Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was a cinematic super hero light that burned brightly with Nike product placement and profitable toys that would make any executive blush. It’s known for taking the Batman franchise out of the television show’s camp and creating a bold look that combined many enduring elements into one of Burton’s most memorable and successful blockbusters. Modern fans and critics have been harsh on the film, comparing it to later more innovative and respectful approaches.
Now, I can defend Keaton’s criminal-killing rubber abs or praise Nicholson chewing up the scenery in Dick Sprang style makeup all day, but that sort of Batman review is so blasé. I need to critically approach this film in a way that speaks to all of its flaws, greatness, and impact on the Batman franchise. I think the best way to understand the film through a single critical lens is through the film’s eccentric soundtrack: a musical feat as bold and artistic yet commercial and cynical as the film itself. Prince’s complete LP dedicated to the 1989 film may be regarded as novelty, but it is more artistically representative of the film than Elfman’s dark and heroic approach.
What People Want to Remember from Batman ’89
It’s easy to forget how much of current Batman was influenced by this specific film. The setting in particular, before this film Gotham did not have its own identity. This film blows every other Batman film out of the water for portraying Gotham as a city. Christopher Nolan might have been better off having Batman Begins (2005) taking place in Chicago. Elfman sought to have his score influenced by the separate appeals of the Batman character. It helps that Burton laid a clear groundwork for how Batman is portrayed in scenes. He’s introduced mysteriously in the fog, attacking criminals in the night. He speaks in whispers. This is present in the entirety of Elfman’s score, capturing everything about Batman through his simplicity. That’s why we’re spoiled with the animated series Batman to this day. That Batman is mysterious, dark, fun, and heroic. Most other incarnations of Batman leave out one of those traits, intentionally or not.
Yet, Elfman’s contributions don’t represent the popular opinion of the film. Burton’s Batman is not a universal constant harnessing everything we like about the character. The film is a mess. The main character is barely seen, the love interest is underdeveloped, the story is simple heroism yet feels dumber than it needs to be. Certain scenes and moments don’t even fit with anything else. They added whatever they felt like adding because they thought the Joker would do it or it would make Batman look cool (sleeping upside down?) Prince’s soundtrack is also a beautiful mess. It may be a Warner Brothers product, but what’s special about it is that the product was so mixed in personal creative ambition from both Burton and Prince that it didn’t matter. That’s why this album is a perfect companion for this film, unlike the Elfman score which sought to check every box possible. Prince’s album is unrelenting in how Prince it is. Elfman’s music culturally and literally in the film is used for how we feel about Batman, and Burton utilized Prince’s music in the film for how we feel about Joker; it fits. Prince’s manic artistic energy and funky pop just works better with Jack. Elfman’s score and Prince’s soundtrack are two antithetical works trying to synthesize together into a single movie, like a Hegelian Dialectic Batman nightmare. I bet you’d never thought you’d hear that.
Opening the Sleeve
The official PR story is that Tim Burton used Prince songs (The songs “1999“ and “Baby I’m a Star“) during rough cuts of the film and decided to approach him for actual songs to fit the film. They got along so WB and Burton pushed Prince to make a song to help sell the film. He did way more than that. He revamped shelved songs and provided completely original ones to make a nine song, approximately forty-three minute, album. The songs were closely connected in theme (well not all, but we’ll get there) to the Batman film. The lyrics are even attributed in the liner notes to characters of the film.
With this all considered, I want to look at the actual album and talk about how it fits with the film itself. Bit by bit, a little bit of an album review but also considering how it shares context with the film. If you just wanted to skim over somebody doing a brief overview of Prince and Batman ’89, then you’re pretty much done here. We got your click, it’s fine, I’m not hurt if you scroll back up and get out of here. Still here? Good.
The first song on the album is “The Future”. This song is attributed to Batman the hero. It actually is in the film, it plays on the radio right before Batman’s introduction. This song is strong evidence that Prince completely understands the Batman character, whose characteristics fit Prince’s own moral sensibilities. This song actually reminds me of a very similar song in context: the Smashing Pumpkins “The End is the Beginning is the End”, the song written for what all critics hail as the greatest movie of all time Batman & Robin (1997). Both of these songs are dirty and go into a sort of primal spirituality of Batman’s own ethos.
For Prince, this is probably the song that belongs most in the film. It’s not funky and upbeat, it’s slow and ominous. His song creates a dark world begging for a defender. The emphasis on the title and the hook showcase a forward thinking morality, even if they’re basic. “If there’s life after we will see, So I can’t go like a jerk.” This creates a link between Prince’s Christianity and Batman’s moral code. The references of Hollywood and class conflict are setting the stage for a haunting tone and background for why the world needs strong principles.
