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Zimmer rundown Pt 1 - MV 1988-94: Discovery requires experimentation
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Thursday, March 24, 2022, at 3:28 p.m.
• IP Address:

Having finished indulging myself in the orchestral mastery of my John Scott collection, I felt it was time to pivot in the opposite direction and do a Zimmer rundown. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, even before the “eras of Media Ventures” conversations happening on the board a few weeks ago - there are a number of Zimmer works I like that I haven’t heard in, like, FOREVER, never mind that Gladiator was the first score album I ever purchased.

But that “eras of MV” conversation did have the effect of making me
a) think about Zimmer’s output in buckets and
b) get madly ambitious and decide this should be a rundown of not just material where Zimmer got the above-the-line credit…but also a rundown of works done by Zimmer’s team when they were part of MV/RC/BF…and a rundown of works done by alums once they had “graduated”.

Since that’s, like, 150+ scores (what I already own + what’s on Spotify + reasonably-priced used CDs), this rundown would be unwieldy in full - and I will likely need breaks, particularly when we get into later era and you have 15+ scores from this gang in each year- so I’m gonna break this into chunks, largely by what era of Hans’ output we’re dealing with.

This first bit will cover 14 scores (plus some notes on a few others I didn’t / couldn’t get to) from Hans’ breakthrough period, an era I have a lot of affection for even if I’m too young to be nostalgic for it. The only work I heard when it came out was The Lion King, but that was when I was, like, 5…and I’m pretty sure that was on a cassette! I started getting into Hans’ music during the later stages of Media Ventures, and only really started listening to scores in earnest during the early Remote Control days - in fact, I didn’t explore most of Zimmer’s pre-Lion King output until after undergrad - so I have an entirely different perspective than those who were growing up or collecting when these scores were originally released.

It’s an era where Zimmer kept pushing himself to try new things - and took on collaborators who could help achieve that. If he’d stayed in his initial “comfort zone”, there’s a nonzero chance he could’ve ended up like, say, Randy Edelman instead of the industry-dominating force he is today.

And, yeah, I know, this is excluding his earlier collaborations with Stanley Myers - but, sheesh, you want me to listen to MORE stuff? LOL.

Fun thing to do - spot the collaborator!

A World Apart (1988) - ***
Zimmer got the job because a producer on one of his Stanley Myers films was attached - and so we got the genesis point for a lot of Zimmerisms that would inform this period and beyond. Soothing traveling tones backed by warm electronics / synths / keyboards. High-pitched woodwind sounds. Some of the glassy, grating suspense that would show up in future “power anthem” action scores, as well as some mournful tones that suggest the sad parts of The Lion King.

It’s not as much of an “African” score as you’d think - Zimmer largely scores the drama instead of the location, though there are a few arrangements of traditional pieces that offer tantalizing hints of future works more in the other vein.

If you find Zimmer’s “suites for days!” album format to be irritating, welp, point the blame right here. Still, it makes for a decent, largely unobtrusive background listen - even if it’s probably for completists only.

Rain Man (1998) - ***½
For the most part this is a supremely relaxing score - shockingly unobtrusive in spite of its eclectic personality. And then the gospel-inflected Vegas cue happens - one of the very first examples of “I really should hate this track, but dang it, I don’t.” On the whole it’s perhaps a tad overrated because it was attached to a popular/acclaimed film and was Zimmer’s “big break”, but there’s still a lot to like here, and I wish the full score hadn’t been plagued by a lack of easy accessibility over the years.

Jay Rifkin emerges here - I believe because Zimmer had to hire a union sound recorder/mixer and they knew each other from way back when.

I think I saw this movie when I was in high school, and honestly I remember next to nothing from it. Maybe something to fix this year.

Black Rain (1989) - Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to purchasing the LLL release before it sold out, and that thing is, uh, not cheap these days (makes John Scott’s Lionheart look shockingly affordable by comparison). Bummer.

The first of many collaborations between Zimmer (or Zimlings) and the Scott brothers. ”They’re nuts. They’re crazy in the best possible way.”

Shirley Walker appears!

Days of Thunder (1990) - ***½
The first collaboration with Tony Scott - but perhaps more importantly it's the first collaboration with Jerry Bruckheimer. Zimmer’s methodology effectively pivots from character drama to action. It’s a rowdy, guitarz & keyboardz-driven good time - an insubstantial work, perhaps, yet it's also an undeniable guilty pleasure executed with flair.

Zimmer’s longtime orchestrator and “brother in arms” Bruce Fowler appears for the first time. You wonder if that was (sorry) driven by the rushed production schedule Zimmer found himself in - ”I went down there with a t-shirt on, we decided to have this meeting and they basically went ‘Well we’re so behind schedule if you leave now we’ll never get it done. We’ll build you a studio.’ So suddenly I’m stuck in Daytona with one t-shirt but they’re building me this beautiful studio in this warehouse. The one day trip turned into three months.”

