CD Review - Batman: The Animated Series Vol 1
by gordonblu

It’s no secret that Danny Elfman warped my fragile little brain. In the summer of ’89, I was a happy, carefree little squirt anxiously awaiting the release of a small, independent film called Batman, maybe you’ve heard of it. To make a long story short, I walked out of the theater a different person going in. Most importantly Batman is the reason I’m always scraping together enough money to buy the latest new score or limited edition of an old classic, particularly in the realm of superhero scores. Of course none of these other scores will ever match Danny Elfman’s Batman as the quintessential superhero score. But there are some that give Elfman a run for his money…

In September 1992, Fox unveiled a daring new series that raised the bar not only for serious animated television shows, but also Batman in general. Along for the ride was a composer by the name of Shirley Walker, frequent conductor of Elfman scores, fresh off of the canceled Flash TV series. Shirley and her team of composers, arrangers, and conductors had the daunting task of stepping into Elfman’s domain (which Elfman himself sadly vacated after the Batman Returns backlash). They not only succeeded in their endeavor, they conquered the landscape of Gotham City so completely, no Batman composer since has been able to top them.

In 2008, LaLa Land Records released a 2-disc set celebrating the Batman music of the late Shirley Walker, along with Lolita Romanis and Michael McCuistion. That recording quickly sold out. With copies on the secondary market skyrocketing over $100, all of the unfortunates who failed to snag a copy (myself included) turned greener than the Hulk with envy. July 2012, LaLa announced a vol. 2 of the acclaimed series, and (because they’re awesome people) decided to re-release vol. 1 with only minor tweaking. Being the fanatic that I am, I decided to not eat for the rest of the month in order to purchase both before they become extinct. What follows is my breakdown of the sets and my feelings of the music and the relating episode.

Batman the Animated Series Volume 1:

The new disc one omits the Gotham City Overture from the original set and instead starts off with Elfman’s final stab at his classic Batman theme. He (and orchestrator Mark McKenzie) craft a main title that when paired with the animation is SO iconic, the producers of the show decide they don’t even need to spell out the word Batman anywhere during the opening! I especially dig his new bridge, around the time the Batmobile makes it’s appearance in the opening, written especially for the show.

On Leather Wings – Shirley Walker
My entire family (minus my at the time 2 year old little sister) and I camped out in front of the TV to watch this pilot. Like Bruce Timm states in the liner notes, those opening strings and trombones(Sub-Main Title/ Batwing/Bat Attack) had everyone invested in the episode from the get go. Shirley also introduces her Batman theme (Batman Drives to Gotham) in this episode. For the longest time, my Dad and I thought of this as a variation (albeit incredible) of Elfman’s original theme. It wasn’t until Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (complete score also available from La-La Land) that I realized it was a new piece. Even so it is still second only to Elfman’s as being most iconic Batman theme. Another highlight of the score are the final two tracks (Bats/ Evidence Goes Up In Smoke/ The Formula/ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Bat and Gotham from the Air/ Ride'Em Batman/ Epilogue) which detail the desperate battle between the Dark Knight and Man-Bat with film-worthy style and execution.

The Last Laugh – Shirley Walker
This episode aired during the third week of the series, and was the third Joker episode viewed by the public. The opening montage detailing the Joker’s odiferous assault on Gotham (Sub Main Title and The Submarine/ Joker Loots Gotham ) is accompanied by hip-hop accordion(?) that is the highlight of this particular score. It is also one of the few scores to include quotes of Elfman’s theme (Batman vs. Joker/ Batman vs. Joker Part 2).

It’s Never Too Late – Lolita Romanis
The Thursday episode of the initial week of Batman, this episode exists in the world of those old James Cagney/ Pat O’Brien gangster films. The score plays the mobster angle just right; the score is neither too old fashioned to be corny, nor is it too modern as to be unidentifiable as an “Angels With Dirty Faces” style flick. The particular highlights detail Stromwell’s flashbacks to a terrifying childhood memory (Sub-Main Title/ Stromwell's Flashback and Stromwell’s Flashback #2).

Pretty Poison – Shirley Walker, Lolita Romanis, Michael McCuistion
Poison Ivy kicked off week two of Batman trying to kill Harvey Dent for the destruction of a rare breed of rose. All three of the main composers contribute to this episode which is surprising because this is my least favorite score on the set. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the score, it’s just that nothing really stands out as a highlight for me.

