia-sounding music for the scenes in part 2 when Batman is traveling to Ra’s al Ghul’s desert lair (heard in track 35) to be a bit too obvious and on the nose. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. The music for the big action finish and Batman’s final duel with Ra’s, in tracks 38 and 39, is terrific. As I commented in my review of the first collection, I don’t generally love the music for Joker episodes of the show. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the score for “The Laughing Fish.” The use of creepy, off-kilter piano music (heard in track 44 and others) is striking, a valiant effort to elevate a weak episode. (In the liner notes, Bruce Timm remembers that “when the episode’s animation fell short of the mark, he turned to [Shirley] Walker to compensate.”)
Disc Four — After so many incredible two-parters (“Two-Face,” “Robin’s Reckoning,” “Feat of Clay,” “The Demon’s Quest”), I think “Shadow of the Bat,” which introduces Batgirl to the show, is a weaker effort. But the score is great fun to listen to. I enjoy hearing the fun and jaunty Batgirl theme emerge in track 5 and in the last seconds of track 6, the closing moment of Part 1. In part 2, the liner notes make particular mention of the jazzy “bad guys escape” music heard in track 9. It’s certainly an attention-grabbing piece of score and a really unique choice. (However, I’m not so sure it works in the episode — it makes the scene a little too silly for my tastes.) The score for “Harley and Ivy,” the episode that paired up the Joker’s “hench-wench” Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, very successfully walks the line of being comic music that’s still compelling. The whole episode’s score, especially track 17, is goofy and fun without being cliche “comedy” music (which I find very annoying and obvious). Harley’s great theme gets a lot of play in this episode, especially in track 19. “Read My Lips” is a Scarface/Ventriloquist episode, and the first piece of music from that score (track 21) sets the tone for that episode. The whole score has a jazzy, noir sound, which is perfect for the Ventriloquist and his “dummy,” Scarface — a “get dose mooks!” gangster cliche. Scarface is a somewhat silly character but, thanks to the series’ sharp writing, he’s also a dangerous threat to Batman. Disc four, and the collection, ends with music from “Fire From Olympus,” featuring the villain Maxie Zeus. It’s not a great episode and not one of my favorite scores. I prefer the series’ darker, moodier music. However, this score wonderfully illustrates the series’ amazingly creative and malleable approach to its music. Coming on this disc right after the jazzy score for “Read My Lips,” this score is bold and brash, with a Greco-Roman sound that reminds me of an old-time Hollywood historical epic. It’s the perfect sound for an episode about a wealthy man who thinks he’s a Greek god. The ability of Shirley Walker and her incredible team (including Carl Swander Johnson, Harvey R. Cohen, Stuart Balcomb, Lolita Ritmanis, Carlos Rodriguez, Michael McCuiston, and others) to craft a distinct score for each episode, dramatically altering the style and sound to match the character being spotlighted, is wonderful.
Listening to this CD set made me fall back in love with Batman: The Animated Series all over again. That show was an extraordinary achievement, and I really miss it. We are so lucky to have these two soundtrack collections — thank you La-La Land Records! Now, please, if you don’t mind, bring on volume 3!