The Dark Knight - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Shows Review

The Dark Knight - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review
Available in several different versions - a standard CD, a deluxe CD with extra imagery and even a double vinyl album - the score for The Dark Knight sold out in many stores on the day of release, such is the ultra-high-profile fascination that people have that for the second Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan outing on the mean streets of Gotham City. Now, knowing how much of niche market soundtrack collecting actually is, I'm not sure just how many of these CDs flew off the shelves due to the haunting legacy of Heath Ledger's untimely demise, with people now going way beyond the norm in their eagerness to obtain anything related to the film. What is abundantly clear is that the film is an unparalleled success, building intensely upon what had gone before.

Which is exactly what the returning Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have done with their score - with the emphasis on the intense.

As a staunch lover of the first film's score - see my review for it - and a keen collector of scores from both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, I was hugely looking forward to this. How would they find a voice for the Joker? What gi-normous action set-piece would provide the bass-heavy backbone of the score? Would James Newton Howard actually get anything to do this time around, or would Zimmer continue to egotistically bully his way throughout the entire thing, like he did the last time? Several learned film-music scholars - and all much more knowledgeable in the mechanics and the technicalities of orchestration than I will ever be - immediately dismiss anything that has Hans Zimmer's name attached to it. I have already read several scathing, though extremely well-informed reviews of this particular score and what bothers me most of all is that I can see exactly where they are coming from in their remarks. However, Hans Zimmer is an acquired taste that I, for my sins, am rather partial to. But those downsides to his styles are hard to overlook. His overwhelming use of synthetic sound would probably not be as much of problem if he didn't use it so obviously in place of conventional instrumentation. His predilection for dense, but simplistic progressions that lack variety or maturity. And then there is the damning evidence of self-plagiarism. Perhaps second only to James Horner for shamelessly pursuing this practice, Zimmer here brings in elements of Broken Arrow and MI:2 which abound with the Joker's stylistic flourish of electric guitars, electric jaw-harp and a proliferation of rock-strengthened arrogance. But there are also doffs of the cap to Crimson Tide, The Last Samurai and even Backdraft dotted about. Zimmer favours texture and an all-pervasive design that permeates the very fabric of the film much more than, say, the often jubilant nature of Danny Elfman. Personally, I loved his scores for The Pirates Of The Caribbean Trilogy (yes, I know that Klaus Badelt's name is credited on the first one, but it was actually Zimmer who called all the shots on it) when most score-fans lambasted them.

More and more though, these days, I feel that I'm in the minority for backing him. I may not like his methods or his nature, but one thing that I cannot deny is that I do enjoy his music.

Considering that it is supposed to have taken him months to come up with, Zimmer's theme for the Joker turns out to be a horribly simple affair. One grinding note is stretched out until it becomes white noise, an industrial buzzing bee that, when all said and done, is actually pretty accurate and effective when essaying the anarchistic maniac. This grating incision into his warped psyche then gives way to a deep guitar and synth passage that curiously, but appreciably, evokes memories of some of the more ambient passages of Zimmer's score for Black Hawk Dawn, particularly the track Synchrotone, as it has that same flavour of rock-based inevitability about it. This character-theme is not what is expected, but it does work. Elfman's gothic brood and sinister flair are pure pantomime compared to the post-punk, unpredictability of this signature cue. The piece reforms and remoulds itself several times throughout, at one stage beginning an eerie muted rendition and at another the hovering helicopter edit. Effects litter the piece, nailing in the dementia. It is not a horror track, though, as Elfman would have done - well, did do - but an arrogant, bird-flipping, acid-drop, kick-in-the-face that is dangerous and rogue. And check out the fabulous stereo effect as well.

By complete contrast, I'm Not A Hero, which bleeds straight out of Track 1, returns us to the more familiar strains of Bale's revamped Batman. We get the ticking-clock motif of things happening behind the scenes, events building up remorselessly that worked so well for the first film. The heavy heartbeat-swish cue of Bat-preparations returns as well, but this time, running over the top of it all is a newer and altogether grimmer tone. This fresh slant dictates the trajectory of the new story and its overall power over the Dark Knight's actions - futility. Whilst the visuals pulls no punches, the music hammers home the stakes. Quite nicely, the track then ends with a brief action flurry. Here, we are treated to a partial recap of the train-fight sequence from Batman Begins - a terrific musical cue that remains, so far, unreleased ... and no, Bat-fans, it is not on the unofficial extended album either. What I do find quite pleasantly curious is the accelerated beat that plays in the background during later portions of the track, which is unintentionally (I'm sure) very similar to Elfman's Descent Into Mystery cue from Burton's first Batman.

