In the history of film music, we have not seen many collaboration works involving high profile composers. 1954's The Egyptian comes to mind, in which Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman united to create one of the true classics of the Golden Age, but other than that, the list of such collaborations is short. But now, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have joined forces to score the fifth film of the Batman franchise: Batman Begins. Is now this score all that we expect it to be – a merge of these two composers’ styles and at the same time a worthy successor to the great Batman scores of the past, by Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal? Well, both yes and no. While Batman Begins actually quite successfully merges parts of Howard’s and Zimmer’s styles, it plays through to the end with a feeling that so much more could have come out of the collaboration between two so talented composers. Even though Batman Begins has its moments of both thematic beauty and brilliant action writing, I find that it in the end does not leave much of an imprint – at least not with me.
Overall, Batman Begins is rather low-key, dominated by strings and subtle electronics, as well as some Matrix-like sustained brass chords. It is in its core a quite dark score, with no cheerful moments whatsoever, and the outright melodic moments are few. This is not very surprising though – Batman Begins is essentially a very low-key film, focusing very much on how Bruce Wayne deals with the death of his parents, and a more heroic score would have been entirely wrong for the film. It is not a themeless score, however, but it moves in the dark thematic territories of scores like Hannibal and Snow Falling on Cedars – slow and sombre, and not really that memorable, to be frank. Actually, I find that Batman Begins lacks much of the thematic work which usually is so prominent in many of both Hans Zimmer’s and James Newton Howard’s scores. It has to be given to their credit though that the lack of melodic moments in the film makes the few thematic outbursts very emotionally powerful, which really lifts some of the film’s scenes. The melancholic string theme in “Macrotus” and “Corynorhinus” is very beautiful and does the trick on both film on album. The other most notable thematic element in the score is a motif of two ascending sustained brass chords, which surfaces frequently and is the only thing this score has that can be considered any kind of main theme. This very simplistic yet effective motif does work well as a unifying element of the score, together with the aforementioned string melody, but more than that, as a theme, it has little to offer.
While much of the score, as mentioned, is quite low-key material, there is a fair share of action material as well. This is mainly the Zimmer kind of action music – electronic percussion, string ostinatos and thematic brass lines. Very rhythmic and indeed entertaining for the most part, though nothing we have not heard before. That is not necessarily a bad thing of course, and Zimmer fans will surely love this action music – and honestly I do too. It is both exciting and very listenable, and with the appropriate dark character to go with the rest of the score. Tracks like “Myotis” and “Molossus” are great action tracks and among the highlights of this score. And it is this, together with the emotional string writing, that makes this score worth the listen.
Sometimes though, I feel that the score just lingers deep in low strings and electronics, not really progressing, not making any statements; merely existing as a subdued background. Thankfully, the aforementioned strengths of the score are featured frequently enough, so the album never really grows boring – even though I for one feel that there are moments when you just wait for the next action sequence or thematic movement, not really enjoying the parts in between. And this definitely detracts from the overall entertainment value of the score.
It should also be understood that this in its overall style and feel is a Zimmer score, and for a less experienced listener, I am sure that the whole work could be mistaken for a Zimmer solo work. It is quite clear that James Newton Howard’s main contribution is the thematic string statements – clearly heard in cues like “Eptesicus”, “Macrotus” and “Corynorhinus”, three wonderfully sad and emotional cues that ranks among the highlights of this album. The action music is as mentioned more or less solely a Zimmer effort, judging by the sound, and I suspect that even if Howard surely has been fully involved in the whole creative process of writing the score, most of what we hear comes from Zimmer’s pen.
Conclusively, Batman Begins is absolutely not a bad score, and I say that it is very well worth investing some time in listening to it. It has a lot of things to offer, James Newton Howard’s great string writing being the primary treat, and its dark character really grows on you. But on the other hand, I feel that it would have benefited from a more thematic approach, and I am quite sure that these two composers could have created a much more complex and layered dark score for this dark film than this final product is. I also felt in the film that the few moments of calmness and harmony could have been better taken care of with lighter scoring, in contrast to the dark and brooding drama of the rest of the film which needed this dark scoring and benefited from it. In addition, Batman Begins lacks the personal voice that ultimately ties it to its movie – there are not many characteristics that say “Batman Begins” – I just feel “dark action film”. Therefore, the score fails to reach heights which I feel that it otherwise could have reached. I really wanted to place it up in those heights, but ultimately, I can’t. It is a good, decent score, but unfortunately nothing more.
