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Zimmer, team, alums Pt 6 - RC 2008-10: Supes, Sequels, and Sherlock, oh my! (6f)
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Friday, July 15, 2022, at 5:31 a.m.
• IP Address:

This is part of a series. The fifth part of the 2008-10 set is here:


Sherlock Holmes (2009) - ****
Hans Zimmer; add’l music by Lorne Balfe; orchestrated by B&W Fowler/Moriarty & Kevin Kaska; conducted by Gavin Greenaway;
featured soloists Aleksey Igudesman, Atli Örvarsson, Ann Marie Calhoun, Davey Johnstone, Noah Sorota, Tina Guo & Diego Stocco;
technical assistant Jacob Shea; thank you to Ryeland Allison, Jim Dooley, Ramin Djawadi, David Fleming, Steve Jablonsky,
Henry Jackman; Trevor Morris, James S. Levine, Michael Levine, Henning Lohner, Martin Tillman & Geoff Zanelli

“Movies are different now. Rain Man had 30 minutes of music. Sherlock’s probably got two hours of music. It is what it is.”

Coming a year after Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, this action blockbuster take on the famous private eye cemented the remarkable career turnaround of actor Robert Downey Jr., and also reset the career of British director Guy Ritchie after a stretch of middling-to-poor films. Ritchie’s earlier movies had tended to be more reliant on needle-dropped pop songs than original scores, but obviously that wouldn’t do for this movie. Instead, Hans Zimmer was pulled in - and a little later than he would’ve liked. “Guy called. ‘My editors have slapped Dark Knight all over my movie, and I don’t like it!’ Dark Knight was as good as I could do on Dark Knight. I feel loyalty to Chris Nolan. That’s his. It shouldn’t get appropriated to anything else. I’m usually there before they start shooting, and I’ve had all those conversations. I had a little catching up to do. It didn’t make any difference; I just had less time to procrastinate. But I didn’t procrastinate! I didn’t have a day off until the Sunday after Thanksgiving.” Zimmer and team (namely Lorne Balfe, who contributed to a bunch of tracks) would produce something that somewhat mirrored the rhythmic energy and darkness of Zimmer’s Batman music as well as the comic silliness of the Jack Sparrow music from the Pirates franchise but would otherwise be wildly different from the temp track.

“The Dark Knight is a very minimalistic score. Everything just sticks to one note and hangs around that one note and does very little. It doesn’t have a lot of chords. It doesn’t have a lot of harmonic movement in it and it doesn’t have a lot of tunes in it. So after The Dark Knight there were so many other scores out there that sort of employ the idea of an ostinato – which is just a bunch of repeating notes around one pitch. When Sherlock came along, I tried to figure out how to have lots of chords and lots of harmonic movement again and how to put tunes in it and still make it a modern score. We never talked about songs. But my themes are in a song structure, I come from rock n’ roll, I always think about verse & chorus, you always have to have a decent hook.”

Whereas earlier blockbusters in the RC era had seen Zimmer smuggling his love of Morricone into a few tracks (parts of The Holiday, the Parlay track from At World’s End, and so on), here we had a score that was more like a Morricone work with some of Zimmer’s portentous dramatic tendencies smuggled in - namely with its extremely quirky theme and equally quirky instrumentation that seemed a deliberate callback to the Italian maestro’s noticeable compositions for Westerns and crime movies. “What I was struggling with - I knew what I wanted it to sound like, the general quirkiness, I just didn’t have the notes. And at the end of the day I have this pathetically simple tune, and I wonder why it took so long. I was getting rid of the notes that were in the way.” Zimmer would claim he was doing “far more homage to the Threepenny Opera” than Morricone (“I think the Ennio reference has more to do with the orchestration”), basically trying to emulate the racket he remembered from his days living around London pubs (“I know what that feels like, and I know what that sounds like”) in response to the grubby aesthetic of the film and Downey’s performance. Zimmer would make a lot of comments about trying to score Holmes’ intellect that wouldn’t be too far from what he said about trying to make “watching a man think be as interesting as a car chase” for The Da Vinci Code.

