On August 3, I was lucky enough to attend a live performance of a sampling of Hans Zimmer’s music scores, with Hans Zimmer himself conducting and performing. Zimmer has been composing film scores since the 1980s and has been nominated for ten Academy Awards, including one win (which I will be touching on later). The man has inarguably made a name for himself as one of the most recognizable composers of his age, with his huge scores being attached to huge, storied franchises like the Pirates of the Caribbean films and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. When you hear a Hans Zimmer score, you know that you’re going to get something big and loud, and, at times, fun as hell, and all of those things came through in this concert.
That being said, Zimmer is a bit known for being repetitive in his music, and, to be honest, that was one of the biggest thoughts in my mind when I walked into the arena that night. I was beyond excited to hear and feel his music being played in that venue, as something as big and loud as his music needs to be in an arena where rock bands play, but even with that, I expected to be rolling my eyes when I heard his music to Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean played in the same act (listen here to hear the similarities), and I did a little bit (particularly when the former was played. I was a bit distracted during the latter. More on that in a bit). I was additionally disappointed when I realized that “Time” from Inception, which is easily my favorite piece of music that Zimmer has composed, has similar beats to his work on The Thin Red Line (nobody has put a video comparing these two, so I’ve tried to capture the moments that I’m talking about here and here).
Now, the question is how much should we really take this into account when trying to determine Zimmer’s quality as a composer. That’s something you’ll need to decide for yourselves. For me, I still like listening to the music he did for these films, even if I can’t necessarily point out to you whether something is from Gladiator or Pirates. What I can point out to you though is my memory of acting like a broom was a sword while I cleaned a showing of the fourth Pirates movie (the one with the undead pirate that sounded like Ian McShane, not the one with the undead pirate who sounded like Bill Nighy or the one with the undead pirate who sounded like Javier Bardem. You know the one). However, no matter how much I enjoy listening to them, I’m not going to be putting him on my list of best composers. Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Alexandre Desplat are all able to create these gorgeous scores that have similar sounds to each other but are all distinct to their films. Zimmer makes big, fun noise that very frequently sounds precisely like that other big, fun noise he made for another movie. And that’s okay. It’s not as strong as work as some of his other counterparts, but it’s certainly preferable than what other films are giving us (the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite its many successes, has yet to really produce a truly memorable score, which you can learn a little about here. I will not that there is the potential exception of the small portion of The Avengers score that I sometimes find myself humming).
Part of the reason I’m so flippant of what amounts to self-plagiarism is that there are times when his music can be genuinely moving, which is why music is played over movies (or, at the very least, should be the goal of music in film). Zimmer won his Oscar for his work on a little Disney movie from 1994. I believe it was called Hamlet, But With Desert Cats. Typically, when people think of the music of this movie their minds understandably go to the incredible lyrics and music that Tim Rice and Elton John were able to create. This movie simply does not have a bad song, unless you count “The Morning Report,” which wasn’t even in the original movie, and honestly, if you count it, I don’t want to be associated with you, because your takes are bad and I don’t need that negativity in my life. (Also “Be Prepared” is still the best Disney song of all time, I will fight you, and by fight you, I mean probably just agree with you and take a nap, because there’s other stuff to worry about). However, Zimmer’s work on this film really deserves way more credit than it receives. The film’s opening moments are his (along with the vocal stylings of Lebo M, who was at the concert and belted out that African chanting like it was 1994), before it transitions into Rice and John’s “Circle of Life.” Not only that, but the film’s most powerful moment (at least in my opinion) is after Simba has defeated Scar and he climbs Pride Rock for the first time as the unquestionable king. He meets with Rafiki as “This Land” plays (the music that played as Mufasa shows Simba the entirety of their kingdom), and then “King of Pride Rock” comes in on its own. The strings and horns combine in this gorgeously effective build, as the choir behind them vocalize a high note, all building to James Earl Jones calling on Simba to remember, and Simba’s victorious roar over his kingdom. It’s moments like this that remind you of what music can do for a movie and how essential they are to a movie really standing the test of time. It should also be noted that I was listening to a playlist of the songs I would be hearing at this concert while watching a reaction video of people reacting to FC Cincinnati moving onto the semifinals in the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, and that horn and string build happened right as the crowd was reacting, and then all of a sudden I was emoting. That’s what good movie music should do, and why I’m able to forgive a fair amount of repetition and obnoxious loudness. Because when Zimmer wants to be effective, he really can be, and he has been recognized appropriately for it (his win with Lion King and his nomination for Inception, which lost to the exquisite The Social Network score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. You take that loss with pride, Hans.)
