SoundTreks: Batman Forever
The 16th of June will mark the 20th anniversary of Joel Schumacher’s superhero opus Batman Forever, the occasionally mocked, not widely loved, but oddly un-impugned sequel to Tim Burton’s tragic, dark, bizarre-in-retrospect Batman features. Batman Forever (a wonderfully bold title) was a huge hit in 1995, despite having an entirely new production team, a new and more colorful aesthetic, a campier comedic tone, and a different actor in the title role (Val Kilmer, who replaced Michael Keaton).
As was common in the mid-1990s, a hit soundtrack record was an inevitable part of the movie machine. This was a time when a movie could be a mild flop, but recoup its losses with boosted sales of a well-marketed soundtrack CD. Yes, dear friends, there was a time when soundtrack records sold better than the movies they accompanied. Indeed, some critics even wagged fingers at the commercial crossover between movies and music, accusing some films of being little more than vehicles for their soundtrack sales.
Since this focus on soundtrack records was such a large part of the 1990s movie industry, careful attention was paid to their construction. Studios hired the hippest music supervisors, and were careful to include a healthy mix of new hits, original songs made for the film, and a few outré alterna-freaks to shore up their cool cred. The soundtrack to Batman Forever is actually a towering achievement of cool, featuring a few now-dated-but-then-awesome trip-hop tracks, a few towering chart singles from the world’s biggest bands, ending on a track by one of the oddest and most ambitious rock acts of the last 20 years.
Here in the latest installment of SoundTreks, we shall take a listen and see how it holds up on its own, and how it stacks up against the film. You have seen the film, right? I assume you have.
Track 1: “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” – U2
This is a balls-out awesome way to kick off a soundtrack record. “Hold Me, Thrill Me” is a gigantic, driving, intense rock song with a buzzy guitar, a catchy hook, an orchestral backup, and a healthy fistful of ’90s electronic dance pop lurking underneath. It also has a hummable downward cadence that tapped into the dark, self-destructive pop nihilism of the time. Yes, there was a time when depressed introspective grunge was teens’ go-to idiom. The size of the song’s production easily lifts the dark tone into something amazing and overwhelming. This was a song commissioned for the film, and it’s great.
My only criticism is that, well, it doesn’t really sound like U2 to me. Oh sure, a lot of their albums at the time shared this electronic sound (“Zooropa,” and the appropriately titled “Pop”), but I, like most of you, tend to associate U2 with their up-to-and-including-The-Joshua-Tree sound. Their signature echoey guitars are absent. Had I not known, I probably wouldn’t have guessed this was U2 at all.
This track fares way better than any of Bono and The Edge’s work on another superhero property, the misguided and over-budget stage musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Track 2: “One Time Too Many” – P.J. Harvey
Something we don’t expect to hear in superhero movies anymore is downright soul. Well, maybe we heard some pretty obvious examples of retro ’70s soul on the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy (which, no worries, we’ll get to), but P.J. Harvey’s brand of soulful, funky, near-sexual angst is most certainly an unfortunately lost product of its time. “One Time Too Many” grunts and sweats its way into your loins and takes up too much space there. It’s a song with balls that feels like it should be playing in a strip club.
One might argue that sexualized music is out-of-place in a PG-13-rated superhero blockbuster of any era. But take another look at Batman Forever. Perhaps the funk and ballsy, sexualized music was another way of stressing the festishistic aspects of the movie. Schumacher spent so much time ogling the Batman costumes in this film, we got the sense that Batman enjoyed dressing up on a sexual level. There was an overcurrent of sex in Batman’s S&M outfits, which came complete with nipples. So having some dark bump-and-grind on the soundtrack makes sense.
Track 3: “Where Are You Now?” – Brandy
Ditto everything I said above, but with a lot less authority. I give all credit to her career and to her obvious singing talent (her voice nearly approaches sultry), but Brandy – a lost teen pop idol-turned-actress – doesn’t have quite the sexual authority of P.J. Harvey. The retro-funky bassline implies something kinda sexual, and “Superstition” is deliberately evoked, but the film is a little too loose to carry attitude. I still smell the strip club on this one, but I care less.
