Let’s face it: There is no summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a ranking of every single Oscar-nominated performance. Or, like today, it will be a look back at Prince’s big Batman hit.
Back in May, I wrote about summer soundtrack songs that became massive hits, serving as catchy ads for the movies they were associated with. Those radio smashes usually fit into two distinct categories — pump-your-first anthems or swooning power ballads — but one that I didn’t discuss exists in its own strange ecosystem. One of summer 1989’s biggest hits remains utterly inexplicable — an avant-garde hodgepodge that melds rap, funk, rock, pop, melodrama and sampled dialogue. I was a teenager when “Batdance” came out, and even now I can’t exactly explain what that song is and why its Frankenstein construction actually managed to capture the public’s imagination. Best I can tell you is that people really, really were excited for Batman.
Oh, and they were pretty fond of Prince, too.
Prince Rogers Nelson had been a fan of the Caped Crusader as a kid. On a few different occasions, the musician (who died in 2016 at the age of 57) mentioned that the first song he ever learned to play was the theme to the jokey 1960s Batman show. During the 1980s, as he became one of the decade’s preeminent stars, he demonstrated a desire to branch out into film with his 1984 movie Purple Rain and, less successfully, his self-directed Under the Cherry Moon. (He also made the underseen concert film Sign o’ the Times, tied to that acclaimed 1987 record.) So it made some sense that his label, Warner Bros., would think of him when it was packaging the company’s much-anticipated Batman movie.
Because Batman has now been part of our movie culture for more than 30 years, it’s hard to remember that the 1989 film was something of a risk. The Superman franchise, huge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had stalled thanks to increasingly uninspired sequels. As for the Dark Knight, audiences largely associated him with that same campy 1960s show that made Prince first fall in love with the character. When Warner Bros. hired Tim Burton, the director of the comedies Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, and cast Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton to play Batman, it wasn’t clear what kind of superhero movie we’d be getting. Anticipating that, Warner Bros. came up with a clever, cool marketing campaign that played up the movie’s hip factor. But the executives also turned to one of their biggest hitmakers to help seal the deal with viewers.
“We knew going in that Batman was going to be a franchise,” Gary LeMel, the head of the record label, later recalled. “We decided we wanted to have a superstar artist and we wanted to keep it in the family, meaning the family of labels. We started seeing dailies, and it so happened that the Joker character was dressed in purple. The cars were purple. It started to point to Prince.”
Depending on who you talk to, the sitdown between Prince and Burton was either a meeting of like minds or a shotgun wedding. (Also worth remembering: Initially, there was a thought that Prince would write darker songs in the voice of the Joker, while Michael Jackson would handle Batman’s more heroic tunes. Nothing came of that idea.) In that same interview, LeMel raved about how well Prince and Burton got along during their first hangout in early 1989 as Prince got to see some of the footage, the musician and the filmmaker instantly getting jazzed about including some new Prince material into Batman. But don’t worry, LeMel insisted: This wouldn’t be a cynical commercial synergy. This was a very artistic endeavor, with Prince being drawn to the film’s nuanced portrait of a crime-fighter torn between heroism and nihilism. “One thing Tim would never do is put something in that wasn’t part of the fabric,” LeMel said.
This is not how Burton remembers it.
“It tainted something that I don’t want to taint, which is how you feel about an artist,” the director said in the early 1990s when the subject of Prince working on Batman came up.
To listen to Burton, who described himself as a big Prince fan (and even included Prince hits like “1999” as temp tracks on Batman’s rough cut), he was forced to let the Purple One contribute songs to the film. In that same interview, Burton lays out his version of what went down: “They’re saying to me, these record guys, it needs this and that, and they give you this whole thing about it’s an expensive movie so you need it. And what happens is, you get engaged in this world, and then there’s no way out. There’s too much money. There’s this guy you respect and is good and has got this thing going. It got to a point where there was no turning back.”
All behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories contain contradictory perspectives, and the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. (For what it’s worth, Prince has said, “There was so much pressure on Tim that for the whole picture I just said, ‘Yes, Mr. Burton, what would you like?’”) But regardless how it came into being, Prince ended up with a suite of songs in quick fashion that were meant to reflect the different characters’ perspectives. Never mind that some of the tracks had been sitting around since before Prince met with Burton — the idea was that the musician, who hadn’t enjoyed a massive commercial success in years, would write in a more straightforward, mainstream way after failing to capture the zeitgeist with records like Lovesexy. (Ironically, even though 1987’s Sign o’ the Times is considered one of his masterpieces — and it won the prestigious annual Pazz & Jop music critics poll — it failed to sell as well or chart as high as Purple Rain or Around the World in a Day.) Although still a superstar, Prince needed a hit, and the assumption has always been that, with Batman, he figured he could get just that.
Still, none of that explains “Batdance,” the first single off his Batman album, which hit radio a few weeks before the Burton film arrived in theaters. (“We knew it would never be in the movie,” LeMel said of “Batdance,” “but everyone thought, what a great marketing tool for giving the public an insight into the film. At that point, people had seen the teaser trailer, but hadn’t heard any of the dialogue.”) Most soundtrack singles are meant to be big, catchy, obvious songs — the whole point of them is that they become another way to plug the movie. Prince didn’t work this way, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, “When Doves Cry,” the first single from Purple Rain, was a daringly stripped-down love song with no bass and intense, almost Freudian lyrics. It was revolutionary and challenging.
