Flashback: on 1989’s Batman

Wow. Talked about planned/not planned. For five years now, without fail, I’ve been posting a film tribute to Jack Nicholson, on the occasion of his birthday. Today, April 22nd, is his 79th. A couple weeks ago, I began pondering what to focus on this year. I’d done “Goin’ South” and “Ride in the Whirlwind” in the past. There was even one for Jack’s 1958 debut, “The Cry Baby Killer”. Everything gets a fresh rewatch before a new review, so I looked to my personal collection. Damn…I only had “Prizzi’s Honor” on VHS. I considered “The Shining”, but decided to save it for a possible Kubrick retrospective. Hey, why not “Batman”? It was the BIGGEST film of 1989, it made Nicholson truly, filthy rich, and it set the groundwork for the current crop of massive superhero blockbusters. Okay…and I popped in my Blu-ray last week, and watched Michael Keaton save Kim Basinger from Nicholson’s Joker for something approaching the umpteeth time. All set for today, right? Then something happened yesterday. It’s the number one news story in the world right now. And as a fanatical fan…this tragedy struck me hard. So, Jack, happy 79th birthday…but suddenly this story has a bit less to do with you. We lost Prince yesterday, and the entertainment world is in mourning.

To say “Batman” in 1989 was mammoth, is still somewhat of an understatement. It was almost impossible to escape that summer. The anticipation leading up to its June 23rd release was feverish. Could director Tim Burton pull it off? Will “comedian” Michael Keaton actually be an acceptable caped crusader? Nicholson as the Joker should be awesome! We were impatiently awaiting its arrival…and fervently hoping that they wouldn’t screw it all up. I remember the collective sigh of relief when that first trailer hit. OMG, did it look incredible! And this was pre-internet. You had to experience that trailer during a news report, on MTV, or in an actual theater. Remember, my contemporaries? “Wait ’til they get a load of me”, sneered Jack as Batman’s arch enemy. And in that cape and mask…you could almost believe that average-guy Keaton could kick some ass. Seeing the film proper was some experience. I got the advance tickets for Thursday, June 22nd…hours ahead of the “official” opening. By the time the weekend was over…I had seen it again. Not all critics were impressed…but the Dame of U.S. national reviewers was. Pauline Kael penned a rave for The New Yorker. And for a budding cinema critic…that’s like a blessing from the Pope.

“Batman” grossed over 400 million dollars on a 48 million dollar budget. Months later, the VHS tape was released, and my brother and I ran it constantly in the apartment we shared. The movie went on to win an Oscar for Anton Furst’s impressive Art Direction-Set Decoration. It finally made gorgeous Kim Basinger a big movie star. And it was a MASSIVE, multi-platinum smash for its soundtrack from Prince…his biggest seller since “Purple Rain” from 5 years prior. It included the #1 single, “Batdance”. The word now is that Tim Burton never wanted the Prince music, but that producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber wanted a Prince/Michael Jackson partnership for the songs. The rumor then was that Jack Nicholson liked and wanted Prince. And that’s the story I choose to believe. Jack was a Prince fan. Perfect. The film actually spawned two soundtrack albums that year–one of the earliest mega-hits to do so. Danny Elfman, an ubiquitous Tim Burton collaborator, provided the musical score. The Prince songs may seem a little out of place now–“Batman” was pulling out every possible stop in 1989, and everyone wanted a piece of it. But Prince’s “Partyman”, “The Future”, and especially “Scandalous”, still hold up today. Prince began a relationship with Ms. Basinger, after work together during that song’s production.

Jack Nicholson did not get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for playing the Joker, but I felt like he should have. I’ll single out Dan Ackroyd, and his garnering of a nom for “Driving Miss Daisy”, for the “huh?” category, because I certainly can’t disparage winner, Denzel Washington. Of course, Heath Ledger did win an Oscar for playing the Joker, posthumously, in “The Dark Knight” almost 20 years later. That’s a better Batman film, but Mr. Ledger provided a completely different take on the character. But Jack did it first (some would say Cesar Romero…and I’ll accept that too). And the movie holds up nicely…with a few minor detractions. Man, do some of those visual effects look primitive now! Truth be told…a couple looked a bit creaky back then too. The screenplay was decent, and the whole duality theme played well. But the Robert Wuhl character of Alexander Knox is as annoying in 2016, as he was 27 years earlier. Basinger looks smashing. Nicholson has an infectious, wildly over-the-top, good time. Too bad he bookended the 1980’s with two of his most iconic, yet flamboyant and over-acting performances. I have to remind people constantly, how subtle and nuanced he can be. Plus, “Batman” is funny! Look no further than this season, for people longing for their superheroes to be more funny.

The supporting cast of the first “Batman” film contained Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth. Those two remained casting constants during the first quartet, straight through the 1997 “Batman & Robin” nadir. Poor Billy Dee Williams was recast with Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent by 1995’s “Batman Forever”! Damned executives. Plus, 1992’s “Batman Returns” remains as Keaton and director Burton’s high point with the franchise–as well as both of their swansongs. Kilmer, Clooney, and Schumacher were waiting in the wings. The series never had another hit soundtrack that approached the Prince one though. And it gave the musician the boost he needed after the underperforming “Lovesexy” album from the year prior. Yeah, Nicholson and Prince, for better or worse, are two of the most memorable things that emerged from the super smash. Its popularity helped greenlight smaller, more personal film projects for each of them in 1990–Prince with “Graffiti Bridge”, Jack with “The Two Jakes”. Each a respective star/director enterprise for both–each tanked with box office and critics. It’s a fickle world, and memories are short. But my memory is looong. So, cheers Jack. And thank you Prince. Your music helped complete, an initial cinematic chapter. I’ll miss you forever.

Grade:  B


4 comments on “Flashback: on 1989’s Batman

  1. It’s a tragedy that Prince has died. However, his soundtrack to this solid movie is, well, pretty awesome, too. Nice review.

  2. Prince has been the soundtrack to my life, Dan. I am a HUGE fan. More stuff to follow here, and on national radio too.


  3. I love Prince’s soundtrack. And Prince.

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