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Zimmer, team, alums Pt 6 - RC 2008-10: Supes, Sequels, and Sherlock, oh my! (6c)
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Saturday, July 9, 2022, at 6:56 a.m.
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This is part of a series. The second part of the 2008-10 set is here:


The Dark Knight (2008) - ***1/2
Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard; add’l music by Lorne Balfe; ambient music design Mel Wesson; arrangements by
Henry Jackman; soloists Ryeland Allison, Michael Levine, Heitor Pereira, Satnam Ramgotra & Martin Tillman; sequencer
programming by Jacob Shea and others; orchestrated by B&W Fowler/Moriarty, Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter, Liz Finch,
Kevin Kaska & Randy Kerber; conducted by Matt Dunkley, Bruce Fowler & Gavin Greenaway; technical score engineer
Stuart Michael Thomas, technical assistant Chris Bacon; thank you to Andrew Kawczynski

Zimmer, when asked whether he was working on The Dark Knight during an interview to promote The Simpsons Movie: ”Playing around until I get some ideas. There is a big Batman theme, which I was playing with for the last one, but I always felt the character hadn’t earned it yet.”

Howard: “What's always interesting working on these Batman films is that the cut we work on for security reasons is in black and white. I'm convinced that has played a role in the austerity and the angular quality of a lot of the music.”

With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan would build on the success of his earlier Batman Begins entry and craft in his story of Bruce Wayne, the Joker, and Harvey Dent / Two-Face something closer to a crime epic than a superhero film (think Michael Mann’s Heat) with nods to modern concerns about terrorism and the ethics of surveillance. It was a remarkably self-assured film and a seminal event for young adults of my generation - the many repeatable quotes, the relentless tension, the awesome mid-film car chase, and perhaps most importantly the astonishing, Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker (the actor would tragically pass away during post-production on the film). Public outcry would ensue when the movie, the highest-earning film of 2008 and a huge critical success, wasn’t on the five-film list of Best Picture nominees at the ensuing Academy Awards, which resulted in the organization changing its rules so more films could make the shortlist, something Nolan’s own Inception would benefit from two years later. And it would clearly influence a host of blockbusters going forward - grittier aesthetics, plots where villains intentionally get caught (Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness, the Hitman sequel), and of course the music.

Zimmer: “The great thing about working with Chris is when I think I’m going too far off the deep end…he’ll push me a little further.”

The core team that scored Batman Begins would return - buddies Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard as co-composers, plus the ambient music maestro Mel Wesson, Martin Tillman and his electric cello, and composer Lorne Balfe helping on a few tracks. Ramin Djawadi (leading his own superhero score at the same time) would basically be swapped out for Henry Jackman, and a host of other regular collaborators would contribute a variety of instrumental tones, something Michael Levine spoke about in detail. “He asked me to double every repeating pattern the violins and violas played. There were a LOT. And a great studio orchestra had already played them all! I spent a week on what I considered an eccentric fool’s errand, providing score mixer Alan Meyerson with single, double, and triple pass versions of huge swaths of the score. Months later, I joked with him about how useful my efforts had been. Alan told me that, actually, they had turned out to be a crucial element of the score, that he often pulled out the orchestra and went to my performances when something needed to be edgy or raw.”


Zimmer: “The whole of Dark Knight is basically a punk opus.”

Plenty of components from the first score would carry over - the two-note Batman theme and its bubbling string/synth pattern, Bruce’s theme, the drums, and Wesson’s bat wing sounds, with some cameos from the Bruce/Rachel theme and Bruce’s sad theme (i.e., the idea originally conceived of as the hero theme). But a lot of the focus of The Dark Knight would be on brand new stuff; Zimmer and Howard, to their credit, weren’t content to just regurgitate what had worked three years earlier (there is very little cut-and-paste from Batman Begins). Zimmer would initially focus on the Joker material, with Michael Levine and others creating a toolbox of sounds. “Long before we had footage, Hans asked Heitor (guitar), Martin (cello), and me (violin and tenor violin) to separately record some variations on a set of instructions involving 2 notes, C and D. It was John Cage meets Phil Glass. We each spent a week making hundreds of snippets. Then we had to listen to each other’s work and re-interpret that.”

