Music in film: The Dark Knight Rises

Feature Ivan Radford 5 Sep 2012 - 07:48

In the first of a new series of articles, Ivan takes a closer look at movie soundtracks – starting with the very loud Dark Knight Rises...

Schwoop-dum. Dum-dum. Dum-dum. Dum-dum.

That’s the unmistakeable noise of The Batman.

After three epic outings, Christopher Nolan’s Caped Crusader has a sound that’s instantly recognisable – without even having a proper theme tune. And that’s all thanks to two men.

The dynamic duo of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard first combined forces on Batman Begins. Their task? To match Nolan's modern, realistic mood with a suitably dark score. A loud, brash composer with a taste for bombastic action and the guy who wrote the theme tune for ER? They divvied up duties accordingly: Zimmer took on the big set pieces while Newton Howard accompanied the quieter character moments. At least, that’s what happened in theory.

Dummmmm. DUMMMMM.

That’s the other sound of Gotham’s protector.

Trying to keep things simple, the composers swapped traditional superhero motifs for something far more radical: two notes, summing up all of Bruce Wayne’s conflict (and resolution) in a single shift from a minor to major chord. It was a daring piece of film composition, resulting in one of the most striking musical phrases to hit the screen since John Williams’ Superman fanfare.

Synth and drums drove Begins, filled out by delicate piano and strings; an interesting combination of styles and talent that felt right at home behind Bale’s new Batman. But while it seemed easy at first to draw the line between Zimmer and Newton Howard’s contributions, The Dark Knight saw the true extent of their collaboration: on paper, James was responsible for Harvey Dent while Zimmer took on The Joker, but their efforts blended together somewhere in the middle. Gone was the idea of two composers working side by side; in its place was one expansive creation. Less a score, more of a soundtrack – or, to be exact, a soundscape.

That CD kicked off with Why So Serious?, a manifesto that laid out the score’s atmospheric approach. The Joker’s signature piece stretched out one note to almost two minutes, bending and twisting it to a skin-crawling level of dissonance – hardly the kind of thing you’d listen to on the bus to work.

But away from the screen all these years later, The Dark Knight’s careful overlap of sound effects and music remains immersive stuff. A lot of that, you presume, comes from sound designer Richard King. He was the guy who helped to originate that distinctive Batflap noise, Zimmer reveals in this fascinating behind-the-scenes video.

Between King, Zimmer and Newton Howard, the new Caped Crusader made it clear that he was happy to treat instruments as just another track on the Batsynth to be twiddled and tweaked. It’s the kind of boundary-blurring that made Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack for The Birds so effective or makes Trent Reznor’s work for David Fincher stand out. And Newton Howard and Zimmer nailed it. Twice.

Which is why, after stomping so comprehensively all over their difficult second album, it was a surprise to see James Newton Howard depart for The Dark Knight Rises.

The question we were left with, then, was this: could Zimmer carry the Batman can alone?

Hans certainly rises to the occasion for the most part, continuing the series' epic style. That same sense of dread is in the unnatural cacophony of sounds, enhanced, this time, by the chanting “Deshay Basara” sprinkled throughout.

The voices first appear on Gotham's Reckoning (guess who?), fading in from the background with a menacing crescendo. It’s a bolder, more forceful track than Why So Serious?, emphasising Bane's physicality  as a villain versus The Joker's seeping brand of musical terror. 

That chant, apparently meaning “rise”, becomes the movie's signature, as Zimmer and Nolan cleverly use the music to drive the plot when the singers finally appear on screen during Bruce Wayne’s prison scenes. Then, it escalates, taking the Batman chords and putting harsh trumpets over the top, before erupting into full-on percussive chaos.

But let’s face it: we already know Zimmer can do this. He's been making loud noises for yonks, honking in our ears like a musically gifted goose. A goose with a drum. It's the Selina Kyle skits that really surprise, reminding us that Hans can still handle the quieter stuff.

Deft piano and a delicate swish - violins? A knife? - paint a more playful tone to Gotham's underworld on Mind If I Cut In?. This quiet metronome then leaks into Bruce Wayne’s more thoughtful tracks, meshing everything into another big web.

Zimmer is just as gentle with his opening: On Thin Ice transfers the Batman notes from dark brass and low strings to a light synth that hangs on a wobbling note. The final track Rise echoes it with a boy’s melancholy voice fading into high-pitched strings.

But there’s something slightly missing from the whole thing. It’s certainly not the creativity. Hans has a lot of fun playing with those two iconic notes. In Despair, they shout out without any accompanying chords, a question held on for 20 seconds (possibly a franchise record) until the loud answer arrives. Imagine The Fire is equally clever, taking that signature transition from minor to major and forcing it to stay stuck in the minor key. With that and sampling of The Dark Knight (plus nods to Batman Begins in Nothing Out There), it’s almost as if Zimmer is holding Bruce Wayne back by his ears until he earns his theme. Then he grabs the timpani and some freshly mangled chants and pieces together a seven-minute explosion of noise that rips Wayne’s ears clean off.

Maybe that’s the problem. The volume. After The Dark Knight and Inception, King, Nolan and Zimmer know each other well enough to understand what they’re aiming for – and that vision of an immersive soundtrack is still there. But in striving to match the epic visuals of the trilogy’s finale, some of the subtlety seems to have been lost. The score needs to be loud to fit in, of course, but this is really loud. Even Brian Blessed’s wife would struggle with bits of it. And that overpowering loudness doesn’t help with the audience’s battle to hear some of the dialogue; a sound mixing error, you might say, but the use of a score in a film is as important as the notes themselves.

