The mad brilliance of Hans Zimmer

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

Tony Zhou, professional video editor from Vancouver, runs a fantastic Youtube series called Every Frame a Painting. His video essay on Marvel’s cinematic universe begins with a great demonstration about the blandness of Marvel’s music. Everyone can sing Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or James Bond. Marvel, on the other hand, is totally different.

It’s in the first two minutes:

Zhou hits upon a lot of important things in his video. He criticizes Marvel’s music for lacking to invoke an emotional response, its existence as something that’s not supposed to be noticed, and the downward spiral of the use of temp tracks.

But Zhou is not a musician and misses the core part of why we can sing Harry Potter and not Iron Man, and it really has nothing to do with temp tracks: Harry Potter uses melodic letimotifs and Iron Man does not.

It’s easy to conflate an easily hum-able, melodic approach with ‘good’ scoring. That’s what Zhou does, in part. But it’s just not accurate. A good score does not necessarily need to be melodic, or have a recurring motif, or even consist of an orchestra.

Indeed, none of those things were requirements for film music, according to legendary American composer Aaron Copland in a 1949 article for the New York Times titled “Tip to Moviegoers: Take off those Ear-Muffs.” Copland wrote that film music serves the screen by

Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place, underlining psychological refinements—the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation, serving as a kind of neutral background filler, building a sense of continuity, [and] underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality.

Couching each of those ideas in a repeating melody or melodic structure is a simple way to do so, but it is not necessary.

Enter Hans Zimmer, the Academy Award-winning German composer of film and television.

If you conducted similar interviews to Zhou’s and subbed out Marvel’s movies for Zimmer’s, you could come up with a similar result. Singing Zimmer’s scores requires one to actually be a trombone with a synthesizer fused to your face; melody isn’t exactly a focus for him.

But unlike Marvel’s unmemorable melodies, Zimmer’s scores are memorable. Why is that?

It’s certainly not because of subtlety. Subtlety is technically a tool in Zimmer’s arsenal inasmuch as tact is a tool in Donald Trump’s arsenal. Zimmer approaches subtlety the same way most people approach and deal with spiders. Subtlety once dated Zimmer but then dumped him for another composer, and Zimmer has never forgiven her.

I mean, come on:

For years, I poo-poo’d Zimmer for this reason. John Williams and his style was so obviously better. I can sing Williams tunes. I can sing Howard Shore melodies from Middle-Earth. Zimmer is bleeehhhh.

But what I didn’t really realize until Marvel started crystallizing this thought was that most movie scores aren’t memorable nowadays. The traversal through temp track valley and background music bend yields a lot of those.

Zimmer’s music, though? It’s always been memorable. Despite his lack of subtlety, Zimmer works in the new framework of film music in a way no one else does.

We remember the crashing chords of Inception. We remember the thunderous organ of Interstellar. We remember the terrible tension of The Dark Knight. And we will remember the haunting Shepard tones of Dunkirk.

Zimmer isn’t usually particularly melodic, but he succeeds because his soundscapes are creative, unique, memorable, and match perfectly with the movie’s overall aesthetic. And we often remember Zimmer’s scores because they breathe within the film, playing a specific role that can’t be matched by anything else.

You wouldn’t think that a billion brass instruments, some percussion, and a mad German on the synth would come up with brilliant film scores, but that’s what happens. While the industry is zigging when it used to zag, Zimmer is zigging more than anyone else, and it’s a hoot to hear.

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