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Zimmer, team, alums Pt 6 - RC 2008-10: Supes, Sequels, and Sherlock, oh my! (6h) [EDITED]
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Saturday, August 6, 2022, at 6:07 a.m.
• IP Address: 155.201.38.39
Message Edited: Saturday, August 6, 2022, at 4:40 p.m.

This is part of a series. The seventh part of the 2008-10 set is here: https://www.filmtracks.com/scoreboard/forum.cgi?read=112368

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Inception (2010) - ****½
Hans Zimmer; add’l music Lorne Balfe; ambient music design Mel Wesson; synth programming
Zimmer & Howard Scarr; orchestrated by B&W Fowler/Moriarty, Liz Finch, Rick Giovinazzo, Kevin Kaska,
Ed Neumeister & Carl Rydlund; guitar Johnny Marr; sequencer programming Nick Delaplane, Andrew Kawczynski
& Jacob Shea; conducted by Matt Dunkley; music score consultant Gavin Greenaway; thank you to Satnam Ramgotra

“The low brass thing was written in the script. And then everybody absconded with that and it became a trailer device.”

Director Christopher Nolan continued to cement his reputation as the guy making “thinking man’s blockbusters”, arguably outdoing himself with a twisty, high-concept action movie about a crew that steals information from people’s dreams trying to plant an idea in an executive’s head, all while its leader is reconciling with the memories of his dead wife. The film would blend in dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams, astonishing practical and visual effects (including those used for a fight in a rotating hotel hallway), and Nolan’s penchant for exploring variances in the passage of time. Armed with an all-star cast, the film would do exceptionally well at the summer box office, blow the minds of many audience members, and capture significant awards attention. It remains one of Nolan’s most acclaimed films - and also still a favorite of mine (held up well in a June rewatch).

“The times I got lost or wrote myself into a corner, I can call Chris and go ‘I’m having a meltdown here, help!’ and he helps me think the thing through. I completely see him as part of my collaborative team - Lorne, Mel, the sound designer - that’s the band!”

Nolan had used the services of his former roommate David Julyan on his three prior movies outside of the Batman universe, but for this work he would pivot to using the services of Hans Zimmer full time. Unlike the earlier Nolan/Zimmer collaborations, this one had a lot of musical stuff going on before Zimmer even started writing. The first came from the script. Nolan had conceived of the famed Edith Piaf song Non, je ne regrette rien as being diegetic music in the film, even to the point of having its syncopated brass rhythm slowed down to represent the different passage of time in dreams. Zimmer would later describe the da-da da-da ask “like huge foghorns over a city, and afterward you would maybe figure out that they were related [to the song].” Zimmer would actually go hunt down the original master tapes for the Piaf track from the French national archives and work with someone to extract the original audio so it could be incorporated into his musical experiments. Later, once he had nailed down the right sound he wanted, Zimmer would get an enormous brass section (“six bass trombones, six tenor trombones, four tubas in the middle, six french horns”) to play it, then manipulate the sound further. The end result, giant walls of bellowing sound hitting the same two notes over and over at varying tempos, was certainly a familiar part of Zimmer’s methodology, but it was hard to argue with the distinctive sound he’d created, or with the astounding effectiveness it would have in the film.

It’s worth noting that a slowed down, darker version of a familiar melody had also been an element of Sherlock Holmes which Zimmer had worked on right before this movie. It wouldn’t be the first time this kind of possible stylistic overlap had occurred in his career (think Irish jigs being credited on Spirit and Pirates of the Caribbean). But it could have just been a coincidence.

The second scoring element that predated ZImmer’s participation was the advertising campaign. The film’s first teaser trailer would feature what people would later refer to as the “Inception foghorn”, or more simply the BWAM sound. Trailer music composer Mike Zarin would say he was trying to represent waking up from a dream and seeing something very suddenly appear, and he and trailer music editor Dave Rosenthal would rework the specific sound over several weeks. A second teaser trailer with music by Zimmer’s team and a later full trailer with Zack Hemsey’s Mind Heist track would leverage Zarin’s relentlessly pulsing sound, and a few moments in the score would seem to take inspiration from it as well. Zarin would later express some frustration that it seemed Zimmer had made little effort to credit others for the BWAM sound, though perhaps fittingly Zimmer would express some minor frustration years later that the booming sound the movie was known for seemed to have been copied in darn near every movie trailer since (similar to his comments about his mid-90s action movie sound becoming oft-imitated).

