Hans Zimmer has been writing scores for film since the early 80’s pretty much. He acted as assistant to others until he finally got his break as a lead composer for film (and of course there is the common (yet true) joke that he composed the theme tune to UK game show Going For Gold – harhar – let’s move on).
By the end of that decade he was establish and Oscar nominated thanks to the likes of some stand out scores for the likes of Rain Man and Black Rain in the late 80’s.
Since then it’s been non-stop. Zimmer helped shaped action and Hollywood cinema scores defining the sound of thrills on the silver screen as well as shaping the way music is composed by others, particularly in the action/adventure genre. Zimmer has had a huge impact on a vast array of composers who work today – to the point where it is easy to get confused as to who is who. Zimmer has tutored many of these names himself – and has still found time to produce several scores a year. By the end of his career he will probably have outdone any other composer by the sheer amount of volume he has produced.
Barely a summer goes past without Zimmer’s name on at least three film scores. He also appears to be taking over all of the superhero franchises (The Nolan Batman Trilogy, Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-man 2). 2013 alone saw his efforts for Man Of Steel, Ron Howard’s Rush and 12 Years A Slave; All very high profile pictures (the latter of which was Oscar nominated).
So what’s the beef with Hans Zimmer then? That’s been the aching question on my mind for a couple of years now.
Many artists in various mediums who are successful generate their ideas and have a team of people who back them up, sometimes with their own ideas, but certainly to help drive home the vision of the person in charge. So Zimmer has his team of people who work for him, so it isn’t like he is on his own from the start to end process, but let us not try to undermine his creativity by suggesting that he simply lifts credit from others. That is certainly not the case from what we have read from those who have worked and commented on the composer, and it is not the purpose of this piece.
But it is without doubt that we also do say that he has other composers (many of whom who have gone on to become names in their own right) work for him. Not to mention session musicians and technical staff of all walks of life. The difference is that their names are not all widely publicised. The closest you get is perhaps their name in the long list of credits at the end of a film within the musical department credits. But even then there will be many names missing.
Like in the modern art world – when you see the name of an artist next to an installation it’s the main artist who gets all the credit be it for an iron or bronzed structure, or a combination of media, or paints, colours, pastels on canvas or wood and so on. Chances are there was a large team who put the piece together. Often modern artists are not adept at certain skills be it cutting, sketching, or even paining and moulding. So someone else with that skill comes in to perform the task. But it is largely a thankless task as credit in the public’s eye goes to the main artist and assumptions are lead from here.
It’s a similar idea in the world of music (in fact we suspect it’s a similar ploy in terms of any type of business never mind art. Ever work hard on a project that had someone elses name on it – despite your key contribution to it?) – and one that is worth bearing when you experience a piece of work by someone in the commercial world.
Is this soup of people the reason why we have so much music that sounds like imitation? Has working in collaboration rubbed off on each other so much that similar approaches and ideas for themes within film in the music come off the same? Is it simply because something was successful before is then used as a blueprint for what follows?
This point is merely written for awareness only, not attack. For where you can find a lot of cross over in the work – further analysis of the composer names that have worked with Zimmer and the often groundbreaking work some of them has produced is proof of something working well.
To bring it back to Zimmer – Is he stretching himself a little thin though? For as I believe Zimmer is one of the more “household” named composers for film, he is perhaps just shy of greatness. This could be down to a sense of repetition in his work, a preference for certain beats, rhythms and even instruments used in his work, but also the fact that he never seems to stop working. Does he not need a downtime period to regenerate and perhaps get a new viewpoint on his work ethics and approach. Well, there is evidence to suggest that yes the best thing he could do for himself is to take a break. But then on the other hand he also delivers the goods and does have a strong influence on modern cinema and television music scoring; so perhaps despite the obvious flaws, there is also perhaps a slow burn of change and influence on others. Not every composer suddenly shocks the world with something new. Often like in any evolution the changes are subtle yet constant.
Let’s have a look at how busy the man can make himself. Here are some selected years from his discography and the films he acted as composer for in those years. We won’t list every year, but we will start in 1990 in the aftermath of the likes of Rain Man and Black Rain. See how many films you have seen and if you recall the music.
