clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When Prince Did the Batdance

Batman is an eccentric hero with a cape, so when it came time to pick an artist to make the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s 1989 film, the choice was obvious

Lily Qian

The Caped Crusader is back: On March 4, Robert Pattinson will become the seventh actor to don the cowl in a live-action film with The Batman. To prepare, join The Ringer as we navigate the grime of Gotham and explore the history of one of the most recognizable superheroes in the comic-book landscape.

Warner Bros. needed a soundtrack for a movie that pit a mysterious eccentric with a cape against his charismatically devilish archenemy. Luckily for the studio, there was a musician who knew what it was like to be both: Prince.

“I said, ‘You, the Bat, Batman,’” recalls his creative partner Albert Magnoli, the director of Purple Rain. “And he went, ‘Cool.’”

In 1989, director Tim Burton’s stylish Batman reinvented superhero films. Every aspect of it—from Jack Nicholson playing the Joker opposite Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader, to the high-tech Batmobile, to Danny Elfman’s dramatic score—was a bat signal to Hollywood: The genre was about to become big business. “We went to make a kind of movie that up until that time really no one was making,” says Mark Canton, then a head of production at Warner Bros. “It really was the game changer.”

The involvement of Prince, who as a kid used to play the theme to the ’60s Batman television show on the piano, underscored that fact. But it wasn’t just a purple cherry on a blockbuster sundae. The album he made to accompany Batman helped turn a summer extravaganza into a slow-burning phenomenon. Though it bore little resemblance to a typical tentpole soundtrack, the record spent six weeks atop the Billboard chart. The lead single, “Batdance,” is a six-minute mashup of various song parts and lines of dialogue sampled from the movie. It was Prince’s first no. 1 single since 1986’s “Kiss.”

Back then, only Prince could get away with turning such a hyper-commercial assignment into something so avant-garde. But the icon didn’t go completely rogue: “There was so much pressure on Tim,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1990, “that for the whole picture, I just said, ‘Yes, Mr. Burton, what would you like?’”

Prince may have been serving a popular franchise, but what he created was very much in his own image. “It was in his domain,” Magnoli says. “He wasn’t told, ‘There’s a scene and Michael Keaton is doing this or Jack Nicholson is doing that. I need a song.’ It wasn’t that. It was just, ‘Do what you want because you’re inspired by the movie.’ So he did what he wanted.” And while the album isn’t a classic by the artist’s high standards, there’s never been a soundtrack like it. The often-goofy, poppy, guitar-laced record is the perfect complement to a movie that, despite its noirish elements, is still about two profoundly ridiculous comic-book characters. This is the story of how Prince brought the funk to Batman.

Part 1: “It Just Seemed We Should Do Something That Hadn’t Been Done.”

In 1988, Prince released Lovesexy, his fifth album in as many years. By then, he’d begun to financially overextend himself, so his manager set out to find a project that was both creative and commercially fulfilling. At the time, the musician had a contract with Warner Bros. Records, whose film division was in the throes of making Batman.

Albert Magnoli (manager): We needed to get Prince music into the marketplace, but we didn’t want another Prince album. In those days, the record labels could not absorb an album by one of their artists more than every two years. They had to get everybody invested in the album and needed two years to truly exploit the potential of a given album. And the artist himself, in order to reap the benefits of the album, needed to go on tour, which could last 18 months to two years. It worked for everybody—except when you have a person like Prince. Because Prince just did not want to understand that, ever.

Chuck Zwicky (recording engineer): The thing about Prince is he’s so prolific. It’s not like he’s betting everything on one project. He’s got 10 other projects in the can by the time that one comes out.

Magnoli: He’d be dropping 12 songs every six months. It got to be crazy. He would just very quickly put something together and then, “Well, what am I doing with this? Well, I don’t know.” And he put it in the vault.

Mark Canton (Warner Bros. head of production): The development of Batman was quite lengthy and arduous. And then by the time we got up to the plate, it just seemed we should do something—many things—that hadn’t been done.

Gary LeMel (head of Warner Bros. Music, to Billboard): We knew going in that Batman was going to be a franchise. We decided we wanted to have a superstar artist and we wanted to keep it in the family. We started seeing dailies, and it so happened that the Joker character was dressed in purple. The cars were purple. It started to point to Prince.

Matt Larson (Paisley Park Studios crew chief): What we had heard is that Jack Nicholson had a Corvette at the time and pulled into the soundstage, and he loved Prince’s music, so he was playing it.

Bill Gerber (Warner Bros. production executive): There were collaborations like that in those days. If you think about Flashdance, if you think about [Dirty Dancing], you think about all those films in that era after Saturday Night Fever, it was a big deal. A big part of marketing films in the ’80s and ’90s was who you could get to do the title track.

Canton: I can’t really remember, to tell you the truth, whose exact idea it was. Because the producers, Jon Peters and Peter Guber, were strong voices and really in their prime. And we had Tim, who’s an icon for a reason. So I think it just came to be on my lap.

Magnoli: I got a call from Mark Canton and he said, “Listen, we’re in production with Batman.” And I said, “Great.” And he said, “We’re thinking that maybe Prince would be interested in maybe doing a song score.” I said yes right on the phone. I said, “Let me just confirm it, but I believe it is a yes.” He said, “Wow, OK.”

Canton: Prince, to me, was the greatest. We tried to bring Michael Jackson in to do it together with him, but that was never real.

Magnoli: Immediately I got ahold of Prince.

Canton: The way executives worked in those days with talent was to not only make a movie an event, but to market it. A lot of it was, “How do we get the most bang for our buck? How do we get people to pay attention?” We did it with Purple Rain, brilliantly.

Magnoli: When I met with Tim I said, “OK, filmmaker to filmmaker, you don’t want 12 songs in this movie. You’ve got Danny Elfman doing a film score.” And Tim said, “Yes, that’s true. Where do we put all those songs?” I said, “Let’s get on the phone and talk to Danny.” We had a conference call with Danny and Danny confirmed a film score that was big. How do you interlace songs into that? It would be crazy. Almost impossible. I suggested, “What if the Batman album by Prince is inspired by the movie? That way Danny does his thing for the movie. Prince watches the movie and he’s inspired to write songs. Everybody gets what they want.” So with the blessing of those two gentlemen, I then called up Mark immediately and said, “Here’s a way to go.”

Canton: Prince loved Batman. He talked about Batman. The Batman series as a kid was something that he loved. I think he loved the darkness and the intensity.

Larson: Prince just had that magic. It was just a perfect fit for a Tim Burton film.

Burton, who through a representative declined to be interviewed for this article, was a big Prince fan. But he was conflicted about using the artist’s songs in Batman.

Tim Burton (director, to Rolling Stone in 1992): Here is a guy, Prince, who was one of my favorites. 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. OK. So. 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. And 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.

Canton: I had gone to the Oscars with Prince when he won for Purple Rain, when he wore that sequined purple hoodie. He was phenomenal and he was brilliant and he was lovely to work with. But he knew what he loved and Tim knew what he loved. But it wasn’t really a matter of trying to tell Tim Burton what to do. It was more that when opportunity knocks, sometimes you open the door.

Part 2: “All Musicians Are Batmen.”

Before Prince officially came on board, Tim Burton reportedly was using “Baby I’m a Star” and “1999” on the movie’s temporary soundtrack. In early 1989, the Purple One visited the director on set to discuss the direction of the Batman album.

Canton: I was in London and asked Prince to come over. That’s where the conversations with Tim took place.

Magnoli: That was the beginning of these big movie concepts where you have 18 crews doing close-ups and pans, opening doors. The director’s over there with Michael Keaton. But Tim always was cordial, very centered.

Canton: Tim had to work with Prince, and Tim had to figure out what [songs] he would use and not use. There was not always agreement.

Magnoli: We landed, we went on the set, we walked around, we had lunch. Then we got back on a jet. These things are less cool than you would imagine. As time went on, when Tim Burton had a rough cut of the movie, he actually flew to Minneapolis. Prince and I, and Tim Burton, sat down in the recording studio and watched the movie. And Tim graciously said, “Listen, this is a rough cut, but I trust you guys. I’m going to leave a cassette here for you.”

Larson: We basically would get dailies FedExed every day.

Anna “Fantastic” Garcia (special guest): We were watching the movie up on the screen in the studio and then he’d add the songs to it. We just had so much fun doing that. I remember him laughing. He liked to laugh, he liked to have fun with it.

Magnoli: “Batdance” is a result of watching the movie.

Larson: We were grabbing Jack Nicholson’s voice, Michael Keaton’s voice, Kim Basinger’s voice.

Magnoli: He sampled the characters saying their lines.

Larson: He said, “You’re going to do something. I want you to scream it as loud as you can.” He threw me a yellow little pad of paper. And it wasn’t until we got into the cue that I got to see what it was. And that was for “Batdance.”

Zwicky: He had his crew chief, Matt Larson, come in and shout, “Get the funk up!”

Larson: “Get the fuck up!” was the original. And then the other one was, “Oh, damn it, don’t stop the music. Oh, son of a bitch.” Those were both done. I didn’t know what I was saying until he called on me to do it. But because it’s a Warner Bros. family film, I had to then go back in a week later, on a Sunday for about an hour and a half, trying to [change] “Get the fuck up!” to “Get the funk up!”

Magnoli: One day I came into the office, and he had been there working in the night.

Larson: He always had a boom mic in the recording studio, because he would do his vocals right at the console—we’d work ’til two in the morning. We would just go to the lounge, and we’d come back and there’d be a whole choir and vocals.

Gary Hines (Sounds of Blackness choir music director): One of his quirks was that he would call at two, three in the morning like it was noon. Wouldn’t ask if it was a bad time or if you were asleep. He would just go into the conversation. And we knew each other 40-plus years, but he would still, nine times out of 10, address me by my full name. So the phone rings, two or three in the morning. It’s like, OK, this is probably Prince. He would say, “Gary Hines, I’ve got an idea for Sounds of Blackness.”

Larson: We were in the recording studio all the time. The lights were dimmed and we worked throughout the whole night. So you could say that all musicians are Batmen.

Magnoli: He was about to leave and go home and sleep till 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He said, “I worked on something last night and it’s really crazy, and we probably won’t use it. It’s really long. Here it is.” And he left, I put it in, and it was the “Batdance” for seven and a half minutes. And I waited until he woke up. When he woke up, he called me and he said, “Did you like it, what do you think?” And I said, “Here’s what I think: Not only do I like it, but it is going to be the opening single to the album.” Which floored him because he said, “Well, it’s not a song.” And I said, “Exactly.” And he said, “Well, hold it, it’s seven and a half minutes. Radio won’t play that.” I said, “Yeah, they will.”

Part 3: “Either You Jump on the Race Car or You Jump Off.”

Prince’s Batman album was indeed a companion to the movie, but the movie wasn’t the only thing to inspire it. Like many of his records, it had a multitude of influences and spanned genres. And as usual, he worked on it at breakneck speed.

Canton: That guy was incapable of not doing four, five, six songs. And he would go in the studio and five or six weeks later we could have a single out.

Larson: He was just such a hardworking musician. And either you jump on the race car or you jump off.

Zwicky: Typically he would just work on an album not even with an album in mind. Just writing, writing, writing.

Magnoli: I gave him an electric toothbrush one afternoon and the next morning he came in and wrote a song about the electric toothbrush. Because he was struck by when he put the toothbrush in his mouth, it had a sound. And he tried to mimic the sound. I don’t know where that song ever went—probably into the vault.

Eric Leeds (horns): Often nobody would have any real sense of what he was doing until he assembled a final product. The process of working on the Batman album was a little different.

Zwicky: I had gone out to visit my sister in San Francisco and her husband at the time worked at a club called DV8. And he invited me out there and he gave me a T-shirt. I remember wearing this T-shirt one day in the studio. Prince said, “Where’d you get that shirt?” And I said, “Oh, it’s this club,” and pointed to the shirt. “It’s called DV8.” He says, “Where’s that?” And I said, “In San Francisco.” He said, “Oh, of course it is, they don’t know shit about house music here.”

He told us, “We’re going to make a house music record.” So we started making this record of house music. And it was originally—now don’t be confused with the album that came out under this title—going to be called Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. And so we did all these songs for that, and then he got asked to do this Batman thing. So most of the stuff we’d been working on got steered into that project.

Hines: One of the nuances of this was he couldn’t tell us what it was. At the time, it was really under wraps. So he said, “Trust me, Gary Hines, you’re going to want to be a part of it.” He didn’t have to convince me.

Garcia: Most of the songs were always something to do with what was going on in his life, really. The song “Vicki Waiting” was originally called “Anna Waiting.” He wrote the original version of that for me. A couple of the lyrics were slightly different, more personal. And some of the stuff is still about me and him. But he changed it to “Vicki Waiting” for the album. He was like, “Are you OK with that?” I was like, “Whatever. That’s up to you. I don’t own it.”

Zwicky: I think this particular project brought a special kind of smirk to his face because it had a kind of twisted element to it. And especially hearing what he heard about Jack Nicholson being in it.

During his visit to the Batman set, Prince reportedly met Nicholson. That led the musician to write “Partyman,” which served as the soundtrack to a scene in which the Joker and his goons vandalize Gotham City’s Flugelheim Museum.

Prince (to Rolling Stone in 1990): He just walked over, sat down and put his foot up on a table, real cool. He had this attitude that reminded me of Morris [Day]—and there was that song.

Larson: They actually used the song “Baby I’m a Star” when they filmed over in London. So they used that for the music so that the actors would know the choreography. Then they sent us the dailies, and we took the drum machine, locked it to that time [and] beats per minute, and then wrote “Partyman.”

Magnoli: Tim Burton made the decision to put “Partyman” in the movie. And because Tim Burton made the decision to put “Partyman” in the movie, that was going to be our second single.

Garcia: “The Arms of Orion,” that was with Sheena Easton.

Zwicky: They wrote that song together. Prince wanted to know if there was an electric piano. So I found a Wurlitzer shop and we got it up and working and he sat down and just played this thing, and she wrote lyrics. I remember Prince asking her what Orion was, so she drew a picture of the constellation and explained the belt and the stars.

Garcia: “Lemon Crush”—that was my favorite drink. I love anything with lemon. I always have. I still do. Lemon on all my food. I put lemon in my water. And so he was like, “Oh my God, you got to have a lemon Crush.” We went out and he got me the drink. It’s like a lemon slushy thing.

Zwicky: I was wearing a pair of Birkenstocks. I bought them because my sister told me they were the most comfortable shoes in the world. “I’m like, “OK, if I’m going to be under all this pressure, 40-hour days, and endless hours in this heat, at least my feet will be happy.” And you know, Prince couldn’t help it—there’s this guy in my studio wearing sandals and socks. And so he said to Anna, “Do you like his shoes?” And she said, “Oh, those are Birkenstocks. Those are really nice. They’re very comfortable.” And Prince said, “Yeah, [my shoes] are red.” Just to one-up the situation.

Hines: We recorded one song, which wound up being “Scandalous.” I say that because he remixed or reformatted what we did to where it was a whole ’nother creation. Originally, we were just going to do one song, but it was going so well. We got there probably at 7, 8 o’clock. By this time, it’s midnight. Sheila E. is actually conducting, or engineering, I should say, most of the session. Then he pulls me aside and says, “Gary Hines, I’m really happy. This is going so well, Gary Hines.” I’m not exaggerating. He would do that all the time.

Larson: Kim Basinger came and hung in the studio. She was just as gracious as could be, very fun. Kim kind of lightened up the room a little bit.

Matt “Dr. Fink” Fink (touring keyboardist): He was dating her in early 1990. She was hanging out at Paisley Park a lot at the time. I was dating my future wife at the time, she’s a hair and makeup artist and did some modeling. But one day, in walks Prince with Kim Basinger into this mall where she was working. Prince walks by and points at Kim like, “Hey, look who I’m seeing.”

Part 4: “I Don’t Know if Prince Had a Rearview Mirror.”

Minus outtakes and B-sides like “200 Balloons” and “Dance With the Devil,” the Batman soundtrack included nine songs. Two of them, “Partyman” and “Trust,” featured prominently in the movie. In a cheeky liner-notes touch, Prince credited songs to Batman (“The Future” and “Scandalous”), Bruce Wayne and/or Vicki Vale (“The Arms of Orion,” “Vicki Waiting,” and “Lemon Crush”), and the Joker (“Electric Chair,” “Partyman,” and “Trust.”) “Batdance” was attributed to various characters, including Prince’s new two-faced alter ego, Gemini. He also appeared in the videos for that song and “Partyman,” both of which Magnoli directed.

On June 20, 1989, 12 days after “Batdance” debuted on the radio and three days before the film premiered nationwide, the album hit stores. It sold more than 2 million copies and built hype for Batman, which made a whopping $411.6 million worldwide at the box office. A year after helping it become the third-highest-grossing movie of the ’80s, Prince moved on to star in the Purple Rain sequel, Graffiti Bridge—but not before pulling out a deep cut from Batman for the Saturday Night Live 15th Anniversary Special.

Gerber: I would absolutely say that the cachet of having Prince involved with the film was just yet another layer of specialness. And remember, Tim Burton wasn’t Tim Burton yet.

Burton (to Rolling Stone in 1992): I liked his album. I wish I could listen to it without the feel of what had happened.

Canton: I’m sure he felt overwhelmed by it, by the studio system. But look, my job was to put the best talent together and to make a giant franchise and look at it now. From Tim Burton to Joel Schumacher to Chris Nolan. Now all the way back around to Robert Pattinson. It stood the test of time one way or another.

Gerber: I remember when the movie came out. It was Mark Canton’s 40th birthday party that Friday and it was like a coronation. It was every movie star at his brand-new Holmby Hills house. It was a wild weekend. [The movie] did 40-something million dollars, it was the biggest opening [ever]. Batman really ushered in a whole new era of blockbusters.

Larson: I don’t know if Prince had a rearview mirror. We never talked about that film. We never talked about his brand or whatever. Nowadays he would say he would never tie his brand into some other thing that wasn’t all his. But I think the big push was probably because it had Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger, and it was all superstars. And knowing that, with Warner Bros. behind it, they weren’t going to let it not be a super hit.

Magnoli: You’ve been asked to do a chore and you do it to your best ability. And then only after does it take on a significance and a mythology and you just can’t imagine that it was as tame and tepid as it was at the moment of the creation. What they become is outside of our hands.

Larson: It was epic for us as crew guys to go do Saturday Night Live.

Fink: The “Electric Chair” performance was great. Really good.

Larson: That was the second time that I know that Prince really did a commercial thing. Doing the Batman movie and then the Super Bowl.

Fink: It just felt new. It didn’t sound like him so much at the moment. He went in a different direction in a lot of stuff. It really sounded like he tailor-made those songs for the movie.

Larson: We did the music for the entire film. The entire album was embedded into the movie. I would love to see Tim Burton and Danny [Elfman] release that someday.

Garcia: It might’ve turned into a comedy if he scored it.

Fink: I felt like he personally should’ve branched out more into acting, done some comedic roles with the likes of Eddie Murphy. I think he would’ve been a great character.

Zwicky: Imagine if Prince was the Joker. What kind of movie would that be?

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Big Picture

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Hype at Cannes and Five Must-See May Movies. Plus: Julia Louis-Dreyfus!

The Town

Disney’s Prickly Theme Parks Problem


With ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ Scorsese Tells the Ultimate Gangster Story

View all stories in Movies