Yellow Smiley offers me X
Like he’s drinking seven up
I would rather drink six razor blades
Razor blades from a paper cup
He can’t understand, I say too tough
It’s just that I’ve seen the future
And boy it’s rough
This is a personal story about a revelation he made when he was accidentally given the drug ecstasy. It caused a huge personality shift, and made him very anti-drug. This is given greater context in his own career particularly during the cancelled Black Album, but in here the imagery meant to feel cool and dark and twisted. Yet, Prince denies the offer for X, enforcing the morality of the song into his personal life.
Wait a minute
Pretty pony standing on the avenue
Flashing a loaded pistol, too dumb to be true
Somebody told him playing cops and robbers was cool
Would our rap have been different if we only knew?
This is the moment he ties the song in with Batman, and utilizes the previous imagery and personal involvement to create a context for Batman’s own creation. It doesn’t directly address Batman, but Batman’s creative fingerprint is throughout this verse. I don’t feel like I have to explain the imagery of a criminal standing on the street with a gun has to do with Batman, but remember that Burton specifically put this song prior to Batman’s introduction. There’s even a family reminiscent of Batman’s origin that walk through the street as the song plays. This song ultimately connects Prince with Batman that justifies the rest of the album. Prince loved Batman even as a child, he cited the sixties television theme as the first song he ever learned to play on the piano. Yet, he knew deep down what resonated with him about the character and didn’t attach his fondness to the kitsch presentation he knew well in his childhood. It’s the most gothic Prince ever gets in the album.
Yet, despite being the most “Batman” song, the word “future” is more present in Joker’s arc. Think about your future Jack.
His second song, “Electric Chair”, was already cut before the album was even an idea. However, the song is good and it’s got a clear, sinister vibe to it. It’s also funky. The liner notes attribute this song to the Joker. The trend you’re going to see in this album overview is that Prince’s songs seem almost completely out of place within the actual film but capture a nice feeling for the characters provided. Prince captures madness well in this album, and the frenetic overtly sexual pop songs best fit with the Joker. People complain about the film featuring more Joker than Batman, but it’s only natural that Joker’s contrasting nature be magnetic in such a film.
Just because Prince likes Batman’s morals doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to get down. This chorus feels fun when you hear it and when you look at it, it’s a fun sexual tease. “If a man is guilty for what goes on in his mind, give me the electric chair for all my future crimes, oh!” The fact that Prince embraces and is proud of his inner desires void of guilt is also reminiscent of Joker’s character, so it’s got that going for it.
The third song, “Arms of Orion”?… Hmm. His girlfriend of the time, Sheena Easton, joins in for a romantic duet attributed to Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale. I’m glad the song doesn’t show up in the film, because it wouldn’t work at all. I’m not a fan of ballads, but it’s pleasant. If absent from the soundtrack, the album would feel way more sexual with few romantic elements. Because of that, there’s certainly a purpose for it, but the lyrics and style feel very uninspired and overly sentimental. Looking at the lyrics, it’s more about a long distance relationship than Batman. The weak presence of actual developed romance in the album is also a major problem in the story. Vicki has more chemistry with everyone in costume, Bruce’s moments with her show deep insecurity and fragility. This idea will be tackled later in the album.
BORING! Now it’s time for “Partyman“! The basic rule of Prince and Joker still applies here. This song pops, and in all the right ways. This song appears the most prominently in the film too, in the scene where Joker trashes a bunch of paintings before meeting up with Vicki Vale. This is a scene ripped right from the original Batman (1966-1968) television series with Adam West, featured in the episode “Pop Goes the Joker”. The song itself isn’t really special in the lyrics, but it has a strong James Brown influence. It also sort of feels like a celebratory song for the Joker. It’s great. Prince claims the inspiration for this song came from meeting Jack Nicholson. This is one of many connections of identity between Jack and the Joker, which made perfect sense at the time. Jack Nicholson was perfect casting because his elastic acting and range gave the character more depth than he was usually acknowledged to have at the time. I mean, The Killing Joke had come out a year before, but this film wasn’t meant for nuances in antagonists. This is possibly the best song on the album.
Wow, I was wrong. The best song is Vicki Waiting. This song was rewritten from an old song based on Prince’s then girlfriend, Anna Fantastic. It has remarkable subtleties for a rewrite, with lyrics written to best capture the insecurities of Bruce Wayne. The first verse has Bruce tell Vicki a joke which she doesn’t enjoy. Then, the chorus is him admitting how great Vicki’s love is in spite of Bruce’s obligation to being Batman.
But you see when crime is your only love
All that matter is the present, the here and now
People, people, whatever floats this joker’s boat
Is whatever this joker will bang
The second verse seems based on the Joker, creating a solid defense for Bruce. Prince’s moral compass shines through, as Joker’s amorality prevents him from appreciating love and only allows him to appreciate the moment.
