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The Complicated Legacy of Prince’s ‘Batman’ Soundtrack

In 1989, Batman would completely change the landscape of the modern blockbuster. Sure, other films had been released in the summer months that enjoyed massive box office results and critical acclaim. The Tim Burton-directed feature, though, would be the first tightly calculated gamble by a major studio to take advantage of the timeframe and years of built-in fandom from the title character’s comic book, television shows, and various other media.

Lost in the hype for the film itself would be its soundtrack, which would enjoy just as much commercial success as the theatrical release. Batman the album stayed at the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart for six weeks. Its lead single, “Batdance,” shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Having a #1 album and single is an incredibly rare achievement for a film’s soundtrack, one that few major musicals which outgrossed Batman at the box office failed to claim.

So why is it today that, outside of fans of the 1989 blockbuster, few people remember these feats, all of which came from music helmed by one of the most beloved artists of the last century, Prince? Well… it’s complicated.

Outside of having outfit colors that matched with Batman’s nemesis the Joker, Prince would seem to be an artist who had little in common with the Dark Knight. His modern, innovative pop style counteracted the darker tone in story and characterization Tim Burton was going for with his film. In fact, for some fans, it fueled worries this version of Batman would be closer to the 1966 campy television series than the gothic grittiness they were hoping would be represented.

“My first drum set was a box full of newspapers,” Prince told Rolling Stone in a 1983 interview, in which he revealed “Batman Theme,” the title song of the 1966 TV series, was one of a few he would practice as a child. So, it felt like fate in 1989 when Warner Bros. approached the artist about creating songs for their new film based on the adventures of the Caped Crusader. And while some listeners today may associate Prince with flamboyance more than brilliance, there was a maturity to his pop offerings at the time that could get deeper depending on the themes he was exploring. In other words, if getting campy was what the filmmakers were trying to avoid, Prince could accommodate.

Still, a Batman album could be a real gamble. It required Prince to associate himself with a film sight-unseen, one that could potentially be a box office and critical disaster. Why take the risk? According to his former manager, Albert Magnoli, the reasoning was to get more Prince content into the marketplace at a time when it wasn’t acceptable to major labels who preferred longer waiting times between releases.

“We needed to get Prince music into the marketplace, but we didn’t want another Prince album. In those days, the record labels could not absorb an album by one of their artists more than every two years,” Magnoli told The Ringer. “They had to get everybody invested in the album and needed two years to truly exploit the potential of a given album.”

If Prince wanted a new release, Warner Brothers Music head Gary LeMel was happy to oblige. He told Billboard it was clear from what he was hearing from the film division of Warner Brothers that was overseeing the film’s production that the movie and Prince’s style would be the perfect marriage.

“We knew going in that Batman was going to be a franchise. We decided we wanted to have a superstar artist, and we wanted to keep it in the family. We started seeing dailies, and it so happened that the Joker character was dressed in purple. The cars were purple,” LeMel said. “It started to point to Prince.”

The result was a staggering success. The Batman soundtrack would stay #1 on the Billboard 200 for six weeks during the summer of 1989. Its lead single,  “Batdance,” would also peak at #1 on the Hot 100, the first single of Prince’s to top the chart since “Kiss” three years earlier. Another song from the album, “Partyman,” peaked #18, while other entries made the R&B charts.

But today the album is vaguely remembered by most. Given the deal between Warner Brothers Pictures and Warner Brothers Music, Prince had to sign away rights to the album and its songs to the company to be able to even work on the project. As a result, no Prince album releases on physical or streaming would include songs from Batman until Warner Music Group started releasing hits compilations following his death in 2016. He would occasionally perform some tracks live, but other than that, they remained buried in digital archives, unexplored by those who didn’t know they existed.

As for Batman the character, he too moved away from the soundtrack, but for other reasons. Following the box office disappointment of Batman & Robin in 1997, Warner Brothers decided to scrap the version of the character that had originated with Tim Burton and replace him with a new, darker, grittier type when Batman Begins rebooted the franchise in 2005. Director Christopher Nolan was looking to get as far away from prior films as possible, so Prince’s soundtrack was one of many elements that was no longer referenced or prominently promoted.

Time has been kinder to Prince’s Batman experiment than perhaps even he envisioned. The super-hero movie boom of the last two decades has led to more and more fans meeting Bruce Wayne for the first time and seeking out different versions of the character – the 1989 interpretation being among the most popular. Incredibly, Michael Keaton, the man behind the Batman mask in the 1989 film, will be again wearing the cowl in multiple projects for Warner Brothers in the coming years.

So, as you see Robert Pattinson assume the Batman mantle alongside a new generation of talent this month, make sure you seek out the Batman soundtrack from 1989. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well it’s held up. Stop the presses!

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