Hans Zimmer: For Better Or For Worse / by Charlie Brigden

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Hans Zimmer is a German born composer and record producer. He has composed music for well over 100 films, along with music for video games and television series. He has received 4 Grammy Awards, 3 Classical BRIT Awards, 2 Golden Globes, and an Academy Award. He was also named on the list of Top 100 Living Geniuses, published by The Daily Telegraph.

As a child growing up I remember great orchestral scores from the likes of John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Kamen. Would Back To The Future be the same without the brilliant main theme or could you imagine Star Wars without the now famous march? Music can be a very personal thing. If you listen to Bach you might not listen to Wagner. If you listen to The Beatles you may not listen to 50 Cent. Of course this is not always true, but people tend to listen to certain music. I like all music, well almost all music and I’m willing to give everything a listen once. However I think I've grown up in an era where technology has been the greatest influence on film music.

Of course people like Jerry Goldsmith and even John Barry had used elements of electronic sounds and instruments in film scores in the 70’s and 80’s but it seemed that into the 90’s and now currently, technology has and is playing a massive part. I think this is where Hans Zimmer fits in.

It is quite clear that Hans Zimmer is no John Williams but is that a problem? Currently I’m listening to a playlist of Hans Zimmer’s work whilst writing. I just had to check what film the music currently playing was from. Appears it’s from The Lone Ranger. I thought it might have been Pirates Of The Caribbean, or when the choir came in maybe Angels & Demons. Does that say something? Maybe that I just don’t listen to Zimmer enough (I’m sure I could tell music from Williams apart) or maybe that he has created a ‘sound’. That ‘sound’ is what lots of modern cinema sounds like. There are still gems out there but you have to search harder for them. Alan Silvestri’s Captain America and Avengers Assemble, anything by Michael Giacchino or Alexandre Desplat for example. I do wonder though, whether directors have become drawn in to the Zimmer ‘sound’ just by sheer volume rather than because it’s good.

King Arthur has come on. Same old, same old. Heavy drums pumping out a rhythm. Strings busy and a top line of thematic brass. You all know the sound. Its that ‘sound’. Rush has now come on. This leads nicely into a point. I do like some of Zimmer's work. I am not a complete Zimmer hater. Actually, Rush is pretty good. Feels like a score from the late 80’s or early 90’s when Zimmer was just starting. It fit the film well (director was a long time collaborator Ron Howard). One of my top scores ever is Gladiator. I love the film as well. Directed by Ridley Scott who has used Zimmer a few times but also used Zimmer copies as well (other people from his company Remote Control Productions - another thing to come on to). Anyway back to Gladiator. At the time I saw the movie at the cinema and didn’t know what to expect. It was a film that harked back to some of the films I watched as a child. The swashbuckling epics of yesteryear. I suppose the score gave a new voice to music for films like this. There has not really been anything since (that I can think of) that has not been trying to replicate some of the sounds heard in Gladiator. Number one would have to be the vocals. Lisa Gerrard was brought in to provide these and gets a credit for writing music (something else i will come on to). Women In Gold just came on. I thought it was Inception or something!

Anyway bar the issues with some of the music sounding like Holst’s The Planets, the score is brilliant. Very orchestral and percussive, with those ethereal vocals. I’m not sure I can watch the end of the film still, without shedding a tear and I think much of this is down to the combination of what happens on screen and what the music is telling your ears. The point is there are some good scores in amongst some rubbish.

I think you can tell what my opinion is in regards to the question that is the purpose of this article, but I need to be clearer why.

I’m a musician. I play instruments. I’m not a ‘singer’ on X Factor that calls himself a musician. I have studied music and spent most of my life playing and listening to music in equal measure. I wasn’t brought up on Guitar Hero or mobile phone apps that make music for you. My music was a piano in the dining room. I think, therefore that my ear seems to lean towards liking music that is created by instruments and live musicians. On balance I prefer rock music to pop and other stuff because of the musicians. Sting is a fantastic bass player and Eric Clapton a great guitarist. This is where Zimmer can let me down.

Half the time there isn’t an orchestra, more likely a group of people, some famous, some not working in a studio somewhere. If there is an orchestra I’m not even sure it’s real. Sometimes I get the feeling there might be live instruments interspersed with sampled instruments. I think Zimmer prides himself on being different. The single note ‘theme’ for The Joker or the not really violin sounds of Sherlock Holmes (he played a violin!) or the weird electronic drum n bass-ish sounds of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Sometimes he does do little things that I think are good. On Stranger Tides has just come on. Nice to see that Rodrigo y Gabriela lent their guitar playing to the score. Would normal people listen to their music? No probably not. But the millions that went to the cinema to see that will have heard their music. Good use of something different.

Chappie has now come on. What? I thought it was a film score. I feel like I’m in a rave! Oh, but I can just here some of those now famous ostinato strings in the background. Must be Hans Zimmer then. But not these days. It must be Hans Zimmer and friends! I think he ran out of ideas after Gladiator (or maybe even before) and now can only compose with everyone else basically doing the work for him. Seemingly every new project must be with someone. Pharrell Williams, Will.I.Am, Johnny Marr etc. I have no problem with rock or pop musicians doing film music. Johnny Greenwood is a perfect case in point. However Zimmer seems to just do it as a selling point almost on every score. Of course with every person he has collaborated with they then seem to go on to do their ‘own’ stuff which suprisingly sounds just like Zimmer. I like Harry Gregson-Williams sometimes, for instance but he can be a carbon copy!

Remote Control Productions. Surely it should be Remote Control Production Line? As an example the following few names are associated with this company and therefore Zimmer. Klaus Badelt, Lorne Balfe, Ramin Djawadi, Atli Orvarsson, Marc Streitenfeld, Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) and Steve Jablonsky. The idea behind the company is for a large group of composers to be mentored by Zimmer. At least that is my understanding. What this hasn’t bread is anything different. If anything its just bread more of the same. There is no one that I can think of that has come out of Remote Control Productions that has done a stand out score. Have any of these won an Academy Award? No, I don’t think so. Have they even been nominated? Again, I don’t think so. All we get is bland same old scores. Maybe these composers just want to earn their money and go home. Not sure Jerry Goldsmith saw it like that.

This all cements my point that Zimmer has created what we now think of as film scores. Even the old faithful superhero scores are now boring. Zimmer's own Man of Steel (not a patch on John Williams) and Spider-Man (not as good as either the James Horner one before or Danny Elfman) are poor, but this has lead other filmakers to go with Zimmer copies.

The score to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman) was shockingly bad. Where was Silvestri or that march?? Worse he is back for Captain America: Civil War due in 2016??! Something needs to be done. Maybe Hans Zimmer needs to stop making music or maybe, just maybe, filmmakers need to be braver with their choices of composers. How has David Arnold never scored a big budget Marvel Film?

On top of all of this it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that soundtrack sales had increased just from Zimmer scores. My local supermarket might not sell any soundtrack albums but I bet they would have the likes of The Dark Knight, Man of Steel or Pirates Of The Caribbean.

Now I’m not here to bash Zimmer. I really do like some of his work. Gladiator, Rush, some of The Dark Knight, The Lion King, Driving Miss Daisy, The Da Vinci Code. Maybe i’m being unfair. Maybe most people like his scores (they seem to be popular) and that my view is outdated. Maybe film scoring has moved on and I haven’t. My opinion is that Hans Zimmer has changed the sound of cinema for worse. That is of course only my opinion and you may well have a different one.

I’m now going to put on Raiders Of The Lost Ark just to clear my ears...