From its early days as Media Ventures to its current dominance of Hollywood blockbusters as Remote Control, Hans Zimmer’s musical studio and proteges have a reputation for giving producers exactly what they want (albeit often at the expense of what they–or the film–really need). What director Ridley Scott wanted for his light and quirky 2003 film Matchstick Men was Nino Rota, specifically the sound that the award-winning Italian composer had conjured for director Federico Fellini during the latter’s purple period. Unfortunately for Scott, Rota had died in 1979; rather than approaching Danny Elfman, the latter-day master of that sound with a heavy (and admitted) Rota influence, the director approached his erstwhile collaborator Zimmer.
Zimmer had a long history with Scott, with their collaboration stretching as far back as Black Rain and Themla & Louise, with such blockbusters as Gladiator, Hannibal, and Black Hawk Down under their belt. But, true to Scott’s desires, Zimmer and his army of collaborators provided a highly quirky and Rota-esque score for Matchstick Men, full of nervous and off-kilter energy to match the odd and obsessive-compuslive lead character. In fact, Zimmer and his Remote Control crew went so far as to license Rota’s theme for the Fellini film La Dolce Vita, which appears in six tracks and serves as the score’s defining motif.
While the Remote Control crew can’t compete with Rota’s keen melodic sense, the resulting score is fun and breezy with only the slightest traces of Zimmer’s “wall of sound” technique. Relying on specialty sounds from whistling to beatboxing to accordion, the composer and his confederates succeed in establishing just the sort of European mid-century sound that Scott wanted, even when not directly quoting or adapting Rota. There are a few places where the rather dark and troubled twist of the film is addressed–“Shame on You” in particular–but for the most part the music is handled with a deft, light touch common to Zimmer’s Remote Control comedy and animation scores (and often notable absent from his blockbuster efforts).
A fair portion of the Varése Sarabande album is given over to licensed music that further enhances Scott’s tone of choice and generally fits in well with the original and adapted score Zimmer and company craft around it. Despite the film’s contemporary setting, a pair of period pieces from Mantovani, the master of easy listening orchestral music, mesh nicely with the Rota-esque material despite having a much less pristine sound. Two Latin pieces by the Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass serve a similar lively purpose, as does the single George Fornby song “Leaning on a Lamp Post.” The only overtly vocal song (aside from whistling and beatboxing, naturally) is the Bobby Darin staple “The Good Life,” which opens the disc. It’s to the album’s credit that, unlike most scores that are interrupted by songs or source pieces, Matchstick Men remains cohesive despite the embarrassment of cooks stirring the musical broth.
In short, buy Matchstick Men on the lengthy (and, thanks to the label’s Family Dollar inventory clearance, very cheap) Varése album for some of Hans Zimmer’s most affable music in years–a throwback in many ways to his early 1990 days as a scorer of contemporary romantic comedies like Nine Months and a style that is arguably a much better fit for him than superhero films. Matchstick Men would prove to be (for now) the final collaboration between Zimmer and Scott; after bowing out of Kingdom of Heaven in favor of Harry Gregson-Williams, Zimmer would be supplanted by his former protege Marc Streitenfeld as Scott’s composer of choice. Streitenfeld had served as music supervisor for Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven, and would go on to score Scott’s next five films with very mixed success.