The Dark Knight

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Rating: 3.4

The hype surrounding the release of The Dark Knight was enormous. Long before any reviews of the movie, people were already in anticipation. With the tragic death of Heath Ledger, the anticipation built. Then, the early screenings came. Rarely, if ever, have I seen critics come together in such swarms to praise a movie. Nearly everyone praised Ledger's performance as the Joker, many hailed its dark twist on the comic series as brilliance, and not a few called it a masterpiece. In fact, the anticipation built to such fever pitched intensity, it seemed impossible for the movie not to be a letdown in comparison. What is interesting and unusual is that the music, as well, was hyped before its release. Zimmer's constant affirmation that the music for Christopher Nolan's Batman would differ greatly from the famous "jolly" theme written by Danny Elfman, as well as Howard's praise for Zimmer's "one note theme" which he wrote for the Joker, all had film music fans wondering if this time around, the duo really would put out something original and groundbreaking.

The answer to this question comes with a resounding "No". Unfortunately, the music is neither original nor groundbreaking. As was the case with Batman Begins, Zimmer was given the action/adventure music, and Howard was left with the subtle aspects of the score. Perfect match, right? Howard is a master of the delicate, and few people can repeat one motif as many times in a row as Zimmer can. Perfect. Thus the quiet moments are trademark Howard, and the loud moments are trademark Zimmer. The result, once again, is very unbalanced.

OK, so what exactly is this famous "one note theme"? Well, um, how can I say this? It is not one note. In fact, it is hundreds of notes, because it is a glissando. But then, if we really wanted to get technical, each note played on an acoustic instrument will have very minor fluctuations of pitch, thus becoming more than one note as well. So, sure, we can call the Joker's theme one note if we want to. The fact is, it is a glissando. It is, in fact, a musical devise, separated from anything that gave the devise any meaning. So, what is next? Perhaps we will get a two note theme: the trill. There would be a good theme devoid, in and of itself, of any musical meaning. This is why the Joker's theme stretches the limits of the definition of music. In fact, I would call it sound design. Which technically, I suppose, music is. But enough circular definitions. No doubt the Joker's theme works well in the movie, creating tensity and alarm (it bears a striking resemblance to a siren) and, most important of all, chaos. Chaos defines the Joker, and as such, it could be argued, his music should be chaos to the musical world. Fair enough. Like I said, his theme works very well in the movie, it just stretches the definition of music.

The biggest problem I have with this album is the action music. Churning bass, repeating strings, orchestral hit, repeating strings, repeating strings, churning bass, repeating strings, orchestral hit, orchestral hit, orchestral hit, repeating strings... So it goes. Many say that this type of action music just works better on-screen than it does on-album. Certainly. If you are not listening, many things sound much better. But that is not the point. Certainly repeating strings can add drive. But be careful when watching the movie not to listen to carefully; it will spoil it. The fact is, music that does not work on cd will NEVER work better on movie than music which does work on cd. And this has absolutely nothing to do with style. Even minimalistic or atonal music is better on-screen if it is actually interesting music. Only if a movie is purposefully boring will boring music ever work better for it. Unfortunately, the action music in The Dark Knight is too often mind-numbingly repetitive.

The real strength on the album comes with Howard's music for Harvey "two-face" Dent. Noble and heroic, yet subdued and classy, the music represents well the character, as well as changing to fit with the way he changes. The difference between what Zimmer wrote and what Howard wrote is glaringly obvious. The trademark Howard piano moments, though too few, are here, as well as his delicate orchestrations and melodies. Unfortunately, his music definitely takes a back-seat, and only rarely shows up between Zimmer's.

What is so interesting to me is Howard's constant praise for the "groundbreaking" work Zimmer has done with the Batman series, when his own music is of such higher quality. The way that he let's his music take back-stage and continues to promote Zimmer's work really is admirable. What is even more interesting is that Christopher Nolan, who obviously knows how to make movies, seems to consider the music for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to be incredible. Consider some of the liner notes in The Dark Knight: "I have admitted to both Hans and James separately that one reason I was inspired to revisit the world of Batman Begins was the extraordinary music they created for that film. Music that perfectly captured the tone I was seeking - energetic, but with grandeur - action, but with emotion. Their music was more innovative than people realized, and in the years since I haven't seen a trailer for a big action move that didn't reference their work." This is just incredible to me. I assume that he must have chosen Zimmer as his main composer by his previous works. But if he has heard anything Zimmer has done, he must know that his Batman music is just more of the same. Repeating string motifs, churning bass, orchestral hit. Sure, action movies reference the style, but the style became overused long before Batman Begins reused the overused techniques.

Nolan begins his last paragraph by saying, "Whether it was James's relentless pursuit of perfect pitch or Hans's lifelong quest for the ultimate drum hit,". I am sorry, but I just don't really know what to make of either of these qualities. Is he saying that James is always working with the orchestra to make them play in tune? Is he saying that James always wanted to be able to hear a doorbell and say which notes are involved? Has orchestration really been Zimmer's lifelong quest? If so, why did he recruit eight, count 'em, EIGHT orchestrators to work on The Dark Knight, and still churn out the exact same textures he always has?

Maybe I just don't get it. All of Howard's comments on how good the music is have been very hard on me, since I usually consider him to be possibly the second best film composer working today. The whole album just strikes me as more of the same. The Joker's theme is fitting, Howard's music is pleasing though not especially inspired, but there is far too much repetitive action music treading heavily upon everything else. The movie deserved far better than this. It deserved something innovative and original. Instead, all we got was more of the same.

-Colin Thomson

Track List:

Why So Serious?
I'm Not A Hero
Harvey Two-Face
Aggressive Expansion
Always A Catch
Blood On My Hands
A Little Push
Like A Dog Chasing A Car
I Am The Batman
And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad
Agent of Chaos
Introduce A Little Anarchy
Watch The World Burn
A Dark Knight


haku said...

Like A Dog Chasing A Car is a magnific piece of action music!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mike said...

honest review. the movie did deserve better music instead of the lazy one that we got