Chicago Joe and the Showgirl
Bird on a Wire
Fools of Fortune
Days of Thunder
Six movies! That’s almost a stupid amount of movies to work on in a year – but proof already of how popular he was even in his earlier days as a movie composer. Perhaps from this list Days of thunder stands out the most – even if for its ridiculousness and overly flamboyant. But it did come loaded with not one but at least two chart hits thanks to Maria Mckee’s Show Me Heaven and Enya’s Book Of Days. There was also a familiar feel between the likes of Bird on a Wire, and Pacific Heights that had a thriller aspect (utilising synths) that would carry over to Point of No Return (The Nikita remake) three years later before he developed the 90’s Brukheimer action movie sound.
Thelma & Louise
To the Moon, Alice
Where Sleeping Dogs Lie
Yup. Six movies again. The top half of the list were big movies. Thelma and Louise is probably the stand out choice here (although Backdraft was huge at the time) – but again a soundtrack that also came loaded with some terrific songs from various artists (Everything from Toni Child’s to, er, line dancing tunes!). Zimmer’s soundtrack was one full of poignancy and reflected the mood of the two leads from start to finish, ending in a euphoric high as the car takes flight and the screen fades to white.
The Power of One
A League of Their Own
Another busy year. A League of Their Own stands out with Zimmer back again in the sports arena – this time back in the 1930’s with women’s baseball. Highly energetic and exciting – Zimmer knows how to get in there and be a part of the game. The film may have ignored a few key rules of the game, but Zimmer’s score helps with the pace and keeps casual viewers attention on the excitement.
Point of No Return
Younger and Younger
The House of the Spirits
The year after and he’s done six more. Point of No Return as we mentioned, sounded very much like his work from the turn of the decade and would quickly become somewhat dated, but is no less evident in its presence. True Romance is the real winner here which is still a major stand out for most fans.
I’ll Do Anything
The Lion King
The following year and he’s dropped to only five. Perhaps he needed a couple of months off this year. But no small feat with The Lion king in there which he did win the Academy Award for.
Something to Talk About
Five more in 1995 with Crimson Tide seeing him continue his work with Tony Scott and for the Bruckheimer/ Simpson production house – which in the 90’s was fuelled by composers who had adopted very similar stylistics to Zimmer’s work. Just look at Con-Air, Armageddon, Gone in 60 Seconds to see the similarities with his work here and in The Rock next year. Right up to Gladiator in fact which itself carried over certain thematic and ideas which would then live on themselves into the likes of his Pirates of the Caribbean work and even the Dark Knight trilogy.
Muppet Treasure Island
The Preacher’s Wife
So The Rock sees Zimmer continue with Bruckheimer/Simpson once again. The Fan sees him back with Tony Scott. Broken Arrow – whilst a bit of a misfire of a film, did incorporate a theme which was the following year pinched by the Scream franchise for the character of Dewey. The Muppet’s Treasure Island is the departure for Zimmer.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow
As Good as It Gets
Whilst The Peacemaker covers the thriller department, and As Good As It Gets covers the Americana dramedy – Smilla’s Sense of Snow is pure euro-drama for Atom Egyan.
The Last Days
The Prince of Egypt
The Thin Red Line
The Thin Red Line being the big Oscar contender and really seeing Zimmer’s talents used in a new direction. A year of fewer projects, but it heralded one of his finest and most original.
An Everlasting Piece
Mission: Impossible II
The Road to El Dorado
Mission: Impossible II was also a bit of a call back to his work a decade ago – but given a modern upgrade. Gladiator is one of his most beloved scores despite not actually being very original from him, and again as we mentioned – he would basterdise the ideas further with franchises he would work on in the future.
Black Hawk Down
Riding in Cars with Boys
Picking up the pace again he has six scores for 2001. Black Hawk Down is a powerful piece of work not often talked about from Zimmer. But Pearl Harbour – despite all of its flaws in story, character, acting and direction actually yields a truly beautiful score – and the trailer highlighted one of its more impactful cues. A shame the film could not live up to it. He also scored once again for Ridley Scott- although not as successful as their previous work together.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
The Last Samurai
Something’s Gotta Give
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Tears of the Sun
Six more in 2003 – although to be fair Klaus Badelt did Pirates of the Caribbean with Zimmer off to the side (And we wondered initially after seeing Badelt’s name why this first film sounded so much like Zimmer!). But he’d take the reins on full time for the sequels – and there is no denying that he is stealing from himself and that they do stand out.
