A score is an essential component for almost every film (certainly those of the mainstream variety), yet the composer is rarely a revered figure. A few names stand out; musicians who crossed over from popular bands, orchestrators who've made a name through consistent work with a popular director, or legends who penned themes that have somehow become a larger part of the culture. This makes Hans Zimmer a bit of an anomaly.
Born in Germany in 1957, Zimmer climbed the ladders to one of Hollywood's most celebrated composers by playing the keyboards with The Buggles, accompanying a number of orchestras on the synthesizer during the '80s, then producing movie scores for prolific composers looking to dabble in electronic sounds. Living in that world long enough, Zimmer simply began constructing his own soundtracks. Now he lives alongside "Star Wars" maestro John Williams as one of the well-known answers to, "Name a film composer."
A theory on Zimmer's popularity: From years behind an arsenal of electronic equipment, Zimmer has been able to craft an array of sounds from the riffs he's seen work time and time again. This isn't a knock — connective tissue can be found between any composer's body of work, a set of keys, notations, time signatures, and timbres that pop up time and time again that becomes their calling card. But Zimmer, more than most of his contemporaries, has found a way to warp his obsessions and discoveries with modern technology. As audience sensibilities change, Zimmer has adapted. His scores have basic foundations, it's all about what he layers on top.
This week sees the release of Zimmer's latest creation, the sonic assault that accompanies Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan's "Man of Steel." Departing from Williams' iconic 1978 score for "Superman," Zimmer lays it on thick, with audible influences of German Industrial bands, the sci-fi work of Vangelis, and his usual smatter of piano, horns, and drums (I imagine that hell is the only place where more percussion instruments are banging in repetitive sync than Zimmer's studio). Using filters and post-production tweaks, Zimmer clashes his soundscape into a bombardment of music. The score has its quiet, contemplative moments that rely on a recurring piano, but when the action kicks in, Zimmer makes sure his grungy theme literally pounds your heart.
In early reviews of the film (and even after the first teases of the score in trailers), many have proclaimed that "Man of Steel" could be Zimmer's best work. It might be the loudest, but the adrenaline-fueled feels designed to hit us rather than sweep us off our feet, sporadically satisfying accompaniment to large-scaled clobbering of Superman vs. General Zod. To find Zimmer's best work, you have to go back to when he was first introducing his common themes, highlights spread across the '80s, '90s, and '00s.
Here are my top 10 scores by Hans Zimmer:
10. "Radio Flyer," 1992
Zimmer translates is early fondness for woodwinds and '80s synth for a younger crowd. The result is particularly Williams-esque, capturing the Spielberg/Amblin vibe craved by directors, but rarely emulated with the necessary heart.
9. "Black Hawk Down"
My perception of Zimmer's work on this 2001 Ridley Scott war movie has been slightly skewed by Alexandre Desplat's "Zero Dark Thirty," a dread-filled score that's on the other end of the restraint spectrum from "Black Hawk Down." Still, Zimmer's music is edge-of-your-seat rousing that mixes Western and Eastern tropes with precision. Zimmer is a man of homage and I'd bet the cue 'No Man Left Behind' owes a bit to Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman's "The Last of the Mohicans" score — appropriate for the action.
Comedy music can often be bouncy, throwaway background music. Zimmer elevates one of James L. Brooks' lesser works with a jaunt that is nevertheless able to maintain an appropriate degree of emotional weightiness. The music feels complementary to Rolfe Kent's jazzy "Sideways" score. A natural groove for Kent, but new ground for Zimmer.
7. "Rain Man"
No one in their right mind would put one of Zimmer's '80s scores on a "Best of" list because they sound horribly and wonderfully '80s. Which is why his "Rain Man" score needs a place on the list. This score was ultimately the tipping point from Hans Zimmer (Producer) to Hans Zimmer (Composer), the music is ripe with synth juxtaposed with African drum — not exactly what you hear when you see Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman moving down an escalator. But it works, and it's a testament to Zimmer not only as the guy laying down the notes, but as the guy who can stand back, mix it, and suggest that it matches the picture.
The Oscar-winning score for Ridley Scott's Roman sports movie continues to slip into our ears — Zimmer's track 'Elysium,' performed by Lisa Gerrard, was recently hear in the trailers for "Man of Steel." Fitting, as Zimmer adds airiness to the overflowing testosterone that Russell Crowe's brutal performance demands. He takes a similar approach on his Superman movie, though he never finds the perfect balance between them like he does in a track like 'Honor Him.'
Say what you will about the loop holes and logic, Christopher Nolan asked Hans Zimmer to run a two and a hour action marathon for him and not once does he slow down. The "BRAAAHMs" developed by Zimmer's vast army of apprentices continue to influence, while the composer's knack for remixing utilizes Edit Piaf slowed to Absolute Zero as a foundation for the mayhem. There may never be a chase track as high-octane as 'Mombasa.'
4. "The Weather Man"
This may would have been the spot reserved for “True Romance,” as it fits perfectly with the texture of the film, but it’s so indebted to George Tipton’s work on “Badlands” (which is, in turn, a riff on Carl Orff's Schulwerk's Musica Poetica), that it’s hard to consider as Zimmer’s own. Luckily, Zimmer came into his own with sardonic xylophone sounds in Gore Verbinski’s “The Weather Man.”
3. "The Power of One"
While we all remember the songs, Zimmer's emotional interlude work on "The Lion King" is on par with anything Elton John and Tim Rice cooked up. That said, the music has its roots planted in "The Power of One," an apartheid drama with easily Zimmer's rawest sound. Imagine if "Lion King" felt remotely live and you have the edge of "The Power of One."
2. "Kung Fu Panda" (caveat "Rango," "The Last Samurai")
Not the greatest movie in the world, but a startling revelation music wise. "Rango" and "The Last Samurai" were both duking it out in my mind over a place on this list, but "Kung Fu Panda", with its joyous celebration of Eastern sounds and explosive energy demand to be heard, even if the terrifying faces of Dreamworks' anthropomorphic animals kept you out of the theaters.
1. "The Thin Red Line" ("The Dark Knight"/"Batman Begins")
So I'm not putting any entires from the "Pirates" series or "The Dark Knight" on this countdown. The first "Pirates" had a marvelous score... from Zimmer understudy Klaus Bladet. Everything else was bombastic in the worst way. "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" are technically collaborations, and as "epic" as they may be, owe much to Zimmer's stripped down work from Terrence Malick's "Thin Red Line." Zimmer composed a ton of music for the film, but as with most of the supporting cast, his work was cut down in post. What remains is flowing and elegant, large-scale in the confines of human existenialism. And it sounds quite a bit like "The Dark Knight!" OK, not the Melanesian choral song "Mention God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi" — which takes the breath away — but listen to this and tell me Zimmer wasn't exploring these themes with grace in Malick's WWII tale.
A few runners up: Barry Levinson's "Toys," "The Lion King," "The Prince of Egypt," Nolan's "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code," Gore Verbinski's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."