Why Tim Burton Says ‘Batman’ ‘Tainted’ His Love of Prince
For the first and maybe last time ever, Prince declared himself willing to take outside direction in order to make 1989's Batman soundtrack. In an ironic twist, one of music's most celebrated self-contained creative forces found himself on the wrong side of a partnership with somebody who worked better alone.
It's not that the film's director, Tim Burton, didn't love Prince's music. "I had just gone to see two of his concerts in London, and I felt they were like the best concerts I’d ever seen," he told Rolling Stone in 1992. He just didn't see it as a match for his movie.
But after apparently being pressured to have some form of pop music tie-in to help promote his first-ever big-budget studio franchise movie - "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" - Burton took star Jack Nicholson's advice and reached out to Prince about recording new songs to replace his earlier hits "1999" and "Baby, I'm a Star," which were temporarily being used during two key sequences in early edits of the film.
Whether he was inspired by watching the movie get made, eager to help another extremely singular artist, or feeling internal or external pressure to reverse the growing sales decline of recent albums including the just-released Lovesexy, the normally control-minded Prince not only said yes, he also happily took creative feedback from Burton. “There was so much pressure on [him]” he told Rolling Stone in 1990, “that for the whole picture, I just said, ‘Yes, Mr. Burton, what would you like?’"
Naturally and perhaps even more problematically for Burton, that meant over-delivering. After being inspired by an early 1988 visit to the film set, Prince crafted not two but nine new songs in just three weeks. When Burton rejected "200 Balloons," the song Prince wrote to take the place of "Baby, I'm a Star" in the Joker's parade scene, Prince promptly wrote another, "Trust," which made the cut.
Watch the "Trust" Scene from Batman
In his 1992 Rolling Stone interview, Burton reveals that Prince and the studio's eagerness to make this collaboration happen left him feeling trapped. "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. And I don’t want to get into that situation again."
As he did with his first two films - Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice - Burton largely leaned on a score provided by Oingo Boingo's Danny Elfman throughout the movie. Besides "Trust," the only song to receive major screen time is the Nicholson-inspired "Partyman," which accompanies the Joker's destructive visit to a museum.
Watch the "Partyman" Scene from Batman
Burton's reluctance - if it was ever made known to him - didn't stop Prince from throwing himself headfirst into the project. He attributed the lyrics for each of the nine songs to various characters from the movie, and made liberal use of samples from the film across many of the songs.
With anticipation for the film at a fever pitch two weeks prior to its release, "Batdance," the highly unconventional first single from the soundtrack, was released on June 8. It rocketed up to the top of the charts, giving Prince his first No. 1 hit since 1986's "Kiss."
A last-minute replacement for "Dance With the Devil," which Prince deemed too dark for the project, "Batdance" isn't a song so much as a sample-heavy sonic collage that shifts from one intentionally disjointed musical setting to the next, while sketching out the basic plot and conflicts of the movie. For the video, Prince split himself in half, dressing as Batman on the left and Joker on the right. It's a period piece, for sure, which wouldn't have worked without the context of, and excitement for, the upcoming movie.
Watch Prince's "Batdance" Video
Three months later, Prince followed up with a second single, "Partyman," which featured a similarly extravagant video, cracked the Top 20 and made a hell of a lot more sense in a concert setting than its predecessor.
Two more singles were released stateside; "The Arms of Orion," a duet with lyrics written by Sheena Easton, cracked the Top 40 and the bedroom ballad "Scandalous" reached No.5 on the R&B charts. The following May, William Orbit remixes of "The Future" and "Electric Chair" were released overseas. Batman eventually sold over two million copies, Prince's first multi-platinum certification since 1985's Around the World in a Day.
As a then-unknown artist who fought Warner Brothers for the right to produce his own records at age 18, and two decades later changed his name and wrote "slave" on his face when they wouldn't let him release music at the pace he wanted, it's likely Prince would have had some sympathy for Burton's plight, if indeed he was ever made aware of it.
Regardless, despite the fact that Batman wasn't just a big hit but also the defining cultural phenomenon of the summer of 1989, the director was left with conflicted feelings.
"It completely lost me," Burton told Rolling Stone about being forced to add Prince's songs to his movie. "And it tainted something that I don’t want to taint. Which is how you feel about an artist. And actually, I liked his album. I wish I could listen to it without the feel of what had happened."