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The actual score itself would have a lot more flavor than just its most famously bellicose elements. Zimmer would write almost 25 minutes of suites, with many connected to concepts rather than individual characters. All of the ideas would be adapted into the score in some way, though interestingly around half of the original album’s runtime would include the suites in their original formats. Several simplistic but cool-sounding action ideas would appear in the energetic Mombasa suite and factor into both the film’s chase in that location as well as later scenes. A kind of planning rhythm would appear on the album in One Simple Idea. A descending idea surrounded by bass-heavy portentous sounds (the F Riff Suite, labeled on album as Dream is Collapsing) would appear in moments of action or chaos and inform a lot of the film’s later action scenes. Another idea was just branded as Tragic Strings (We Built Our Own World on the commercial album).

Two major ideas would come to dominate the picture. Zimmer’s rueful, wispy idea for the main character’s memories of his dead wife, infused with a sense of noir and nostalgia, would be somewhat of a throwback to the composer’s keyboard-dominated ideas of the earlier parts of his solo career. “To figure out how to make an emotional love story work without the language of a love theme as we know from the Golden Age of cinema and appropriations of late 19th century music. All good science fiction only uses the idea of science fiction as a jumping off point, they’re really about now and there’s another layer that’s hugely nostalgic.” And the main theme, a slow series of rising two note patterns at different intervals most famously represented in the conclusive track Time, would either being yet another example of Zimmer doing something profound or Zimmer doing less with less, depending on how you felt about the composer’s bias for minimalist recurring ideas. The approach would somewhat mirror how Zimmer has treated his protagonist in The Dark Knight, given that Leo’s mind-heisting criminal is morally questionable too.

Much was made at the time of how lots of music, even beyond the suites, wasn’t written to picture. “Chris and I had endless meetings, talking about ideas, concepts. I saw all the designs. And then the day he started editing he wouldn’t let me see a single frame. He just wanted my imagination to run loose and run riot. Every time we hit a cut it felt wrong. That wasn’t the language we were using. I never really scored The Thin Red Line to picture either.”

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I’ll be frank: I was a tad indifferent to the music of Inception when it was released. I recognized the overwhelming power it added to its film, but it still seemed like an extension of Zimmer’s sound design-adjacent music for The Dark Knight, less a revolution of what he’d done before than an evolution. It lacked the orchestral density of other scores I liked more at the time. Its themes weren’t catchy. And years later I would somewhat resent the score for the influence it seemed to have on subsequent action and science fiction movie scoring, with seemingly every other producer or director wanting to BWAM their movie into oblivion.

I did NOT have those reactions this go-round. The last one’s easy; why punish this score for its less effective imitators when I’m not doing that for Crimson Tide or Gladiator? But the other concerns seeming to disappear required more thinking on my part (“why don’t I care about those things anymore?”), and I think I can boil it down to four elements.

First - the score undoubtedly gives the proceedings more importance. The stakes in the film (corporate espionage and a guy’s memories of his dead wife) were low compared to, say, the fate of Gotham, but Zimmer’s portentous music really heightens the drama of the film’s second half, including the snowbound dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, to the point that they feel equivalent. The BWAMs, gargantuan brass, and ascending low string figures are unsubtle for sure, but they all add a genuinely gripping intensity and uncertainty to the story.

Second - Zimmer seemed to understand he wasn’t just doing high-concept science fiction. The movie was also a heist film, and heist movies should sound cool! BWAMS and mysterious keyboards weren’t enough. “Early on I was thinking I’d love to have one other color. I thought guitar, but there’s a hideous thing that [can happen] when you have guitar and orchestra. I wrote this tune and then thought exactly who I wanted.” Johnny Marr, perhaps best known as the guitarist of the 80s English rock band The Smiths, was brought in, and his contributions (decidedly removed from the famed guitar material Zimmer had written for Pete Haycock in the 1990s) lend a distinctive, almost retro flavor to what otherwise might’ve been more typical Zimmer Sturm und Drang.

