08-03-2016, 08:17 PM

This is my first solid attempt at a soundtrack review... let me know how I did, and - if you've listened to the score - if you agree or disagree with my sentiments.

Many people here know that my favorite composers have long been the Dynamic Music Partners: a trio of highly-talented artists whose comfort zone (or perhaps typecast role) has been in scoring superhero animation. Their credits include some of the most critically-acclaimed cartoon series to date, including Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League and its Unlimited rebranding, Teen Titans, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Young Justice, and Batman Beyond. The three composers - Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion, and Lolita Ritmanis - all had their starts under the tutelage of the late Shirley Walker, who took their talent and helped them channel it into thoughtful, developed musical works for Batman: The Animated Series (although Carter did not join the crew until the show was rebranded as The New Batman/Superman Adventures). Time and time again they impressed showrunner Bruce Timm over the years; whenever Timm needed a specific type of music for his new show, he turned to the DMP, albeit hesitantly. Could these three, so well-trained in orchestral composition, meet his demands for synthesized grunge for Batman Beyond? When Warner Bros. cut down on costs for musical composition in its animation department, could the trio manage to get the sound right with samples? Time and time again the answer was a strong ‘yes’.

For The Killing Joke, the three composers were reunited not only with Bruce Timm, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, and Kevin Conroy, but also with many of the same musicians who played for Batman: The Animated Series so many years ago. The three have had to make due with samples for years now; as far as I know, this film presented the first opportunity they had had since The New Batman/Superman Adventures to utilize an actual orchestra for a motion picture score - technically. The La-La Land website says of their score, and I quote, that they: “expertly [meld] synth and live orchestral players to harness all the thrilling action and psychological drama”. A bit misleading - I and many others interpreted this to mean that there was a full orchestra with synthesized drones, or other patently electronic noises. All the DMP had was a string orchestra (if I had been paying attention, I would have realized this when the photo at the bottom of this page ( showed only string players). A bit disappointing - but of course, the need for samples was no new hurdle for the team.

Note: this is a review of the score as it is heard on La-La Land’s soundtrack album (LLLCD 1382), not as it is presented in the film. While not a holistic method of reviewing a film score, of course, it's the only exposure to the score I intend to have.

The most important musical cue in a television series is its opening theme. It is the one cue that will musically define the series in the viewer’s mind, and will usually set the tone for the rest of the series’s underscore as well. All three composers have proven to be adept at this: Kris Carter blew Bruce Timm away with “Smells Like Creamed Spinach” (the Batman Beyond main title); Lolita Ritmanis with the main titles to Justice League (though some question whether she should receive credit at all, being so inspired by Harry Robinson’s score to Twins of Evil; in any case, her main titles theme for The Zeta Project is quite stirring); and Michael McCuistion with the main titles to Justice League Unlimited.

For films, it’s usually different. Main titles are becoming an endangered species, it seems; some films don’t show the logo until the end of the film! So it becomes that much harder for composers to establish a theme that drives the characters and the audience forward. Was this accomplished in The Killing Joke? Hardly. The main theme lacks conviction. I is a meandering, downbeat tune that drifts in and seems to have no strong stake in the score. You can hear it in tracks 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, 31, 33, and 34 (let me know if I missed any).

The tone of the score is quite unsettling, in a fashion I’ve never heard from these composers. There is hardly a single happy note in all this score. They’ve composed scary music, of course - a favorite of mine being the tail end of “Joker Family Portrait” from Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker - but never in such a way that can induce light formication, or at least a sense of dread in your stomach. The trio is quite good at entering that musical tone organically; whereas “We’ve Got A Robbery” starts up with energetic strings and forceful brass, it ends with a creepy foreshadowing to one of the best, and most unsettling, tracks on this album: “Narcissist and A Sociopath”. Intimidating horns followed by menacing percussion give off an air of sick perversity - I assume this underscores a scene in which Francesco professes his pornographic obsession with Batgirl.