The Weather Man
Der kleine Eisbär 2
The Nolan romance starts here with his teasing score for Batman Begins: A super hero film with no proper super hero anthem. There is a theme teased in the end credits, but Zimmer never quite fully delivers it. He would continue this tease in the sequels and to an extent in his work for Man of Steel.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
The Da Vinci Code
A Pirates sequel, and his foot in the door of the beginning of the Dan Brown movies with The Da Vinci Code. Both big hiters.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
The Simpsons Movie
Quite why Danny Elfman didn’t get the The Simpson Movie gig is a mystery considering he composed the theme tune from the TV show. But Zimmer shows he is not afraid of another man’s hand me downs with this and another Pirates sequel.
Kung Fu Panda
The Dark Knight
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
The Burning Plain
Secrets of the Furious Five
Seven!!!?? Yes seven scores. And including the truly extraordinary The Dark Knight with its infamous 9 minute opening cue that drags out one note. A mind bogglingly decent score. And he still found time for 6 others including one high profile awards picture and not one, but two major animated works (which themself require varied thematics).
The Boat that Rocked
Angels and Demons
Zimmers work on Sherlock Holmes made an impact (so much that he would come back for that sequel in a couple of years for more sterling work). And speaking of sequels he returned to the Ron Howard paddock for Angels and Demons.
Through the Wormhole
How Do You Know
So we were bowled over by The Dark Knight score – and then he delivered Inception for Christopher Nolan – a mainstream career highlight. Not to mention bringing Johnny Marr into the fold was a genius decision – and the score/and trailer music became something of a trend that has yet to go away. Love it or not – he started it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Kung Fu Panda 2
Jealous of the Birds
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Sequels! Sequels! Roll on up! We have sequels for you! And he worked with Howard (The Dilemma) again and his pirates director Gore Verbinski for Rango.
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
The Dark Knight Rises
More sequels for films he already worked on. Again, introducing new themes into the Batman universe.
Man of Steel
The Lone Ranger
Mr. Morgan’s Last Love
12 Years a Slave
Rush did borrow from the past but it was an exhilarating score. Man of Steel proved that despite the looming shadow of John Williams that Zimmer could at least provide a theme that was trusty, exciting, strong and more important: memorable. Oh and that slave movie got him a nomination!
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Not satisfied with a coupe, of super heroes already he has now grabbed Spider-man. And this score put together with a team of superstars in their own right delivered one of 2014’s highlights. And was certainly a highlight for the film. OK – the electro theme was a bit daft, and the end Spider-man theme sounds a bit like the Universal logo theme. But it was still strong stuff. Interstellar we have yet to hear at this point – so we have high hopes!
It is easy to see then why Zimmer is literally an open target in certain areas of his work. The Bruckheimer work, the lifts from previous work – and yet at the same time he has refined his sound so well and still managed to make so much of his work stand out so well.
You can find clear lifts in Rush that are previously explored in the Batman films. Gladiator lifts crescendo’s from various 90’s action thrillers he had worked on, and even to an extent the Pirates of the Caribbean movies lift these too.
The aching question of what it might be like if he slowed down, did less projects, or decided that doing actual anthems fully fleshed with an opening, middle and end (yes we are sure that “Music Folk” use a very different terminology. Some of us merely know the feel of it all (Much like Cole Trickle who knew how to drive but knew nothing technical about cars)).
There is a strong variety there, and each are worth checking out, and even buying. But too much at the same time will find you frowning and going “Hang on? Didn’t I just hear that?” Fans of other composers may well raise similar issues about how composers work, and how much they borrow from themselves. There is perhaps a reason why years ago that some people would mix up John William’s anthems for Superman and Star Wars. James Horner literally steals from himself by using the same queues. See Battle Beyond The Stars and Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, or check out the Jack Ryan movies Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger for a very direct lift from his Aliens score. See the similarities between his scores for Field Of Dreams and Sneakers, Or even Apollo 13 and Braveheart in places. We could pick other composers and go on.
In all honesty that we have to say that Zimmer is a four star composer who clearly has 5 star potential. He has helped create and mould sounds for all the decades he has been working, but often in some films he feels like he has not dared to go far enough. Often the excuse is he wants to avoid what people might expect for a particular film. It’s perhaps to his credit that he avoids this, but after so many years we suspect he just isn’t capable and is hiding behind excuses. The talent is clearly there, but he seems to only be able to draft themes so far and not finish them.
But as a major force in Hollywood who has helped to drive and thrive the sound of cinema. He is clearly at the epicentre.