Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Hans Zimmer)

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History is littered with trilogies that have spectacularly imploded with their third entry; Walt Disney’s gold galleon Pirates of the Caribbean franchise took the Matrix Revolutions route when it floundered, with a disappointing cliffhanger second entry followed by a terrible typhoon of a third. It’s never been more clear that a movie had begun without a finished shooting script than with At World’s End; characters’ motivations and natures changed between the films, many were killed off seemingly for no other reason than the writers had no idea what to do with them, and the ending was ludicrous enough to make one wish for the previous film’s unresolved cliffhanger back. Despite being a load of bilge, the film made the corsair trio of Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp more doubloons than the Spanish Main–perhaps the truest act of real piracy in the series’ history thus far.

With Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End filmed gangplank-to-gangplank, it was no surprise to see the flag of Remote Control fluttering from the latter film’s yardarm and Captain Hans Zimmer at the helm of his usual crew of scurvy composers. Manning the guns again were Lorne Balfe, Nick Glennie-Smith, Henry Jackman, John Sponsler, and Tom Gire; the Icelandic corsair Atli Örvarsson joined the merry band as well. Interestingly, the list of orchestrators included both Zimmer stalwarts like Bruce Fowler but also Steve Bartek, former Oingo Boingo member and Danny Elfman’s usual orchestrator. Their fleet of dozens of soloists, conductors, and other assistants made At World’s End perhaps Zimmer’s most collaborative effort thus far in his captaincy.

As with Dead Man’s Chest, Zimmer’s crew brings a few new themes to the manifest while importing a boatload of old ones as well. The most prominent new shanty debuts in “Hoist the Colors,” and is a theme vaguely reminiscent of “He’s a Pirate” to represent the titular swashbucklers complete with lyrics. A boy soprano and chorus take up the tune to start with, but it gets some variations in the comical “The Brethren Court” and a building, rousing rendition in “What Shall We Die For?” Joining it is a love theme (though Cap’n Zimmer denied that’s what it was, one has to call a cutlass a cutlass) for the laughable romance in the film; though the love itself may fall flat, the theme is a fun if simplistic bit of sweeping romance and the only time Zimmer and his scurvy crew invoke Erich Wolfgang Korngold in either name or spirit. Together, these themes are by far the most nautical and piratey in the Pirates series.

Old themes return too. Jack Sparrow’s shanty, resembling its arrangements in Dead Man’s Chest moreso than Black Pearl, gets quirky and tortured airings in “Multiple Jacks” and “The Brethren Court.” Davy Jones’ powerful music box and organ theme reappears in a more tragic and orchestral guise in “At Wit’s End” and elsewhere, though with his Kraken killed offscreen for no reason its unpleasant waterlogged music thankfully stays on the bottom. And the defining theme of the franchise, “He’s a Pirate,” appears here and there as well, with its biggest moment saved for the start of the end credits suite in “Drink Up Me Hearties.”

At its best, Cap’n Zimmer and his mates put the old and new themes together with an organic flow that, while still clearly part of the Remote Control sound world, is much more nautical and orchestral than anything that has come before. The album’s crowning moment is “Up is Down,” which accompanies a particularly nonsensical sequence of the film with a lively pirate jig which freely mixes fragments of nearly every theme from the series up to that point. The massive 10-minute cues of “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” and “Drink Up Me Hearties” offer more of this surprisingly thoughtful thematic mixing from Cap’n Zimmer.

It’s not all smooth sailing. “Calypso” is a weak recapitulation of some of the muddiest parts of Dead Man’s Chest, while “Singapore” has little to offer but rather stereotypical Chinese progressions. There are bits of “Drink Up Me Hearties” and especially “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” are occasionally overwhelmed by the typhoon of Cap’n Zimmer’s trademark “wall of sound” to an extent that mitigates the newly christened swashbucklery and pleasing sailor’s knot of themes, though admittedly without plumbing the worst depths of Black Pearl or Dead Man’s Chest.

On the final manifest, with At World’s End Cap’n Zimmer and his crew of hearties probably got as close to a truly piratey sound as they could with the Remote Control method of composition. If it’s not quite a shot across Admiral Korngold’s bow, it is at least the best presentation of the best themes from the franchise with the “wall of sound,” electronics, and borrowing from past Cap’n Zimmer classics present but safely in the brig. As usual, the music on the hour-long album is extensively rearranged from that which appeared in the film, but even that is somewhat less egregious than its shipmates in the series. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was a dreadful film, but it somehow inspired the best score of the series. Cap’n Zimmer would sail with the old crew once again for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but it tacked against the wind and was nowhere near as much piratey fun.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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The Fourth Kind (Atli Örvarsson)

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Many films use the term “based on a true story” very loosely, but few have ever taken advantage of the term as much as the 2009 feature The Fourth Kind. By co-opting real disappearances in and around Nome in Alaska, circulating fake stories from real newspapers, and presenting “real” and “staged” versions of the same scenes to try and build interest, the filmmakers were only able to get themselves sued. Audiences largely responded with a yawn.

Despite the faux verisimilitude in The Fourth Kind, the filmmakers still commissioned an original score by Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control music studio. After serving as an assistant, orchestrator, and additional music composer for Remote Control, Örvarsson began taking on smaller solo scoring projects in the late 2000s. Following the path of many of Zimmer’s proteges, these assignments like The Fourth Kind and Babylon A.D. gave listeners a chance to hear the composer’s musical voice without being saddled with the added duty of trying to sound like Zimmer himself.

The Fourth Kind album begins very promisingly, with beautiful wordless vocals from Thórhildur Örvarsdóttir (presumably one of the composer’s close relatives) setting an icy, mournful tone in “Flight to Nome.” It’s an incredibly effective and beautiful theme, and its reprises later in the album (the lengthy “Northern Lights” in particular) form the definite highlights of Örvarsson’s score. The composer also provides a string fugue of similar tone that often bleeds into and out of the vocal theme.

And after such a promising beginning there is…nothing. Other than a few dark ostinatos that are de rigueur for students of the Remote Control school, virtually all the rest of the music in the film and on album is sound design. Dark, completely devoid of melody, and serving more as a sound effect than any kind of coherent musical score, Örvarsson is unable to (or, more likely, was directed not to) incorporate even the slightest fragments of his earlier theme into the bulk of the underscore. There’s instrumental creativity there to be sure, with instruments from duduk to double bass, tabla drums to slide guitar, but it doesn’t translate into anything meaningfully listenable.

Perhaps the faux-documentary nature of the film makes a more traditional score inappropriate, but given the beauty of Örvarsson’s vocal theme the rest of the album has to be regarded as a disappointment. Download the vocal songs, “Flight to Nome” and “Northern Lights” in particular, and leave the rest in the film. Despite the The Fourth Kind‘s tepid response, Örvarsson’s career has seen a steady increase in high-profile assignments–including a reunion with the latter’s director–and one can hope that he will eventually be able to craft the outstanding vocal writing on display in the best parts of the album into a more fully enjoyable score. The Varèse Sarabande score CD was one of many remaindered to Family Dollar stores beginning in 2012, and can be had new for as little as three dollars in the right location.

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