Look, I’m not going to dispute that the Danny Elfman Batman score is iconic. In point of fact, I literally typed that line as my son started an app on his tablet that played the theme, and I recognized it from about the second note. Okay. But . . . one of the theatrical release Batman films to use Elfman’s theme was actually scored by Shirley Walker. And if your reaction to that was, “Who?” You’re not alone. So was mine, and I’m a film music geek by ordinary standards. She was the second woman in Hollywood history to get solo composing credit on a score. She scored Batman Mask of the Phantasm, the most forgotten theatrical release Batman movie. And Escape From LA. And those are probably her best-known scores.
At least in movies, that is, because she also scored seven episodes of the animated Superman, ten of Batman Beyond, a total of forty-five of the ’90s animated Batman in its two incarnations, twelve of Spawn, the entirety of the live-action The Flash, ditto Space: Above and Beyond, and a handful of other things. She did the arranging for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” and “What Can You Lose?” for Dick Tracy. She orchestrated and conducted and did “additional music” for a whole bunch of things.
Let’s talk orchestrating first, because I find this to be one of the most underrated jobs in music. Now, there are composers who do this for themselves. Probably a lot of them. But what some composers do is they basically write a theme, or a piano melody, and they hand it off to someone else. That person then rewrites it for the various instruments, deciding that the melody will best be served by being played by the flutes or the violins, probably, and the violas should play offbeats, probably, and the whole thing gets laid out with melody and harmony and so forth in a score for whatever instruments everyone decides should play the thing. And that’s orchestrating, and it’s a skilled job that hardly anyone knows about. And I may be bitter form eight years of playing viola, and how did you know?
Similarly, if Danny Elfman didn’t want to conduct something, he seems to have gone to Shirley Walker a lot. John Williams conducts, of course. But Danny Elfman’s a rock musician (one hesitates to say “rock star,” quite; it feels wrong), and conducting’s not really something he does. Conducting is more than just waving a stick around. There’s a movie where Rex Harrison plays a conductor who triumphs by creating the best recording ever of some piece or another, and he gets all the credit, and that’s silly, too, but at its best, there is a synchronicity between a conductor and an orchestra; a conductor who works regularly with an orchestra knows how to get a good performance out of that orchestra, I suppose. One assumes Shirley Walker knew how to do that.
I’m wondering if she got all her DC gigs because she knew Danny Elfman. Certainly DC is not exactly known for their commitment to diversity; they’ve just recently hired a woman as an interior artist for their main Batman book for the first time in their history, so that’s . . . about time. They’re also not exactly leaping to make sure we all remember the contributions to the DC animated legacy that Shirley Walker gave us. But her list of episodes features some of the all-time greats, and they would not have been as good without their music. Even if you didn’t know Shirley Walker’s name before today, you knew her.
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