The resulting sound was certainly distinctive, possibly to a fault for some listeners who were expecting a more “normal”-sounding score, yet fascinating for those who wanted something sonically different for a visually different take on the master detective - banjo, Hungarian cimbalom, hammers hitting an old piano on its side, abrasive cello strikes, an upright bass used as a percussion instrument, and so on. It fit with what the director wanted - “he did like singular things as opposed to a mush of instruments - one violin, one cimbalom, one banjo” - and it was also dang catchy. Whereas Zimmer’s comments earlier in the year about Modern Warfare 2 had been a bit overhyped, here his statements about fusing gypsy music, The Pogues, Kurt Weill, and Bertolt Brecht were rather on point. One could wish that the secondary ideas in this score were a little more fleshed out, or that some of the music in the climax didn’t get so abrasively heavy (with low brass blasts that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the next year’s Inception), or that Zimmer hadn’t underplayed the sort-of love story between Holmes and Irene Adler, but it was hard to argue with the score’s overall effectiveness - and Zimmer at least deserved bonus points for using a dark, slowed down version of Westminster Quarters melody as the villain’s theme and frequently weaving it into the race-against-the-clock action finale.

“We didn’t ruin it. We were brave and bold and we had fun.”

Parts of Zimmer’s output here came pretty close to the “jam band” format that he had made extensive use of earlier in the decade. “I was thinking about my friends who could play this music. Get a collection of soloists, find people I’d worked with or just knew by reputation - and leave the idea of the orchestra off the table for the longest time. Approach it from a virtuosic point of view - that’s how Holmes’ brain works. We always assumed he would play nice tidy classical music. I didn’t want to go over the Elgar or Vaughan Williams ground. It’s not about anthropology or historical correctness. This was basically getting great virtuoso musicians and telling them, ‘Put your violin down. Now pick it up again and think it’s a fiddle.’ Davey Johnstone played banjo - he’s been part of Elton John’s band forever, doesn’t get to play it much there, but I knew secretly he has a great love of Irish music.”

One of those players would be cellist Tina Guo (a USC Thornton Music School graduate, just like Jim Dooley), a common contributor these days but a fresh face in Zimmer’s crew at this time after coming to his attention thanks to her industrial take on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee that appeared on YouTube earlier in the year. “I'd heard his music in movies, but I didn't know who he was. My goal at the time was to do metal festivals. My focus was not on working in soundtrack music. [But] it’s genreless. On-screen, there is no limit with what type of music you have to do. I love the fact that he allows everyone that he works with to truly be themselves. There's a lot of freedom and creativity.

Before we recorded any of the music, Hans and Guy and the other composers and soloists sat and watched some of the scenes. Everything was very planned out. We didn’t want to use electric cello because it wouldn’t fit with the era - so we kept everything more acoustic, but it was more aggressive “classical” cello-ing. Probably the most common phrase he used with me was ‘give it more Tina’ because a lot of the scenes I played were action scenes.”

Zimmer on the track titles: “They were the only ones that would work. There are better ones but they’re far too long. Someone said you can’t make your titles two paragraphs long! I think I Never Woke Up In Handcuffs Before goes down real well with the family.”

Clash of the Titans (2010) - **½
Ramin Djawadi; add’l music by Neil Davidge, Geoff Zanelli, Dominic Lewis, Noah Sorota & Bobby Tahouri; orchestrated by
Stephen Coleman & Matt Dunkley; conducted by Gavin Greenaway; technical score advisor Bryce Jacobs; ‘The Storm That Brought
Me To You’ by Djawadi, Davidge & Tina Dico; thank you’s to Trevor Morris & Hans Zimmer; ‘Io’s theme’ by Craig Armstrong

“I’ve done stuff with Hans, where I worked on Pirates or other movies where there was no time. So I was used to that fire drill type thing. Knowing that, ‘Okay, the big action scene at the end of the picture will probably be changed here, and we probably should focus more on this reel right now’...just to stay organized so that you don’t waste your time. On Iron Man I had a similar scenario, even though I was on the project much earlier on. The reels just kept changing, and certain scenes you can’t really start scoring because everything is CG.”