Track 4: “Kiss From a Rose” – Seal
This pretty excellent pop love ballad comes from Seal’s second album, but didn’t become a hit until Batman Forever came out. I have to admit a strong streak of nostalgia for this one. I hear it, and I’m transported back to my high school years. This was a track that found its way onto prom dancefloors all over the nation. I like to think that a generation of kids my age had their first “serious” kisses to this song. Also, I kinda dig Seal, and love his voice. He belts tenderly, but still feels like he has a masculinity behind him. Tough man, tender heart.
I have to wonder what a ballad like “Kiss From a Rose” is doing on a Batman soundtrack, however. The song didn’t appear in the film, and played over the credits… after “Hold Me, Thrill Me.” The lyrics don’t sound like they could be applied to Batman or to any of the events of the film, even the love story aspects. In terms of the soundtrack record, “Kiss From a Rose” fits right in line. In terms of the movie, however, nothing could be more out-of-place. Could you imagine a song like this appearing in the Christopher Nolan Batman films? The Zack Snyder films? Any other superhero film ever?
No, this is not a superhero song. This is a romance song, through and through. Despite what the music video below would have you believe, this is not a song about Batman, and Batman Forever does not provide the world with any significant romantic iconography. It’s big hit songs like this one that had critics sneering.
Track 5: “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game” – Massive Attack with Tracy Thorn
Massive Attack is soothing and trippy, and may be one of the central bands you refer to when talking about the genre of trip-hop. They can be intense, although here, they play slinky. Indeed, “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game,” with its sultry vocals (by Tracy Thorn), twangy electro guitar riffs, spooky background theremin, and smoky jazz club drum beats, feels less like a description of a sexualized Batman, and more like a legitimate James Bond theme song. It’s a little too free-form to be a proper James Bond lick, but with a bigger production and a few more brass interjections, it could have easily played at the head of a 007 adventure. It’s certainly better than that piece of crap Madonna did for Die Another Day.
Track 6: “Nobody Lives Without Love” – Eddi Reader
Okay, wait. What the heck is going on with this soundtrack? We burst out of the gate with a loud, fun driving pop song, but now, by track six, we’ve relaxed further and further back into sexy jazz and tender ballads. Now we Eddi Reader singing plaintively “sing for me baby,” and whining about heartbreak. This is something that could have punctuated an episode of My So-Called Life more easily that it could be shoehorned into a Batman film. Are the producers of this record expecting us to see Batman as an aloof romantic figure? Really? He may be in the minds of some, but to explore it so obviously just strikes me as, well, kind of dumb.
Track 7: “Tell Me Now” – Mazzy Star
Oh come now. Can we pick the pace up a little? Another tender love ballad? Isn’t this for a Batman film? Where’s the energy?
Actually, I take that back. Because I kind of dig this song. Mazzy Star sings an alt-country love ballad that actually has some genuine twang in it. Some songs make you want to bang your head back and forth. “Tell Me Now” forces you to sway, recalling the halcyon days of your lost loves back in Texas. I have seen a lot of live music in bars, and this track makes me smell the whiskey and stale cigarettes. This is not a bar in Gotham City, either. This is one on the edge of the desert. It drones a bit, but I like the relaxation of it.
I may have made excuses above, and said that the record’s producers were trying to position Batman as a romantic figure, but this track is divorced from Batman altogether.
Track 8: “Smash It Up” – The Offspring
Finally, some balls. This is one of The Offspring’s more gentle songs – at least, it starts gentle – but we at last have a song with some blistering punk energy. The Offspring were one of the biggest pop punk acts of the 1990s, and many, many of my peers idolize them. In the film, this was the song that Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) played on the stereo of the Batmobile after he had stolen it. It fits perfectly for a stolen car, and comes from a time in The Offspring’s career where there was still some dirt on their music. And they still had the balls to cover The Damned. True, I have heard some critics describe The Offspring as too poppy for their own good, and lacking in any real edge. Yes, their songs are adolescent, but it’s nice to finally have something noisy on this soundtrack.
Actually, the refreshing punk noise may not be welcome after all. Looking to The Offspring’s left and right, we see trip-hop, quiet ballads, and psycho-sexual track (see below). This track is way out of place.
Track 9: “There Is a Light” – Nick Cave
Nick Cave scares me a bit. There is a psychotic energy to his music that I wholly admire and can easily jam to, but am always vaguely frightened by. With the inclusion of “There Is a Light” on the Batman Forever soundtrack, we’re moving back into the bizarrely psycho-sexual. This song is not about sex, of course, but it has the same grinding energy as the above tracks, and is most certainly more in line with the growing theme of the soundtrack than “Smash It Up.”
