(#390: 1 July 1989, 1 week)
Track listing: The Future/Electric Chair/The Arms Of Orion/Partyman/Vicki Waiting/Trust/Lemon Crush/Scandalous/Batdance
First of all, Batman was about the money. Warner Brothers owned and distributed the movie; Prince, then a Warners recording artist with critical acclaim increasing in inverse proportion to his record sales, owed them an album in his contract; and Warners wanted hits for multimedia cross-promotion purposes. So Prince was prevailed upon to provide a soundtrack of songs for the film, with the catch that he had to sign over all publishing rights for these songs to Warners; if you’re idly looking at a Prince best-of compilation and wondering why “Batdance” or “Partyman” is absent, this is the reason. It was really only a step from this to all the slave/symbol/emancipation business of the nineties.
Nevertheless Prince became quite interested in the project, to the point of proposing the enlistment of Michael Jackson to sing the ballads, while he himself would sing the fast, funky ones, although in the end nothing came of this. Hence he voices the songs under the banner of different characters; “Lemon Crush,” for instance, has him voicing Vicki Vale, whereas on “Partyman” and “Trust” he is The Joker.
Recording sessions were relatively quick for him; six weeks from early February to mid-March of 1989, with the use of three previously existing songs, “Scandalous” (co-written with his father), “Electric Chair” and “Vicki Waiting” (originally entitled “Anna Waiting” in honour of his then partner Anna Garcia). But the album was a success - his first Billboard number one since Around The World In A Day – while in both the States and Britain, “Batdance” became his biggest hit single in years. To date, worldwide sales of the album exceed eleven million. It was like another Purple Rain, which was exactly what Warners had wanted.
Critically, however, the Batman soundtrack marks the point where many Prince diehards got off the bus. It received decent, if not outstanding, reviews at the time but was perceived by some as a sellout, the end of his imperial phase.
I actually wonder how many of these people blindly filed the record away as a flop without really listening to it. For this ranks with The Black Album as Prince’s darkest and most difficult work of the entire decade. Indeed, listening to the hyperactive-to-the-point-of-asthma funk of “Partyman” or the desperate sensualities of “Lemon Crush,” it is clear that Prince took the intentionally utilitarian funk and fury of The Black Album and brought them out into – a new darkness. Time and again the record twists away from the listener into the remotest of alcoves – in the case of the scary “Trust,” literally – and avoids easy escape routes. It is as if, fenced in by contractual and ownership requirements, Prince responded with some of his least compromising music: “So they want a soundtrack, huh? Well, let’s see if they like this,” you can imagine him saying.
The only one of these songs which doesn’t work is the boring ballad “The Arms Of Orion,” a Sheena Easton duet which is no “U Got The Look” and takes a very long time to go nowhere interesting. But the opening “The Future” slaps the listener right in the face with its nightmare scenario and jittery, bitonal funk. “Systematic overthrow of the underclass,” he chants over frantic sound effects and speech samples; somewhere in there are also the typically derailing orchestrations of Clare Fischer (taken from a then-unreleased 1986 song entitled “Crystal Ball”) and the voices of Sounds Of Blackness. “It’s just that I’ve seen the future,” sings Prince, three years ahead of Leonard Cohen, “and boy, it’s rough.”
It is as if Prince is already looking a quarter of a century ahead, to a time where, as you all know, we are living in a world where “The Joker” has essentially won, where someone who is prepared to murder a child’s parents, deface a gallery full of paintings and poison the town with toxic balloons is now in charge. In the forties Bruce Wayne and The Joker might have been called George Bailey and Mr Potter.
It is not even as though this was countered by any meaningful fighting back. Batman sends The Joker tumbling to his death at film’s end because he has to, but there is the merest of acknowledgements in Nicholson’s face that this is only the movies, that Gotham City has always been, and always will be, Chinatown.
Not that Batman is a great or even quite good movie. The soundtrack is so strong it virtually demands a better film; “Electric Chair” is hard rock gone wrong, its increasing guitar discordances (“It took my mind out like a G flat major with an E in the bass”) paralleling the keyboard wanderings of “The Future,” while “Vicki Waiting” plays like Bobby Rydell crouching at Pierrot Lunaire across the yard.
