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The Sounds of Gotham City — Music from Batman: The Animated Series!

In 1992, the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series premiered on Fox.  To this day, despite some mighty competition from the last two live-action Batman movies (especially the magnificent The Dark Knight), this show still stands as my favorite non-comic book depiction of Batman, the one that is most true to the character I have always pictured in my head.  Gorgeous animation combined with terrific stories that played Batman serious and scary made the show a knock-out right from the beginning (and ensured that the episodes would be as strong upon repeated viewings over 15 years later as they were when the show first launched).

But when considering all of the elements that made Batman: The Animated Series such a terrific success, we would be remiss in neglecting to mention the magnificent music.  In support of this point, La-La Land Records has recently released a phenomenal two-CD collection of the soundtrack from the show.  Unlike most cartoons of the time, which relied on a lot of recycled music, each episode of Batman: TAS had its own original score, performed by an orchestra.  The music was masterminded by Shirley Walker, ably assisted by a team that included Lolita Ritmanis and Michael McCuiston (all three of whom have a lot of work represented on this new CD collection).  Like the very best film score, the music from Batman: TAS was a critical element in creating the over-all tone of the piece, and it is strong enough to be tremendously enjoyable when listened to on its own.

The CD begins with a presentation of the Batman: TAS main title theme, which was composed by Danny Elfman (creating an interesting and catchy variation on his theme from Tim Burton’s Batman).  We are then presented with music from eleven notable episodes from the series’ early run.  

I am not a musician, so writing about music doesn’t come easily for me, but let me try to share how much I enjoyed listening to these CDs.  What is incredible is the way each episode has its own unique themes, composed to reflect the action and the characters (heroic and villainous) featured in that particular show.

Right away a stand-out is the work on the series’ first episode, “On Leather Wings,” in which Batman is blamed for crimes committed by a mysterious and monstrous Man-Bat creature.  The Batman: The Animated Series theme is wondrously woven in to the adventurous, exciting score that the conveys the energy and action of Batman’s vertiginous mid-air battle with the Man-Bat while establishing the series’ dark, brooding tone.

Other stand-outs for me include the creepy, almost child-like theme for Harvey Dent, tracking his descent into madness as he becomes the creature Two-Face in the episodes “Two-Face” Parts I & II; the way the score  from “It’s Never Too Late” evokes the feel of the classic Warner Brothers gangster films; and the wonderfully ominous music from “Vendetta,” an episode that investigates the rather un-heroic Gotham City police officer Harvey Bullock.

I also particularly enjoyed the final track on the collection, “Music of the Bat 101.”  In this short piece, Shirley Walker gives an account of the different elements of the Batman: The Animated Series theme — how it breaks down, how the different musical components of the theme work together, and how they can be slightly varied to create wildly different effects.  This is a fascinating little bit of business, and a really fun surprise at the conclusion of the second CD.

If I have any complaint about this collection, it is that three of the eleven episodes are episodes that featured the Joker (“The Last Laugh,” “Christmas With the Joker,” and “Joker’s Favor”).  To me, those are decidedly lesser episodes of the series, and I never really cared for the carnival-esque musical themes that were used to depict the Joker and his gang.  But, on the other hand, I know some people who love those episodes, and those scores, so to each his own, I guess.

I could also complain that the episodes represented in these CDs are all from very early in the show’s run, leaving off the amazing music from so many later classic episodes (such as “Robin’s Reckoning,” “Feet of Clay,” and “The Demon’s Quest”).  But I can only hope that this means that we’ll be seeing additional, future collections, that might contain the fine work from those later episodes.

Please let it be so, La-La Land Records!  Listening to this set only confirms what I had known since 1992, that the music from Batman: The Animated Series is truly extraordinary work.  This soundtrack easily ranks among the best of the movie and TV soundtracks in my collection.

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