Third - I care a lot less if something is “fully orchestral” these days. This score is chock-full of sonic manipulation, even beyond the interpretations of the Piaf song. “What worked really well was to turn even more into electronics. We took things that were created completely electronically, these ambiences, these atmospheres - and put them in front of the orchestra to imitate, synthesize electronic sounds.” There is rarely a moment that any portion of an orchestra appears that isn’t backed by electronic embellishments or manipulated to sound slightly different, never mind the actual moments that are purely driven by electric guitar and synthesizer (some ticking Dark Knight-style electronics even reappear). But…so what? That’s not to say I like the works of more symphonic practitioners like John Williams or James Horner any less than I used to, but not every movie needs a concert hall ambience or woodwind section or strings racing through sixteenth note passages.

Last - Are obvious long-lined melodies nice? Usually, but they’d probably stick out like a sore thumb in a Nolan movie. Recurring musical devices can also derive their power from repetition, gradually building intensity, and “bigness” - and it’s hard to argue a piece like Time is any less than astonishingly effective (even if the chopping strings that emerge midway through are a clear 90s Media Ventures holdover). Was it similar to how Zimmer had ended The Da Vinci Code with Chevaliers de Sangreal? Absolutely. But it still worked like gangbusters.

In short, it’s not for everyone - especially more “traditionalist” score fans - but I’m willing to say I finally find the music to be a great work both in context and on its album.

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Large musical suites and ideas practically written “on concept” and later adapted to picture. Sonic universes that blended acoustic instruments with electronics and sound design to the point that the boundaries were almost indistinguishable. Ambiguous thematic ideas that don’t suggest obvious heroism. Healthy doses of low strings and low brass. Intentionally omitting certain sections of the orchestra. A prominent instrumental contributor. If you had to pick one score that best represented Zimmer’s methodology and style in this era, Inception would probably be it, even if you weren’t a huge fan of it.

“The more resistance I get from purists, the more I know that I’m on the right path. Certain academic fanboys don’t realize that I spent just as long studying and learning about [electronics] as other composers studying and learning about orchestra. We live in a modern age. Music needs to metamorph into all sorts of new areas all the time. You might like it, you might not like it - that’s my aesthetic. In fact, it’s sort of Chris’ and mine because we seem to be working well together.”

For what it’s worth, Zimmer would claim he was trying to channel the spirit of German rock bands Kraftwerk and Neu! and Faust. I won’t do any of you the disservice of pretending I have any idea whether he pulled that off.

Sadly, Zimmer’s mother would pass away as the film was being made.

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The Academy Awards that aired the following February in theory featured a showdown between this work and Zimmer’s former team member’s masterpiece How To Train Your Dragon, but neither could stand in the way of the ambient material that Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had written for The Social Network winning the award for Best Original Score. If you’re a score fan, or if you have the good fortune to have a friend who is one, you may be familiar with the barely contained rage that the aforementioned three-word movie title seems to conjure up.


Medal of Honor (2010) - **½
Ramin Djawadi; add’l music Bryce Jacobs & Dominic Lewis; ambient music design Rob Simon;
orchestrated & conducted by Stephen Coleman; thank you to Hans Zimmer

“It is like a Hollywood action movie score on steroids.”

Given the runaway success of Activision’s Call of Duty franchise after it had pivoted its setting to modern times in 2007, it was perhaps only a matter of time before EA shifted its Medal of Honor series out of World War II as well, especially given the mixed reception its trio of games had received in the same year. Its 2010 entry would thus jump ahead to simulate present-day conflicts in Afghanistan. As with the music of Call of Duty before Modern Warfare, the music of this franchise had generally been throwback jams, with Michael Giacchino and Christopher Lennertz both delivering thematic orchestral works that occasionally suggested John Williams’ 80s adventure music. But, like nearly every other combat video game series at this point, the producers decided a push towards “realism” meant going with the Zimmer crowd. Funny enough, the music supervisor at EA ran into composer Ramin Djawadi at a party, which led to him getting the job.

“I collect ethnic instruments, so some [of the] instruments [that] would be appropriate for the location were already in my arsenal. Also, my father is Iranian, so I spoke a lot to him about Middle Eastern instruments.”

