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How Prince’s ‘Batman’ pioneered the superhero superstar soundtrack

Prince in a still from the 'Batdance' video.

Kendrick Lamar’s new album is a soundtrack. Black Panther: The Album was curated by Lamar, who performs on five of the 14 tracks. In Ryan Coogler’s movie, which opens Friday, music from Lamar’s album is artfully blended with music by Ludwig Göransson, whose orchestral score incorporates musicians recorded in Senegal and South Africa.

The way Lamar’s music both contributes to Black Panther and extends beyond it bears strong similarities to Prince’s music for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). In both cases, artists crafted albums that stand alone as cohesive statements, but relate to themes and events from associated superhero films, with some (but not all) songs being heard in the movies they accompany.

Other artists have been involved with original soundtracks in integral, identifiable ways — think of Simon and Garfunkel’s contributions to The Graduate, or Lorde’s Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack — but Prince’s Batman soundtrack may be the nearest precedent for what Lamar’s done with Black Panther.

Lamar’s songs are more prevalent in Black Panther than Prince’s were in Batman, and Prince fans who enjoy the new Marvel movie may be left feeling like Burton missed an opportunity. In fairness, though, Burton initially didn’t expect Prince to be involved at all.

Burton was a fan who would play Prince’s music in his car while driving to the studio to make Batman. As he assembled the film’s rough cut, he used “1999” and “Baby I’m a Star” to soundtrack two scenes that needed dance music. The director figured the Prince tracks were just placeholders, but the movie’s star Jack Nicholson urged Burton to approach Prince and see if he’d want to be involved.

As it happened, Prince was thrilled to get the call. He’d been a Batman fan since he was a kid growing up in Minneapolis; he loved Neil Hefti’s theme to the campy TV series, which was one of the first things Prince ever learned to play on the piano. Plus, working on Batman would be a way for Prince to make new music without the burden of crafting a new “Prince album.”

The producers asked Prince if he’d remake “1999” and “Baby I’m a Star” to fit the new movie. They hoped that maybe Prince would even consider contributing one new song to the picture. When Prince got out of a screening room, though, he was on fire with inspiration. After hunkering down at Paisley Park, in just one month Prince brought eight new songs to an “overwhelmed” Burton, reports Ronin Ro in his Prince biography.

Although Burton loved the new music, the movie was already too far along to incorporate most of what became a whole album’s worth of Batman songs. “Partyman” and “Trust” were the only songs that were prominently heard in the movie, landing in the Joker scenes that had already been reserved for pop songs. “The Future,” “Vicki Waiting,” and “Electric Chair” are heard in the background of other scenes.

The rest of the movie was scored by regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, the former Oingo Boingo leader whose involvement initially seemed to some action fans as unexpected as casting comic actor Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. Elfman’s new theme, though, which became iconic in its own right, won over both the producers and the public.

The movie’s producers initially conceived a more organic integration of songs and score — with the idea, at one point, that Michael Jackson would also be involved, an idea that Prince probably hated if anyone ever mentioned it to him. In the end, the integration just amounted to Elfman using Prince’s “Scandalous” melody as partial basis for the film’s love theme.

Batman became one of the first films to spawn both an original score soundtrack and a separate soundtrack of original songs — as Black Panther now also has. Even if only a few of Prince’s songs would make it into the actual movie, his involvement was embraced by everyone involved. As the film’s release approached, Prince’s soundtrack became more and more central to the growing buzz around what became perhaps the most-anticipated summer blockbuster since the Star Wars saga.

Prince was all in. He had a full-on concept album of new songs, each one meant to be in the “voice” of one of the movie’s characters, as detailed in the liner notes. “The Future” and “Scandalous” are Batman songs; “Electric Chair,” “Partyman,” and “Trust” come from the Joker; Bruce Wayne mused about “Vicki Waiting,” while Vale herself had a “Lemon Crush.” The Sheena Easton collaboration “Arms of Orion” was intended to be a love duet between Bruce and Vicki.

With the artist’s blessing, the Warner Bros. publicity machine rolled out in full force for what was in fact a new Prince album, Batman. The result was a win-win-win for the movie, the album, and apparently the audience — who rewarded Prince with not only a number one album, but also his most unusual chart-topping single, “Batdance.”

Built on the beat of Prince’s earlier song “200 Balloons” (which became its B-side), “Batdance” combined Burton’s pop noir aesthetic with some of the goofy fun of the ’60s series. It heavily sampled dialogue from the movie, something it’s hard to imagine hearing on Top 40 radio today but which at the time made the song an exquisite co-promotional release for the feature.

For the music video, though, Prince was going to make his own movie. Once the album was in the can, he enlisted Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli to direct a video starring a character named “Gemini”: half Batman, half Joker, all Prince. The artist also played himself in the video, wailing on a black Cloud guitar. Anil Dash’s “tweetstorm” on this song and video is essential reading, full of fascinating facts.

Did you know Mavis Staples’s voice is sampled in the song? And that the video marks the first time Prince was ever shown at a computer? As Dash notes, the video “feels like it was made for the meme era,” full of Easter eggs like the “all this and brains too” shirt, a reference to the 1986 Frank Miller comic book quartet that helped inspire the Batman franchise’s return to a dark tone. (Did I mention Prince was a Batman fan?)

The Gemini character came back in the “Partyman” video, another Magnoli effort — yes, that’s Candy Dulfer on sax. The extended version spotlights Prince’s prankster side, with exploding cigarettes and a disappointed monkey and who knows what’s going on with that…mermaid? The Phantom-style masks here evoke Alicia (Jerry Hall), the Joker’s girlfriend who hides her disfigurement.

So that’s how Gotham City, inspired by New York in name and geography, got its ’80s sound straight from Minneapolis — or, more precisely, Chanhassen. The soundtrack became one of Prince’s many artistic and commercial triumphs, and even resulted in a dalliance with Kim Basinger, who contributed moaning sounds to a “Scandalous” extended mix and was slated to be involved with Graffiti Bridge until she packed up and flew back to Hollywood.

It’s sad that Prince didn’t live to see Black Panther, a thrilling film and a historic convergence of African-American talent. Given his admiration for Lamar (who he invited to jam at Paisley Park in 2014), in an alternate universe might Prince even have been involved with the Black Panther soundtrack? We’ll never know, but at least we have his unforgettable work on Batman to show what a superhero Prince truly was when he wanted 2B.

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