A hint: If you include Nick Cave on your mix tape, that mix tape becomes instantly cooler. This song – and indeed this whole soundtrack – is way cooler than the movie it came from. This is becoming one hip fucking record. Batman Forever was never hip.
Track 10: “The Riddler” – Method Man
You may think that a hip-hop track in the midst of alt-country ballads and Nick Cave crooners would be jarring, but Method Man’s song about, well, the insanity of The Riddler, comes from a time when hip-hop and other genres could co-exist. Also, “The Riddler” strikes me as being far more languid than a lot of the hip-hop hits of the day. But that being said, “The Riddler” is pretty dumb. It takes a certain kind of gall to write a rap song about the events of a film (think “T-U-R-T-L-E Power” or “The Addams Groove”), and rapping about the Batmobile might be 100% appropriate on a soundtrack to a Batman film, but there is also something definitely childish about it. It only calls into stark relief how silly the story of Batman Forever really was. Remember all that stuff about sucking out people’s brain energy with high-tech 3-D TVs?
Track 11: “The Passenger” – Michael Hutchence
Michael Hutchence was the frontman for INXS. This song made it onto Hutchence’s only solo record, which wouldn’t be released until four years after Batman Forever, and two years after Hutchence’s death. Those facts to color this track, a cover of Iggy Pop’s famous 1977 song from Lust for Life. Like Nick Cave, this is one awesomely cool track, and possesses the high energy of INXS, but with – like most of the tracks on this record – a dark psycho-sexual energy. Take a drink every time I use that phrase from now on.
This is the one song that sounds like it could be delving into the psychology of Batman himself. Well, perhaps. I doubt anyone gave it any thought. At this point we can just accept that Batman is a distant thought, and that this soundtrack is focused on different concerns altogether.
Track 12: “Crossing the River” – The Devlins
Who let these guys in? Get out. Oh? What’s that? You’re crossing the river to get to me? You see me on the other side, with my faith and my arms open wide? If it weren’t for that expensive electronica dance beat, you’d be a whiny white guy with an acoustic guitar, and you know it. Your strained falsetto isn’t helping anyone.
Track 13. “8” – Sunny Day Real Estate
I was wondering when we’d get to grunge, punk-infused college rock.
It’s a little too atonal, and not poppy enough to have made its way into heavy rotation on the radio, but “8” is definitely a kindred spirit to a lot of the angsty grunge also-rans of the era. Put them in the same box as bands like Whale and Helium. This is one of the more rocking tracks on this soundtrack. It’s nice to have a little bit of energetic(ish) rock to break up the electronica trip-hop tone of the record. I think we can officially start using the word “eclectic” to describe this soundtrack. Especially coming off of that whiny-ass song that came before it. Also, the record is winding down, so we better get in some energy here at the end. Call “8” the climax of the album.
Track 14: “Bad Days” – The Flaming Lips
Back in the 1990s, The Flaming Lips might have been described as a novelty act, what with weird songs like “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Their career following this record, however, proved them to be a musically obsessed experimental band of the highest order. The 1990s were a magical time when such bands could strike in the mainstream and even close out a soundtrack record to one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
In the film, this track plays as The Riddler returns home after committing his first murder. The song is a dark music box about dreaming of murder. The song is perfect for the moment, although Schumacher’s direction is so broad and the film itself is so garish that the song doesn’t fit into the scene as well as it might have. The song is cooler and darker than the scene it comes from. Given that we now know where The Flaming Lips would end up, we can even give the record as a whole a few more cool points.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Film?
The soundtrack record by a substantial margin. Although I have an intense nostalgic thrill for Batman Forever, it’s ultimately a pretty silly flick. It’s colorful, cartoonish, and supplanted the dark tragic fantasy of its immediate predecessors with a carnival atmosphere. I admire the look of the film, but it is, as I have said, garish. The film is stylized and artificial. It has no grit, and no genuine cool.
The soundtrack record, on the other hand, is an eclectic mix of varying styles and moods. It doesn’t have a narrative throughline or anything. It’s just a solid collection of big hits, small weird cool-as-fuck selections, and numerous love songs thrown in. It’s not solid all the way through (I rather dislike The Devlins), but it’s a great cross-section nonetheless. The 1990s were a time of vast pop diversity, as exemplified in soundtrack records like this one. Eclecticism. It’s something we could use more of.