Track 3, Harvey Two-Face, is where James Newton Howard comes in. How do we know? Easy, it's got pianos and strings in it. Although not strictly accurate as Zimmer does like the odd bit of cello-play too, you can basically determine the moments when Zimmer hands the reins over to his compadre because A) they are softer, quieter and more melodic and B) they utilise the orchestra and not banks of synthesisers and electronics. The thing is, for these scores, the balance is probably about right, with each composer playing to his recognised strengths. Howard has, of course, produced some strong action music recently in I Am Legend - even if most of those particular cues didn't make it into the finished film (they are on the album, though - see review) - so it is a shame that he wasn't allowed more freedom to cut loose with some dynamics here. This said, Track 3 slowly inspires with a gradual climb of noble gestures revealing that there is some good at work in Gotham that doesn't feel the need to scamper about rooftops dressed as a bat. A great rousing beat strikes up that signifies a crusade of a different kind and this then slips down into a lulling piano-led respite that seems determined to show us that peace and harmony can still exist in Gotham - although, as the film and the score so dementedly like to point out, not for long.

Track 4, Aggressive Expansion, is the first “wow!” of the album. Here we get a reprise of the terrific moment when Bruce Wayne realises his true destiny down in the bat-filled caves beneath the manor as they swirl around him in a cyclone. It was an awesome cue back then. It still is. The track then falls back in on itself, becoming a somewhat ambient John Powell-esque sub-beat for a surprisingly hum-drum middle-section. Thankfully, we round out with a brief, but cool viola and cello rendition of the Batmobile charge, that is also then added-to with some harsh guitars to lend an even more unique stance.

Like an air-raid siren, depravity is signified with rising terror and stabbing injections of bass. But after this piercing, attention-grabbing introduction, Track 5, Always A Catch, then slides back out to nothing. Compounding this disappointment is the following track, Blood On My Hands, which starts out just fine with Batman's theme played out in sombre, reflective mode, string-led and featuring some gloriously haunting pregnant notes on the piano. But, once again, the piece is allowed to go nowhere and it just winds up becoming mere filler.

The sense of time running out, things rapidly spiralling out of control and Batman's attempts to wrestle justice back become only fleeting moments of desperate grandeur as the score goes on. Tracks 7 and 8 are a blistering double-whammy of dread and heroism, bringing this fateful battle to a head. A Little Push (7) builds menace with a rising wall of sound that then shivers and trembles with rage. You can hear samples of subway trains and whistles in the mix, the fluttering of wings and perhaps even some hushed, wordless voices. A rolling, ominous chord of pure dread takes over that is wonderfully unnerving. This is a statement of chaos, pitched forth from hell and enunciated with fire. Churning. Wrathful. Brilliant.

Batman's reply comes in Like A Dog Chasing Cars (8). A Bernard Herrman-style arrangement for galloping strings heralds a very deadly serious rendition of the Dark Knight's action cue. Pounding bass and some delicious brass riding across the roof deliver the closest that Nolan's version of the character has to a fanfare. The Batmobile charge from Begins takes shape, but with lush strings and trumpet, tuba and trombone incorporated within, it is lent greater poignancy. No longer does the cue become like The Rock (the film-score, not the man) stripped-down to just bass and drum-machine, it actually becomes a thing of beauty, its power much less cocksure and its tone more desperate. First time around, no-one knew what Batman was capable of and we were all just in awe. This time, the rules are different and he doesn't hold the winning hand. Cleverly, the cue ends with the Joker's devilish strings and a strident, almost military drum cadence. We know who's making who jump through hoops.

A severe comedown follows with the lazy, meandering ambient sweep of Track 9, I Am The Batman, before a rising pitch of unnerving cacophony finally chills at the very end.

With Track 10, And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad, the pace is fast and the motivations furious. There is more of the Batmobile charge shining through until that fantastic jaw-harp comes sizzling in - it was so rich and atmospheric in both Broken Arrow and 3.10 To Yuma. Following straight on in Agent Of Chaos, is a skewed version of Bruce's escape from Ra's temple and then a lilting moment on the piano which brings in Rachel's theme. The track then see-saws between pounding action and piano before a sound like a distant dentist-drill then makes its disconcerting presence felt. After a curious fade-out - something that Zimmer did in the first score, too - the track then hits a dramatic high that, once again, is capped by the insistent, determined sizzle of the Joker's electro-hiss. As unbelievable tragedy ensues, the piece then slips into the melancholic piano refrain from Bruce's own haunted past, and it is just as affecting, although here we don't get quite the same impression of a protective arm to encircle us.

Track 12, Introduce A Little Anarchy, returns us the part-fanfare before it then segues, almost instantly, into the new strand of thematic design, bolstered by effects and lots of snappy little added beats. Like a greatest hits compilation, the piece then brings in the train-fight sequence again though, frustratingly still insists on cutting it short and reshaping it. The whole thing then becomes a long and frantic percussive overdrive that lacks clear tone or fulfilling momentum, coming across more like a Jive Bunny version.

