Born in Frankfurt, Hans Zimmer moved to London as a teenager and collaborated with a number of musical artists in the early stages of his career before launching into composing for film on the back of an Oscar winning collaboration with David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto on their score for The Last Emperor. Zimmer would soon earn acclaim from the Academy for his solo efforts, as he set out to become one of the finest composers of his generation.
Throughout his career, he has composed a number of great scores for action orientated films and, given the announcement that he’s set to meet with Christopher Nolan to discuss working on the forthcoming Batman film, and the possibility of scoring the Nolan-produced Superman movie, I thought now would be a good time to look at some of my favourite of his action scores…
I used to love Backdraft when I was younger and when re-watching it recently found that it held up quite well. It’s no masterpiece, by any means, but it’s a solid film.
Zimmer’s work here is another standout piece in his career, delivering a well balanced and hugely effective piece that helps to elevate the onscreen imagery by conjuring up heroic and tense themes for the action scenes, as well as more subdued and melancholic pieces for the more emotional scenes.
One piece in particular, for me, ranks among the finest pieces Zimmer has composed in his career, is the one that plays out accompanying the funeral scene. An incredibly emotive piece that’s a clear standout, although, in fairness, the rest of his material isn’t too far behind it.
Both in accompaniment to the film and as a standalone listen, taking this music in is a very intense experience. The creation of atmosphere and tension really heighten what’s on screen as the synth in accompaniment with orchestration exudes feelings of claustrophobia and anticipation.
The blend of styles is something that Zimmer is a master of and would use throughout his career.
Zimmer’s score here lead to a wave of imitators as they attempted to capture his blend of action oriented electronic, with varying levels of success, including Zimmer, in many ways, imitating his work here on his score for The Rock.
The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick’s war epic is nothing short of a masterpiece and stands as one of the directors’ finest works. Whilst he’s far from the most prolific of directors, he has made some incredible films in his career.
This stands as my favourite Zimmer score for many reasons, the main being that it’s not a typical Zimmer score, especially when compared to some of his other scores for action orientated movies. Although, to classify this film as simply an action film would be doing it a disservice. There are elements of that, sure, but this is more of an intricate character study that explores what drives men in extreme situations.
Zimmer’s score compliments the film beautifully, by portraying the suspense and anticipation of troops going into battle, through rumbling percussion that builds and builds before exploding into a grand passage that sees the master composer utilise a wide array of instruments to evoke the great drama.
Zimmer was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for his work here, as well as being nominated for his score for The Prince Of Egypt the same year.
Zimmer’s work here earned him a significant amount of recognition, and quite rightly so. It’s a remarkable piece of work that, to this day, stands as one of his highlights. For me, there isn’t a cue in the movie that seems out of place, despite Zimmer utilising synthesisers and layers of sound that he was famed for to accompany this swords and sandals epic. The signature themes are very impressive, but what pulls me in on repeat listens is the diversity in the piece.
Zimmer approaches a variety of musical styles and brings them to the table, utilising some interesting instruments in the process. Lisa Gerrard’s vocals add yet another level to the work here and, given that pretty much everything about the piece is a success, Zimmer gets away with borrowing a little from Wagner.
Black Hawk Down
Following two highly successful scores for Ridley Scott in Gladiator and Hannibal, the pair reunite for what, in my opinion, is their finest collaboration.
Zimmer integrates some traditional musical styles from the film’s setting of Somalia to great effect, as the clash in styles between that and his typical symphonic elements provide an effective backing to the images on screen. Not only is clear attention given to that aspect of the score, but the score’s progression also mirrors the action on screen, from the chest beating heroic numbers heard early on, to pieces full of suspense and dread as the failings of the mission gradually unravel. For the most part, it’s not the most upbeat of scores he’s produced, but it’s a very strong effort.
When Christopher Nolan set out to put his own stamp on the Batman franchise and re-launch it, he employed two of the biggest composers to provide his score and create pieces that would match the iconic themes composed by Danny Elfman.
Zimmer, along with James Newton Howard, created a score in keeping with the mood that Nolan was looking to convey. Gone were Elfman’s instantly recognisable themes. The duo crafted a moody and atmospheric piece of work that made it a certainty that this film was very much restoring Batman to the darkness audiences had been yearning for.
It’s quite easy to distinguish between each of the composers’ work here, with Zimmer unleashing some incredibly oppressive percussive passages, creating an ominous tone that really made much of his other action scores so successful. A bold piece of work by both involved.
The Dark Knight
Still not satisfied with just one composer, Nolan calls upon the dynamic duo that so masterfully scored his first in his trilogy of Batman films to return to the acclaimed sequel. There’s more overlap here than what was heard in their first outing and, as such, this is much more of a collaboration than simply having the two composers’ work sit alongside each other.
Sure, it’s still easy to hear each of their trademarks throughout, but often it’s the case that both can be heard in the same musical sequences.
It’s not a score that grabbed me on first listen, but it’s one that I have come to love over time. It’s a layered and sophisticated piece of work that carries the film it accompanies in many ways without ever becoming overbearing.
Here’s hoping that the pair returns for The Dark Knight Rises, which is quite likely given the quality of the work they produced for the franchise to date.
Guy Ritchie’s reboot of Sherlock Holmes has been overshadowed by the resounding success of the BBC modernisation of the legendary character and I have to say that I’m far more excited about seeing a second series of Sherlock than I am seeing a sequel to this. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the film, it’s just that there’s very little to encourage me to re-watch it any time soon.
Zimmer’s score, however, has been on rotation for much of the year and, whilst I will acknowledge it’s not quite up there with his best, it’s one that I enjoy a great deal. Like many of his best works, this integrates a number of styles and moods into the piece as a whole and, most importantly, compliments the action and adventure portrayed on screen brilliantly as well as providing backing for the more comedic segments.
Even if the sequel isn’t something I’m overly excited about, the strength of this score makes me want to hear what he will come up with when he inevitably composes the sequel’s score.
I would like to acknowledge that Inception has been missed off deliberately, as it will be covered later in the year.
Okay, so there are a few of my favourite of Zimmer’s action orientated scores. Please share examples of your favourites below…
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