Pacific Heights (1990) - ****
My first discovery of this rundown, and shame on me for not getting to it earlier - this album is stylish as F. Plenty of folks have pointed out the alluring noir jazz and quirky Sherlock Holmes mannerisms, but also worth noting is the repeated descending motif that would show up in Crimson Tide. And there’s the origin of Zimmer’s fascination with often-wordless female vocalists. Some of the suspense sections sound…”cheap”, but there’s enough good material to offset that.

Stuff like this, quirky and anachronistic collisions of elements that should not work but are executed with such panache you can’t help but like it, is what we now associate with folks like Daniel Pamberton and Ludwig Goransson. The score was mentioned a few years later by Zimmer as one of his favorites so far - primarily because “you can't really say what it is and what the instruments are.”

Also - ”John Schlesinger - because, of course, he has directed at Glyndebourne and Salzburg - made a small list of quotes he had heard in my music and slipped it to me. Some of them I did not even recognise! Absolutely the most musical of all directors.”

Longtime Elfman orchestrator Steve Bartek appears for the second time (and then disappears for a while); he had helped previously on Bird on a Wire.

Green Card (1990) - ***½
I probably underrated this, one of the last works where Zimmer wrote and recorded everything himself (albeit with a few crystal glass samples shared by Jeff Rona), a tad when I first discovered it a few years ago. It’s a bizarre combination of Zimmer’s easy keyboard vibes with East Asian sounds - the varying elements don’t really interact, but they’re all nice on their own. But then is any of this more eclectic than Rain Man? Probably not.

White Fang (1991) - ***½
On the one hand, it does lean in a more orchestral (or perhaps orchestral-sounding) direction than any Zimmer score so far. And you hear a few efforts at mimicking the period (the saloon piano effect, for example). Perhaps for the first time in his career, there are moments of genuine playfulness that suggest future Zimmer & co animation scores.

But (and I say this knowing it’s a rush-job replacement score effort) it also is an early sign of Zimmer trying to make the genre subordinate to his methodology instead of the other way around. It is largely anachronistic for what is a period drama, something you couldn’t say about Poledouris’ sufficient and often quite good composition, and it probably overdoes it with the pan pipes. A few BIG UNISON HITS also suggest the portentous drama of mid- and late-stage MV works to come.

Still, the themes are catchy, and if you’re not conducting during the finale, you may not have a pulse! Irish composer Fiachra Trench (formerly of Stanley Myers’ team) appears! Also, John Powell appears!

”I was working for a company called Air Edel, and was one of about 15 composers who did advertising music. The head of Air Edel, Maggie Rodford, knew Hans well. She had given him a break doing adverts. Then he went off to Hollywood, but was always in touch with her. He came back to do a film called White Fang, which was a re-score (and in the end didn’t get used), but it was for Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was at Disney. Hans had, I think, 11 days to write. It was over Christmas and New Year’s. I got brought in simply because I was one of the few composers at Air-Edel who was tech savvy. I had a bunch of equipment and so I was introduced to Hans, and he let me use his sounds, and I set up a writing rig for another composer, Fiachra Trench, who’s a really good Irish composer who was sort of helping Hans with cues. But he didn’t program and he wanted everything to be programmed in so it could be demoed.

So Fi would come in with a sketch and we’d map it out into the equipment so it can be demoed, and so Hans could hear it, and we could change things. Then, by day seven, I was probably just staying up all night as well as doing Fi’s work in the day and writing cues at night to get it all done. That’s where I met Shirley Walker, she was on it, trying to get it done. It was one of those moments where you get an opportunity and so you cancel everything. I think I had two hours on Christmas morning with my girlfriend (who then became my wife). But Hans liked my work ethic, and he liked people who were technically savvy, and he got a sense of what I was like as a composer, even though it was really only just helping out.”

NOTE: this would not be the last “kids and animals” adventure film released by Disney during the leadership of Jeffrey Katzenberg that would have musical issues - Homeward Bound would see a David Shire score tossed, while Iron Will has some…uh…rather obvious temp track adherence.

Backdraft (1991) - ****½
Not just the first time Zimmer wrote something (as he put it) “overtly heroic and overtly American”, it’s arguably the first primarily orchestral score Zimmer was involved with. Watching the making-of featurette is astonishing - Zimmer actually speaks about thematic counterpoint!

The electronics bothered me less this go-round. Worth an extra half-star, I suppose.

I still have not been able to find any published rationale for why the opening of Fighting 17th used to be played at Notre Dame football games.

Larry Rench, the longtime orchestrator for Shirley Walker, appears!

