The year was 1989. It was five years since Prince conquered the pop charts with “Purple Rain.” The extravagant musician had been doing well for himself with some hit singles, but his subsequent albums had been either commercial or critical flops, sometimes both.
His “Purple Rain” backup band, The Revolution, had disbanded, and Warner Bros. was looking for their top star to make an album, not a single, that could move the needle again.
Just as it so happened, Warner Bros. had another big pop culture phenomenon it was preparing to unleash on the world: Tim Burton‘s “Batman.”
Warner Bros. approached Prince and asked him to make a new album based on the themes and characters from the movie. After watching a half-hour of test footage, Prince went into the studio for six weeks and quickly wrote a small batch of songs while retooling some others he had written before taking on the project. The result was “Batman,” a tie-in album that topped the Billboard charts for six weeks and became the soundtrack not only for Burton’s movie, but for the summer of ’89.
In hindsight, the album feels extremely dated. Much like Jack Nicholson‘s Joker, “Batman” was emblematic of the greed and wild excess of the decade it was released in. Few of the songs in the album even show up in the movie, due in part to composer Danny Elfman‘s insistent refusal to collaborate on the film score with Prince. Still, one song did leave an impact by helping to create one of the goofiest Joker moments in any Batman story. Nicholson’s Joker breaks into the Gotham Art Museum and proclaims, “Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds!” One of his mooks then hits a boom box that plays Prince’s “Partyman” as Joker and co. prance around the museum defacing every painting in the gallery … except one featuring some meat carcasses.
After subsequent Batman films ratcheted up the camp factor until fans couldn’t take it anymore, the World’s Greatest Detective turned to darker tales thanks to works like Christopher Nolan‘s “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Batman v Superman.” As a result, the idea of a bright, flamboyant musician like Prince crossing paths with such a dramatic and “serious” franchise seems bizarre in 2016. The album doesn’t rank high critically in Prince’s discography either, getting reviews both at release and in hindsight as a passable but forgettable commercial endeavor. Still, it did its job of bringing Prince back into the spotlight and broadening his pop culture impact; and it serves as a reminder as to why Prince is one of the musicians synonymous with the ’80s.