Party Like it’s 1989: Batman (4K UHD)

Its difficult for me to seperate the memories of that summer of 1989, and how big an ‘event’ film it was, from Tim Burton’s Batman itself. Its all wrapped up in the same thing- Batdance playing in the charts, Prince’s Batman album, the news reports about its release Stateside, all the marketing/tee-shirts/toys etc. I don’t know what the marketing budget was, but Batmania was huge that summer, with the Bat-logo seemingly everywhere. In some ways the film was a corporate juggernaut, from the casting choices to the use of Prince etc; it’s a testament to Burton’s efforts that the film still feels like it has a singular voice and vision in spite of the demonstrably hands-on studio behind him. 

Batman was the first film I saw in a cineplex, when the Showcase opened up nearby and consigned the old dilapidated ABC cinema in town to history forever (and eventual closure). So Batman remains more a memory of time and place than just a movie that could ever be judged on its own terms- it’s the quintessential ‘event’ movie, in the same way as Star Wars was and Jurassic Park was. Some films are never ‘just’ films.

Its also worthy to note that Batman wasn’t influenced by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, as later versions were (Miller’s opus cast a long shadow over Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Snyder’s Batman v Superman). Instead, it definitely appears more focused on the very first comic books prior to Robin featuring- something evidenced particularly by its oddly 1940s ‘look’ which seems to set the film in some strangely timeless world, a curious mix of period fashions and art deco sets and futuristic gadgets mixed will all sorts of retro stuff. In this respect, it’s a lot more like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which itself had a very dreamy, almost lost-Americana feel in which even the films ‘present day’ had a strong sense of early-1970s kitsch even in 1978. Both films of course are commended for taking the original sources very seriously indeed- thanks to endless re-runs on tv of the camp 1960s show, Tim Burton’s film in particular had a big weight around its neck in this regard which is possibly hard to envisage now, all these years later.

The production budget for the film was $35 million, which in today’s money would equal something around $75 million- not as high as might be expected in this age of $150 – $200 million budgets, perhaps indicating the surprisingly smaller scale of the Burton film compared to the later versions (Batman Begins was budgeted at $150 million in 2005, about $198 million in today’s money). The scale of the film is also impacted by the technology of the time. The CGI of the post-Matrix era has really enabled film-makers to open up the possibilities and trickery in superhero films, leaving Burton’s film rather dated with its matte paintings and model shots.

But of course films are always of their time, and I recall even in 1989 being underwhelmed by some of the visual effects and opticals; Batman was always an old-school, overwhelmingly analogue film even in 1989, with obvious nods to German expressionism in film and Citizen Kane and Vertigo. In this respect it remains a certain achievement and a curiously beautiful artifact.

Indeed, it looks damn gorgeous on this amazing 4k release- I’m really quite astonished at how beautiful this film looks now in 4K. Sure much of the fakery still looks fake, but some of the matte painting extensions of Gotham are just breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with new detail and colour breadth. And the sets. Good grief the sets. The interiors are pretty astonishing in detail and lighting (the HDR really benefiting the shadow detail) and the exteriors are really a wonder (the Gotham streets built on the Pinewood backlot and shot at night really impress here with all the added detail). In some ways this Batman is one of the most impressive catalogue 4K UHD discs I’ve yet seen- the HDR isn’t distracting (you’re not blinded by bright lights etc like you can be in some rather revisionary remasters) but simply increases the sense of depth and detail throughout. Its really tastefully done, clearly retaining the intentions of the original film-makers but looking, frankly, better than it ever has, even during its original theatrical presentation in 1989.

An interesting thing rewatching this film after so many years (I really can’t recall when I last saw it, but it was possibly on DVD) is the casting- after seeing Heath Ledger’s Joker, I expected Jack Nicholson’s version to pale in retrospect, but Nicholson’s Joker still impresses, surprisingly still perhaps the definitive Joker so far. There’s something real and fascinating and gritty about him- of course Nicholson is a great actor with real charisma in front of the camera- it’s almost magical here. Jack Napier is clearly a Bad Guy, a self-centered criminal working his way up the crime-syndicate ladder who becomes distinctly unhinged once he becomes the Joker, with what I assume are Nicholson’s ad-libs elevating the movie in just the same way as Robin Williams Aladdin several years later. His Joker is mean and scary and funny in a really fine performance, and yeah, he actually kills people in this- I was surprised when watching this again to see both Joker and Batman kill people. Its a surprisingly violent film considering it also lacks some of the CGI hysterics/stunts etc that later contemporary superhero films are afforded now. Burton actually wanted to cast Brad Dourif as the Joker- boy would that have been a different movie.