Of course, “When Doves Cry” was also insanely catchy. “Batdance,” by comparison, was simply bizarre. And it had an unusual gestation. When Prince presented Burton with different songs for possible inclusion in the film, one of the tracks the director passed on was called “200 Balloons,” a funky composition that melded a driving dance beat with fuzzed-up guitar and crazed saxophone. It felt very much like the extended James Brown-like grooves he dabbled with on Sign o’ the Times.
But from that rejection came “Batdance,” which utilizes a similar beat but gets more ambitious, offering distinct musical segments that add up to a CliffsNotes version of Batman’s storyline. Sampling dialogue from the film’s three main characters — Batman, Joker (Jack Nicholson) and Bruce Wayne’s love interest Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) — and even including a cheeky repeating nod to the 1960s show’s theme song (“Batmaaaan!”), “Batdance” was listeners’ introduction to what this movie would be about. We got a sense that there would be romantic tension between Bruce and Vicki — Basinger’s line, “I just got to know, are we going to try to love each other?” pops up at one point — and the song gets slinkier and sexier when she’s introduced into the mix. Referencing lyrics from other songs on the album, including “The Future” and “Electric Chair,” “Batdance” builds in intensity as Joker and Batman face off at the end, closing on the bad guy’s horrifying laugh.
As a song, it might have been overwhelming and disjointed, but the video at least helped visualize the battle between light and dark — never more overtly than in Prince’s outfit and makeup, which literally split him in two, with one side being the Joker and the other Batman. (In the video, Prince also separately plays, I guess, himself, rocking out on the guitar and handling keyboards and turntable.) The clip was like a mini-musical, complete with choreographed fight sequences and sweeping camera moves. (The video was directed by Prince’s manager Albert Magnoli, who had also helmed Purple Rain.) It worked as an impressionistic snapshot of the soon-to-be-released blockbuster, laying out the emotional, thematic and dramatic elements of the film through dance, dialogue and music.
But getting hung up on the song’s “plot” wasn’t the point — what mattered was how ballsy and experimental it was. At a time when hip-hop was beginning to gain cultural dominance — and even dyed-in-the-wool rockers like Bruce Springsteen were getting danceable 12-inch remixes of their songs — Prince was boldly subsuming the genre into his eclectic musical repertoire. You can hear echoes of groundbreaking dance/rap hits like “Pump Up the Volume” and “It Takes Two,” which brilliantly pulled from disparate sources to create an exciting new whole, in the aural smorgasbord that is “Batdance.” Speeding up the beat, slowing it down, alternately catering to dance, rock and funk audiences, the song felt like flipping around the radio, trying out a new station and then quickly zooming on to the next one. It’s also probably the only No. 1 hit to contain the phrase, “This town needs an enema!”
Despite all that, critics weren’t impressed. The Los Angeles Times called the song “a sample-filled mess,” while The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote, “What ‘Batdance’ deconstructs is mainly itself.” But “Batdance” landed at the top of the Billboard charts for one week in August 1989, and the album was Prince’s first No. 1 since Around the World in a Day.
Was a lot of this success helped by the fact that Batman was the year’s highest-grossing film? Almost certainly, and because Prince’s album was always viewed as a mere offshoot of the film, it’s tended to be denigrated ever since as “lesser Prince.” In 2012, music critic Steven Hyden dismissed “Batdance” as a “novelty track,” and went on to say, “Prince was still respected by critics and serious music fans in 1989, but his commercial prospects were already dimming, and it’s doubtful that he could’ve had a No. 1 album without the considerable promotional benefit of a major motion-picture tie-in. ‘Batdance,’ in turn, was a commercial for Batman dressed up as a Prince comeback single.” And last year, writer Brogan Chattin snarkily argued, ‘“Batdance’ is a song written by an advanced computer algorithm that movie producers hoped would replace real musicians. They encoded a digital clone of Prince to be trapped in the realm of cyberspace for all eternity.”
In other words, neither then nor now are people rushing to defend “Batdance.” (Although, for the record, comedian Scott Aukerman is a sincere fan of the song and the Batman album.) As for its legacy, well, subsequent soundtrack singles steered clear of its template of cramming snippets of dialogue and plot points into their sonic DNA. (The sole exception might be Will Smith explaining in “Men in Black” what the Men in Black do.) And although Prince kept experimenting with hip-hop textures in his 1990s output, “Batdance” didn’t seem to inspire any new musical direction for the mercurial, prolific artist.
Instead, “Batdance” feels like a bittersweet bridge between Prince’s commercial/creative peak of the 1980s and the rockier trajectory of his later career. Prince would continue to be his eccentric self — changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, making albums that alienated his fans and still delivering massive hits like “Cream” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” — but his time at the center of the zeitgeist was over. “Batdance” was less accomplished than classic songs such as “1999” or “When Doves Cry,” but it’s one of his gutsiest moves — an audacious attempt to merge market considerations with his own quirky talent, testing how bizarre you could make an important single for a very big movie.
You could never get away with releasing a “Batdance” now — the movie producers would demand something far more accessible and poppy — but that’s partly what makes it so striking today. The song is basically a chopped-up coming attraction for a movie we’ve now all seen — and one that’s been largely forgotten because of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies that have come since. You’ll have to take my word on it but, back in the summer of 1989, “Batdance” was a big deal. Now, it’s a curiosity or a punchline. “I’ve seen the future and it will be,” Prince declares at one point in the song.
For once, this visionary artist had it wrong.