The trouble is that Burton knew the old zap-pow camp of the sixties wouldn’t be enough in the late eighties, but hadn’t quite worked out what to replace it with. So, in a direct contrast to Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton’s Wayne/Batman broods in dark corners, mumbles his lines, sometimes makes you forget that he’s there. He’s like a Michael Corleone who never gets out of the lakeside mansion at the end of Godfather 2, content to sit and ponder in slow motion forever as his older brother goes fishing on Lake Tahoe.
Anton Furst’s huge, dark sets are suffocatingly oppressive, in the same way as late-period Kubrick was prone to be – and I’m sure that was the intention, to batter the viewer over the head with darkness. There’s no light, not much humour; this is a Batman without a Robin, what happens when you take the gags away and apply a different kind of gag.
Any light that does shine through the movie comes with Nicholson’s Joker – he got top billing over Keaton and Basinger (functional but no more as Vicki Vale), not to mention the $50 million plus he received in payment and profit and merchandise cuts. Of course, he had been doing little save playing an edition of Jack Nicholson for a decade – The Shining was a side-splitting dead end, he was reasonable if no more in The Postman Always Rings Twice, overrated in Reds, backing into darkened corners in The Border, portraying a brand in Endearment and Eastwick, a little too top-heavy in both Prizzi’s Honor and Heartburn – but Batman is clearly his movie, and its indulgence of Nicholson was fatal. The obvious solution would have been for Keaton to play both hero and villain, but Nicholson was the bigger star and our old friend Jon Peters was co-executive producer.
Nicholson’s Joker is lively but so hammy that it undoes any credibility in relation to understanding how, and why, his character is really a nasty little piece of work. Barzini was the chief villain – if such terms can be used in a relativist sense – in the first Godfather movie but works so much better as an enemy because you hardly see anything of him; he turns up as a guest at Connie’s wedding, then coolly outdoes Vito at the peace summit, stares meaningfully at Michael during Vito’s funeral, and before his operatic death on the courthouse steps we are reminded that he is not quite the suave, urbane fellow he tries so hard to be – he contemptuously flicks away a cigarette butt when leaving the courthouse before carefully moving it to the side with his foot so that it won’t be spotted, and when his men get shot, he turns and runs away in a doomed attempt to save himself.
The character also works so well because he is played so brilliantly by Richard Conte, that veteran of innumerable film noirs. He underplays Barzini, and in his peace summit speech in particular, you do get the feeling that he has a better and more astute grasp of the future than his colleagues, that business (with maybe politics on the side) is the path towards tomorrow. Nonetheless he is responsible for nearly everything bad that happens to the Corleones (and others) during the movie, and he leaves little doubt that he would have done the same to anybody else as is eventually done to him.
But Nicholson overacts, fills the screen even when he’s not on it. It is as if he never really recovered from being Jack Torrance and the film of Batman has a resultant imbalance. Not so Prince’s soundtrack; “Scandalous” is the album’s hidden jewel, one of his great soul ballad performances (up there with “Condition Of The Heart” and “Adore”). Amidst cascading waterfalls of widely and violently varying tonalities – frequently the song sounds on the verge of coming off the rails altogether – Prince’s androgynous vocal (even more so than “If I Was Your Girlfriend”) splinters the sky with its increasing craving for sexual and sensual satisfaction (“2 hell with hesitations! 2 hell with the reasons why!”). Readers would be well advised to seek the album out for this song alone. Such penetrating deep soul is not in the past tense – as even a cursory listen to Tyrese’s recent, and amazing, “Shame” will prove – but “Scandalous” reminds us why we are supposed to think of Prince as a genius.
Thereafter there is nothing left but to tie up the loose ends. I’d forgotten how “Batdance” is one of Prince’s most sheerly entertaining singles, not to mention one of his most avant-garde ones; we begin with an “Uncertain Smile” loop, various dialogue snatches, choruses and a Miles-ish organ ready to decamp to Dark Magus. Both “The Future” and “Electric Chair” are referenced. Then everything slows to a strut for Vicki Vale before speeding up again and culminating in balloon apocalypse. There is no end to the record’s numerous diversions, wrong-footings and swift removal or reversal of expectations. It is as if Prince has succeeded in reintroducing this most solemn of Batmans to the vital concept of camp, the “healing power of laughter” of which this film has apparently not heard.