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Soundtrack review: The dark knight (Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, 2008)

Hans Zimmer JNH Thursday

Soundtrack review: The dark knight (Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, 2008)

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It’s JNH Thursday, and I will cheat a little bit and review a score where he wasn’t the main composer: “The dark knight”. Yes, it’s a big one, and in my opinion, a game changer. As every other super hero score where Hans Zimmer has been involved in the past few years, opinions flew in all directions; haters hated even more, while the Zimmer camp rejoiced in this masterpiece. For me, it’s simple. This is one of the best movies of all time, and it didn’t get the score it needed, but the score it deserved.
With Batman in the middle, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard each stood in the corner of one character: Zimmer wrote the theme for The Joker while JNH composed Harvey Dent’s theme. The two couldn’t be more different, and couldn’t work more perfectly together. The album starts abruptly with the 9 minute Joker suite “Why so serious?”. Hans wrote this theme as if he had been The Joker himself. He entered the troubled inner world of the character, looked for the darkest most hidden corner, dug there until he found the core, and exposed everything for the world to hear. He turned The Joker’s demons into notes; not many notes (just two stand at the base of this track) but played by a rich variety of strings. Hans tortured the string instrument with razor blades on order to achieve the twisted, screeching sound for this character. Nothing sits right; everything is askew and painful with The Joker. Hans took the darkness from his 80s synthesizer influences, and poured them in this cue along with traces of early Nine Inch Nails songs.
“Why so serious?” is the most aggressive cue on this score, and rightfully so. When Batman is on screen, there’s a sense of urgency and heroism in the music, although his themes are not Superman –like heroic and recognizable. This character is darker, more complex and his music mirrors that. You cannot take the Batman lightly, because this is heavy and dark.  I love it how I can hear the subtle bat wings flaps in some cues. The sound effect is brilliantly achieved. “Like a dog chasing cars” fleshes out the Batman theme most clearly and in the most heroic mood heard on this score. Whenever I hear this theme I get a feeling of a fast descent, of an unstoppable force, of a crushing determination that rolls and rolls until it achieves its goal. I listen to this song whenever I need picking up or an extra shot of motivation, when my faith in what I’m doing falters.
Hans though really goes all out in “A dark knight”. It takes a special kind of composer to be able to shoot such a magnificent, epic, intense, heartfelt 16 minute long wonder of a suite. This one brings together all the themes of the movie, like a greatest hits cue within the album. It has everything. It’s a journey like no other. It’s like I am under Batman’s cape, flying, fighting, feeling, screaming, cringing, hurting, loving, hating…It’s impossible not to feel the heaviness and richness of the characters when you hear this cue. The music looks inside me with the preciseness of a laser beam (which may or may not be among the instruments used by Hans for this track) and finds the deep place where all my doubts are hidden, like bats hanging from a cave ceiling. The music strips me of them and replaces the holes with a different material, not from this Earth, dark and indestructible.  I want so much to hear this suite played live, I think it would be a unique experience. I’d just close my eyes and take it all in.
If Hans took care of the complexity and depth of the two troubled characters of the movie, James Newton Howard created everything that’s good and hopeful in this score. He brings his tenderness in tracks like “Decent men in an indecent time” or “Blood on my hands”. He quiets down the mood and brings elegance to this mad world.
And then he takes Harvey Dent, The White Knight, the pure, shiny hero of the movie and gives him the halo he needed, in the form of a perfect cue. With all that Hans Zimmer threw at this score, with the magic he brought and the legendary themes he created, for me, the crown jewel of “The Dark Knight” is “Harvey Two-Face”. This cue truly is a divine intervention, and one of the reasons James Newton Howard is one of the best composers in history. Harvey’s theme blows me away. In a world of madness and darkness rises hope…It’s a white dove flying over the ashes of a broken world. The soft piano, the elegance and beauty that are vintage James Newton Howard attributes and the complete understanding of how pure and infinite good should sound, make for one of my favorite film music cues ever written. I get goose bumps long after the track stops playing. It’s a cue that must have been imprinted inside me before I was born, that’s how deep I feel it. James Newton Howard probably wrote it in one of the rooms of my heart and notes from it travel my bloodstream continuously. It’s hard for me not to tear up at the end of this song, it really is. And it almost stops, and I shiver… except it’s not over…the final minute of this track explodes and it feels like a magnificent exaggeration to me. It pushes deeper inside me, when I thought there was nothing deeper than that. When I hear the end of the track, I get the feeling of … “are you kidding me? So he could do this as well??”.  There shouldn’t be something above perfect. It pushes the way I feel towards the limit of unbearable. Imagine looking at the most beautiful thing or scene you have ever seen. Imagine looking at it for a long time, until you are completely immersed in that feeling of perfection, until you can’t remember anything else. You feel amazed, unable to move at seeing such a wonder, you feel at peace. And then that image, be it the face of your loved one or the most beautiful landscapes ever, gets another element that makes it even better: another expression of the face, or two beautiful rainbows appearing on that landscape. It almost breaks the magic, because you know it’s not real, it can’t be real. This is what the end of “Harvey Two-face” makes me feel…It’s a perfect cue, and the ending is so great that it makes me think what if the entire perfect track was as good as that last minute…such a paradox…just like a Dali painting…
The end of the movie, the emotional, heartbreaking and surprising end of the movie takes place during two cues: “Watch the world burn” and “A watchful guardian”. I can’t imagine those scenes without the music. I don’t know how many times Hans Zimmer and JNH watched the ending, but they must have been dreaming it by the time they wrote the tracks. Like I said before, the movie gets the score it deserves.  
“The dark knight” score matches the value of the movie and its place in history. In my personal index, no matter how I twist the grades and how many ratings I add, I won’t find ten better scores than “The dark knight”. It’s a score I come back to very often; it’s as much a part of me as my college memories or one of my favorite books. It knows me and I know it. If it were a piece of clothing, it would be already blended with my skin by now, and I could never take it off.
My ratings:
Cue rating: 95 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 104 / 124
Album excellence: 84%
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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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