K2 (1991) - Didn’t have this but was able to find a reasonably-priced CD online (the score is not available on digital platforms). May cover this in the next write-up.

Nick Glennie-Smith appears, writing additional music for the first time (though apparently none of it made the album). Richard Harvey also joins the gang.

Radio Flyer (1992) - I planned on exploring this, but only the first and second suite are available on Spotify. Humbug.

The Power of One (1992) - ****
Gorgeous. And Zimmer’s comments on the making of this score remain fascinating.

”My personal relationship to Africa is pretty much zero. I just like that music and I like those choirs. When we did this little bit of choir in A World Apart I always wanted to do more. So Power of One was an opportunity to go back and use a really nice big choir. The problem for you as a composer is: by the time everything you write is finished, it's like one percent of what you meant to do. You hear it in your head and it's never that good when it's finished. The Power of One was me trying to finish that World Apart period. And it worked. I think the soundtrack is pretty good.

If you were to listen to it as a musicologist - It's all Cuban rhythms, it's all Gospel or classical inversions. It's got nothing to do with real African music, but then it's not my job to be [a] musicologist. My job is to broaden the whole thing. For me the best instrument you can think of is the human voice. From the first three notes Lebo M. sings you can see Africa, even if you don't have the film in front of you.

The majority of the score was all done in South Africa. They drive these choirs in big buses. Nobody drives. Nobody can afford a car. We were in this huge warehouse with two microphones. Nobody reads music, it doesn't matter. You just play it to them. They worked really hard. This was a big chance for them, they wanted it to be beautiful. I like these sort of adventures, you go somewhere else and it gives you a different slant on things.

There was a meeting just before the [Lion King] recording sessions at Disney…about what would happen when I went to South Africa. I had a police record down there because of A World Apart and because of Power of One where I had smuggled the tapes out, so this meeting was where I was supposed to suggest other composers who would finish the score once I got killed. And then finally, Chris Montan, head of music at the time, said, “Look this is really simple. You’re not going.” So Nick Glennie-Smith went in my stead.”

Jeff Rona appears as a programmer.

Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World (1992) - **½
My second discovery as part of this effort. Mark Mancina is credited as an arranger/producer but wrote the lion’s share of the music for this 10-part TV miniseries (”Look, my name is going to go on this thing, but I’ll pay you, give you publishing, whatever you want, because I can’t do it”) - and it’s a more synthetic cousin of The Power of One, tilting far more towards the instrumental (or perhaps instrumental-sounding) than the choral.

It’s rampantly obvious that they were working with a tiny budget, but it’s still likable enough (and apparently this album sold VERY well, so I’m not the only one thinking that) - though it’s almost assuredly for completists only, and if something like the same year’s Thunderheart was too artificial for your tastes then you should outright avoid it.

I docked a half star because 53 minutes is far too long for this material this “small” - and, for that matter, this indistinctive.

One of the tracks sounds suspiciously like a theme from a future work, something Mancina would enjoy teasing Zimmer about.

Cool Runnings & A League of Their Own & Toys (1992) - All are apparently best experienced via boots, none of which I’ve heard.

Toys would be the last time Shirley Walker orchestrated for Hans, possibly because her own solo career started to take off with Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Batman: The Animated Series. ”Now Shirley is more of a composer, so I can’t get her all the time.”

It would also be where Jeff Rona started writing additional music - he’s spoken about how this generally worked over the course of their relationship.

”He liked my music, I liked his music, we became very close friends in a short time. He was the person who probably helped me the most to get my own career going.

Because my writing style and methods are very different than Hans', I mostly did cues that did not relate to his themes. They were original ideas for specific scenes or characters. Hans knows what he wants, and knows how to get it. He doesn't ask anyone to do something he can't. He just likes to have the extra time to work very carefully, even under a tough deadline.”

Point of No Return (1993) - ***½
The second of (I think) three collaborations with director John Badham - and possibly the earliest case of Zimmer taking over after a prior score (in this case Under Siege composer Gary Chang’s) was rejected.

This is basically the intersection point of Zimmer’s sensitive character themes of this period, the noir stylings of Pacific Heights, and the upcoming abrasive energy of Drop Zone - plus some gospel vocals, cuz why not? None of it makes any sense together, but does that matter when you have an opening sequence as outrageously cool as the first few minutes of Hate? Perhaps not.

True Romance (1993) - ***
My third discovery as part of this series - and ooooooooh boy, I was not prepared. Tony Scott had temped the film with Black Rain (not the first time a director had done that this decade, though this case is less infamous than Ron Howard doing so with Backdraft) - which is not AT ALL what we ended up with.