I mentioned Inception just because what “King of Pride Rock” does for the end of Lion King, “Time” is able to do for Inception. The end of that movie, as we watch Leonardo DiCaprio return to America for the first time since his wife killed herself and framed him for it, should be an effective moment, and it is. Give credit to Nolan’s detailed storytelling and DiCaprio’s performance, but attention should be paid to Zimmer’s work as well. From the slow strings as DiCaprio realizes that his team’s plan has worked and that he’ll be returning home, to the tense extended strings as he waits for his passport to be stamped, to the heavy guitar that plays as he walks out of the airport a free man, to the horns as he is greeted by his father-in-law, to a return again to the quiet keys (played by Zimmer himself in concert) as he sees his kids for the first time, to the final return of a single violin as we watch the top spin and (maybe?) begin to topple, the music of this scene hits every beat perfectly. It’s a gorgeous piece of art that encapsulates the real reason why that movie works, and that is the effect that we feel towards Leo’s character, and our desire for him to be home. Even if it’s all in his head.
Before I discuss the star of the show, I do want to talk a bit more about Zimmer’s frequent collaboration with Christopher Nolan. The two have been working together since 2005’s Batman Begins, and with the exception of 2006’s The Prestige (which was scored by Nolan’s other collaborator, David Julyan), Zimmer has done all of Nolan’s films since. These two are a match made in heaven. Nolan’s efforts since 2005 have all been huge in one way or another (again, with the exception of The Prestige, which might be why he worked with Julyan). These are huge action films, either because they are about one of the most famous superheroes of all time, or because they involve mind-boggling action sequences inside of dreams that include spinning hallways and a Bond villain lair, or because they take place in the expanse of space, or, most recently, because they catalogue a major sequence during the Second World War. Nolan’s movies are big (probably to a fault, at least when it comes to the execution o the story. They are wonders to behold), and the one word that comes to mind when I think of Zimmer’s score is big. As a huge fan of Nolan’s, I do hope that he takes a step back in the size of his films (his smaller works, particularly Memento and The Prestige, are really where he shines, and I hope we can see more of that in the future), but I’m grateful for these two finding each other.
Finally, it’s time to talk about the star of the show. Tina Guo is Zimmer’s primary cellist, and there are simply not enough adjectives for me to describe how mind-bendingly awesome she was to watch. Please know, I understand that awesome is an overused word, and can basically just mean “neat!” but watching Guo play quite honestly filled me with awe. She played with the confidence and flair of a rock star, as air blew on her face from a fan, allowing her to make dramatic hair flips. On several occasions she spun her blade of a cello and immediately went back to just shredding on the instrument. In a close-up video (which I will supply here, from Guo’s YouTube channel), you can’t tell if she is in pain or is simply really getting into her craft, although both seem highly plausible. Either way, even as the light work went full rock show, and even as other instruments contributed to her work on Pirates, she demanded your focus. She made me forget how I had listened to music that sounded precisely like this just a handful of minutes ago.
She also took center stage on Zimmer and Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme from Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, alongside several other female musicians. I must say that, in general, Zimmer did an excellent job of letting his musicians and choir be the focus of the music that he helped create, and the Wonder Woman portion is an excellent example of that. Despite what scourge-of-my-existence, James Cameron, says, Wonder Woman has been a movie to celebrate for countless reasons, particularly for proving Hollywood wrong that women can be the center of a blockbuster franchise, and that women can direct action movies (and put scourges-of-existences in their damn place). In her debut in BvS, Gal Gadot steals the first big screen meetup of two of the biggest superheroes of all time with relatively little screen time, and the first time her theme is played, I wanted to jump out of my seat and fight a Cave Troll or gray Ninja Turtle (or whatever the hell they were fighting in that last scene.*) And seeing seven or eight amazing women just shred on their instruments to see that song come to life in person was another stand out moment of an all-around stand out night.
*I know it’s Doomsday, don’t @ me.
What did I take away from this night? First, Zimmer’s repetitive nature can be seen throughout his oeuvre, and while far from ideal, at least I typically like listening to how big and loud his scores can be. I’m never particularly excited when I see he is composing something (that is reserved mostly for Giacchino and Williams), but at least I can recognize his craft. He is a man who, when he wants to write something effective, he can really get down into those emotions and trigger the emotions that he and the filmmakers desire. Also, women are badass, which is something I’ve known, but reminders are always welcome.
Information References: Grammar Check: Kyle Grim, the love of my life Zimmer's IMDb Page:http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001877/#composer The Prestige Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prestige_(film)#Music Lion King Soundtrack Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lion_King_(soundtrack) Header Image Credit: http://cincinnati.carpediem.cd/events/4183379-hans-zimmer-live-in-cincinnati-at-us-bank-arena/