This remake of the 1981 fantasy film of the same name would be one of the first films to have its studio demand an expedited postproduction conversion to 3D in the wake of the rampant success of Avatar. Despite the 3D looking terrible, poor reviews, and some dialogue that became self-parody upon arrival (namely “release the Kraken”), the film would see enough financial success to justify a sequel. Last-minute tinkering would also extend to the film’s music. Muse frontman Matt Bellamy was originally attached to the movie as a collaborator with composer Craig Armstrong, but when Bellamy had to step away for his tour his spot was taken over by Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge. The work by Armstrong/Davidge would be jettisoned about two months before the film’s release date, with Ramin Djawadi and four other Remote Control veterans coming in to write and record around 90 minutes of music in under a month. Geoff Zanelli would describe it as similar to the group effort on Pirates of the Caribbean. “Anytime I needed another set of ears I’d pull someone in, or I’d play a rough sketch for someone, or we’d run ideas by each other.” Davidge would stick around. Weirdly, one of Armstrong’s themes would end up in the end credits.

The 1981 film had received a robust orchestral fantasy score by Laurence Rosenthal, something the filmmakers didn’t want Djawadi to emulate for this iteration. “There was always the fine line. ‘We know you did Iron Man, but we don’t want guitars. We want something different. But it still has to be modern, even though this is ancient mythology.’ I would record with the orchestra, but then also take several solo celli and set them on top of it, so that the recording would get a bit more aggressive. It’s all done with traditional instruments or percussion (taikos and timpani and metallic sounding percussion). In some of the action cues, I added a little bit of electronics, but it really fits in well with the organic percussion.”

Given time constraints, there was little choice but to have a fairly familiar composition, and what we got was basically the fantasy movie equivalent of Zanelli’s replacement score for 2007’s Hitman that was derivative of various MV / RC mannerisms and the Bourne franchise. Film score critics didn’t outright slam the work (they were certainly much kinder to it than they were to Djawadi’s Iron Man), but coming a few years after Transformers there was a mounting sense of fatigue. “Oh, great, another movie genre now has filmmakers that want their composers to double down on this sound palette.” Today, the score plays like an embryonic version of the epic style Djawadi would refine in later works like Pacific Rim, Warcraft, The Great Wall, and Eternals, never mind the big TV show he would start working on the next year - the reliance on cellos, the very direct nature of the composition, the rock-adjacent rhythmic energy that’s a bit above basic chugga-chugga alternating two-note patterns, and so on. Djawadi’s heroic themes were adequate, and even kind of fun at times. It was leagues beyond the cheap-sounding sampled action tracks from his Prison Break music. And, gosh, it wasn’t as derivative as it could’ve been - this isn’t some bass-heavy clone of the Media Ventures “house style” from the early aughts, or even a King Arthur rip-off like plenty of other scores were in this era.

A good portion of the score dwells in mundane atmosphere or functional dramatic stretches. And it’s a pity the vocal creativity in Djawadi’s Medusa suite (where opera singers were scattered throughout the recording hall so that “the voice is kind of calling from her everywhere”) didn’t carry over to the rest of the score. But the 10 minutes of Djawadi’s suites and 50 minutes of score compositions on the album still made for an adequate listening experience, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find something like Scorpiox to be a head-banging guilty pleasure.