The main theme is basically the halfway point between Zimmer’s Lion King percussion and Thomas Newman’s American Beauty, which makes for a charming but highly repetitive background listen. Everything else is a bit all over the place - rock vibes from Days of Thunder, a few stretches of heavy suspense and dour drama, some sensitive keyboard moments. With the exception of the main theme, this score feels very interchangeable with other scores from this period (maybe the earliest score I can say that about).

Mancina and former SSQ keyboardist John Van Tongeren bailed Zimmer out when Zimmer’s schedule on I’ll Do Anything (”the never-ending movie”, and a score he had to rewrite twice) went way over. Zimmer’s comments about working on this film (at least the second case where he wanted/expected an orchestra but didn’t get it, following Driving Miss Daisy) are still funny enough to print in full.

”Here’s a typical Tony thing: When he first came to me to do True Romance, he had a proper music budget. And then he went off to shoot the movie, he came back and he said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry but I spent all the money. I have money left for nine musicians.’ And I was really pissed off at him—our relationship was always like this; he’d promise you you can have the whole orchestra then he’d spend the money on visual effects. All I remember was as a kid being in Germany in music class where we had these xylophones and marimbas and etc. and it was just a horrible noise, but it was a sort of innocent noise… And I thought, ‘Okay so Tony, you took away all the money, all you’re gonna get is these marimbas and little kids playing it.’ But there was a great juxtaposition between the violence and this really innocent music, and I thought it went really well with the characters.”

The House of the Spirits (1993) - ****
The first of a few collaborations between Zimmer (or Zimlings) and director Bille August. Melancholy without ever being morose. Also proof that Zimmer could write really good themes for stuff other than upbeat character moments.

I am still puzzled why I don’t like the score more, as it seems to have all the right ingredients to be a near-classic work. Maybe it’s the performance - Zimmer apparently wasn’t a huge fan of the recording in Munich.

”They were cutting the film here. I have to be where the director is and where the film is. We went through about three string sections before we found one we liked. We had fantastic players, and we had some players which weren't so good. I'm just not used to that. In London and Los Angeles you get such an unbelievable level of professionalism and concentration.

Fiachra Trench [conducted]. I'm just not gonna do this conducting! We were being told time and again, ‘You have to be harder [on] the musicians. Go and shout at them.’ I don't care if they like being shouted at. I'm not going to shout at them, like Fiachra. He doesn't lose his temper pretending to be a great Maestro. It's a collaborative process. 'Either you want to play on this, or you don't come.' I felt a lack of concentration in the orchestra and a lack of commitment in a way.

We did use synthesizers because where the orchestra couldn't quite play it, the synthesizers came in really handy. They fix all those bits.”

The Client (1994) - Zimmer was attached to this at some point in 1993 but had to drop out due to The Lion King’s schedule getting moved up. Later on this might’ve just led to his team getting the assignment - instead Howard Shore took over.

The Lion King (1994) - *****
Zimmer joked around the time the film came out that the Academy didn’t give him an earlier Oscar because he wasn’t 65 yet and had to pay his dues. Welp…dues paid.

This score is well-known enough at this point that spending a whole chunk of discussion on it is perhaps futile - so suffice to say it’s by far my favorite work of his from this era, and probably still my favorite Zimmer score overall.

Orchestrator (and future additional music composer) Don Harper appears!

It would’ve been fitting to end the series with this, the pinaccle of Zimmer’s career so far and a very satisfying album (at least on the Legacy collection)...but we will instead mirror Zimmer’s production schedule and cover one last relic that fits in this era.

Renaissance Man (1994) - ***
The second of four collaborations with director Penny Marshall - and my fourth discovery of this rundown. Zimmer was supposed to do this months after The Lion King but instead had to do it right after, so it’s a minor miracle that it’s any good at all, especially given some of Zimmer’s comments.

”Penny kept saying ‘American, embrace the army, embrace America.’ I don’t know what that is. I don’t think I ever sat through a whole Aaron Copland piece. For me American is old blues and jazz.”

Half of the album is light jazz rock with the occasional orchestral embellishment - take out the sax solos and you could be describing the basic template for a lot of Zimmer’s comedy scores to come. The other half is military parody music that’s a less bombastic version of what Elmer Bernstein might’ve done (Stripes lite, if you will). Victory Starts Here is goofy fun.

Alan Meyerson would do Zimmer’s music mix for the first time - and within a year or so would replace Jay Rifkin in full. And musician (and future additional composer) Ryeland Allison appears!

In an era where Zimmer scores were only released in part (if at all) and often shared space with songs, this is a rare example of a complete score released around the time of the film (Varèse FTW).

Admittedly, the Shakespeare rap at the end of the album is odd - but not nearly as odd as Hamlet in Rock.

Next time…the birth of the power anthem.

Props to the, what, three (?) people who get the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reference in my subject line.

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