The verse after is probably the main component of the original song. It feels like Prince is really singing of his own insecurities in a relationship and how he contemplates the future and the reality of their dynamic.
It’s also an easy song to sing and croon to. I hear Prince having fun singing it when he yells out, “AND I AM WHAT SHE WANTS TO SEE-” I love it.
“Trust” is the last Prince song that appears in the film. It appears during Joker’s parade near the end of the film. This is the song that seems to have been specifically chosen by Burton. It replaced “200 Balloons” in the editing room. The high energy with seductive lyrics match Joker’s own domination over Gotham City. Joker’s music is even interrupted by Elfman’s desire for a triumphant finale for our hero.
The song again combines sexuality and the Joker, but this time with some extra context. Taken alone, the song is about a man asking to his prospective lover to trust him. There’s some dodgy moments in the song regarding consent, but then again I suppose the entire song is about consent. Other than that, if you take the simplicity of the lyrics and add it to the scene in the film, it creates its own irony: You can’t trust the Joker! He’s bad! This movie is complex and I’m definitely a mature, well adjusted adult.
Not seen in the film, the song has an ending line that is the only line attributed to the actual Prince in the entire album. It’s “Who do you trust if you can’t trust God? Who can you trust – who can ya? Nobody.” Prince emphasizes multiple times in the album that people need moral compasses, and reiterates his Christian beliefs to tie in with Batman’s morality.
“Lemon Crush“ is a song I do not like at all. It’s attributed to Vicki. I think what I don’t like about it is how it doesn’t relate at all to anything and more importantly doesn’t sound good. It’s too simple. It’s bare yet tries too hard. The instrumentation is fine. Maybe I just don’t like it’s rhyme scheme, which is very repetitive.
Every time you kiss me, lemon crush
Nay, I can’t resist thee, lemon crush
Every time you do me, such a rush
Oh it goes right through me, lemon crush
And I hope that’s a good enough example for me to be done with it.
“Scandalous” is a song written by Prince and his father before the album was made. It’s attributed to Batman. If I had to pin what this song is supposed to be, it’s supposed to represent the sexual tension between Batman the hero and Vicki when she’s being saved. This is probably the best PRINCE song on the album. Like, I’m sure devout Prince fans like this song the most. It’s sexual, and hits you in all the right places. It’s also mysterious and badass. Powerful vocals, excellent instrumentation. It feels very R&B on a pop album, and that’s always welcome to me. Biggest thing I gotta say about it is it’s very clearly a Prince song that was thrown into a Batman album. “Arms of Orion”, “Lemon Crush”, “Scandalous” all stick out like a sore thumb here.
Seriously, How Bad Was Batdance?
“Batdance” is a song written by an advanced computer algorithm that movie producers hoped would replace real musicians. They encoded a digital clone of Prince to be trapped in the realm of cyberspace for all eternity. Some say he is still doing the Batdance.
It’s hard to talk about the song objectively in 2019. It is so rooted in its own novelty, so devoted to gimmicks and sound clips and variation, that any time a pleasant sound is heard it’s either ripped from another part of the album or doesn’t last long enough to outweigh the bad. Sexuality used appropriately in other songs becomes weird Prince punchlines here. Prince’s experimental sound becomes a hindrance, but I think it’s because it’s in substitute for anything else. It was the last song made for the album, and another song (“Dance With the Devil”) was cut so it could be here. It’s what people think of when they think of this album, and that’s clearly a detriment. I just spent three thousand words defending this album and this song almost makes me regret it. So? Pretty bad.
In short, I think Prince was a true artist and gave every ounce of himself for something very, very commercial. Burton thinks of the ’89 film as a nightmare with studio involvement and compromise. His sequel, Batman Returns (1992) was far less marketable but more authentic to his sensibilities. It was more creative and more iconic in its portrayals. Danny Elfman even made a score that I would say is actually way better than the ’89 film. Yet, I find myself admiring this film more. This film set a lot of groundwork for Batman as a franchise that everybody takes for granted now. What’s bad in this film is bad to be sure, but the great of this film became immortalized and recognized. Even the Prince album, for better or worse. Burton asked Siouxsie and the Banshees to contribute a song for Batman Returns. It was okay. Seal contributed “Kiss From a Rose“ to Batman Forever (1995). That was great. Still, they didn’t even attempt to do what Prince did. They couldn’t. Nobody was like Prince.
The actual Batman album
Prince’s childhood connection to Batman, originally mentioned in an Oprah interview: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/23/prince-death-early-years-formed-music-legend
Prince’s personal story in “The Future”: http://the-black-album.info/history.html
Danny Elfman Batman 89 interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l99IX3hf158