The album would also feature 15 minutes of music that Davidge contributed to. The 10-minute Be My Weapon would be a wild bit of electronica (not too dissimilar from portions of Davidge’s later work for the video game Halo 4), while The Storm That Brought Me To You would be a song arrangement of Djawadi’s original opening. Neither track would be part of the movie (“in the film, Be My Weapon is more orchestra-based to make it fit and not go too modern”), but the team thought they would be fun to have on the album - though the choice to put the abrasive longer track two-thirds of the way through the album has to rank as one of the more bizarre sequencing decisions of all time. The music is so ill-suited to the concept and so at odds with the surrounding material that it docks a half-star from my rating.

Satnam Ramgotra, who had been drumming with Zimmer & team since Black Hawk Down, got to have a more active role on this score. “The first project working with Hans was through the recommendation of cellist Martin Tillman, who is a dear friend of mine. Hans wanted someone to vocalize percussion sounds and what-not. I was playing drum set on a gig for about eight years touring with Nikka Costa (the daughter of Frank Sinatra’s arranger), but once I started with Hans I [got] more calls to do sessions. There would be music but no notes on it, just bars and a clean slate. It’s total creative freedom. Drummers and musicians often think they don’t write, [but[ the minute you play a solo you are in fact composing. Eventually people would come to me and say ‘I have this cue and it’s really percussion driven, why don’t you just do the cue’” [For a track I wrote on Clash] Ramin and the music supervisor loved it, they thought it was perfect for the whole scene, they didn’t need to change it so it ended up going into the film and I got my first additional music writing credit and it gave me the confidence to want to get into it more.”

Green Zone (2010) - ***½
John Powell; add’l arranging, MIDI orchestration & programming by James McKee Smith, Paul Mounsey &
Michael Mollo; orchestrated by John Ashton Thomas, Daniel Baker, Laura Bishop, Angus O'Sullivan & Jessica Wells;
conducted by Gavin Greenaway; score production coordinator Germaine Franco; sound programmer Beth Caucci

Despite the reteaming of Bourne star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, the Iraq War investigative thriller Green Zone was a non-event when it was released in spring 2010, serving mainly as another example of War on Terror-themed movies not doing well as the U.S. box office. John Powell’s score (his fourth for a Greengrass film) was very much an extension in rhythm and percussive volleys - even more so than his Bourne music had been. There are no humanizing themes. Heck, there aren’t really any major recurring melodic ideas at all; only a grim, descending motif seems to recur regularly. It’s almost as if Powell was asked to take Goa Chase from The Bourne Supremacy and build an entire score around a more aggressive version of that track (hey, at least the Middle Eastern musical scales made more sense this time). But even if it wasn’t the most memorable score thematically, its layered soundscape and propulsive ruckus was still rather impressive at times. Special commendation was due for the climactic Attack and Chase, one of the decade’s most exciting pieces of film music.

Powell and Greengrass wouldn’t work together after this - mainly because Powell felt increasingly constrained writing music for action films. But one has to wonder if there was some truth to the rumors that this score had to be rewritten a bunch to satisfy Greengrass, given the rewrite-palooza that would be the composing process on the director’s next movie.

The Pacific (2010) - ***½
Hans Zimmer, Blake Neely & Geoff Zanelli; orchestrated by Neely, B & W Fowler/Moriarty, Liz Finch,
Rick Giovinazzo, Kevin Kaska & Carl Rydlund; conducted by Neely; add’l programming Noah Sorota

Neely: “When we started this, we all suspected [Hans] was going to write some themes and we were going to [score it]. We’ve done this before. But once we got into it, we were all writing themes.”

Nine years after producing the acclaimed World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would oversee a follow-up show (possibly the most expensive thing ever put on television at the time) covering the stories of Marines fighting in the Pacific theater. Band of Brothers composer Michael Kamen had passed away several years earlier, and Spielberg would initially turn to Hans Zimmer for this show’s music. Zimmer would bring in former assistant Blake Neely who had actually been an orchestrator on Band of Brothers, as well as Geoff Zanelli who had prior Spielberg experience with Into the West.