Some of the more somber stretches were quite attractive. Djawadi would compose a stirring dramatic theme for the heroes, albeit one grounded in familiar chord progressions. And you could hear rhythmic trademarks that had appeared in Iron Man and Clash of the Titans evolve a bit more, suggesting that Djawadi was starting to develop a style apart from both Zimmer and his own earlier sound design scores. Yet even with those positives a lot of the score ended up feeling like a Middle Eastern spin on Black Hawk Down, complete with expected harder-edged rock sounds, occasional folk music inflections, and moments of hazy ambience. More forgiving score fans will probably find the music an acceptable way to pass the time, while others will likely find it fatiguing to hear this sound resurrected yet again. My resulting rating is somewhere between those poles.

Djawadi ended up writing 100 minutes of music, an hour of which ended up on a digital album as well as on a limited edition CD issued by La-La Land Records as part of a box set of the music of the franchise (along with 18 minutes of less essential bonus tracks). The composer would return to provide the music for the series’ Warfighter game released two years later (with some contributions from the lead singer of the band Linkin Park), but that game would receive poor reviews and EA wouldn’t put out a new Medal of Honor game for another eight years.

It would be a surprisingly consequential score though. Djawadi would claim it (along with Clash of Titans) got him on Game of Thrones as the showrunners liked his main theme, integration of regional instruments, and percussive action tracks.


Secretariat (2010) - ***
Nick Glennie-Smith; orchestrations by Benoit Groulx; conducted by NGS;
songs by NGS and Randall Wallace; featured cello Steve Erdody

This dramatic telling of the titular horse’s 1973 races by director Randall Wallace got decent reviews and did moderately well at the box office, though a weird review of it in Slate seemed to make more of a dent in pop culture than the actual movie did. Longtime Zimmer team member Nick Glennie-Smith had essentially stepped away from composing and orchestrating at this point in his career to focus on conducting (“I love conducting”) - EXCEPT in cases where Wallace was directing; the two had collaborated previously on The Man in the Iron Mask and We Were Soldiers. The score would never be officially released, a shame given that the music was decent and a minor surprise since the film was reasonably successful. Two suites totaling 25 minutes would start floating around the internet, and the full score would eventually leak out as a bootleg. The suites program I’ve heard presents a largely sensitive dramatic work. Some woodwind-heavy Americana suggests what Thomas Newman might’ve done if this movie came out in the 1990s, while other passages where piano and electric bass provide momentum suggest what Newman might’ve done if he was attached to it in 2010. More race-based music would largely feature slow-moving themes of dramatic resiliency alongside busier orchestral accompaniment. If it wasn’t exactly distinctive music, it was still lovely stuff - and it was lightyears away from the harsh Media Ventures sounds that Glennie-Smith had contributed in the 90s and beyond.


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) - ***
Trevor Rabin; add’l music by Paul Linford & David Reynolds; orchestrated by Rabin, Gordon Goowdin &
Tom Calderaro; orchestrated conducted by Goodwin; choir conducted by Don Harper

RC discovery #70.

An odd fusion of Nic Cage’s desire to play a magical character and part of Disney’s famed Fantasia film, the effects-heavy Sorcerer’s Apprentice would be greeted by baffled reviews and equally baffled audiences - and would result in the second straight year that megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer had two films bomb. Composer Trevor Rabin was along for the ride, with this being his thirteenth collaboration with Bruckheimer. His music for the film fell squarely in his typical action/comedy mix of orchestra, guitars, and samples and thus produced few surprises. There was a quirky adaptation of Paul Dukas’ music that was used in the original Fantasia, and Rabin injected plenty of choir into the mix to emphasize the fantastical elements. But for the most part this continued the action mannerisms that had defined the Bruckheimer/Rabin partnership since the 90s. It was familiar, fun, and kind of forgettable, though it was certainly less stale than the prior year’s music for G-Force.

It would be the last time producer and composer worked together, which seemed to largely be a function of Bruckheimer no longer producing the kind of films he tended to use Rabin on.


Fair Game (2010) - **
John Powell; add’l arranging, MIDI orchestration & programming James McKee Smith,
Paul Mounsey & Michael Mollo; orchestrated by John Ashton Thomas, Gavin Greenaway,
Tommy Laurence & Germaine Franco; conducted by Greenaway; sound programmer Beth Cauci

RC discovery #71.