Hugely unusual is the sombre mood of Watch The World Burn, a dark and yearning piece of thunderous mania for huge bass and anguished strings. Monumentally grave, this is a grim section of the album, indeed. Think “The World At War” or anything about the Holocaust and you're hitting the right tone. Not quite what you may have expected from a film-score about a comic-book hero, eh?

Fabulously, the album then rides out into a very murky and definitely damaged future of pain and uncertainty with the epic 16-minute finale, A Dark Knight. A lot of the themes that have gone before are revisited herein, making this a little bit like an overture for the score, but the terrific, character and theme-led flavour is predominantly one of tragedy. The point of this staggering cue is that, come the end of the day, things are no better - in fact, they are worse than before. Batman's crusade has done the exact opposite of what it was meant to do - it has caused the escalation that we all knew would happen and Bruce Wayne, in his valiant naiveté, never saw coming. The dark edge to the main themes remains but is now shot through with a long-drawn gasp of agony that is absolutely perfect for the position that the Dark Knight and Gotham now find themselves in. For me, this one track is worth the price of the disc on its own. Epic, searing and achingly powerful. The pain is exquisite, the glistening strings so eloquent in stating the horrific price that has been paid. The Batman's heroic theme struggles to make itself heard, trying desperately to reassure us amidst the chaos and the cruelty. Some dark notes from Gladiator nudge their way in round about mid-way through, and then the bad guys kind of have their say as their themes return in deeper, darker, more portentous forms than before. It all ends with the Bat-motif striving to break the icy grip of doom, and the fact that it doesn't quite manage it is a clever and subtly magical move, clearly leaving us, musically, at the same wounded juncture as the movie.

And, much like the movie, no-one gets out of this undamaged.

Although I think that James Newton Howard should have earned himself more airtime, the end result of his latest collaboration with the all-consuming host of Hans Zimmer is one of grim splendour. The score for The Dark Knight takes all the ingredients from Batman Begins and injures them, torturing the Bat even down to his music. The Joker's theme is actually quite incredible, the more I think about it. Frightening and intense, yet slyly hip and indie-rogue at the same time. The darkness definitely wins this time out and even if there is plenty of action hurled about, the overall impression - the lasting legacy - of this score is one of anxiety, angst, and agony. Which, of course, makes it sound wonderful, doesn't it? Thing is, it is wonderful. Since I got the disc, I haven't stopped playing it and when you consider that I get around ten new soundtracks a week - from re-released classics, rarities to limited editions and modern scores - that is saying something, I can tell you. The major gift of this score is that takes the characters that were so well set up with the first film and evolves right alongside them, as well as adding more to the pot. A lot may sound the same as before, but, in fact, it rarely is. Things have changed, the situation is worse and the score reflects that.

Deep, dark and demented, Batman's new score is the perfect accompaniment to a Dark Knight.

1. Why So Serious? 9:14

2. I'm Not a Hero 6:35

3. Harvey Two-Face 6:17

4. Aggressive Expansion 4:36

5. Always a Catch 1:40

6. Blood on My Hands 2:17

7. A Little Push 2:43

8. Like a Dog Chasing Cars 5:03

9. I Am the Batman 2:00

10. And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad 2:29

11. Agent of Chaos 6:55

12. Introduce a Little Anarchy 3:43

13. Watch the World Burn 3:48

14. A Dark Knight 16:15

Total Album Time: 73:35Incredibly dark and pessimistic, the score for Batman's confrontation with the Joker and the tragic fall from grace of Harvey Dent, may take a few listens before its grimy, grim and gruelling spell begins to take hold. Zimmer and Howard (well, just Zimmer, if we are being honest about it) had already gone against the conventional superhero-scoring grain and worked into the music for Batman Begins a modern noirish edge that was grungy, dank and wallowing, but they had, at least, fashioned a giddy propulsive heartbeat for Gotham and the endless struggle that Bruce Wayne had created for himself within it. Second time around, albeit dictated by the truly insane, damage-all nature of the story, the score is dragged through the depths of despair with even the original's vague attempts at capturing heroic glory now drowned in doom and depravity.

For me, the protection of Hans Zimmer becomes a battle almost as earnest as Batman's. Even I, his once most stalwart defender, must now concede that his heavy-handed synths and woeful lack of variety in orchestration can appear unbelievably stale and too thick for nuance, tricks or finesse. Equally, I cannot deny that the sheer muscling-out of Newton Howard yet again denies the score the soul that it could have had and hearing Zimmer talk in interviews about “their” achievements together is particularly galling. Undoubtedly, this follows-on seamlessly from the first film's score and, as such, fits The Dark Knight to a tee. Track 14 is, hands down, one of my favourite pieces of the year and it is hard to think of another superhero cue that is as serious, downbeat or affecting. I cannot wait for the third instalment of Nolan's triumphant Gotham odyssey, but I hope that Zimmer gives his co-composer a little bit more breathing space, a couple of the more ambient cues here could so easily, and more effectively, been left in his hands.

Still, The Dark Knight for a dark night. Excellent.






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