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Zimmer: A Chorus of Disapproving Voices

by Jason Comerford

I love a good debate as much as anyone, which is why the ongoing feud regarding the music of Hans Zimmer has both frustrated and delighted me. It frustrates me that I can't seem to ever fully explain myself, and delights me at the same time because that's the fun of film music criticism. Taking punishment and, hopefully, doling it right back out.

Jeff Bond has pointed out to me that there will be few other topics between film music enthusiasts that will prove to be as polarizing as the music of Zimmer. This sort-of covers me, but not really. There were numerous holes in my original article, "Has Film Music Innovation Died?" that numerous people have pointed out to me, most particularly Andrew Carr, in his article "What Is Film Music Innovation" from November 20. The definition of innovation that I subscribe to would have to be the one quoted from the Gorbman book.

I suppose I asked for it when I stated that Hans Zimmer is ruining film music. However I don't deny that his style (not his music, mind you) is unoriginal. Zimmer does indeed have my respect, for bringing a style to contemporary film music that is indelible. But my argument doesn't have anything to do with Zimmer's toyings with the latest and greatest synthesizer instruments. My argument is that Zimmer innovates musically. He does not innovate dramatically. Yes, Broken Arrow has interesting ideas. But they go nowhere. When listening to a score, I could care less whether or not he uses techno beats and "weird noises." I would only care if the music works for the film. Or if it doesn't.

I suppose my primary argument is that a composer's music doesn't need to be clever to the extent of obscurity. If the usage of a trombone in a particular passage in a particular rhythm is some kind of reference to a ploy that Beethoven used in one of his symphonies, then that's all well and good that the composer knows how to nod to his teachers. But 99% of film music followers will likely not pick up on it. It is my idea that the usage of orchestrations and themes are far more interesting, because they work for the dynamic of the film for which they are composed. I seriously doubt that your average filmgoer will be watching this film, suddenly hear that clever trombone trick, and think the film's composer is the greatest jokester in the planet because he made a nod to Beethoven.

My contention is that Zimmer plays too much with his toys and forgets about the task at hand. If the ethnicity of the African percussion for Power of One is accurate, that's fine, but does it work for the film? I haven't heard the score or seen the film, so I can't comment on this one, but I think my point is clear. Yeah, Zimmer may be innovative with playing with his synths, but if they don't work within the framework of the film they mean nothing to me.

It's not that I hate Hans Zimmer unconditionally. I heard Radio Flyer for the first time the other day, and I thought it was absolutely delightful. In this score, Zimmer uses his synths sparingly, but effectively. The music doesn't build to a crescendo every few minutes as Broken Arrow and The Rock seem to do. It's low key, and far more dramatically coherent than anything in The Peacemaker. It's definitely his distinctive style, yes, but it's applied with more care and thought than usual.

It's not like I want all film scores to sound alike. If all film music sounded alike then what would we get out of it? There's so much to discover in a film score. And it certainly has nothing to do with rock and roll elements being incorporated into a film score. Sure, it's one thing if it sounds cool, as Zimmer's stuff often does, but it has nothing to do with the film. Nothing at all. Other than a gambit to accessorize the film and make it playable for a mass of rock-crazed teenagers, it doesn't do anything for the film. What did that banjo effect in parts of Broken Arrow have to do with the matters at hand? Nothing. This is my point. Zimmer is wrapped up in trying to be self-congratulating and referential that he doesn't care about the film. (Just read between the lines of the recent FSM interview and you can practically taste his poisonous cynicism.)

But the battle lines have always been drawn fairly clearly. Keep in mind that Zimmer comes from a European background and training. We Western audiences tend to stick with a classic orchestral setup as far as a film score. But if Zimmer is considered "innovative" here Stateside, I wonder if his contemporaries in Europe are of a similar mindset? Granted, we Americans tend to sniff down our noses when a synth beat starts pounding away. But that is us. But I think there is a point where we start accepting it, as an increasingly integral part of the process.

Lukas' comments from November 11, with regards to the durability of Zimmer's approach, got me to thinking. What, indeed, will we think about Zimmer's music in ten years? Will we get gooey with nostalgia, and say, "Yeah, those were the days?" I have rather fond memories of music from the eighties. Every time I see something like The Karate Kid or One Crazy Summer or Ghostbusters, my favorite films from my childhood, I am absolutely delighted with the music. But I distinctly remember hating it at the time! That's the kicker. Perhaps our views will change. I heard an '80s compilation CD that one of my friends had, and I sat through the whole thing. I loved it. My point here is that views do change. I have always been an advocate of the traditional orchestral approach to a film score. Things like Star Wars and Batman and Poltergeist were the scores that I listened to that got me into film music. And they still remain my favorite scores. But in the past years, I've discovered that there is so much else out there. My recent series of articles discussing lesser-known composers is something that has been ongoing with me. Of late, I've been getting into Miklos Rozsa, Hugo Friedhofer, and Lalo Schifrin (yes, I like his funk stuff).

Who knows. Maybe I'll listen to Broken Arrow one day years into the future again and it will dawn on me that I love it. But not today.

Jason Comerford can be reached at goldsmithian@juno.com. Send your responses for publication on the web site to mailbag@filmscoremonthly.com.


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