The trio spent several months coming up with ideas before even writing to picture. At one point they thought they would alternate episodes, and at another point they thought they would divide up the characters. With Zimmer being busy on Angels & Demons during much of the actual episodic scoring, the resulting approach was that Neely and Zanelli split up storylines and character arcs, meaning two episodes centered on one character would be scored by Neely, another two would be taken by Zanelli, and the rest “we just split up.” Per Zanelli, “Blake conducted every note of the score, and I was in the booth during the recording of every note of the score. So you had all four of our ears always focused on what was going on. And Hans was there for a great deal of it, too. So even as late as while we were recording things, Hans and I’d come in and go, ‘Hey, what if it was just a solo cello here?’ Or Blake might have an idea on one of my cues, and vice versa.” Executive producer Gary Goetzman would actually be the one who suggested one of Neely’s pieces be converted to the main title theme and another of Zanelli’s be used for end titles.

Neely: “I find that Kamen sneaks out of me a lot anyway, his influences. But we were very careful. I remember even one meeting where it was like, ‘Uh, that sounds a little Band of Brothers-ish...let’s steer clear from that.’ I tried to take some of the things that he had talked about while we were doing Band of Brothers—you know, how you approach war scenes musically or not approach it, where to use thematic material, that kind of stuff. But we really tried to make our own thing with The Pacific.”

In total, the gang would record six to seven hours of music for the series, with four of those ending up in the show. Neely and Zanelli would further whittle that down into a 72-minute album which would be largely tonal, sensitive, and slow-moving, hinting at Americana at times without tipping over into over-the-top patriotism (not dissimilar from Kamen’s approach, funny enough). It was also impressively consistent; there were few moments one could point to and say “well, this is obviously a Neely bit” or “duh, Geoff wrote this”, save for some brooding Iwo Jima material which was transparently of Zimmer’s making (Neely would adapt part of Hans’ lengthy suite into the film). Hints of the more contemplative parts of The Thin Red Line would peek through every so often. On the whole it was a fairly understated work that (at least on album) kept a fairly sustained mood without having a lot of tracks that really called attention to themselves.

The Tudors Season 4 (2010) - ***
Trevor Morris; technical score advisor Steven Davis

RC discovery #66.

Armed with more live instruments (vs the sampled tones of earlier seasons’ music), Morris would dabble in a variety of forms - chamber music, passacaglia, more modern repeated string rhythms, etc. - that made for a consistently likable standalone listen. The final season’s score wouldn’t have the striking highlights of the music from Season 3 - obviously the Jane Seymour theme didn’t belong anymore, but it was disappointing that the choir seemed a more muted presence this go-round. However, the final four tracks on the album were gorgeous and should have a place on any highlights playlist of Morris’ work for the series.

The Pillars of the Earth (2010) - ***
Trevor Morris; various uncredited add’l music composers and orchestrators

“Years ago [there] used to be movies on the big screen and TV on the small screen; but now it’s the same screen, [it] doesn’t matter if you’re watching Emerald City or Transformers. So my decision is just to write music for good stories; to be honest I think that [the] best stories are told on television now.”

RC discovery #67.

Airing only a month after Showtime’s The Tudors concluded, the network’s eight episode miniseries adaptation of Ken Follett’s cathedral construction novel (boasting a solid cast including Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Hayley Atwell, and Donald Sutherland) debuted to solid critical praise. For Trevor Morris it required a ton of work. “If you took a normal schedule for a composer to work on one 2-hour movie of similar subject matter, I had just a little more time than that to do all of Pillars, which is more or less the equivalent of FOUR feature films.” The music was largely in the same sonic universe as the composer’s music in later seasons of The Tudors, though with a greater sense of dramatic urgency and scale in parts (sometimes in very stereotypically RC ways), plus some occasional ethnic flute strikes and wood block percussion usage (very James Horner-like). If you liked Morris’ earlier output for the network, you’ll probably like this too. The album would cover over an hour of highlights from the series as well as 13-plus minutes of Morris’ original theme demos.


Next time: “You know you can write a pretty shitty score for an Oscar film.”

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