Jack Palance of course is brilliant, the only problem with his Carl Grissom is that he’s not in the film enough, Palance having a huge weighty gravitas in the few minutes of screentime he has. Kim Basinger and Jerry Hall remind us just how old the film is/when it was made, Basinger reduced to just screaming damsel in distress most of the film and Hall simply a trophy moll, it’s clearly all stuff they wouldn’t get away with today (Basinger replacing Sean Young as original choice for Vicki Vale, how weird would that have been for me as a Blade Runner fan). I always liked Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, a finely tuned comic performance that is quite measured and successful considering its in the same film as Nicholson’s Joker. Wuhl has always been one of the things I liked most in this movie.

Batman is curiously dated- as I have said, it was dated even in 1989 in some ways, and hasn’t ageed well since, but I did enjoy rewatching it. The saddest thing is that so much was dropped/changed when the sequel was made, and while many seem to think Batman Returns is superior I really don’t like it. I preferred the originals big Pinewood exteriors and interior sets, and really hurt by how much of the cast that we lost (I always thought Batman 2 should have reprised Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent and featured Two-Face as the villian, it’s such just a lost opportunity). Batman Returns just felt like too different a film, and the title oddly ironic, as it wasn’t the return of the Batman I had so enjoyed in 1989- it actually felt like a reboot.

You will have noticed I haven’t mentioned the biggest issue I always had with this film- Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Wayne is okay I guess, but his Batman really seems limited. Maybe it was the suit. It looks okay but it was clearly a bitch to shoot, it looks like he can hardly move in the bloody thing. The cape is almost a funny throwback to the 1960s show how it flaps around much of the time, and any fighting sequence is hampered by the suits inability to actually do anything in it without falling over. I always watch the film thinking about Spielberg’s ordeals shooting the mechanical shark Bruce in Jaws and feel that Burton must have had similar sleepless nights with that damn Batsuit. They managed to light it okay in most scenes, with the film’s expressionistic approach and deep shadows helping hide many of its failings, but it’s not the suit a real crime-fighter would employ without being put to death by the first serious super-villain. Its one of the things that dates the film really, but what the hell, it was 1989 I guess.

And of course, even as a big Prince fan, it really does seem weird, his music featuring in this. With it 1940’s looks it always seems funny to see Joker’s goons lumbering around with a 1980’s boombox and Partyman blasting out of its speakers. But yeah, what the hell, it was indeed 1989 afterall. Party on.

 

Soundtrack Shelf: Edward Scissorhands OST (Danny Elfman, 1990)

int7146_booklet.inddSaw this just sitting there, looking awfully pretty as most of these score expansions do, and I hadn’t played the disc for awhile so I dropped it into the CD deck in the spare room to listen to a few tracks and… it took a longer time than usual to spin and read the disc and after awhile it refused to even play. Hmm, cause for alarm. Checked the disc, it looked fine, and fortunately a little later it played okay on my main player, so all was well (some players just don’t like certain discs, or maybe that old deck is on the way out).

The light was falling outside, damp and dreary, as if more Autumn than Spring, and I had the house to myself (other than Ed, who sitting by the window was more concerned with what was going on out in the darkening night than what I was doing). So I ended up listening to Danny Elfman’s magical score for longer than I had intended to, the music fitting the mood of the fading light outside and the warm glow of the lamp in the corner…

I saw Edward Scissorhands back when it released in 1990 at the cinema, and I really enjoyed it, although I haven’t really watched it many times since- it is likely Tim Burton’s best film, and it certainly boasts Danny Elfman’s best score. I recall, like most people I would imagine, being quite captivated by the score, a huge part of the film’s success. My cousin bought the original OST on CD, and as many of us did back in those days, I did a copy on cassette which would suit me fine. I didn’t buy it on CD until this edition was released by Intrada back in 2015, celebrating the films twenty-fifth anniversary (yes, another film anniversary). Its not massively expanded, as I think the original OST was about 50 minutes and featured the majority (and best) of the score- this disc totals 71 minutes, including the trailer music, an alternate and some Christmas source music and, er, that Tom Jones song. For once though, thanks to my cousin buying that 1990 edition, this was my first purchase rather than the dreaded double-dip upgrade that so many of these score expansions have been of late (it’s now OOP unfortunately, but I don’t know what the limited run was). I noticed that it was produced by the late Nick Redman, another sober reminder of how much fine work he did over the years.

