It’s a damn shame that the topic of my very first Shelf Space blog entry had to be inspired by tragedy.
I’m just one of the millions of people all over the world who was left completely stunned by last week’s announcement that pop/rock/R&B icon Prince had died suddenly at the age of 57. Whenever we lose one of these legendary rock gods, the only real upside is that it gets people to rediscover (or maybe even discover for the first time) their body of work, and Prince’s in particular was huge. In this article, I want to revisit what originally made me a fan of his from a very young age – the notoriously odd, yet absolutely compelling mark he left on the legacy of the Dark Knight himself – Batman.
I call myself a fan of Prince even though I can’t necessarily say I’ve spent years dissecting every crevice of his illustrious career like many of his die-hard followers, but my appreciation for his unique musical stylings and talent knows no end. Besides, come on, who doesn’t love a good Prince song? 1999, Raspberry Beret, Purple Rain, Let’s Go Crazy, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Little Red Corvette, Kiss, When Doves Cry.
Those songs practically defined the ‘80s pop/rock scene, but Prince’s popularity surely didn’t end when the decade did. Much like the late great David Bowie, Prince kept finding interesting and sometimes controversial ways to reinvent and challenge himself, so much so that once he burst onto the scene with his debut album For You in 1978, Prince spent the next four decades releasing a fresh record on an almost yearly basis.
Prince Rogers Nelson was barely 20 years old when he signed a record deal with Warner Brothers and released his first album in the late ‘70s. Even though it didn’t quite see the runaway success many of his subsequent records saw, it is famous for being the first major showcase for the young prodigy’s musical talents where he was virtually the sole performer on that entire record, not just on vocals, but playing literally every single instrument himself – from piano, to acoustic and electric guitar, to drums, along with various synthesizers and percussion instruments.
Prince: The Early Years
During the early ‘80s, not only was Prince’s popularity skyrocketing because of his boundary-pushing records but also because of his inventive music videos, which were seeing plenty of television airtime during the early days of MTV. This initial period of fame for Prince reached a peak of sorts with the release of the semi-autobiographical musical drama Purple Rain in 1984. Despite mixed critical reviews, the film was a big hit for Warner Brothers Studios. The movie’s soundtrack went on to sell over 25 million copies worldwide and Prince even won an Academy Award for composing the film’s music.
Prince spent the next five years continuing to see great success with various hit singles like Kiss, Sign o’ the Times, and U Got the Look but the overall sales of his albums were starting to dwindle. Also, the members of his live back-up band, The Revolution, had pretty much all gone their separate ways. By the late ‘80s Prince, who was now flying solo, knew that he had to do something big in order to get his career back to the way it was earlier in the decade.
By 1988, after letting it languish in development hell for about a decade, Warner Bros. was now putting all their chips into a massive mega-blockbuster reimagining of the DC Comics superhero Batman under the direction of Tim Burton. Burton was just coming off two other big hits for the studio, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, the latter starring Michael Keaton whom Burton then chose to be his Batman. Because Keaton was mostly known for his comedic roles, this casting decision came under heavy scrutiny. Fans were outraged that this supposedly darker, more serious take on the character was starring Mr. Mom and they firmly believed this was going to end up being nothing but a goofy rehash of the campy ‘60s TV series which was not very highly regarded by older fans at that time.
“Call me Mr. Mom one more time…”
In a move that would forever change the face of movie marketing, the film’s producer Jon Peters was able to silence the backlash by releasing a two-minute teaser trailer that would play in theaters during the 1988 holiday season, roughly six months before the film’s Summer ’89 release, and once fans got their first glimpses of Michael Keaton’s intimidating take on Batman and Jack Nicholson, who was perfectly cast as his cackling arch-enemy, The Joker, everyone suddenly stopped complaining. Imagine that.
The trailer sparked a months-long feverish excitement for Batman but what helped push this Batmania into the stratosphere was the endless merchandise. Anything that had that Bat-logo emblazoned on it sold like hotcakes, which naturally meant that practically EVERYTHING did have that logo slapped on it.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, producer Jon Peters and director Tim Burton were sort of butting heads over the film’s music. While Peters wanted a more poppy, radio-friendly soundtrack created by popular artists like Michael Jackson, Prince, or George Michael, Burton felt that the music should be composed by his frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman who had done the delightfully cartoonish and somewhat dark musical scores for both of Burton’s previous films. Once Elfman put together the now iconic Batman march, Peters was fully convinced that it was a good direction to go, yet still persisted on bringing on a hit-maker to create at least a few tie-in songs for the film.