A well-regarded but underseen drama about the true story of the leaking of the undercover status of an American diplomat’s wife after he advocates against invading Iraq, Fair Game would reunite not only stars Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (in their third film together), but also director Doug Liman and composer John Powell for their fourth collaboration. Powell’s music would channel rhythms and atmosphere without doing anything overly memorable. With the instrumental soundscape not feeling terribly different from the composer’s prior works, it was hard not to get the same sense of spare parts that Powell’s former coworker Harry Gregson-Williams had produced with his music for the prior year’s Taking of Pelham 123.

This would be the last live action movie Powell would score for five years (longer if you exclude effects-heavy blockbusters), a conscious choice on the composer’s part. “I was being asked to write very different music for animation from what I was being asked to write for live action. I've enjoyed the live action I've done, but a lot was trying to clamp down on musical freedom. That's part of my own fault for creating Bourne. [The] mixture of minimalism and electronica worked very well, [and] I was happy to do it then because it felt different. It's hard now because everybody was asking me to do the same thing. In animated films they let me take the gloves off.”


The Town (2010) - **½
Harry Gregson-Williams & David Buckley; add’l programming Justin Burnett & Anthony Lledo; orchestrated by
Ladd McIntosh, Halli Cauthery & Jennifer Hammond; electric cello Martin Tillman; electric violin Hugh Marsh;
guitars Heitor Pereira, Tony Morales & Anthony Lledo; assistant music editor Meri Gavin

RC discovery #72.

Actor-turned-director Ben Affleck’s follow-up film to the widely-praised Gone Baby Gone would find him returning again to Boston-area crime with a well-cast tale of a robber falling in love as he tries to execute one last job. Excellent reviews and solid box office would follow. Affleck would again employ composer Harry Gregson-Williams, with equal billing going to Harry’s former assistant David Buckley. The action and suspense music would follow Gregson-Williams usual formula of loops, beeps, thumps, and electric string instruments. But the redemptive character theme scattered throughout the score was quite lovely. Overall, the score was adequate for its film but a mixed bag on album.


Unstoppable (2010) - ***
Harry Gregson-Williams; add’l music Justin Burnett; add’l programming Hybrid, Anthony Lledo & Halli Cauthery;
orchestrated by Ladd McIntosh; electric guitars Heitor Pereira & Tony Morales; electric cello Martin Tillman;
electric violin Hugh Marsh; music editors Richard Whitfield, Meri Gavin & Del Spiva; thank you to Ryeland Allison

RC discovery #73.

Following his outlandish visual experiments in the mid-aughts and the muted reception to his Pelham 123 remake in 2009, director Tony Scott would deliver a return to form with his thrilling telling of the true story of two railroad employees working to stop a runaway freight train. The lean, Denzel Washington-starring machine would earn the director some of his best reviews since Crimson Tide, but it would be the last film Scott would direct. Shortly after pre-production began on a Top Gun sequel in 2012, the director would jump off a bridge, with reports later revealing Scott had a serious case of cancer (years later his brother Ridley would say half his brother’s pelvis had been removed and it had crushed Tony’s spirit). As a result, Unstoppable would earn a place in the “awesome final film by a director” pantheon, even if for very tragic reasons.

It would also be one last collaboration between Scott and Harry Gregson-Williams. Harry had scored all of the director’s films since 1996, with each entry grounded in a hybrid fusion of modern electronics with some orchestral embellishments. All would function effectively enough in their films and sometimes produce some tremendous highlights (namely in Spy Game), though they would also be more challenging to enjoy as standalone listens and tend to disappoint the film music fans who preferred his larger-scale adventure and animation scores. The music for Unstoppable didn’t exactly break the mold, but it was decidedly less redundant than 2009’s Taking of Pelham 123. As with the music for The Town, the warm character-based material (performed on a mix of piano, keyboards, and strings) was the strength of the work. But the action material from this score was a bit more engaging than the earlier work’s (even with a few moments that suggested The Dark Knight was in the temp track), with more of a hard rock edge given to the proceedings.

The score was only ever released on CD (by specialty label La-La Land Records), a rarity for its time.


