Revisiting Prince’s ‘Batman’ (1989) | Retrospective Tribute

Three decades have passed, and Batman’s legacy is still somewhat unsettled. Matt Thorne, Anil Dash, Jay Gabler, and Prince’s Friend celebrate the soundtrack. Yet, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, and City Pages treat it as if it’s damaged goods.

Prince was untouchable during his first decade as a recording artist. Batman is not where he slammed the brakes on his genius streak, though.

WHAT’S THE 4–1–1?

Expectations for director Tim Burton’s gritty Batman reboot were high. Richard Donner’s first two Superman films were the benchmark for superhero cinema. But even that series fizzled out due to lackluster sequels.

While assembling a rough cut of the movie, Burton used “1999” and “Baby I’m a Star” as placeholders in two Joker scenes. Superstar actor Jack Nicholson liked the songs and convinced Burton to contact Prince. The singer, of course, felt honored since he taught himself how to play Neal Hefti’s “Batman Theme” on the piano as a child. He also wanted to bounce back from the debt he absorbed during the Lovesexy Tour and create more movies. (The less said about Graffiti Bridge, the better.)

Prince returned to his musical Batcave, making songs inspired by the film’s main characters. It was such a trailblazing move that superhero movies and hit songs became the norm. Anticipation for new Prince music was at a fever pitch. And when Batman arrived that summer, it was clear the Purple One was back. He dug a four-inch heel into his competition’s throat as if to say, “Y’all really thought I fell off?”

THE HITS

With 11 million copies sold worldwide, it’s easy to dismiss Batman as a “cash grab.” But the record’s biggest singles prove nobody could predict what Prince would do next.

The №1 smash “Batdance” is a musical Frankenstein of dance floor adrenaline, stadium rock, and slinky funk with no visible stitches or scars. Like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” it’s one of the best pieces of musical theater ever made. Beneath the Gothic makeup is a human soul in a spiritual tug-of-war between good and evil.

Top Five R&B hit “Partyman” captures the shared essence of Prince and The Joker. Both were rebels who took the rule book, rewrote it, and ripped it to shreds with playful grins on their faces. (“Partyman, partyman / Rock a party like nobody can / Rules and regulations — no place in this nation.”)

“Scandalous!” also snaked its way up to №5 on the R&B charts, igniting more unplanned pregnancies than anything Prince had recorded since “Do Me, Baby.” If you want to learn how to speak fluent pillow talk, then the Scandalous Sex Suite EP is your Rosetta Stone. (Kim Basinger: “It’s so dark in here.” Prince: “I can see you.” KB: “What do I look like?” P: “Overdressed.”)

THE NEXT STEPS

The surprise shouldn’t have been whether Prince could top the charts at will. The surprise is how he reinvented his signature sound in unique and creative ways.

Like his 1982 epic, 1999, “The Future” challenges listeners to look at the chaos around them. (“Systematic overthrow of the underclass / Hollywood conjures images of the past / New world needs spirituality that will last / I’ve seen the future, and it will be.”) But it also offers hope in its prophetic chorus. (“I’ve seen the future, and it will be / I’ve seen the future, and it works / If there’s life after, we will see / Don’t go out like a jerk.”)

For those who miss the Dear Penthouse filth of Controversy, “Electric Chair” is obsessed with the nasty and doesn’t care who knows it. (“Your face looked so good / I wanted to touch your mouth / My brain is jackin’ all over the place.”)

“Vicki Waiting” floats into the psychedelic bliss of Around the World in a Day, exploring who Bruce Wayne is and where he wants to be. (“Talk of children still frightens me / Is my character enough 2 be? / One that deserves a copy made / This, I one day, hope 2 see.”) That verse always cuts deep. Why? Because Prince, who died alone and childless, wanted the same things as everyone else.

During the film’s parade scene, The Joker pulls a bait-and-switch by throwing wads of money to crowds lining the streets before gassing them. “Trust” draws you in with The Black Album’s lustful funk. (“Hot — I get so excited just thinkin’ about all we could do!”) Then, it baptizes you in Lovesexy’s pure gospel. (“Who do U trust if U can’t trust God?”)

THE DEEP CUTS

Music flowed through Prince at all hours. He set aside an untold number of finished songs and albums in his Paisley Park vault. Some material from the Batman sessions appeared on later projects. Others need some digging. Click here and enjoy a few of those hidden gems!

EMBRACE DEBATE

You still wanna argue? Bring it!

  • Myth: Batman feels like Prince just phoned it in and said to himself, “Here’s what I think a Prince album needs to have on it.”
  • Reality: Prince met Tim Burton in London and completed the entire soundtrack in six weeks. Oh, and did I mention Prince did this after watching 20 minutes’ worth of raw footage? That’s the sound of an artist firing on all cylinders.
  • Myth: “The Arms of Orion” and “Lemon Crush” are the weakest songs on the album.
  • Reality: Every Prince album has its flaws, and he’s still fascinating on what some might call “filler.” One could argue that his vocal chemistry with Sheena Easton on “Orion” laid the blueprint for “Diamonds and Pearls.” As for “Lemon Crush,” dozens of laptop-era producers would need months to come up with sounds as forward-thinking as Prince did in a week.
  • Myth: Batman sounds “cobbled together” and “under-produced.”
  • Reality: Suppose that’s true. Why does PopMatters give Sign O’ the Times a pass for being “a musical quilt work of dizzying versatility?” Why does AV Music praise Dirty Mind for sounding as if it was “recorded not just in Prince’s bedroom, but under his bed?” We set such a high bar for Prince that we took him for granted.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Prince and Batman rode each other to glory as a comic book film and a pop soundtrack. But some people seem to skip this chapter in the artist’s story.

Here’s the kicker, though: If you had to list the traits of a great Prince album, there’s no category where Batman comes up short. What a stroke of genius!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store