As a reboot to a largely dead franchise (Batman and Robin is one of the few films I've seriously contemplated walking out of, but for some masochistic reason, I stayed until the brain deadening, ear numbing bitter end), Batman Begins is as far in quality from Schumacher's filmic road crash as is possible. A more engrossing comic book film I cannot recall - even the Spider-Mans and X-Mens did not have me so thrilled and totally immersed from beginning to end. Christian Bale confirms his status as one of Hollywood's finest male leads (and for a Brit actor, his authentic American accent is a bonus) and it pleases me enormously that he managed to grow from his impressive debut in Empire of the Sun to star in a mixture of top flight Hollywood flicks such as this, but also indies like The Machinist. We can only hope that if Batman Begins turns into Batman Carries On and Batman Ends (probably with better titles), as is expected, the quality doesn't fall away. From Neil Hefti's cheesily amusing theme for the Adam West TV show to Danny Elfman's early and improbably superb, iconic score (up there with Williams' Superman in my estimation) for Tim Burton's slightly superficial take and the schizophrenia of Elliot Goldenthal's entries, Batman has done well musically. Treading the fine line between light and dark, he is a more complex character than Superman and brooding, but heroic, is entirely appropriate. Hans Zimmer may be used to having a gaggle of minions fill in the gaps between 'zee little tunes,' James Newton Howard is a one man show and having them work together seems an intriguing prospect. While Howard rarely fails to impress, Zimmer's imagination seems to have been stalling since Gladiator and unfortunately, the mixture here shows neither composer in their finest light.
There is a school of thought which suggests that some kind of continuity with Elfman's or Goldenthal's might be appropriate, but I can live with this not being the case. However, the character's main identifier is little more than a memorable cadence - two notes and not a fat lot else. I would confess that it is surprisingly effective in the film itself and the epic shots of Batman atop some tower block and a thick, epic, couple of orchestral chords work in their simplicity, on disc it all seems a bit too simplistic. Here, more than ever, Zimmer's anthem has a Vangelis lilt to it - if Alexander had been menacing and dressed in leather, rather than effete, blond and Irish, I'm guessing his theme would sound something like the second half of Eptesicus. Like Vangelis' Titans anthem from Stone's disastrous epic, this is the kind of simplistic anthem that is somehow irresistible, although unlike Vangelis' music, melodically rather uninteresting.
It appears that Howard got the dramatic portions and Zimmer ramps up his keyboard for the action. The former sections are occasionally engaging, notably a fine, melancholy string melody, while the latter are slightly more interesting than much of Zimmer's recent action music, although this is rather relative. Unfortunately, between these modestly interesting passages, there are too many slack periods; gloomy, sustained notes that don't go anywhere and general non-musical ambiance gets dull, quickly. Artibeus offers some decently nightmarish horror which, while threatening to be rather obnoxious at times, builds the tension effectively. The final two tracks are perhaps the best and feature all of the best material - both the high points of Zimmer's stoic and heroic pounding, plus Howard's elegant strings. The two styles seem to waft from one to another, but in a blind test, I rather suspect few would spot Howard's contributions. Careful listening reveals the two styles quite easily, but to say they clash seems a bit strong - only by virtue of them not sounding like every other Zimmer adagio does Howard's restrained material make itself known. Zimmer's typical chord progressions and synth/orchestra action mix is certainly the more assertive of the two.
For my money, Zimmer has been musically treading water for some time and a Howard solo effort would likely have been far more interesting. Then again, a more typically dramatic score from Elliot Goldenthal, if he could have been tempted, would have bettered either composer. An interesting experiment, but neither composer displays their strengths; Zimmer leans too heavily on the tried and tested, while Howard simply loses out by getting all the quiet bits (even if they far and away the best passages and in a score of entirely that material, would likely result in a fine album). In one interview, Zimmer suggests that it was a necessity to have two composers as the film was too much for one to tackle alone, which is an insult to all those composers who are entirely capable of scoring fine films on their own. Howard Shore didn't need a team to write three Lord of the Rings scores, each one a bigger undertaking than this. Yes, there are some good moments here, but many longeurs and the pleasures are distinctly intermittent. See the film though, it rarely lets up and its pleasures are manifold.