Zimmer would give Nolan these fragments before Nolan started shooting. “Chris was going to Hong Kong to shoot a scene, so I bought him an iPod and I put this thing on there. And he very nicely listened and said it didn’t make him a better human being.” Nolan for his part would describe these demos as “9000 bars of complete insanity, unpleasant, a very unsettling set of sounds. But I felt he’d cracked it - the idea of the punk influence, which Heath had absorbed into the character, without it ever becoming too different from the rest of the music - and it was down to him to refine it into something that was practical to use in the film.”

Zimmer’s later conceptual suite for the Joker (slightly condensed on album as Why So Serious?) would seem, more than any other track in the Remote Control age, to realize music professor Frank Lehman’s assertion that Zimmer’s music was moving away from melody and toward abstraction. If the Batman in this cinematic vision only had a two-note theme, and this iteration of the Joker was practically an anarchist, then why even have a theme at all? “I was trying to get it down to the most minimal thing that could say exactly what I wanted to say. You hear a second of this thing and you know that the Joker is lurking somewhere.” The identity most people would associate with the Joker is a sustained soundscape that evoked the feeling of a razor blade being pulled over strings, but which was actually a mix of two notes in tension played by Martin Tillman’s cello as well the manipulated sound of a guitar being played by pieces of metal. “I wanted to do something very quiet so that you’d have to inevitably lean into the screen a bit - come hither, really listen to my words. I had this idea of this sound in my head and to get to it, it took months, trying to make it that simple and just finding people who could even play this thing because it was all about the attitude. People always think it's really easy, a cop out to use electronics. It's quite the opposite. You actually have to make the note from scratch!”

The Joker suite would include a number of other ideas that would make their way into the film. One was a repeated series of quick two-note strikes that would appear in moments of action or tension. It worked fine in the film, but it also felt a bit like a tired regurgitation of the “let’s hit the same note over and over” approach to villains that Zimmer & team often took in this decade (the Saxons, the kraken, etc.). Another idea would be a bouncing, higher-pitched series of four notes - this would usually appear in scenes involving the Joker’s ideology (I thought about calling it the Joker’s scheming motif but then remembered this Joker doesn’t like schemers). Another idea would be a high sustained note followed by a much lower sustained note which would function as a musical device for dread and also seemed to be an intellectual inversion of the first film’s Batman theme. A good portion of the suite would inform the film’s opening bank robbery, while some of the electric guitar material wouldn’t carry over to the movie at all - think those distorted crescendos and some of the edgier solos that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1990s Elliot Goldenthal action music (Michael Mann’s Heat again).

The tragic death of Heath Ledger prior to the release of the film would give Zimmer some pause about his approach. “It was so inconceivable. I for a moment was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I should throw out all the music I’ve written for the Joker and just start over again.’ Which is just exactly the wrong thing to do. And I mean, I can never find a better word for it but to honor his performance, I had to stick to my guns. The music has to portray the philosophy of anarchy that the Joker displays in the face of Batman’s valor. I couldn’t soften the music or compromise the evil he projects because Heath really did give such a tremendous performance. If I had been sentimental, it would really have not served him.”

The Joker elements certainly fit with Zimmer’s long-standing urge to “be very provocative. The Joker dirty is not the first thing that you'd think of when you think Hollywood blockbuster. I wanted to write something people could truly hate.” The material would end up being even more divisive than Zimmer’s two-note Batman theme from the first film. If you loved the soundscape of that movie and its fit with Nolan’s vision, or if you were usually down with Zimmer’s experiments, then hearing something this different was going to blow your mind. Zimmer’s comments on earlier works about doing something “crazy” or trying to “reinvent genres” hadn’t always matched up with the end result you’d hear on film, but here he’d actually pulled it off. But if you were a bit more of a genre traditionalist, and what you wanted from your scores of more of a superhero variety was a memorable villain theme instead of a uniquely tailored ambience, then Zimmer’s material (and his commentary on it) was probably going to infuriate you (in a “does this even count as music?” kind of way), even if you accepted that something like Danny Elfman’s circus-like theme for Jack Nicholson’s Joker from the 1989 film would’ve been completely out of place in this one.