Its a funny thing though, that I bought this disc when it first came out and have seldom listened to it over the three years since, even though the music is very beautiful and it remains one of the most distinctive film scores ever released- its music often features on tv commercials and you can tell when films have been temp-tracked with it, as Edward-like moments frequently turn up scores in a ‘I know what you’re doing there’ kind of way.

I really enjoyed just sitting back and listening to it. Years ago in my youth I used to sit back on my bed and listen to scores intently- maybe I simply had more time back then, maybe there’s just too many distractions now. Too often these days my soundtrack and general music listening is in the background or during my commute to/from work- perfectly fine but its not actually old-style ‘proper’ listening. I found the Edward Scissorhands score quite relaxing, and quirky and fun in that particularly Danny Elfman way.

So it occurs to me I really should dust off a few more CDs on my soundtrack shelf that I somehow fail to play much (instead of just looking at them all the time, thinking, ‘yeah, I really should play that again’ but seldom getting around to it).  So we’ll see; this then is the inaugural post of my ‘Soundtrack Shelf’ series, where I’ll make a point of listening to those scores and writing about them here- we’ll just see how successful I am in listening to them. But I think it’s rather fitting that the first one is Edward Scissorhands.

(I own only two Danny Elfman scores- the first being the original OST CD of his Batman soundtrack. Unfortunately, as thirty years of buying discs is wont to cause, I have no idea where that Batman disc is, and I never bought the expanded edition released by La La Land Records (twice), so unless something fairly miraculous occurs and it somehow arises from whatever dark corner/box it is in, this will be the only Danny Elfman score in this series.) 

 

 

Party like it’s 1989

I’m always slightly amused by studios and/or their marketing departments focusing so much on anniversaries when releasing or re-releasing films on disc. I’d buy a copy of Alien on 4K disc whatever year it came out, it doesn’t have to be the film’s fortieth anniversary, but hey ho, there you go. So anyway, this year we seem to be getting reminded of certain film’s 30th anniversaries this year- The Abyss appears to be getting a new 4K scan or master for release later this year (originally released 9th August 1989, I guess it will slip a bit later than that for a disc release in the Autumn), and Field of Dreams is getting a 4K disc release in May. Unannounced but surely coming is Tim Burton’s Batman, another film from 1989 (looking back, I always feel like 1989 was the year of Batman– it was all over the place in the media, a huge ‘event’ film in the same way Star Wars was). Before all these, Pet Sematary gets a 4K release next week, partly due to its thirtieth anniversary but also thanks to an incoming remake/reboot (hey, before you watch the new one, here’s the old one to watch first so we can make a bit more money out of it).

So anyway, its been getting me a little nostalgic for 1989, which on the face of it never occurs to me as a great year for films, but now that I think of it (and consider those 4K disc/Blu ray release schedules) I have to admit, maybe it wasn’t such a bad year at all. I used to go to the cinema quite a bit back then, and can vividly recall shedding a tear or two to Field of Dreams (in a good way, it’s not as if it was a terrible film or anything, I’d reserve that kind of emotional reaction to something like Black Rain), and coming out of a matinee screening of The Abyss into a full-blown storm, torrential rain lashing across the cineplex car-park in a tempestuous gale that was like I’d brought the film out there with me, one of those disorientating moments that last with you forever.

I remember watching Born on the Fourth of July and Glory on the same day. We went to see Born on the Fourth of July in the afternoon, went home to have a chip tea then went back in the evening to see Glory. Now, the funny thing about that was, we all expected July to be the better film, but were totally amazed by Glory, really swept up by it. It had a phenomenal score by James Horner, and a great score is something I always react to in films, no doubt a big part of why I enjoyed it so much. Another film I saw at the cinema that year with a great score was The ‘Burbs, and I remember scouring record stores looking for that soundtrack for months in vain. Yeah, it was a good year for soundtracks, as I recall, though it would take years for me to finally get a copy of The ‘Burbs score on disc.