Gulliver’s Travels (2010) - ****
Henry Jackman; add’l music by Christopher Willis & Dominic Lewis; orchestrated by
Stephen Coleman; conducted by Gavin Greenaway; thank you to Hans Zimmer & Atli Örvarsson

“I’m a huge admirer of John Williams, Alan Silvestri and, for want of a better word, fully symphonic, traditional, orchestral scores. Gulliver’s Travels is that kind of thing—not as good as John or Alan, but you know what I mean?”

Dropping Jack Black into a comedic adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel turned out to not be such a stellar idea, as the film would bomb critically and (at least in the U.S.) commercially. Director Rob Letterman had used composer Henry Jackman on his last film, the Dreamworks Animation entry Monsters vs. Aliens, and Jackman would produce a live action version of that studio’s “house style” for this movie. The end result was a boisterous, swashbuckling adventure score that boasted a terrific main theme and frequent flurries of large-scale orchestral activity (Jackman again showing hints of impressive symphonic technique that had started to appear in MvA).


Megamind (2010) - ****½
Hans Zimmer & Lorne Balfe; add’l music arranged by Tom Holkenborg & Stephen Hilton; orchestrated by B&W Fowler,
Liz Finch, Rick Giovinazzo, Kevin Kaska, Ed Neumeister & Carl Rydlund; conducted by Gavin Greenaway; score technical
engineer Andrew Kawczynski; two source cues by Geoff Zanelli; marching band production by Kaz Boyle; some contributions
from Michael Levine; music consultants Bob Badami & Chris Douridas; thank you to Rupert Gregson-Williams & Jasha Klebe

This Dreamworks entry about a bumbling villain who stumbles into a existential crisis when he accidentally defeats his superhero nemesis Metro Man and decides to create a new hero to fight (with disastrous results) got solid reviews but only did so-so business relative to the studio’s earlier animated blockbusters, possibly because family audiences had already gotten their fill of villain redemption movies with that summer’s hit Despicable Me. For the music, Hans Zimmer would give equal billing to his team member Lorne Balfe (who had already contributed to several Dreamworks scores as an additional composer, including significant parts of the second Madagascar film), and also give the artist then known as Junkie XL a prominent role as well. Contrary to the usual opinions about Zimmer’s output at the time, the team would produce a shockingly tuneful work, including a catchy and extremely malleable theme for its villain-turned-hero, a soaring idea for Metro Man, an idea for the replacement hero/villain Hal that seemed to score how the increasingly toxic character sees himself instead of how he’s actually behaving, and an energetic 7/8 action rhythm that would reappear in the next year’s Kung Fu Panda sequel.

Most intriguing was the attractive love theme for the movie, which almost suggested that Zimmer was smuggling some of his mannerisms from romantic comedies into an animated film (go listen to The Holiday and then listen to this). Violinist Michael Levine would later comment on the trial and error process surrounding the theme. ”The first time Jeffrey Katzenberg heard Hans’ love theme he said, ‘It sounds like 1968 on the French Riviera.’ It was not a compliment. What Hans realized – and Jeffrey hadn’t – was that the heart of the love story was right out of A Man and A Woman and La Nouvelle Vague. Rather than point this out, Hans said, ‘Let me work on it some more.’ Over the next two weeks he played revision after revision for Jeffrey, each time making small changes to the arrangement or structure, but keeping the same basic tune. A couple of weeks later, after Jeffrey tore apart the music for a different scene that we’d worked pretty hard on, he said, ;Well, at least we have a great love theme!’ The rest of us looked at each other. When did that happen!” The gang would also find lots of clever ways to weave in the guitar riff melody from the song Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood and the Destroyers, ranging from big orchestral and choral outbursts to more mysterious / sneaky versions that wouldn’t have been out of place in a spy movie.

The commercially released album would include less than half the score, omitting several highlights including a hilarious operatic solo for the eventual villain’s origin scene, the action finale, and a lively credits arrangement of the main theme. The full score is a great work just waiting to be (re)discovered. If How To Train Your Dragon was an example of how to do something decidedly different than the standard Dreamworks Animation sound, Megamind suggested that the “house style” could still be elevated to fairly stellar heights.

And if you had ever been itching for Zimmer to write a more “traditional” superhero score, then your wish had finally come true.

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Next time: I kick off the last two years of this era. 'Out of the three [versions] I scored, the last one is by far the best.'




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