The Joker elements would be the most recognizable parts of the score, but they weren’t the only new parts. Howard would be “singularly responsible for Harvey Dent and the arc of that character.” The Dent theme would evolve out of a secondary theme from the first film that was associated with Bruce’s heroism, and Howard’s conceptual suite would wrap the idea in richer Americana harmonies while also distilling it down to solo piano. For those who had felt a better Batman Begins score would’ve come from Howard’s efforts alone, they could point to this track and go “see…I told you”. As the Dent character descends into darker territory in the film, Howard would start surrounding the first few notes of the idea in dark, dissonant soundscapes (A Little Push, for example). The theme would be completely deconstructed by Howard in the climactic confrontation between Batman, Dent, and Commissioner Gordon (Watch The World Burn), though this grim funeral dirge would have distracting similarities with Zimmer’s Commodus material from Gladiator (it’s basically 80% that score’s Am I Not Merciful? and 20% the famed second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony).

Intriguingly, the representation of the Dent suite on the album (Harvey Two-Face) would close with a magnificent statement of a rarely used romantic-sounding theme from the first film (used early on when young Bruce arrives at Gotham, and also near the end of the film when Rachel muses about a day when Gotham no longer needs Batman). This would seem to suggest that the theme was envisioned as an “idealized Gotham” idea, and also that Howard may have intended to link the idea to Dent to double down on the film’s suggestion that this “white knight” was the leader the city needed. But this would be a variation only contained in the suite; the theme wouldn’t show up in the film.

Zimmer would also finally get the chance to write an actual Batman theme - and it would be surprisingly shrug-inducing, a series of three-note progressions and seemingly familiar chord shifts. Zimmer’s conceptual ideas would actually make up a good chunk of the commercial album - the sixteen-minute A Dark Knight, as well as Like A Dog Chasing Cars which would seem to have been an attempt to rework the first film’s Batmobile chase music to include this new idea. There were professed reasons for taking this approach. Zimmer and Howard both felt that the film’s style still didn’t support any kind of brazenly heroic fanfare or gothic overtones. Zimmer in particularly would have some ambivalence about Batman’s actions (crippling a mobster, hacking every phone in the city, and such) - “his behavior in the second movie is morally pretty questionable” - while Howard would state “we feel that it’s much stronger to say less, musically, about him and let his character sort of speak for himself.” It essentially doubled down on what the first film’s two-note theme had already accomplished - “there’s a commitment to what he's doing.” The rationale was acceptable, but the end result was still a bit frustrating - moderately active wallpaper Zimmer could’ve applied in another context. If the Joker material was meant to make you feel tense, and the Dent material was meant to make you feel inspired, then arguably the new Batman theme wasn’t meant to make you feel anything at all.


Howard: “Everything else in between we would just collaborate on to various degrees.”

Unlike the Batman Begins album, the original album for The Dark Knight seemed to cover all the highlights of the score. It also avoided having Latin names for bats as the track titles; maybe they just ran out of species. Nonetheless, in December 2008 Warner Bros. would put out a 2CD expanded “collector’s edition” of the score. This would seem to have been a way to satisfy fans who’d been asking for a more complete & chronological representation of the music, but instead it kept the original album as disc 1 and organized over 25 sections of unreleased score into 10 suites, alibet mostly in film order. In what should be no surprise to anyone at this point, it had over 20 minutes of remixes as well.