Christmas With The Joker – Shirley Walker, Lolita Romanis, Michael McCuistion
The prerequisite Christmas episode is a mixed bag as an episode, the Joker scenes are subversively amazing, but the Batman and Robin segments are generic and obvious. The score however has some truly twisted and original things going for it. The main highlights for me are the music accompanying the Joker’s attempt at a Perry Como Special (Pokey Christmas Music/ Christmas with the Joker/Game Show Music and More Game Show Music/ Drive to the Toy Company) which makes the Joker theme sound as if it had been used by Maury Laws in those so-awful-they’re-classic Rankin and Bass specials. Paul Dini praises McCuistion for his subversion of the Nutcracker in this episode, but I can’t help but think Elfman did that better in his Scrooged score.

Disc 2 starts off with Shirley Walkers alternate opening titles that were used later in the run when the show was renamed The Adventures of Batman and Robin. It’s treatment is a little lighter than I would like, but is still really nifty.

Two-Face 1 and 2 – Shirley Walker
These episodes are two of many that I wish had been the live action cinematic sequels to Burton’s films, as they are on par with Batman and Batman Returns which is no mean feat for a weekday afternoon animated series with strict story guidelines. By the end of Part 1 I was anxiously awaiting Part 2 (it was cruel that Part 1 was aired on Friday, having to wait the entire weekend before the conclusion-I would never have been able to handle waiting for the weekly serials at the local theater during the thirties and forties!) and by the end of Part 2 I was literally in tears. Shirley Walker contributes a score that has no highlight on its own, once you start listening to it you HAVE to listen to it’s conclusion. From the opening with the creepy “Har-Vee, Har-Vee” sing-song, to the end with it’s somber but hopeful air, this is a classic score that should have won an emmy (just like Elfman’s Batman should have been nominated/won an oscar)!

The Joker’s Favor – Shirley Walker
The Friday episode of week one introduced the world to the gleefully wicked portrayal of the Joker by Mark “I was going to go to Toshi Station” Hamill. In telling the story of unlucky schlub Charlie Collins, Walker delivers one of the strangest character themes to ever grace the series. Charlie’s theme features whistling more demented than Leave it to Beavers opening, with the added bonus of farting tubas. Yes you read that right, no it’s not a typo. The particular highlight of both score and episode is the opening encounter between Charlie and the Joker, being funny and terrifying concurrently (Sub-Main Title/ Cussing Out the Joker/ I Had a Bad Day).

Vendetta – Mark McCuistion
Vendetta was my introduction to the character of Killer Croc and is in my opinion the best rendition of the character ever, not even this show not even recapturing it (although Sideshow comes close). Mark McCuistion gets his chance to shine on this one delivering a score that is neither a gangster score nor a horror score, but both with Batman’s first confrontation with Croc (Croc's Cave/ Killer Croc) being the highlight.

Perchance to Dream – Shirley Walker
An episode that I think is good, but slightly overrated, Perchance to Dream’s twist was unfortunately ruined by the write-up in TV Guide. Even if the Guide hadn’t spoiled it, Shirley tips her hand too early with the Mad Hatter’s Theme playing over the title card (Sub-Main Title/ The Dream Begins). Even so, Perchance to Dream is an amazing score and highlight of the late composer’s work. Despite some poor animation the final bell tower battle between Bruce and Batman (Climbing the Church Tower/ Belltower Fight) is truly epic thanks to Mrs. Walker.

Birds of a Feather – Shirley Walker
The best episode to feature the Penguin by far, Shirley Walker takes the opportunity to write a send-up of all things opera, tying into the tragic nature of the story as well as Penguin’s delusional opinion of himself as an aristocratic man of culture and taste. The music while enjoyable is unfortunately not as engaging as the episode itself, yet it still is a highlight of the series.

The revised set ends with Danny’s closing credits cue, having omitted the tantalizing sounding Music of the Bat 101 from the original set. If anyone has the original feel free to give it a review.

Volume 1 is a solid sampler of the kind of music Walker and company contributed to this show. That the music doesn’t sound like it was written for a cartoon is some of the highest praise I can give the set and that doesn’t even do it justice. True there are some scores on here that I don't care as much for, but why fuss when La-La didn't even have to release this (let alone re-release it). Thank you La-La Land!

8.5 out of 10

This CD set is available from La-La Land Records. Click here.

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