Review: Batman 1989 With the Chicago Philharmonic: Zap! Pow! Zonk!

My first experience with Batman was on television in 1966. The show blended live action with cartoonish settings and hammy acting. It never occurred to me as a 6-year-old that this DC comic would become one of the first mega-blockbuster movies with unending sequels. To me, the best version is directed by Tim Burton with Michael Keaton starring as the anti-hero millionaire in the 1989 film Batman. It was screened as part of the Auditorium Philms Concert Series on Saturday with the Chicago Philharmonic playing the score live. Batman 1989 is a masterwork and a perfect choice for the live accompaniment of the Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by James Olmstead. The Auditorium Theatre was packed with people who loved the movie and the score. True Bat-o-philes.

The score for Batman 1989 is composed by Danny Elfman, who also has worked with Tim Burton on several films and the ultimate Goth Girl series Wednesday. The music is noir and simmers with tension. The bass tones reflect the darkness of crime-ridden Gotham City. The Philharmonic playing live enhanced all of the intricacies of Elfman's score. The bell sounds were played on a xylophone and chimed in sharply, ramping up the eerie menace in the shadows. The other music was written and performed by Prince. It was perfect for the disruptive scene in the museum and when the Joker enters downtown on a float costumed in purple. It was a wise choice for Philharmonic not to play the Prince music and let the recorded soundtrack take over. I am sure that they can play the music but Prince's voice and style are iconic and not given to imitation in my opinion.

Batman 1989 was the second collaboration with director Tim Burton and Michael Keaton with the previous movie being Beetlejuice. Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren wrote the screenplay with input from one of the original co-creators Bob Kane. The movie followed the origins of Bruce Wayne's journey to becoming the Caped Crusader of Gotham City. Kim Basinger plays Vicki Vale, a photojournalist who teams up with reporter Alexander Knox played by the always-funny Robert Wuhl. The biggest deal for me then and now is Jack Nicholson in the role of Jack Napier who becomes the Joker after an unfortunate fall into a vat of acid.

Keaton holds his own as Bruce Wayne who saw his parents murdered in front of him by thugs. When he first appeared as Batman on the screen the audience cheered. It was the same reaction when Chadwick Boseman appeared on screen in Black Panther in 2022 with the Chicago Philharmonic. We cheered when the Bat Signal appeared in the skies of Gotham at the end. Keaton keeps the manic actor persona that he mastered in comic roles under control. Michael Gough plays Alfred who is more than a butler. Alfred raised Bruce Wayne after his parents were killed and continued to watch over him as an adult, being both parent and confidant.

Jack Nicholson is my favorite Joker besides Caesar Romero on the television show. Nicholson plays Jack Napier as a sociopath who falls further into a criminal psychotic state. Watching Nicholson dance and cause havoc is quite the departure from his performance as J.J. Gittes in Chinatown (1974). His Joker is every antisocial character he has played in his long career on steroids.

Other cast members include Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jerry Hall, and Jack Palance. The character actor Tracey Walter plays Bob the Goon in a culmination of the down-on-their-luck men on the perimeter of society roles of which he made a career. The movie was perfectly cast for the expressionist characters out of what I used to call the "dark comic" when I was a kid. I liked Harvey Comics-Richie Rich, Little Lotta, and Archie comics. The DC and Marvel universe felt like a sensory overload and too adult for me.

The production design is by Anton Furst who fills the scenes with crumbling gothic buildings, wet streets, and down-at-the-heels storefronts. Roger Pratt was the cinematographer for Batman 1989. It looks like Pratt used a high-speed film to get that gritty feel, making what little color there was garish and scary. The green of the acid vat, a prostitute's red pleather mini, and the Joker's green hair and outlandish costumes jump off the screen.

I still have fond memories of the television show with the villains in slanted hideouts and of course the predicaments that the Caped Crusaders found themselves in were hilarious. Scalded by a giant percolator, turned into pasta, or trampled by stampeding bulls held me in thrall to "tune in tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel." I would gladly watch Batman 1989 again with the Philharmonic and feel that same sense of good triumphing over evil. The movie and the orchestra received a standing ovation that was well deserved.

It was a one-night-only screening for the 35th anniversary of Batman 1989, on April 13 at the Auditorium Theatre. For more information on upcoming movies in the Auditorrium Philms Concert Series please visit auditoriumtheatre.org or Chicagophilharmonic.org.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.