Christopher Nolan's decision to make his Batman reboot series more "realistic" is one that has been universally well-received by filmgoers and critics alike - mainly because they serve to banish the distasteful memories of Joel Schumacher's disasters. Batman Begins, the first of a proposed trilogy, explores Bruce Wayne's past and the tragic death of his parents. Behind the excellently rendered special effects lies an antiheroic and very downbeat film, far closer to Tim Burton's classic Batman than any other effort in the disjunct series. Film music fans were perhaps hoping for a score to match Danny Elfman's Batman, counted as a classic in the superhero genre. Most Elfman fans gave up hope when they heard that Hans Zimmer would be the man behind it.
Indeed, Zimmer, and his collaborator James Newton Howard, haven't referenced Elfman, or Elliot Goldenthal for that matter, at all. Superhero score fans may be howling for Elfman's heroic themes, but this is quite an appropriate choice on Zimmer's part. The German composer has stated that Batman hasn't "earned" a heroic theme yet, and he has a point in the context of the film. Unfortunately, the primary theme in Batman Begins, heard first in "Vespertilio" and repeated ad nauseam, is two notes. D-F. Clearly not enough to represent a character as complex as Bruce Wayne. And yet, in "Eptesicus", a secondary theme is introduced over a chopping string line. It's not played obviously here, but it is still present. And it will be back, with a vengeance, in The Dark Knight. This is a delightful subtlety, and shows that Zimmer isn't all about power-anthems - he actually knows how to compose for films and franchises.
The action music in Batman Begins is rather run-of-the-mill, standard Zimmer stuff with an electronic edge. But run-of-the-mill Zimmer action is still excellent, and tracks like "Myotis", "Antrozous" and especially "Molossos" are punchy and exciting, as one would expect in a Batman film.
Another side of Batman Begins, its weakest side, is that of scary suspense and even horror. This very electronic edge is best heard in "Artibeus" and "Tadarida", and represents the Scarecrow in the film. But a delightfully evil villain such as this merits rather more than a theme that sounds like an insane vacuum cleaner (in Tadarida).
James Newton Howard's contributions are, as many film music collectors predicted, rather overshadowed by Zimmer's aggressive action. The track "Corynorhinus" is a clearly Howard track, and it is beautiful, though rather uninspired by Howard's very high standards. It employs strings over a piano, typical Howard orchestrations, and is used to represent Bruce Wayne's loss in the film.
One of the most notable things about Batman Begins is its introduction of the eighth-note string ostinati that Zimmer and his Media Ventures/Remote Control associates now regularly use (The Da Vinci Code, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End). It's a very effective technique that gives movement to the music, and it is used copiously in Batman Begins. In a way, Batman Begins is Zimmer's most defining score since Gladiator.
In the end, a Hans Zimmer fan such as myself is very pleased with the Batman Begins album, though the extremely punchy half-orchestral, half-electronic music from the beginning of the end credits is sorely missing. James Newton Howard fans might be annoyed by the way Zimmer has overpowered here, but they might still be interested in buying this album for the beautiful "Corynorhinus" alone.
As for the Elfman fans, if you're looking for ties to 1989's Batman, look elsewhere. There are none to be found here, which is one of the score's understandable, but still major, disappointments. The other disappointment is that some of the score consists of the empty, atmospheric mood music that I found annoying in The Thin Red Line, but there isn't a lot of it, and the strong action music makes up for it.
Freak Rise, RipTide Music/Dan Silver (Trailer) Gasoline, RipTide Music/Julin Beeston (Trailer) Living Inside Of Me, RipTide Music/Level (Trailer) Tortured Voice Rise, RipTide Music/Joe Webb (Trailer) Scary Electronica, RipTide Music/Gerard Marino (Trailer) Hitdrone (MODULE), VideoHelper Music Library (Trailer) Full Doom, VideoHelper Music Library (Trailer) Armies Unite, Brand X Music (Trailer) Be Afraid, Brand X Music (Trailer) Break Away, Brand X Music (Trailer) Feed The Fury, Brand X Music (Trailer) Transformation, Brand X Music (Trailer) Whispering Night, Brand X Music (Trailer) Sci Fi, Future World Music/Armen Hambar (Trailer) Original Trailer Music, James Newton Howard (Trailer) Original Trailer Music, Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard (Trailer) Backend, Veigar Music (Trailer) Nuclear Dawn, Alex Pfeffer (Trailer) Belly of an Architect, The (1987) (Movie) Baraka (1992), Michael Stearns (Movie)