Editorial by Alec R. Lee
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a BWOOOOOOOOM!
Soundtracks aren’t the most popular of the genres of music these days. Most people would rather turn up their obnoxious dance music and AutoTuned lyrics and label that as “deep”, “symbolic”, or more insultingly: “art”. It’s rather criminal that soundtracks are not as highly regarded in the mainstream these days as they represent a sense of craftsmanship and overall skill with manipulating the emotions of the audience by timing what is on screen to what the composer thinks a scene should sound like. People listen to soundtracks to either appreciate the mastery with the most powerful tool, the orchestra, or to re-imagine scenes from a media project in their head. Because I like to do both of these things, I have the largest soundtrack collection out of all my peers, with some albums that have not even cracked the mainstream, as far as soundtracks go. And out of all the albums I own, Hans Zimmer is one of the composers that dominates my collection.
Out of all the composers out there, Hans Zimmer is one of my absolute favorites. He has a knack for utilizing synthetic elements with live orchestras with rather pleasing results. He also brought around the practice of composers using an entirely synthetic orchestra for an incredibly masculine sound (which came about with Crimson Tide). His scores are easy on the ears and not as technically complex so that it alienates newcomers to soundtracks. Take for example a personal favorite of mine: Broken Arrow. The themes represented in the album aren’t complicated, they’re rather simple. The variety of the orchestra is more stripped than expansive. There seem to be more synthesized versions of instruments rather than actual ones, but the entire result just sounds….cool. Zimmer utilizes a guitar to deliver a theme for the main villain that would fit in a Morricone Western perfectly and the action material is explosive and reactive. It never fails to bring a smile to my face. On the other hand, Zimmer tends to utilize synthesized versions of instruments so much that his scores have started becoming parodies of themselves. Movie soundtracks like The Rock, Mission Impossible 2, and the Pirates of the Caribbean have suffered because of this fact, that the synthesizers are so overbearing that they become a distraction and an annoyance. I do not hate synthetic orchestras, but I do not see the point in combining traditional instruments with their synthetic counterparts. Zimmer does this in order to get a more ballsy oomph out of the orchestra but ultimately just cheapens the sound. He has gotten better in recent years with balancing the orchestra but there still remain a few notable exceptions to this.
You might have noticed that there are several composers who share Zimmer’s distinct style with electronics in other movie scores. Movies like Clash of the Titans, Unstoppable, Speed, and Armageddon all sound rather similar in style, and yet Zimmer did not compose any of them. This is because in the 90s, Zimmer co-founded a film score production company now known as Remote Control Productions (formerly Media Ventures). The purpose of this was to create a production house where composers could train under Zimmer and receive their own projects in due time. Unfortunately, this had the negative effect of Zimmer’s style saturating the market. This has now come to be known as “that Remote Control sound” amongst film score aficionados who treat the concept with disdain. A few notable composers who worked in RCP include:
- Harry Gregson-Williams (Kingdom of Heaven, The Chronicles of Narnia)
- Trevor Rabin (Remember the Titans, Armageddon)
- John Powell (Bourne trilogy, How to Train Your Dragon)
- Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Pacific Rim)
- Henry Jackman (X-Men First Class, Wreck-it-Ralph)
- Steve Jablonsky (Transformers series, Ender’s Game
This list actually represents only a fraction of the people who worked, or have worked, at Zimmer’s production house. The unfortunate truth is that most of the employees are responsible for ghostwriting any project that lands in Zimmer’s or any of his close colleagues’ laps. For those unfamiliar with the concept, ghostwriting is the practice of composing music and someone else taking credit for it (legally). Zimmer started to employ ghostwriters in the early 2000s, most likely after he found success with the team effort for Gladiator. These ghostwriters wouldn’t just work for Zimmer on smaller projects, they would accompany him to tentpole releases like the entire Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel. The Dark Knight alone had at least four composers working on it and The Dark Knight Rises had seven! Lorne Balfe is