I’m serious. I don’t know if I’ve written an article on this before, but I know I’ve spoken enough on this topic to not let it pass any longer. Hans Zimmer is a hack. He is hackery incarnate. Everything he does is so loaded to the brim with failure that my first impulse upon hearing his name is to fly into a wild and unrestrained rage. Hans Zimmer is the antithesis of good music for motion pictures. Hans Zimmer is the exact opposite of the kind of composer who deserves to be recognized by the Academy for achievement in motion picture music. If there were a person I could nominate for “pay enough money to never have to hear their output again”, it would be Hans Zimmer. So why do I hate Hans Zimmer?
I said it already. He sucks at what he does. Isn’t that enough?
Okay, so, how do we explain this in a way that still comes off as epic flame, but also comes off as educated flame? Good question. Let’s go to work.
What Hans Zimmer is hired to do is scoring a motion picture. In theory, this is actually rather simple. What you do, in theory, what the job entails, is walking into a room where the movie is going to be played, sitting through it and coming up with music for the various scenes. A long time ago, some composers got cute with this. While the other guys were busy just writing fast music for fast scenes and slow music for slow scenes, composers would start writing themes for characters. Actually, this has been done for centuries, before film was even invented. Funny, that. Anyway, these obnoxious overachieving dicks would write melodies or harmonies for specific characters and use variations on them throughout the feature to tie your emotions to a certain series of notes. The theme would be varied to reflect the character’s inner thoughts or motivations. It would have fragments of other themes in it to reflect their allegiances. This is what I call writing an original score.
When an original score works, you know it. It’s magical. You walk in to the theater, watch a fantastic movie, and whenever you hear the music out of context, you are reminded of the same emotions you felt in the movie. Specific scenes will form in your mind’s eye, unbidden, reminding you of the emotional power of that film and the score accompanying it. If I were to hum the Adventure theme from Up or Luke’s theme from Star Wars for you, right now, you could hum along with me and would be feeling all of the emotions those themes accompanied onscreen.
A soundtrack, by contrast, is music cut to picture. The music could be written at any time, by any person for any purpose. Any music is good for a soundtrack. Some creative people can make soundtracks as unique and narrative as original scores. For instance, Quentin Tarantino. No, seriously, that’s it. Just, Quentin Tarantino. If you have seen a single one of his movies, I could hum a song from a pivotal scene and you would feel the same complex array of emotions you did at the time it was playing.
Where the line gets hazy is original soundtracks. Original soundtracks are probably not a new phenomenon, but basically, they’re what happens when a composer comes in, writes some music to match a few varied moods, and then the director and producer and editor cut it back to the picture where they think it fits. This is not a score. This is casually called a score among various professionals in the industry. Good original soundtracks? None spring immediately to mind. There are two that I can name that are pretty good. The soundtrack to Kick-Ass, while at times overbearing, also has dedicated character themes and different orchestrations to govern mood. This is a lot more work than goes into any normal soundtrack, and it pays off in the final feature. The soundtrack to The Social Network is also quite good, but that’s mostly because I just love the music. It improves the movie simply by being there as the movie unfolds. It sets the tone brilliantly, and uses texture in a way most composers ignore.
Hans Zimmer has never written a score. The Academy says he has, but just like when they said How Green Was My Valley was better than Citizen Kane, the Academy can sometimes be stone wrong. What Hans Zimmer writes are original soundtracks. When he described his writing process for really-good-movie-I-swear Inception, he said that he and Chris Nolan got together, and he played some fast stuff, some slow stuff and some middling stuff and that Nolan liked all of it. This was in pre-production. Zimmer’s music was then cut to picture throughout production. Loud stuff when it’s important, fast stuff when people are running, quiet stuff that gets loud when stuff gets real. This is not scoring a motion picture, by any means. This is writing a few half-baked ideas for themes and handing them in and letting the director say where they go.
Hans Zimmer doesn’t consider character, motivation, context or even the movie itself when he writes his music. The music he puts in Inception could have been used in The Dark Knight or The Thin Red Line or any of his movies. The only difference between soundtracks for this man is the brand of synthesizer he uses. When I see his name on a poster for a movie, I know that no matter the movie, it will have an awful score that will not serve the characters or themes of the movie at all.
Here’s a test. If I were to hum the Adventure theme from Up–but you already know what I’m talking about, don’t you? If you know what the main theme to Up sounds like, you’re already seeing Carl and Ellie’s life together, Carl’s adventures in South America and friendship with Russel in your mind’s eye. If I hum a few bars of Stuck in the Middle with You, I can tell if you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs.
Hum Dom Cobb’s theme from Inception. Go.