Not every cinema trip was as thrilling, mind. 1989 was also the year of Star Trek V: The FInal Frontier, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and, yes, Black Rain, and The Fly 2. Not films I recall really enjoying at all. I remember coming out of Pet Sematary more impressed by the music than the film- I bought the Varese CD and years later the La La Land expansion, but never actually saw the film itself again at all. It was also the year of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film I enjoyed at the time but has really worn thin on me over the years since. Its a funny thing, how films you were once wowed by later lose their charm, but films you didn’t ‘get’ the first time around sneak up on you (Munchausen is such a crazy maddening folly of a film I eventually couldn’t help but fall in love with it).

Thirty years, though- scary. Mind, I was looking up both Glory and Born on the Fourth of July online and they were released in December 1989 in the States, and it certainly wasn’t December when I saw them, so suspect it was later in 1990 when I saw them that day over here in the UK- release dates could be really staggered back then. After so many years it’s hard to remember very clearly, although I can remember sitting in the cinema at the time and looking over at my mate Andy after Glory ended, both of us shell-shocked by having watched not just two war films at the cinema that same day, but two damn good films at that.  It would never happen again- it’s funny sometimes, you just never know, in the moment, just how special/unusual or unique a day really is. They just come and go but perspective lends us clarity- and thirty/twenty-nine years, whatever it is, it’s certainly some kind of perspective.

Remembering Batdance

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The news this past few days has been dominated -Brexit hysteria and Royal birthday here notwithstanding- by the sudden death of Prince. Like Bowie’s death a scant few months ago it has been a terrible shock to the music world and his fans, and whatever your own views on Prince and his music, it has to be agreed that his impact on pop culture is immeasurable. I’ve been listening to Prince’s songs since 1999 in 1982, and have bought pretty much all his albums since then, and the last few days have been pretty brutal to be honest.

So I thought I would just mark his passing by remembering the summer of 1989 and Batdance. Tim Burton’s Batman was a huge media event that summer- what the studio guys call a “movie event”. Thinking back on it, I wonder if it was the last really big summer blockbuster of the pre-internet era. You used to get news/previews in magazines but that was about it. I remember seeing stealthily-taken, off-set pictures of the new Batmobile in newspapers during the filming (the film was shot over here in England).That was no Batmobile anybody had ever seen before.  I remember the news that that thin guy from Beetlejuice was gonna play the Caped Crusader and how everyone thought how nuts that was. The news that Prince was writing the soundtrack (not entirely the truth, as it turned out) was worrying even for a Prince fan. There was talk of Prince onset and actually acting in the film. We were all wondering just what the hell kind of film Tim Burton was making.

Batman was released in America in June amidst a huge marketing push by Warner. That clever Bat-logo (as reinterpreted by the film’s production designer Anton Furst, I believe) seemed to be everywhere; posters, tee-shirts, badges. The merchandising for the film was inescapable. It was the summer of Batman. I remember when it became a Stateside sensation and was featured on evening news broadcasts over here in the UK. Usually they’d show clips of Batman swooping down on criminals in the chemical factory. Reviews seemed favourable, the box-office triumphant. This was in the days of delayed releases internationally, and we didn’t get the film released over here until mid-August. We did, however, get teased by Prince’s Batman album.

I don’t know how true it is that Tim Burton didn’t want Prince involved in Batman- I guess Burton wanted Danny Elfman’s score to be the musical identity of the film, but Warner had Prince signed to their music division and they were the money men after all. As it turned out, the amount of Prince music actually in the film was fairly minimal, maybe two or three songs in all. It certainly wasn’t a situation anything like Queen’s music so central in the Flash Gordon film. But you cannot deny how clever it was from a marketing perspective. In those pre-internet days, the media attention on that album (Prince still in his peak popularity at the time) and all the airplay on MTV and radio of the single Batdance was just pure gold from a marketing perspective. I recall the album got rather savaged by critics at the time. I’ve always had a fondness for it, Prince channeling the film’s darkness into his funky songs.

atm2And yep, Batdance seemed everywhere. It got to number one in the US, number two in the UK. It shouldn’t really work, mixing the pop-culture sensibilities of the 1960s Neal Hefti tv show music with the ‘current’ Prince-funk . So many snippets of songs from the album, and unreleased stuff like Prince’s song  Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic (released many years later) were thrown in amidst dialogue snippets from the film. Its really similar to the approach that Queen took with their Flash single years before. That video, with Prince in purple guise, part Joker, part Batman. How weird was that video? That song seemed to be playing on the radio all the time, really cementing that summer as the summer of Batman. It wasn’t just a movie. It was something akin to a cultural behemoth; nearest thing I can compare it to is Star Wars and Jaws. For all the blockbusters we get these days, they don’t feel as ‘big’- they are here and gone so quickly now (ironically thinking of Batman vs Superman in particular). I think Prince’s album and its subsequent singles like Batdance was a big part of that summer belonging to the Caped Crusader.

