Music in Film: The Lone Ar-ranger

How did Hans Zimmer rearrange the William Tell Overture for The Lone Ranger? Ivan examines the new version of an infectious tune...

The Lone Ranger was the latest film this year to be reviewed poorly by critics thanks to its troubled production. But one thing the production definitely got right was its composer: Hans Zimmer.

One of six films credited to Zimmer’s name this year, it’s easy to get tired of his trademark sound – unless, that is, he’s playing around with the William Tell Overture.

Has a happier piece ever been composed than the final movement of Rossini’s overture for his opera? The opening fanfare is enough to send kids galloping around the room on imaginary horses – even though they’re now well over 50 years old.

Before this year, no film had captured the excitement of the piece better than Brassed Off. Mark Herman’s 1996 classic proved that it wasn’t just kids who were susceptible to the tune’s infectious charm. It could also make the grumpiest of adults (that’s Jim Carter, for the record) do this: 

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Brassed Off also reminded us – along with the brilliance of Pete “Land of Hope and Bloody Glory Lads” Postlethwaite – that the William Tell Overture can work just as well in a different arrangement to the original orchestral score.

Enter Hans Zimmer. Or, to be exact, Geoff Zanelli, who delivers a master class in how to rework a familiar theme.

Zimmer’s overall score canters through the usual dusty plains of Morricone and Bacalov, lining up honky tonk pianos, breathy woodwind, twanging guitars and fiddles, but The Lone Ranger’s action themes sound more like something to do with pirates than horses – you can almost tell it was put together by a team of writers.

Rango, it turns out, has the better Western score, despite being a post-modern existential, quirky animated musical. The Lone Ranger is lucky, then, to have Geoff Zanelli on hand. Grabbing the reins for the climax of the film, he singlehandedly rides all the way up and down Rossini’s music with such energy and zip that he makes the whole soundtrack seem worthwhile.

How does he do it?

1. Go large

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When a theme associated with TV jumps to the big screen, there’s only one thing to do: supersize the hell out of it.

Michael Giacchino gave a perfect demonstration with his 2009 Star Trek score: the end credits retained Alexander Courage’s signature tune, complete with tinkling intro and sustained brass underneath the U.S.S. Enterprise Captain’s voiceover. But where you would normally expect that bold – but relatively small – theme, Giacchino embiggens it into a nine-minute bout of orchestral oomph. The rising brass fanfare is now intertwined with the new brooding theme, repeating that opening phrase not just once but three times. A choir soon enters, while the familiar accompaniment shifts from offbeat parps to a driving march, turning the whole thing into a rousing sci-fi classic.

Geoff Zanelli’s The Lone Ranger finale takes exactly the same approach. The original final movement for the William Tell Overture lasts approximately three minutes. Here, it’s a whopping 9 minutes and 57 seconds. Wheeling out the entire orchestra, from the cymbals to the timpani, Geoff doubles the length of that famous intro: the simple fanfare is still in place but the whole ensemble joins in for that long note, repeated over and over as the brass blast out a cheerful major seventh. This, Zanelli makes clear from the start, is big. And by heck, it knows it.

2. If it ain’t broke…

Fans are a tricky bunch. There are always some who fear change and only want to hear what they know. The best new instalments of well-known themes, then, make sure that the old beats aren’t far away.

Star Wars simply kept its main theme throughout the saga, even as John Williams developed new motifs for each entry. Giacchino’s Star Trek took the same approach, with both Into Darkness and the 2009 score boasting the same top and tail. John Ottman’s Superman Returns score, meanwhile, is a glorious bit of composition precisely because it manages to use John Williams’ iconic score as its base. Musically speaking, familiarity can be a good thing.

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The Lone Ranger isn’t afraid to keep up with tradition: Rossini’s finale is heard in full across the 10-minute extravaganza, often echoed or elongated but always recognisable; every time you hear it, it’s guaranteed to bring a smile to your granddad’s face.

