The sudden and surprising death of Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson 1958-2016) has led to numerous tributes and discussions about the man, his music and his influences on pop culture. But one part of his career that is not getting a lot of talk, his relationship with Batman.
This article will hopefully shed some light on this now-nearly-forgotten connection between the Dark Knight and the Purple Prince.
Prince was only seven years old when the 1966 Batman television show debuted. By coincidence it was the same time that the singer taught himself how to play the piano. In a rare 1996 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince admitted that the television show’s theme song, composed by Neil Hefti, was “the first thing (he) learned how to play” on the instrument. He also showed that four decades later, he could still play it.
In the late 1980s, after tearing up the Billboard charts and conquering a new cable channel called MTV in the early part of the decade, Prince was in a career slump. His follow-up film project to Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon had been a box office and critical failure. His 1988 album Lovesexy only went to #11 on the album charts and was his first album since 1982 to sell less than a million copies, and his records were receiving, at best, mixed reviews. Many felt that Prince’s best days were behind him.
Then he was approached by film director Tim Burton to write songs for his new Batman film. During the 1980s many films were laden with radio and MTV friendly hits to enhance the movie’s box office appeal. The original plan was to have Prince, who was under contract to Warner Bros., the film’s studio, to write funk and up-tempo songs, mainly to be used for the scenes with The Joker. Michael Jackson would in turn sing romantic ballads. Warner executives, hoping to turn Prince’s fortunes around, felt that this would be a good way to release a new Prince album, while not really having a new Prince album out.
For unknown reasons the Prince-Jackson plan never came to fruition, though one cannot help but speculate that the egos of the two artists and/or fear of said egos probably killed the idea. Then too, Tim Burton was not too crazy about the idea saying “My movies aren’t commercial like Top Gun.” However, Burton freely admitted in a Rolling Stone interview that he “often listened to Prince while working on the film,” and “it helped shape (his) vision of Jack Nicholson’s Joker.” At one point Burton considered using some of Prince’s previous material before hiring the artist to write new songs.
Prince screened thirty minutes of rough footage before starting to work on the project. Remarkably, he finished writing and recording nine songs in only six weeks. Even more amazingly, he played all but two of the instruments and sang almost all of the vocals. However, only two of the songs, Partyman and Trust were actually used in the film, both in major scenes involving the Joker. Many have suggested that Prince’s music influenced Jack Nicholson’s excessive, over-the-top interpretation of the character, making him a perfect Joker for the 1980s.
The first song Batdance, and the accompanying music video, was released June 8, 1989, two weeks before the movie opened. The single, which is a mix of the tv show theme, movie themes and dialogue from the movie, would become Prince’s fourth number one single, his first since Kiss three years earlier. In the video Prince appeared as both himself and as a strange character he called “Gemini,” which was Prince’s Zodiac sign. Gemini is the Joker on one side and Batman on the other, representing the inner battle between good and evil. (Though some viewed it as the inner battle inside Prince between his extroverted stage presence and his notorious personal shyness.) It also had dancers clad as both Batman and the Joker.
The album Batman –The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was released on June 20, 1989. Though the album received mixed reviews, it sold over 11 million copies and stayed at #1 on the Billboard album charts for six weeks. Batman would also yield three more hit singles in the U.S., but none charted higher than #18. Regardless, Prince’s career was back on track.
All the attention Prince’s music got overshadowed the man who wrote the film’s iconic score, Danny Elfman. Elfman was “stunned” when he was told that his music, released as Batman: Original Motion Picture Score, would be released separately from Prince’s. Though Elfman’s album actually got better reviews than Prince’s, it still only topped out at #30. However, his Batman theme has been used over again in subsequent Batman movies, the 1990s animated series and numerous video games. Incredibly, neither Elfman nor Prince received an Oscar nomination for their music in the film. Many have speculated that the confusion over the original soundtrack and the originalscore may have been the reason.
Despite its success, Batman would be the start of a long drawn-out personal and professional battle between Prince and Warner Bros. Because of the complexities over who owns the rights to Batman, Prince had to sign over all publishing rights for the songs used in the film to Warner Bros. Thus none of the Batman songs have appeared in any of Prince’s greatest hits compilations to date, nor was he even allowed to even use the word “Batman” on a t-shirt listing all his albums. Finally in protest, in 1993 Prince dropped his name in favor of an unpronounceable symbol, which he used until his contract with Warner Bros. expired in 2000.
Batman would go on to make $411 million, spawn three sequels and an animated series. However it would be His Royal Badness’ last dance with The Dark Knight. While we can now only wonder about how big a Batman fan Prince was before or after the making of the film soundtrack, there is no doubt that Prince has earned a place in Batman’s history.
The Prince is dead. Long live the Prince!
Staff Writer/Resident Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine
Staff Writer/Resident Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine