For me, the background score is a huge part of a film. If it is unimaginative or cliche, I never warm up to the film. I chose to write about Zimmer because he is a maverick in the art of arranging and composing film soundtracks and I have been unwittingly exposed to most of his critically and commercially acclaimed work. He has created this style that is now being replicated everywhere, and that is where the problem lies. Ever paid attention to the Game of Thrones original soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi?
It’s difficult to cover his entire discography because there’s so much! So I am going to look at a select sample from the late 80s till 2014. The criterion for selection being that I have actually paid attention to the soundtrack to these films and have listened to them more than once. Here’s the list of impressive films that Zimmer has scored for even in this small sample:
Rain Man (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Cool Runnings (1993)
The Lion King (1994)
Crimson Tide (1995)
As Good As It Gets (1997)
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Mission Impossible II (2000)
The Gladiator (2000)
The Road to El Dorado with John Powell (2000)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
The Ring (2002)
The Last Samurai (2003)
Tears of the Sun (2003)
Johnny English (2003)
Batman Begins (2005)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Holiday (2006)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
The Simpsons Movie (2007)
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
The Dark Knight (2008)
I find this list of films interesting because of the eclecticism of the scores. My first memories of Hans Zimmer music is from two animated films, ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Prince of Egypt’, both classics in their own right. His scores for animated films tend to be in the form of musicals. While Lion King has several guest appearances like Elton John and Jeremy Irons, et al in the vocal themes, it also has typical Zimmerian themes which slot into the film quite well. I am sure everyone knows Lion King! Same goes for the Prince of Egypt, a film that I have seen only once when I was a child. But two songs still remain strong in my memory. One, ‘Through Heaven’s Eyes’ featuring the broadway legend Brian Stokes Mitchell and the other is ‘All I Ever Wanted’ featuring Amick Byram and Linda Dee Shayne. But it is actually clear from the music that he only put things together rather than compose them himself. Then there is the very Latin-guitar sounding ‘Road to El Dorado’ with John Powell. Fast forward to 2005 for Madagascar’s downright ridiculous ‘I Like to Move It’. Around this time is also when you could see that a formula was starting to develop.
The first time I noticed it was with the first Pirates film, ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’. The memorable theme ‘He’s a Pirate’ gives you the chills, but the score for the first film was actually by Klaus Badelt who often collaborates with Zimmer. But I couldn’t help but have this nagging feeling that I had heard this theme before. Surely enough, I was watching ‘The Gladiator’ and there it was! Pay attention to ‘The Barbarian Horde’ and you can actually hear pieces of He’s a Pirate. This becomes all the more ludicrous when you play soundtracks to the Batman movies, Inception and Interstellar back-to-back. Add ‘The Gladiator’ and ‘Black Hawk Down’ and you won’t be able to say which is which! The fact that Zimmer gets critical and commercial approval for virtually recycling his old music is baffling.
Now, I do like ‘Dream in Collapsing’ from Inception, classic Zimmer in which he builds that tension which puts you on the edge of your seat but let’s try to figure out what his formula is, shall we?
1) A series of ‘fillers’ that he uses which are basically recycled versions of typical atmospheric sounds when the story is slowly moving forward. ‘Patricide’, ‘Emperor is Dead’, ‘Strength and Honour’ and ‘Am I Not Merciful’ from The Gladiator; ‘A Way of Life’, ‘Taken’, ‘A Hard Teacher’ from The Last Samurai; ‘I See Dead People in Boats’, ‘Calypso’ from the Pirates series; ‘We Built Our Own Home’, ‘Time’ from Inception; ‘Cornfield Chase’, ‘Day One’, ‘S.T.A.Y.’ AND ‘Where We’re Going’ in Interstellar to mention just some of them. These can be interchangeably used in any of the above mentioned films without knowing the difference between them.
2) EPIC sounding bass, one violin to keep the rhythm, another to interchange between two notes and loud percussions when something bad is about to happen
‘Chant’ from Black Hawk Down; ‘The Battle’ and ‘Barbarian Horde’ in The Gladiator; ‘I Don’t Think Now is the Best Time’, ‘Drink Up on Me Hearties’ (variation of He’s a Pirate) from the Pirates series; ‘Agent of Chaos’ from The Dark Knight; ‘Half Remembered Dream’ from Inception and ‘Running Out’ from Interstellar. Piano with violins for added dramatic effect when the scene slows down.
3) Some synth based tunes just to mix it up a bit. Check out ‘Synchrotone’ from Black Hawk Down.
4) Exotic vocals with the atmospheric fillers mentioned in 1)
‘Hunger’. ‘Still’, ‘Of the Earth’ from Black Hawk Down; ‘Sorrow’, ‘Elysium’ from The Gladiator etc.
Note that there will be slight variations depending on the geography of the film. ‘Mombasa’ which plays during a scene in Kenya from Inception and several tracks during scenes in Somalia from ‘Black Hawk Down’ have very generic ‘African-sounding’ vocals and some synth mixed into it. Black Hawk Down for some reason also contained some heavily distorted electric guitars. The genuinely enjoyable music from Zimmer actually comes from The Holiday, a very pleasant soundtrack to a typical rom com, the last place where anyone would expect innovation. Holiday also contains Zimmerisms but maybe sounds different because of the pleasant twist to his usual drama and tension-inducing formula.
I wrote this because Nolan-Zimmer combination seems to have got everyone in awe. I really don’t understand it. As I have mentioned, a lot of the music especially between Inception, Batman Series, and Interstellar is recycled. Without going all Zizek on the premise of these films, I found Interstellar particularly frustrating because I predicted the climax. Try some Star Trek and Doctor Who, you’ll know what I mean!