A few tidbits I noticed:

One highlight is “Bats and Babs Cross the Line”. Here’s where that string orchestra gets a chance to shine, in a beautiful build-up that culminates on-screen into a much-ridiculed sex scene.
Kris Carter channels a bit of his work for Yesterday Was A Lie in “Hoods Present the Hood”; it has better rhythm than Ritmanis’s “Jeannie Flashback”.
No instrumental of “I Go Looney”? Come on, La-La Land, there was room on the CD! The mixing for the track seems a little unbalanced - Mark Hamill’s excellent singing voice seems a bit drowned out at times.
Speaking of which, the mastering for this set is a mixed bag. While instruments are balanced and prioritized intelligently, and the orchestra is flawlessly married to the samples (except for a small bit in “Oracle Is Here” where things may have gotten a little out of sync), the problem is that it all sounds like samples. I wish I was kidding when I said that the Batman: The Animated Series recordings from over 20 years ago sound more pristine than this does. Was James Nelson having a bad few days when he was working on this? Is this how it’s supposed to sound?

I think the answer is that the DMP, for all their experience with synth, have never been terribly good at getting a good, vibrant stereo sound when it comes to recreating the orchestra with samples. When it comes to patently synthesized elements, like most of Young Justice (which I highly recommend) it sounds wonderful. But on that same album, listen to “Arrival of the League” - there’s something that sounds “off” about it. It doesn’t sound natural or convincing - things don’t “bounce” as they would in a real environment. I think that’s what happened here: the DMP were unable to create a convincing stereo environment for their samples, and so the sound of the orchestra had to be compromised a bit. What a shame.

“What a shame.” If you, like me, are knowledgeable of the works of these three fine composers, that might be your first impression of The Killing Joke. You might think that they botched this opportunity entirely. I ask that you give it a second listen. It certainly does not impress the first time around - the main theme does not excite or inspire, and the score essentially has no heart, so to speak, that pumps blood to all the tracks and brings them together. Some tracks - such as “Uncle Not Pleased” or “Nothing Will Be the Same” - are the literal definition of background music: music that should be heard subconsciously, under all the dialogue, and never on its own. But the action cues are damn fun to listen to; the atmosphere is unsettling and, considering it’s a level of creepy the group has never explored fully before, they do a very good job at scoring a psychological thriller.

Is it worth La-La Land’s price of sixteen dollars? Technically. If you got just the music, it would be worth perhaps twelve at most. But Dan Goldwasser’s great artwork and John Takis’s ever-insightful liner notes make up for that four-dollar difference. For those unfamiliar with the work of Ritmanis, McCuistion, and Carter, I recommend seeing the film first before purchasing, and judging whether the score could hold up on its own. For those who have followed the trio since their days scoring the DCAU, there’s a good bit of material to enjoy here so long as you don’t expect the bold rhythms of their B:TAS and S:TAS scores, or the inventive sound design of Justice League and Batman Beyond - this score is more psychological in nature (you can, however, hear certain DMP-isms throughout the score that can add to the fun). Those expecting a DMP Mask of the Phantasm will be disappointed as well. When Takis said that enjoyment of the score “benefits from multiple close listens”, I thought he was being professional, but he may be right. It may not be a masterpiece, but the DMP certainly weren’t slacking or phoning it in. Don’t let a disappointing first listen define your view of the score. I haven’t seen the film (though I know of its negative reception on account of a confusing first act) but maybe the same can be said of that as well. And if you still don’t like it after multiple listens, there’s always Justice League and Batman: The Animated Series - Volume 4.

Lucky me - I managed to get an autographed booklet!

James (The Disney Guy)
08-03-2016, 08:30 PM
Oh Boy That Does Look Good. I Will Wait Until I Have Watched The Film To See If The Score Worked With The Scenes.

tehƧP@ƦKly�ANK� -Ⅲ�
08-03-2016, 08:41 PM
Oh Boy That Does Look Good. I Will Wait Until I Have Watched The Film To See If The Score Worked With The Scenes.


I only listened to the score once. But it was in the background. I didn't want to pay attention to it in full yet.

I'm still holding off on the movie until I reach a point where I'm not that busy and I can dedicate the entire viewing to the movie.

Most watching I do these days include about 25% of the time multitasking and alt-tabbing a lot between open windows.

08-03-2016, 09:10 PM
A good, well thought out review. Bravo!

James (The Disney Guy)
08-09-2016, 01:24 AM
The Music Works Well For This Film. Not A Great Deal of Action But It Is More Of A Slower Steady Story. The Music Really Add to The Plot and Emotion Convayed By The Casting.

I Certainly Feel In Order to Fully Appreciate This You Have To See The Film.

08-09-2016, 02:29 AM
If you didn't already read what I said in my post (Thread 192109) within the "How are you FEELING at the moment?" thread, with a bit more depth than that comment; I agree with Killgrave, and commend you for this exceedingly magnificent review. Very well done!