It was an infuriating product that essentially forced fans to double down on music they already had just to get around 45 minutes of additional score material - especially considering other superior expanded releases done around that time, namely the Complete Recordings releases of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores. Around a third of that music was quite similar to what fans had already heard - Bank Robbery would show how the Joker suite was reworked for the film’s opening scene, while parts of The Ferries and We Are Tonight’s Entertainment would carry over the grim idea from the second half of Zimmer’s Batman suite. And a good portion of the rest was rather dull as a standalone listen.


Lehman’s academic analysis of Zimmer’s evolving methodology (which I encourage everyone to read in full here - takes a fairly even-handed view of the The Dark Knight. “The flattening of dramatic tension is particularly acute. The action scenes from early, middle, and late stages in that film are barely differentiated in terms of musical score, and as a result have essentially the same degree of suspense. One could imagine in a different franchise that Batman’s murky material could plausibly have stood as an antagonist’s theme. Yet we should not discredit what appears to be a highly intentional aesthetic just because it does not align with earlier scoring practices. In this case, an immersive state of permanent portent manages to maintain a high level of tension without recourse to traditional tonal or thematic theology. Zimmer’s philosophy essentially equates minimalism with musical realism. [Stripped] away of anything too buoyant or lyrical, the decidedly non-heroic music results [in] a feeling of constant threat. It is the necessity of action against evil that rouses a Zimmer protagonist, not an innate benevolence. Sheer power and competency the music asks us to value, not warmth or humanity.”

While enjoying the music one heard in a film is usually a prerequisite to hearing it on an album, many score fans over the years have bought albums for films they’ve never seen, often because they usually like that composer’s output or because a friend recommended it. I’d venture that well over half of the works in my music collection actually fall into that category; in the case of Jerry Goldsmith specifically I have 136 of his scores but have seen maybe 15 of the associated films. But The Dark Knight would end up falling in the complete opposite category - it was music you could arguably only justify listening to if you liked how it functioned on film.

The Dent music was good. The Joker music was impressively audacious even if it was (by design) occasionally unlistenable. The Batman material still felt like a missed opportunity. Regardless, I can’t imagine the film without any of it.


Zimmer would later say (perhaps jokingly) that the razor blade element was inspired by the destructive relationship between the bass player from the band Sex Pistols and his girlfriend. “[It’s] Sid and Nancy.”

Fly Me to the Moon (2008) - **½
Ramin Djawadi; orchestrated by Stephen Coleman; conducted by Dirk Brossé; thank you to Hans Zimmer

RC discovery #48.

The first film by Belgian animation studio nWave Pictures, Fly Me to the Moon would cover the story of a bunch of flies who stow away on NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing mission. The movie would receive largely negative reviews from critics, but those wouldn’t stop the studio from making another seven feature films over the next dozen years. Along for the ride was composer Ramin Djawadi, not exactly a stranger to animation at this point after scoring Open Season a few years earlier.

Djawadi basically delivered a score that’s 75% Remote Control and 25% Apollo 13. Instead of a relentlessly boisterous energy that was somewhat the Dreamworks Animation music method at the time, this score seems more dominated by passages playing up the beauty and grandeur of space. A few moments of comedy are littered throughout, including a quote from Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube (famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and some luau sounds. Later action tracks seem to trend in the direction of Pirates of the Caribbean. It ends up being an adequate and undemanding listen, with the only real challenge being the resources Djawadi had at his disposal. The Dutch VRO (used in the 2000 Ghent concert, among other things) appears, but a good portion of the tracks still sound sampled - though keep in mind the film’s budget was miniscule compared to those of larger American releases. Smaller-scale moments lean into piano, woodwind solos, and even accordions; these fare batter on the ears.

The relationship would clearly be valuable for Djawadi. He’s scored most of the studio’s subsequent feature films.

Babylon A.D. (2008) - **½
Atli Örvarsson; synth programming by Clay Duncan; orchestrated by Bruce Fowler; conducted by Örvarsson & Andy Brown;
vocals Hilda Örvarsdóttir; electric cello Martin Tillman; tablas & percussion Satnam Ramgotra;
technical score engineer Jörg Hüttner; music consultant Hans Zimmer

RC discovery #49.

