A lonely melody sounds as the dreamy clouds around the Warner Bros. shield fade into a midnight blue and the camera tracks down into a curious stone structure. As the music builds we fly into darkness with the music blaring as the title is revealed, and we are aurally blown away. Twenty-five years ago, that title sequence and the film it belongs to – Tim Burton’s Batman – shook the world.
Looking back, Batman is not a particularly good film, and never becomes the sum of its parts. Its parts, however, are still hugely influential today, not least Danny Elfman’s original score. Composed by Elfman with orchestration and conducting by the late, great Shirley Walker, Batman is one of the iconic film scores of not only the genre but Hollywood itself. Taking a cue from Bernard Herrmann amongst others, Elfman’s score is brash, sweeping, angular, and faux-gothic – much like the architecture of Gotham City – and breathes life into Burton’s often tedious and campy work. His themes and driving percussive style are still being copied to this day, and one of his biggest achievements is that when people think of Batman as a character, his music is what generally comes into their head.
Elfman’s best pieces bookend the film; the finale is outrageously spectacular and provides a stunning musical ending, but it’s the opening title sequence which still defines the picture to this day. It’s a simple idea at the core – the camera takes a trip around the Bat-symbol – but the execution turns it into a magnificent sequence that, like the best titles, provides a sense of mood and context for the film proper. Batman was heralded by the mainstream for being the anthesis of the Adam West TV show, and along with The Empire Strikes Back arguably fuelled the geek insistence of “it needs to be dark”, but while Burton’s film was a surprise in tone at the time – it’s really the set dressing that made it “dark” – it now feels as campy as its 1966 counterpart. Elfman’s music both embraces and combats this, with the theme sitting somewhere in the middle to emphasise the sense of adventure in the film.
But it does a perfect job of introducing Tim Burton’s world with pomp and circumstance. At the time, Adam West was the only Batman we really knew outside of the comics, so apart from the (superbly cut) trailer, the titles were our introduction to this brave new world. I remember being sat in the cinema. I was captivated, entranced. It hit me like a thunderbolt. I had to ask the guy next to me to pinch me to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The music led us on this incredible journey deep into the underworld, echoing Batman’s descent, and while it seems obvious now, there was an audible gasp when the camera pulled out and we realised we’d just had a trip round the symbol.
It’s pretty funny when I look back at Batman now, especially with the huge furore around it. It was a massive deal, and we loved it, but while it doesn’t hold up much now, the titles are still a fine example of the power of the opening credit sequence. Most of all, Danny Elfman’s music retains its iconography, and remains to be known as the Batman theme, thanks to those credits. Great music, stone Batman logo, sweeping camera. Job done.