A Batman merchandise display in an old indoor shopping mall…does it get any more ‘80s than this? (Photo by Michael Galinsky)
Peters, along with Warner Bros. exec Mark Canton, landed on Prince because not only was he already conveniently under a Warner record contract, but also here was a guy who just a few years ago created an Oscar-winning soundtrack for Purple Rain. Additionally, the Warner record label believed that by attaching Prince to a gigantic event film like Batman, their star artist could see his biggest album sales in years and be primed for a grand comeback. So, despite popular belief, the somewhat unconventional decision to attach someone like Prince to this big new Batman project didn’t just boil down to the fact that both he and The Joker have an affinity for the color purple.
“Oh, I love purple…”
In early 1989, while the film was still in production, Prince visited the massive sets at Pinewood Studios located just outside London, England and it was then he met director Tim Burton and was shown about 30 minutes worth of early test footage with a couple of his back-catalog songs added in. Prince brought to the table his own childhood love of the ‘60s Batman TV show and after being so enamored with what he saw in Burton’s footage, he practically locked himself in a recording studio for six weeks and cranked out a whole album’s worth of original songs that were very loosely inspired by the film’s characters and themes.
After a few changes and omissions, Prince delivered the nine song Batman soundtrack album early enough for a handful of the songs to appear in the finished film and he was actually able to sprinkle snippets of the movie’s dialogue all over the record, most predominantly within its closing track Batdance, which became a number one smash hit single upon its release a few weeks prior to the film.
The entire album itself was released only three days before the film’s hotly anticipated June 23rd, 1989 release date and remained at the very top of the Billboard charts for the next six consecutive weeks, selling millions of copies. In a summer filled with huge releases like Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Batman stood out above all the rest.
The film broke box-office records and was the Star Wars for a new generation. Many who look back on that summer fondly remember it as the summer that was defined by Batman- both the movie and Prince’s hit soundtrack.
Need we say more?
It’s always weird for me to try and put into words my own memories of this time period because in the summer of 1989, I was only three years old. Now, you typically don’t remember much from when you were that young but when it comes to all this Batman stuff, some of those memories are still clear as day. Maybe it’s because this is where my lifelong love for the character first began and that just helped me retain certain things. This was also the age where I began showing an interest in drawing and Batman was just one of those things I would doodle constantly.
At that age, I certainly gravitated more towards reruns of the ‘60s TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward but I was also very aware of this newer, darker and scarier version of Batman because you just couldn’t get away from it. Now, unfortunately, because of my age then, I was never able to enjoy Batman in a movie theater but once it hit HBO or eventually made its way to VHS, I practically watched it on a loop – well, once I got over being terrified of Jack’s freaky Joker.
During that summer though, while the film was still tearing up movie theater screens across the country, I still remember being in the family room playing with my Batman toys and trading cards while Prince’s deranged Batdance music video would run constantly on MTV, you know, back during that crazy time when they actually played music videos. Batdance was the album’s wicked, chaotic closing track that was essentially a celebration of all things Batman. It interspersed a driving electric guitar riff with one of Prince’s signature funky grooves and was playfully infused with a generous amount of dialogue clips from the film along with a dash of the old ‘60s Batman theme song.
“Get the funk up!”
“Ooh yeah, ooh yeah! I wanna bust that body right!”
In the video, Prince was decked out in this insane half Batman/half Joker costume (reminiscent of Two-Face) while playing a character he dubbed Gemini, Prince’s astrological sign of course. Drenched in purple lighting, fog and flashing strobes, the video depicts Gemini cavorting around a gothic Batcave-esque backdrop with a group of dancers dressed as multiple Jokers, Batmen, and Vicki Vales all while “the real Prince” watches the whole scene play out on a giant Bat-shaped computer monitor as he wails on an electric guitar. It all sounds completely bat-shit crazy when I try to describe it but the video itself is a sight to behold. It’s so much fun to go back and watch it now, but for a three-year-old who preferred lighter and brighter Adam West reruns, the whole atmosphere of it was a bit spooky.
Nightmare fuel? Yeah, that’ll work.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved the song even way back then but I definitely remember whenever the video would come on, I didn’t want to get too close to the TV set, and yet it was so mesmerizing, I didn’t want to turn it off. I guess I personally always saw parallels between the videos for Batdance and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but I’m sure I’m pissing off some of you by even mentioning those two works in the same sentence. All I can say is that Batdance, and inherently the entire Batman soundtrack, is the root of my appreciation for Prince. Every time I turn it on, it instantly takes me right back to that magical time of Batman trading cards, action figures, plastic Taco Bell cups, breakfast cereal, t-shirts, video games and bed sheets.
From top left to bottom right: Topps Batman trading cards, Toy Biz Batcave playset, Joker t-shirt, Taco Bell promotional cups, Ralston Batman cereal, and Dacron Batman twin sheet set.
