In the wake of the recent Affleck news, let’s revisit the soundtrack to a Batman movie that probably won’t be topped…. ever. Now cited as one of the best superhero movies ever made, what was it that made The Dark Knight so….. good? Well, apart from Heath Ledger’s spine-tingling portrayal of The Joker, I put it down to the film’s soundtrack.
It’s an inspired cracker from Hans Zimmer, who here is helped by the relatively under-appreciated James Newton-Howard. The score is characterised by Zimmer’s trademark use of electronic sounds, as well as some equally frequent acoustic oddities (such as the string section using razor blades instead of bows, apparently) alongside some more traditional orchestral material. None of the ‘themes’ are particularly memorable, and many of the different pieces are lengthy, loosely structured experiments, so why do I like the score? Well, it just fits the film; there is nothing more important in a movie score than for it to compliment what is happening on-screen. It’s a cliché but it still applies.
The Dark Knight’s music is mostly character-orientated, so I’ll take a look at the themes of Harvey Dent (AKA Two-Face), The Joker, and Batman himself. While Batman is the unsung hero of the movie, Harvey Dent is the performing hero for the citizens of Gotham, until half his face melts off and he turns bad. His piece of music conveys this rather well, chillingly, in fact. Newton-Howard composed two themes for each half of the character, which contrast predictably but are nevertheless packed full of punch. Batman’s own theme is more conventional and nothing special. It isn’t as one-dimensional as some other ‘heroic movie leitmotifs’, however.
It is The Joker’s stunning 9 minute exercise “Why So Serious” that stands out in the score as being the boldest, most fearlessly chaotic piece, much like the character himself. You rarely hear music that simultaneously blends elements of chance with such calculatingly terrifying climaxes. The sawtoothy drones and frenzying tapping really drive things along, regardless of any melodies that may or may not be present. Just as good are the other Joker-related pieces in the soundtrack, “Agent of Chaos” and “I Thought My Jokes Were Bad”. Wannabe psychos will lap this stuff up.
Elsewhere, Zimmer’s score is bulked up with the usual suspenseful stuff, some creepy cues for the lesser characters, and plenty of that bass-heavy ‘galloping’ music for the chase scenes (bongo fury optional). The soundtrack is nevertheless adventurous and may well be Zimmer’s best work, while the additional material from Newton-Howard is complementary rather than a hinderance. Together, the pair deliver a soundtrack that relies as heavily on the plot of The Dark Knight as it does on inventing new timbres with traditional instruments. The fusion of these approaches makes for a very entertaining soundtrack that is rich on its own and altogether more effective in the film.
Put simply, you must look beyond the cheese of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in order to fully appreciate the sound-manipulator that is Hans Zimmer. James Newton-Howard meanwhile, is a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music, so he can’t be that bad.