usually Zimmer’s lead ghostwriter and he honestly has no grasp on writing melodic scores at all. The writing of the rest of the ghostwriters has ranged from barely passable to atrocious. There is usually a clear disconnect between the writing styles of Zimmer and his legion of ghostwriters as they are usually responsible for the more ambient pieces, as they can’t be trusted to sufficiently adapt any of the themes that Zimmer has composed. This also explains that, whenever Zimmer is employed for a video game soundtrack, the result always sounds underwhelming. That’s because Zimmer only sticks around to compose a theme, then lets Lorne Balfe compose the bulk of the score (see: Modern Warfare 2, Crysis 2). This is the reason why several of Zimmer’s scores have not been nominated for Academy Awards in recent years because the number of people composing them exceed the limit that the Academy actually allows. You might ask, why, if the results are so bad, does Zimmer keep utilizing ghostwriters? In the soundtrack writing business, competition is very fierce. Often times, if the studio does not like a soundtrack that a composer has created, they reject it, resulting in the composer having to start from scratch (usually a difficult concept) or firing that composer and hiring another (the usual choice). The employment of ghostwriters means that if a score that Zimmer created has been rejected, he is able to quickly whip up a new one with the help of his assistants. This fact means that Zimmer has never been fired on a project before, which is an impressive feat but it’s half deserved. Should a score’s creativeness be sacrificed over job security? I wish the answer was no.
For the next few paragraphs, I’m going to look at examples of scores a little more closely to further examine the faults that Zimmer has made over the years. When the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was released, the crew listed Klaus Badelt as the primary composer (unknown at the time, has gone on to be quite good at his craft). It was later revealed that Hans Zimmer himself had composed the primary themes for the first film, but because of a clause in his contract with The Last Samurai (a much better effort), he was unable to take primary credit. The soundtrack situation for the PoTC situation was bad enough. The first composer assigned to the project, Alan Silvestri, had his music rejected, and the producer for the film, Jerry Bruckheimer, was a fan of Zimmer’s work but ran into the Last Samurai complication when hiring him. What resulted was not so much Zimmer’s fault but an example of how bad the ghostwriting process can get creatively. Seven ghostwriters, not including Zimmer, toiled on the project and the result was a hodgepodge of synthetic orchestral pieces that made the score sound way too modern for the period. Themes were sloppily edited together, the bass region was covering up the treble, it was a mess. It’s understandably why this music falls into the “guilty pleasure” category so often, but as a representative of pirate music in general, swashbuckling it is not.
2010 marked the year that Inception was released. It was a mind-warping thriller that was a box office hit and a critical darling. People also rated the soundtrack rather highly, calling it another hit for Zimmer and ultimately it being nominated for an Academy Award. I have yet to understand why people absolutely love this score. The orchestra sounds so synthetic that you can almost feel the fakeness. The bass regions are tuned up high that they often drown out the trebles. In fact, there are no moments in this score where a woodwind or even a trumpet is heard outside of a large wall of sound. Zimmer did reveal in an interview that one of the cues in the soundtrack came from slowing the Edith Piaf song down 1000x to get the dreamy, ambient soundscape that inspired the rest of the cues. Zimmer then makes the cheap tactic of using backwards edits in the score to manipulate the sound further (a sign of laziness) and baffingly creates the newest musical cliche outside of James Horner’s “danger motif”: the BWOOOOOOOM (or as I like to call it, “The Horn of Doom”). This is when Zimmer gets all of the low brass members to just whale on their poor mouthpieces in producing a single note, in which synthetic counterparts are added to it later in editing, and now you have a stupidly simple note that can be used to emphasize epic things. If this practice was contained just in Inception, it would be fine, but then other composers from Remote Control started using it in their works, causing Zimmer himself to lament The Horn of Doom’s misuse (which made no sense as he would revive the concept later in Man of Steel, a project in which it most assuredly did NOT belong).