Batdance actually was built from 200 Balloons, a song Prince had written for the scene of Joker’s parade where he threw money at the crowds while intending to gas them with his balloons. The lyrics directly referenced the scene but Tim Burton rejected it.  It was replaced by Trust, a song whose only link was the Joker asking “who do you trust?” at the end of the song. 200 Balloons only turned up on the Batdance single where its closeness to the Batdance song made it seem like a remix track.  Regards those remixes, I remember the William Orbit remix was rather extraordinary at the time.

 

Gotham

gothamI’ve watched the first two episodes of the new tv series Gotham, and a few things spring to  mind. Firstly, just how great the show looks, particularly in HD (people waiting for the inevitable Blu-ray box are in for a treat). Even today after so many quality tv shows, I always find myself surprised to see such movie-quality visuals and production values on a tv programme. I guess its impossible to shake of the memory of those cheesy  1970s shows I saw a kid. But yeah, the show looks gorgeous, from the sets and costumes to the cgi-augmented cityscapes (the city of Gotham has exteriors/skylines equal and even superior to what we saw in most of the Batman movies). I particularly appreciate that the production design nods towards Anton Furst’s wonderful work on Tim Burton’s Batman as much as it inevitably does towards Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Its got a nice pseudo-noir/1940s ‘look’ to the colour schemes of the various sets that Burton’s film featured.

Where the show doesn’t fair quite so well so far is in its storyline/general plot. It all seems overly familiar really, with a lack of real punch or surprise. Not formulaic, exactly, but I have to wonder even at this early stage how long the show will be able to sustain itself over a number of seasons. The series is basically a ‘prequel’ to the Batman saga of the movies and even (at a stretch) the 1960s tv show. It begins with Bruce Wayne being orphaned, a traumatic event familiar to comics readers and film-fans the world over, but instead of seguing a decade or so to when Wayne finally returns as the Caped Crusader, this show tells the story of those intervening years in Gotham, in which the young Detective James Gordon tries (and ultimately fails) to clean up the corrupt, crime-ridden city. Fine for one season, maybe two, but beyond that? I don’t know. Consider me sceptical at the moment. If, say, a period of time was clearly passing (that season two took place five years after season one, say) then yeah, I could see it working, as we would at least see Bruce Wayne changing as he drifted more towards his playboy image whilst gestating the Batman. As it is, he’s likely to be a rather irritating young kid for quite some time before he’s likely to become remotely interesting. Maybe a scene or two during the series, of the Batman years later remembering something that is elaborated back in Gotham’s own timeline over several episodes, would help (the Dark Knight walking through Arkham Asylum, say, and pausing at a villains cell before launching into the show proper, which elaborates on that villains background?). Well, this last point brings up something else….

Gotham is evidently more interested in exploring  the origins of the villains than Batman, with a number of them already being featured, particularly the Penguin. Now, I’m no expert on Batman lore (I was more into Marvel than DC as a kid) but I thought the whole ‘twist’ about Batman was that it was the very existence of the Batman that seemed to bring about the rise of all those nutty Arkham residents. You know, this crazy billionaire dressed as a bat fights crime resulting in the criminals then behaving as crazy as he does (hence the Joker and the Riddler and all the rest). The very actions of the Caped Crusader creates and reinforces the crimes/actions of the criminals that he fights. This tv series seems to shake off that concept by bringing up the crazy super-villains long before the Batman comes onto the scene. Its as if its saying that Batman will one day be the cure, when really he’s part of the problem.

Oh well, we’ll just have to see how the show goes. Its certainly promising and has quite surprised me, for all its faults. When the show was first announced I thought it would be a disaster and I still think the jury is out on all these prequels (it certainly didn’t work in the case of Caprica, even though I quite liked that show, or The Terminator Chronicles). As it stands, I think had it been runs of  ten or twelve episodes each year, akin to HBOs model, it may have had a very good chance of working. But 22 episodes a year? I don’t know, I thought that was a failed concept these days after how HBO had  demonstrated such success with shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones etc. Just how do you maintain a high quality over 22 episodes, over so much airtime and so many scripts? Can it even be done these days (God knows Marvel found it tricky enough last year with its Agents of Shield show)? Time will tell I guess.