Comics on Film: How Prince Made Superhero Movies Into Pop Culture Events With the 'Batman' Soundtrack

Comics on Film: How Prince Made Superhero Movies Into Pop Culture Events With the 'Batman' Soundtrack

Apr 22, 2016

Yesterday, the world lost one of its most enigmatic and undeniably talented musical performers, in a year that seems all too willing to take our beloved musical icons from us. At the age of only 57, Prince left an indelible mark on the music industry, with millions of fans all over the world now having to say goodbye to a powerful communicator through his musical art.

But, this is Comics on Film, right? Why does this article feel at all compelled to touch on that loss? Simple: if we didn't have Prince, then we wouldn't have one of the most memorable albums ever created that was tied to one of the biggest cultural events in the history of comic book cinema. That album and film, of course, was Batman.

 

Dark Knight, Bright Prince

A mere four months before the ambitious first Batman film by Tim Burton would be released in theaters, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber, along with Burton, approached Prince to create material for the soundtrack of the upcoming film. With the movie itself proving to be a risky proposition on the parts of the studio and the filmmakers, having a companion album with Prince's unique hybrid of pop, rock, soul, funk, and synthpop seemed like a positive addition to the overall album.

Starting work in the recording studio in February of 1989, the album was conceived as an offering with multiple pop artists, including Michael Jackson. Eventually, these plans fell through, and Prince developed the entire album himself, with a couple of notable additions in the form of Sheena Easton and jazz musician John L. Nelson. After six weeks, work on the album was completed in March of 1989, and would end up featuring nine songs and over 45 minutes of original musical material.

Several of the songs from the album also use samples of dialogue from the film, and since the film was still actively being worked on at the time that the album was being recorded, the audio samples actually originate from a workprint copy of the film, which didn’t feature any foley or ADR recordings. If you listen carefully in the album’s first song, “The Future,” you can hear Michael Keaton’s dialogue sounds a little less refined than we may be used to hearing.

 

Memorable Sounds Accompany Memorable Scenes

The final cut of Batman also features a lot of the music that Prince recorded for the album. As the family that gets held up in the film’s opening minutes walks down the streets of Gotham before their fateful encounter with a pair of muggers, you can hear “The Future” being played by someone on the city streets.

Perhaps the most iconic scene in the film featuring the album’s music is when the Joker and his men burst into the Flugelheim Museum, and vandalize many of the timeless art pieces it holds, as they all joyfully dance to the tune of Prince’s “Partyman.”

In the film’s final moments just before the climax in the church, as the Joker is planning on killing many of Gotham’s citizens with deadly gas from his parade balloons, Jack Nicholson’s Clown Prince of Crime joyfully journeys down the street on his Gotham City 200th birthday cake float to the tune of “Trust,” which would also be an element of dialogue in the Joker’s lines as he appeals to the city’s distrust of Batman and his intentions.

Of course, though, one of the most memorable songs on the album doesn’t actually appear in the film. “Batdance” is something of a mind-trip to listen to, because it acts as so many things at once. It starts out as chaos, kicking in a guitar before jumping into the distinctive cackling of Jack Nicholson, and then quickly transitions to a funky dance beat with an accompanying and memorable accompaniment from seven other songs, with a persistent guitar reigning in some of the chaotic elements with a core, consistent tempo.

Anyone who’s watched the song’s music video also knows that Prince went all out to embody multiple characters on both himself and his dancers. The near-tragedy here is that “Batdance” almost didn’t make it to the album, since its spot was almost taken up by a darker song called “Dance with the Devil.” Prince instead decided to go for the upbeat “Batdance” in its place, which definitely ended up being a good choice on his part, since it led to his first number one hit single since 1986.

 

Legacy of the Batman Album on Comics-based Cinema

The Batman album by Prince rode in on a perfect storm of cultural consciousness because of the impending film, and was immensely successful as a result. It hit the top spot on Billboard magazine’s top 200 albums, a spot it maintained for an astonishing six weeks. The album sold a staggering 11 million copies worldwide, also hitting number one in the UK, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. It broke into the top 5 in countries like Australia, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Beyond its commercial and critical popularity, the Prince album definitely helped to solidify the 1989 Batman film as a cultural event. As we’ve spoken about before, if you talk to anyone who was around in the summer of 1989, “Batmania” swept the world in a way not seen since Adam West and Burt Ward bounced around in their colorful costumes during the 1960’s, and that Batman fever singlehandedly contributed to the character’s image being reformed in the eyes of the public, transforming the wide public perception of the Batman character as a creature of the night, as opposed to the lampooning camp factory of the 1960’s.

While it’s not common to find other superhero movie soundtrack albums feature only one primary artist as this one did, it was the first of many to follow to feature a popular tie-in song as a major element of its promotion. It paved the way for U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” to accompany the release of 1995’s Batman Forever. Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott tore up the charts in 2002 with “Hero,” prominently featured on the soundtrack for Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man film.

Evanescence broke onto the scene by pairing “Bring Me to Life” with 2003’s Daredevil. That same year, supergroup Velvet Revolver created “Set Me Free” to accompany Ang Lee’s Hulk film. Watchmen saw a high-powered cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance. AC/DC paired “Shoot to Thrill” with the soundtrack of Iron Man 2 in 2010. Soundgarden paired their single “Live to Rise” with The Avengers in 2012. The list goes on and on.

When starting a conversation about pop songs being paired with a major superhero film, though, it all begins with Prince and Batman. Now, keep in mind: this is only one small aspect of the decades-spanning career of the recently departed musical icon. Nevertheless, if you decide to pay tribute to him in some small way this weekend, maybe pop in your copy of Batman. And, as his music starts to play over a couple of scenes, turn the volume up a bit and enjoy what he gave us. It’d be a good way to tip your hat to a recently lost legend of music.

And to leave you, some words from Batman film producer Michael Uslan, which he posted on Facebook:

"His music provided a stark contrast to the soundtrack by Danny Elfman, merging in the process to help define and create Gotham City in our first serious Batman movie in 1989. Even more, his music in that film helped bring the tone of Jack Nicholson's Joker to life. Farewell, Prince..."


Chris Clow is a geek. He is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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