Is it that Newton Howard’s touch is needed to help scale things down? Perhaps. But even if Zimmer’s final contribution isn’t always the music our eardrums need right now, it’s absolutely the score that Gotham’s hero deserves.

The Dark Knight Rises. Boy, how it does. Just don’t be afraid to wear some earplugs.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Disqus - noscript

Loved that sound design video!

YAY!!! The return of soundtrack reviews!!!

Nice article. I felt there was a void in the film's soundtrack as well. "Mind if I cut in?" is an excellent piece, but I can't help but feel that this should have been Howard's area of expertise - a champion when it comes to suggestive and subtle themes. Great soundtrack, but it's certainly lacking an essential ingredient from the earlier films. There's a reason why certain critics objected to "too much percussion, too much Zimmer" this time around.

Really looking forward to these articles :)
I thought it was very strange the JNH didn't return. I found the music in TDKR Inception overbearing (which is good in some ways) but as a result far too load. I find the best Batman soundtrack to be Danny Elfman's Batman Returns. The whole thing is like an opera.

The volume makes it an opera. Simple as that. It wouldn't have have the same operatic effect to go with the expansive themes and imagery. And while the bombast can die down to the best pieces (On Thin Ice possibly being my favourite), the volume is still there, because they're going for that operatic musically-driven feel for Bruce Wayne's inner conflict. The Dark Knight Rises is the best score of the three, in my opinion - you can tell he's picked up both his and Newton Howard's torches and been told to run with them by Nolan. That's the important thing to note - this creative decision comes from Nolan.

Apart from the vocal chant I remember nothing of TDKR score. Percussion was involving in action sequences but in the build or for those big heroic moments I need a theme.

Honestly, the Arkham Games are more memorable.

Hope you get round to Tron Legacy. Duff film gorgeous score.

A whole article about Hans Zimmer and no mention of his sterling work on the Going For Gold theme tune?

Interesting read, though I'm not sure I agree with everything you've said. I have to say, and I hope this is taken in the spirit it's meant (constructive criticism), but I'm not sure this sort of article is going to work on this site. Not to mention the fact that you're going to face comparisons to Glen's old series. Although I'm sure you're doing this with his knowledge and blessing. Don't get me wrong, this was a decent start, and I'll be sure to read at least the next one.

As for Newton-Howard's absence, apparently it was (at least partially/officially/according to him) his choice, or so he said in an interview I read a while back. He thought that Zimmer did such a good job with Nolan on Inception's score that he didn't want to risk interfering in their blossoming creative partnership. Sadly I don't remember where I read this. :/

Why on earth would the writer need anyone's blessing? Up to the editors of the site what deserves, and doesn't deserve, to go up on the site. And for what it's worth, I think most creatives would take offence at your comment about reading 'at least the next one'. How gracious of you :)

Well, not needing anyone's blessing would mean that he wouldn't need the editor's permission to post something on the site either, wouldn't it? Oh wait... Anyway, moving away from my deliberately poor attempt to mock you by playing with semantics, Glen Chapman seems to be one of the higher ups on this site, which is why I assumed he would have at least been asked about this. And if the writer of this piece has been following this site for longer than say a year or two, which I assume he has since there don't seem to be too many regulars here and most of them have been around for yonks, then he can't have failed to notice Glen's previous series of columns entitled Music in the Movies. Spotted the similarity yet? Obviously I don't know any of this for a fact, so people who would know more about it than me are more than welcome to correct me if I'm wrong.

Oh, and anyone who says they will read anything after 'the next one' when it comes to pieces like this is an idiot, a liar or has other motivations to keep reading. I consider myself to be quite creative as well, and I wouldn't take offence if anyone told me that about anything I've written before. To put it bluntly and simply, if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. Give me a break, it's not like I said this was the worst article ever or anything, is it? Jeez.

And for what it's worth, doubtless you will take offence at some of the stuff I've said here too. What a shame.

I love the Tron Legacy score also, though its similarity to Inception, coming out as it did six months later, is a bit...strange. Not saying it was done on purpose, but they are rather alike...

Not to mention that Batman's theme, explicitly found at the end of "Rise", or trailer two of TDKR, makes for a splendid ringtone....

I was really disappointed with the soundtrack to TDKR as it lacks all the beautiful melodies and excellent crescendo of James Newton Howard, and everytime there was a big moment in the film I was expecting the musc to soar but sadly it never did..I do hope HZ comes up with an incredible theme for The Man Of Steel or there'll be trouble.

In the run up of publicity Inception never really came to life for me until the Zack Hemsey scored version of the trailer landed. When it did, it changed the notion of the film for me. It suggested scale, emotion and urgency. Which was all there in the shots but had never quite coalesced into must see viewing.

I see what you mean about the similarities but I think Daft Punk really went for the idea of strong themes and melodies that resonate whereas Inception is very clever but ultimately a bit soulless.

The other thing with Zimmer is that he appeals to people who invite you round to check out their home cinema systems and just play the loudest scene of a few movies then sit back waiting for you to be impressed.

Yes it's bass, it's loud. So what?

Howard Scarr designed the bat flaps with the zebra synth, not Richard. Howard was the genius behind the synth sounds from begins to rises. Look it up.

Sponsored Links