Music in film: The Dark Knight Rises

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.

Ad – content continues below

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.

Ad – content continues below

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.

Ad – content continues below

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.

Ad – content continues below

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.