The track on the album that directly precedes Batdance, titled Scandalous, is worth mentioning because, hey, every good Batman movie needs a solid make-out song – amirite? Scandalous certainly has that flavor of your standard slow romantic Prince song and not only does it appear during the closing credits of the film but it was also cleverly worked into moments of the score by Danny Elfman as sort of a reoccurring love theme for Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). Following the release of the film, Prince released a Scandalous single that included extended remixes of the song and featured voice work from actress Kim Basinger, who was allegedly having a pretty intense fling with Prince during that time.
Other songs from the album like The Future, Electric Chair and Vicki Waiting can be heard faintly in the background of some scenes during the film but the album’s two most jovial tunes are incorporated into the movie in some memorably twisted ways. Now, the way I see it, I don’t feel like Prince’s music gets enough credit for how it helped shape Jack Nicholson’s legendary turn as The Clown Prince of Crime. For instance, in one scene, just after The Joker unleashes deadly poison gas into an entire room full of museum-goers, he and his goons burst in and prance around to the song Partyman while defacing pieces of fine art, making sure not to trip over any of the dead bodies in the process. Then, during the film’s final act, The Joker and his gang return, this time dancing on a giant parade float to the upbeat tune of Trust as they prepare to poison the crowds of people flooding the streets of Gotham City. Never before was mass genocide this groovy!
“Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds!”
One of the strangest yet most fascinating aspects of this album is that we’re not supposed to be really thinking that Prince is singing these songs as himself. In the record’s liner notes, all the lyrics are written out and credited to Batman, The Joker, Bruce Wayne, Vicki Vale, or the Gemini character. Why? Well, I think Prince went into this venture feeling inspired by the chunk of film he saw and decided to project onto it his own artistic flair and eccentricities to make a record that truly acts as both a companion piece to the film and a standalone concept album that attempts to tell its own operatic story. He took what could’ve easily just been passed off as nothing more than a cash-grab contractual obligation and attempted to elevate it and make it as personal of a work as anything else he’s produced.
The results are mixed depending on who you ask but I appreciate the effort and kind of wish this sort of thing happened more often these days. Your typical movie soundtrack is usually just a grab bag of different songs from various artists or bands but Prince was trying something thematically interesting and the final product plays as if we were watching the Batman movie through some Prince filter, which is one psychedelic trip. Now, if only it actually synced up to the film in a Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz-type fashion.
A few years ago, the blog site io9 posted a hilarious tongue-in-cheek article that tried, in great detail, to interpret the film through only listening to the soundtrack and you can read it HERE.
From top left to bottom right: the Batman soundtrack and the separately released singles for Batdance, Partyman, The Arms of Orion, Scandalous!, and The Future.
Years passed and more Batman films came and went. By the time I got to high school, I rediscovered the Batman soundtrack for the first time in years and became obsessed with it all over again. This was also back when finding videos on the internet still wasn’t nearly as easy as it is now so all I had were my memories of the music videos for Batdance and Partyman but sure enough, when I finally rediscovered them, they were still as kooky as I remembered. Later on, the Batman Special Edition DVD (and later Blu-ray) thankfully included both music videos along with one for Scandalous, so I never had to go hunting them down ever again, which is no easy task considering how protective of his own work Prince is well known for being. To me, I always felt the Batman soundtrack was heavily looked down upon by Prince fans, as if it were some embarrassing and dated smudge in his discography, so I suppose that forced me to look at it as nothing but a nostalgic guilty pleasure for a while, but finally, once the internet came along, I began to notice that this soundtrack does indeed have its own loyal fans and defenders.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Over the years, the 1989 Batman movie and Prince’s accompanying soundtrack have provided me with tons of joy and many warm memories, but if I were to remove any of my own nostalgia from it and be completely objective, then, yeah, I’ll admit that the soundtrack was a pretty strange concept, but back in 1989 it somehow worked like gangbusters. Sure, it’s not Prince’s most critically beloved output but count me as one of its genuine fans.
It added such a bizarrely festive layer to a film that, at the time, was touted as this serious and edgy take on Batman. However, if you watch it now, it almost comes off like a darker version of the Adam West TV show in some ways, especially when compared to the more earnest and grounded versions that have since been portrayed by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck. This album almost works as the perfect bridge between the campy ‘60s version and the darker, more excessive ‘80s version. I look back and still marvel at its success because there is no way in hell a record filled with radio-friendly dance music would be attached to a Batman movie these days and yet it was just odd enough to fit perfectly alongside Tim Burton’s vision of the Dark Knight.
Due to Prince’s untimely passing, I’d like to believe that this past weekend saw Batdance getting the largest listenership it’s had in 27 years, and I want to finish this retrospective by saying one last thank you to Prince for leaving behind such a unique and unforgettable piece of Batman history.