3. Add your own themes

That said, a straight copy of something that’s gone before – especially something from a long time ago – can be dull. It’s important to add your own themes to the mix.

John Ottman’s Superman Returns retained a lot of Williams’ features, from the triplets in the title’s bass line to the Can You Read My Mind romance theme, but Ottman goes his own way too, ditching the old Luther number for his own rhythmic villain’s piece – a menacing contrast to the bright colours of nostalgia.

When it comes to reworkings of classical music, there are arguably none better than Clint Mansell’s Black Swan. Ineligible for an Oscar nomination because of its reliance upon Tchaikovsky’s ballet, you could get the impression that the score is somehow a cheat or lazy, but it’s anything but. Splicing together the existing music – again, if it ain’t broke – with a wave of typically modern Mansell work, it’s a beautiful fusion of the two; the main Swan Theme warps into a nightmarish dirge thanks to Mansell’s introduction of electronic instruments, while the haunting melody sits alongside a delicate, eerie new piano sound.

It’s most effective in the introductory Nina’s Dream and the climactic Perfection, which brings in the whole orchestra to thump out Tchaikovsky’s bombastic themes with a thrilling, darker edge. The result is a surprisingly loyal adaptation of Swan Lake, not just in terms of Darren Aronofsky’s plot, but – more importantly – the music. Clint’s not scared to bring something new to the stave. The result is terrifyingly brilliant.

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Here’s where Zanelli gets clever.

While Zimmer’s Lone Ranger themes mostly remind you of Pirates Of The Caribbean – and, occasionally, Sherlock – they take on a whole new life in Geoff’s hands. Skip forward to the four-minute mark of the finale (although why would anyone skip a single second?) and in rides Hans’ new numbers. They’re still largely derivative but, surrounded by the chords and rhythm of Rossini, they take on a whole new life, fleshing out the overture with sombre shades and exciting action music; without them, it would be a charming replay of an old TV ditty; with them, a tune that many associate with the small screen is transformed into something outrageously cinematic.

4. Change instruments

As anyone who’s tried to play the James Bond theme on a kazoo knows, orchestration matters. Michael Giacchino – perhaps the greatest arranger currently working in the industry – is king of picking the right instruments. Orchestrated by regular collaborator Mark Gasbarro, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol nails that knack of altering the tone of a tune; on Kremlin with Anticipation, he switches between horn and bassoon while a harp and ominous male choir “mmm” and “ahhh” in the background, deftly segueing from Lalo Schifrin’s The Plot into the main theme with a distinctly Russian vibe.

Mission: Impossible Theme – Out With A Bang manages a similar change in mood by introducing a bongo and sliding strings to the usual combination of flutes and trumpets. Both couldn’t sound more different to Lalo’s original theme unless they changed the time signature from 5/4 to 4/4, which, incidentally, is what Limp Bizkit controversially did for Mission: Impossible II – in its own way, an equally successful version of a well-known tune (and another example of what you can do with an arrangement).

The Lone Ranger impresses by not changing the overall instrumentation: the orchestra isn’t replaced by some electronic gizmos or a pack of excited drummers. Instead, it’s the subtle changes in orchestration that leave their mark; the use of trumpets to drive the B theme instead of strings, which brings out the Morricone atmosphere of the score, or the introduction of snare drums into the first repeat of the main theme, which adds a rush of momentum even though the pace has somewhat slowed since Rossini’s day.

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5. Have fun

Playing around with endless musical permutations can be fun – and that’s exactly what it should be, for the composer, the orchestra and, ultimately, the audience. Listen to The Lone Ranger’s finale and it’s hard to think of any other word to describe it. Zanelli’s arrangement is highly intellectual and, while it feels like it’s hurtling along without control, subtly precise. More than anything, though, it’s fun.

Zimmer’s generic themes combined with the familiar strains of Rossini are a breathtaking match; a 10-minute burst of creativity. Imagine if Zanelli was given the whole score to himself. Judging by the film’s climax, The Lone Arranger has more than earned his solo spurs.

Altogether now… 

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