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THE DARK KNIGHT
Enjoyable album is a step up from the first one, but still leaves one wishing for more
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
HANS ZIMMER & JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall.
I remember a time - not so long ago - when the film music forums of the world would ignite in online warfare whenever a new James Horner score came out. He seemed able to stir up feelings of outrage in even the most placid of individuals. Just the mere mention of his name was liable to make people start seriously considering hiring hit-men to take out their fellow film music fans. That's all been made to seem about as controversial as a glass of water though in light of the passions Hans Zimmer can ignite these days, and I can't ever remember so much fuss as there has been about The Dark Knight. To be fair, Zimmer has done his bit to fan the flames himself - usually such an affable, self-deprecating man who seems utterly charming, he has been hitting the press with full force to say how amazing the music from Batman Begins was, how stupid the world was for not realising how great it was, how silly Danny Elfman's music is, and just how super-incredible The Dark Knight's score is. (It seems that he thinks everyone who didn't like the score from Batman Begins would rather have had some bright and happy comic book theme all over it, whereas I tend to think they would just rather have had a good score over it.) James Newton Howard, who always appears at the same interviews, occasionally interjects with what seem like slightly embarrassed comments about something or other - but it's just amazing to see how very passionate Zimmer is about this music, of all music.
While Zimmer has always produced fun scores for daft films, probably with the sole exception of The Thin Red Line he has been found wanting in serious films, and while it might be about a man in a silly costume fighting another man in a silly costume, The Dark Knight is a serious film - and quite how Zimmer's 80s-style synth pop fits in such a film is rather hard to fathom. Nolan is not a director who likes strong scores in his films, despite what he may say in the liner notes to this album, but Batman Begins still managed to be marred by otherwise-serious action scenes getting accompanied by the kind of cheap film music we've been hearing for years from the various manufactured composers (the usual defence for that score from Zimmer's biggest fans is that it didn't hurt the movie - which I'm not so sure about). The score in the film was more interesting than the droning album would ever have led anyone to believe, but still the most uninteresting score any kind of decent comic book film had received up to that point.
The Dark Knight is better - it's no quantum improvement, but it's better. According to Zimmer, the composers worked entirely together on the first film, but in more distinctive roles on the second, with Zimmer doing the Joker music and Howard doing the Harvey Dent music. As usual when you have a score "Composed by Hans Zimmer and...", the person who comes after the "and" is almost completely swallowed-up, such is Zimmer's force - "Harvey Two-Face" features a very nice Howard theme, but it's the sort of thing he could churn out before breakfast (it's nothing he hasn't done before, most recently in I Am Legend) - and otherwise his contribution is pretty hard to detect on this lengthy album.
"Why So Serious?" is an abrasive, snarling piece for the Joker - it's certainly an innovative approach, but it's pretty hard to really enjoy on an album, away from the film. "I'm Not a Hero", on the other hand, is the kind of typical Zimmer power anthem piece that I didn't really expect to find here, and it's as enjoyable as those things usually are - with the string arpeggios from the first score getting a reprise (more on them, later) it's a nice easy-listening piece, but marred as usual by the horrible orchestrations which just make it sound so incredibly cheap (if you've got a 100-piece symphony orchestra, why the hell would you overdub synths doubling-up the orchestral lines to the point you remove any nuance from the orchestral performance? - it's never made sense to me, and I guess it never will). The best action track is "Like a Dog Chasing Cars", which builds up a real energy over its five-minute running time - it sounds like it should be in The Peacemaker (and perhaps it was), but it's great fun.
I imagine I'm not the only one who was incredibly appalled at the insulting things Zimmer and Howard have said in interviews about this score (unless he was quoted out of context, Howard even said that the whole point of the score was to say nothing about the characters - and there was me thinking the whole point of film music was to say something, not nothing!) - but if you can set aside those feelings, this is actually a reasonably enjoyable album. Both composers have done far better stuff in the past, but this is certainly stronger than Batman Begins - I like the way the ideas are so drawn-out and extended, and while all of those ideas don't work, some of them do, and against all the odds this isn't actually just your typical 2000s film music gloop, it tries to do a few new things. While Howard's seemingly-brief contribution might be the more impressive, actually it's Zimmer that you can tell really tried to put the effort in. I love the 16-minute finale, "A Dark Knight" - it's like an extremely long, drawn-out version of those string arpeggios from the first score (taken further by Zimmer in The Da Vinci Code, particularly its highly-entertaining "Chevaliers de Sangreal") and, while I'm sure some people will get bored by it, I think it's a fine piece of film music.
This is an album which isn't very difficult to enjoy if you just treat it as a pop instrumental piece - on that level, it certainly succeeds. It still seems very odd that music like this could possibly end up in a film like The Dark Knight, but I guess that's a discussion that has been done to death - at least until the next film comes along. But just imagine what Elliot Goldenthal might have done if he'd had this kind of Batman film to score instead of the rubbish he did get - and it's impossible not to think that, however much fun the album is, film music - even for summer blockbusters - used to be about really adding to a film's drama, not just being a surface-level commentary on the visuals, and it's probably going to be a while before it gets back to that stage.