Zimmer would start the practice of hyping up his scores in late 2011 while doing promotion for The Dark Knight Rises. His first order of business was to reveal a website in which fans could chant lyrics into a computer and Zimmer would incorporate all of these chants into the soundtrack, sort of like what Eric Whitacre does for his Virtual Choirs. The lyrics in question would be the Moroccan chant that symbolized Bane throughout the movie, but it was so sloppily executed that it feels like there was no point to it. If you were watching the movie, the parts with the audience chants were always drowned out by the noise coming through the speakers, be it talking, wind blowing, or even explosions, you could not hear it. There was also the fact that the chanting itself was not a very interesting aspect of the soundtrack either as it was underutilized and mastered poorly in comparison to the orchestra (edit: synthetic sounding orchestra). Forget the fact that Rises was a logistical nightmare that was exacerbated with fellow composer James Newton Howard’s departure, and the fact that Zimmer used incredibly simplistic themes for complex characters, but here we were given a bone by one of the most prolific composers and we were ultimately let down. Perhaps adding insult to injury is the fact that the audience contribution wouldn’t have mattered in the long run as Zimmer could easily have gathered 20 people and have them shout into a mic for five minutes and he would have gotten all of the samples he needed.
The last painful example is Man of Steel. Man of Steel was a disaster, musically, in every sense possible. Ghostwriters writing terrible cues, that damn Horn of Doom, and a distinct lack of patriotism in favor of ambient droning pretty much send this score into the worst music of 2013. To give the tiniest amount of credit, if this was composed for another project, say a science fiction film, this score would fit well as it does have some interesting moments. Unfortunately it was written for a Superman film and now we’re stuck with this. In light of this debacle, Zimmer’s mouth is purely to blame for all of this. Zimmer mentioned that he wanted to write music symbolizing the plains of America (thus symbolizing Smallville to give an Americana touch to the score). What we got was a piano line repeated damn near ten times throughout the movie. Ironically, when using Americana in a sentence, John Williams springs to mind, who has pretty much defined the modern Americana sound that Zimmer just defiled. Zimmer also spoke often about the “drum orchestra” that he designed for the film. This involved taking several drummers, some apparently “the best in the world” and arranging them in a circle to drum out passages that Zimmer had written. Interesting concept, but again, sloppy execution. For starters, most of the drummers tapped to perform in this so-called “orchestra” were temp drummers, most certainly not the best in the world (if he was serious, he’d have invited Neil Peart). Also, the drum passages were not very complex which meant that they were not very interesting (sadly, the whole thing could have been replicated by synthesizers). Finally, when used in the film, the end result was a headache of abhorrent pounding that did not represent a Superman film at all. This whole album was the embodiment of a kid banging on pots and pans and calling it “new” and “daring.” I can say for myself that this music is not “daring,” it is pedestrian, it is not “melodic,” it is noise, and it is most certainly not “interesting,” it is boring.
Apologists of Zimmer’s style will accuse me of being unfair and ultimately critical of anything that he writes. I ask you (if you fall in that camp) to take a step back and look at the rest of the work he’s done. There are so many more soundtracks that Zimmer has composed that sound tons better than Man of Steel or Inception. How about Lion King, Prince of Egypt, Beyond Rangoon, or even more recently, Rush? For the majority of his body of work, Zimmer is an incredibly stylish composer that may favor simplicity over complexity but makes up for it with his scores that fit completely with the universe of the movie. Do I hate Hans Zimmer? No, I do not. He is an excellent composer that makes a few questionable decisions, but always has a good score to make up for a bad one. It is just one of my biggest pet peeves to hear someone praise Zimmer for his scores that lack all musicality and creativity (the worst offender being Inception). Of course, you could just take my advice with a grain of salt, ignore what I said, and go back and listen to your BWOOOOOMs. I’ll try hard not to judge.