Sounds of Gotham

“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.”


So, if The dark knight is not a superhero movie… why should its soundtrack be?

Danny Elfman‘s shadow is long and, although his famous theme for Tim Burton’s Batman is already nineteen years old, it’s still the referent, not only for everything related to the cape crusader, but also for every music related to superheroes: a memorable theme, a full powered orchestra, majestic choirs and every single note oozing epic. So did Elfman, and also Elliot Goldenthal and Shirley Walker. And many thought that Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard would do the same. But they didn’t. Christopher Nolan‘s films about Batman are not gothic tales or kitsch adventures, but action thrillers (specially The Dark Knight). And in this new scenario the Elfman, Goldenthal or Walker style, even admiting their capacity, would have been out of place.

Instead, Zimmer and Newton-Howard opted for a particular and unexpected musical aproximation (although it acquires its whole sense when accepting that, as stated before, this is not a superhero movie): minimalism and sound design. Through this mixture, the work of both composers is more oriented towards the representation of an omnipresent character: the city of Gotham itself.

And the sounds of the city are dark, minimal, pulsating. Melodies are reduced to the minimun: two notes for the one anouncing Batman presence, and just one note (although extremely twisted, another example of sound design) to represent the disturbing personality of the Joker. The basic melodic chord progressions are situated in the lower registry of the orchestra and synthesizers, and just a string ostinato manages to make the score advance when it is required by the action in the film. The line between music and sound design is very thin: the mixture of orchestra and electronics, so common along Zimmer career, is more evident in those works, and the latters are predominant: electronic percussions, effects, sounds of wings flapping…

It is true that this approach situates Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in the confort zone where Hans Zimmer has placed his works during last years, displacing James Newton-Howard work to a second place. In the Batman Begins score, his traces can be followed during the more intimate and romantic moments, hardly lighter, and the subtle piano melodies referencing Bruce Wayne’s family memories. However, the tasks division for The Dark Knight between both composers is more obvious and have been detailed by them in some interviews: apart from recovering and developing previous themes, Zimmer took “the note” for the Joker and Howard the themes for the more complex character of Harvey Dent, a complexity caused by the evolution that the character suffers along the movie and the music fills perfectly, evolving from a noble piano and brass theme that becomes darker and darker.

In sume, we have an unexpected approach for a film about Gotham knight, but a realisation that doesn’t put any novelty up in both musician’s career; it lacks personality, although it’s a correct work and, definitely, the only possible soundtrack for the universe where Nolan has placed Batman.

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