Babylon A.D. would continue a trend started by The Chronicles of Riddick where Vin Diesel would tend to make odd science fiction films when he wasn’t making Fast & Furious or xXx movies - with Riddick, The Last Witch Hunter, and Bloodshot coming after. Per the director, this one would have a more troubled production than any of the others. “Fox was sending lawyers who were only looking at commas and dots. The script wasn't respected. Parts of the movie are like a bad episode of 24.' Large chunks of the film would be excised by the studio, and the resulting work flopped when it was dumped into theaters in late summer.

The late-stage editing of the film seems to have impacted Atli Örvarsson’s score as well - there are two versions of Leaving the Monastery on the album, one of which is clearly labeled as the “Fox version”. The composer’s sensitive main theme incorporates agnus dei from the Latin requiem mass, though it pulls more from the mannerisms of James Newton Howard than anything in the Remote Control lineage (namely the piano usage, which seems to call back to Howard’s work on M. Night Shyamalan films like Lady in the Water). There are copious amounts of vocals throughout - both of the ensemble variety and solos that call to mind The Da Vinci Code and the “back from the dead” theme from At World’s End.

But the main theme doesn’t evolve very much over the life of the nearly hour-long album, and most of the rest of the material is stuff you’ve heard before in a bunch of other films - the churning low string rhythms that were a Remote Control staple at this point, several tracks that are largely ambient soundscapes, Martin Tillman’s electric cello tones, and so on. Expect to grab a few tracks that are guilty pleasures (at least the theme suite and Babylon Requiem) and ignore the rest. The album didn’t include any of the nine tracks done by System of a Down bass player Shavo Odadjian and the rapper known as the RZA, though Zimmer would actually comment on those efforts. “Our objective was to merge the sounds and energies of hip hop with classical music, seamlessly melting them into an unusual soundscape.”

Body of Lies (2008) - ***
Marc Streitenfeld; orchestrated by B&W Fowler/Moriarty & Rick Giovinazzo; conducted by
Mike Nowak & Pete Anthony; ethnic woodwinds by Pedro Eustache; thank you to Hans Zimmer

RC discovery #50.

“It’s not that I get so many direct requests in what [Ridley] envisions. It’s more an exchange. He gives me some ideas he has about it. The Middle East, you can’t ignore that. It’s a trickier thing if you incorporate local music to your score, you don’t want to use clichés for that either. You want to be respectful to a culture. So some of the instrumentation, some of the scales I used indicates that. But I think the music never tries to be an authentic Middle Eastern type. That movie alone is set in 4 or 5 different countries in the Middle East – if you really listen to the music from those countries, they are all different.”

This adaptation by Ridley Scott of a Middle East spy novel by reporter David Ignatius came and went without much fanfare. Critics found it competent but unexceptional (and saddled with an unnecessary love story), though audiences showed up a bit more than they had for other “war on terror” movies made in the aughts. It does feature one excellent element: then-unknown actor Mark Strong in a magnetic supporting role as the suave head of Jordanian intelligence, though today the casting of a white Englishman in that role may have seemed problematic. Former Zimmer assistant Marc Streitenfeld had scored Ridley Scott’s last two films (A Good Year and American Gangster). Like those scores, this one is a work that is far more defined by its instrumental palette than any kind of memorable themes - and, as with Gangster, it came with a film that was largely a talk-fest that necessitated more subdued music. The composer would assemble a host of Middle Eastern percussion and solo instruments including various woodwinds, the dulcimer-like santur, and several plucked string instruments (the oud, the saz, and the tambur, the latter two actually played by the composer himself). If you were tired of music for political thrillers that didn’t have distinctive themes, or if you yearned for the insane creativity that someone like Harry Gregson-Williams might’ve brought to the assignment, then the resulting score was probably a minor disappointment. But others (like me) appreciated the textural elements that made up the largely-soothing 45-minute album release.


Next time: “The score was brilliant. I thought it must be Thomas Newman - I knew him and John Williams and no one else.”

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