Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Hans Zimmer)

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There must have been a time when there wasn’t enough gold left for the Spanish treasure galleons to keep making their voyages, but Walt Disney Pictures apparently thought there was enough precious metal in their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to justify a fourth voyage in 2011. But not all of their crew signed on for the voyage; only Johnny Depp and exactly two of his fellow actors reprised their roles, and director Gore Verbinski jumped ship in favor of Rob Marshall (an odd choice for a skipper if ever there was one, his filmography before and since being dominated by movie musicals). Partly based on an unrelated novel and featuring such piratey staples as Blackbeard, zombies, and mermaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was nevertheless savaged by critical broadsides and domestic audiences were hesitant to come aboard, resulting in tepid pox office. But there were galleons of gold overseas, which makes it likely that Jack Sparrow will sail again.

Even without Gore Verbinski at the helm, Admiral Bruckheimer was still in command of the squadron, which meant that the return of Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of Remote Control Studios swashbucklers was never in any real doubt. The earlier Pirates trilogy followed Cap’n Zimmer’s 2000s methodology of extensive collaboration within his studio, but by the 2010s the salty German composer was much more interested in bringing in collaborators from outside his studio and using his existing crew and their style to bind together a much more disparate set of collaborators. From the authentic Gypsy jams of A Game of Shadows to the towering drummery of Man of Steel to the so-called Magnificent Six and their gummy attempts at webslinging in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, all of Cap’n Zimmer’s external collaborations began with On Stranger Tides and it was that style that would dominate his voyages for the rest of the decade.

For the film, a crew of experienced musical hands was recruited of whom few, if any, had any experience in the waters of film scoring. The appearance of Spanish personalities in the film led to the retention of the popular Mexican flamenco fusion guitar players Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero, better known as Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rather than relying entirely on his old mate Geoff Zanelli for choral arrangement, Cap’n Zimmer brought aboard respected American choral composer Eric Whitacre who was well-known in the concert hall for warm and complex choir pieces like “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” but who had also never written a note for film. Eduardo Cruz, brother of actress Penelope Cuz (who appeared in the film as Blackbeard’s half-Spanish daughter) contributed a tango. And the crew manifest also included Remote Control mates old and new: Ben Foster, Bruce Fowler, Ed Neumeister, Elizabeth Finch, Gavin Greenaway, Geoff Zanelli, Guillame Roussel, Jacob Shea, John Sponsler, Kevin Kaska, Matthew Dunkley, Matthew Margeson, Nick Glennie-Smith, Nick Phoenix, Rick Gioninazzo, Suzette Moriarty, Thomas Bergersen, Tom Gire, and Walt Fowler. If nothing else, the sheer amount of collaboration blew the other Pirates scores out of the water.

Whereas the previous voyages had each taken themes from the previous ones, there’s not much returning piratey material in On Stranger Tides. “Mutiny,” “Blackbeard,” and “End Credits” feature the most, with rather limp arrangements of “He’s A Pirate,” material dating back to Curse of the Black Pearl. Jack Sparrow’s theme sets perfunctory sail in “Guilty of Not Being Innocent of Being Jack Sparrow” It’s thoroughly outweighed by new material which has the same Remote Control “wall of sound” feel to it (achieved without the doubled synths of Black Pearl thanks to flat orchestration) but with none of the swashbuckling spirit and orchestral fireworks of At World’s End.

New material crops up in the form of a love theme for Jack Sparrow and Angelica, but it’s tepid waters at best; for all the hullabaloo over Rodrigo y Gabriela’s involvement as co-composers, their guitar-led contributions sound like Gustavo Santaolalla at his most wallpapery filtered through the trademark Remote Control sound. It’s got none of the lively life of the duo’s solo cruises, being instead reduced to so much ballast. The Blackbeard theme, credited to Cap’n Zimmer himself, sounds closest to the dire Kraken theme from Dead Man’s Chest washed ashore and picked by scavengers. Only a theme for the bizarre mermaids, appropriately heard in “Mermaids,” puts wind in the score’s sails thanks to Eric Whitacre’s lively and original choral arrangements, though they too sound rather similar to Remote Control material in other Pirates films at times, raising the question of why Whitacre was brought aboard at all. If nothing else, “Mermaids” and “On Stranger Tides” suggest, along with his solo voyages in the concert hall, that Whitacre might have a fine original score in him to write someday.

By far the longest CD in the Pirates series, On Stranger Tides offers 80 minutes of music…of which nearly half is utter bilge in the form of remixes. The sole remix thus far in the series had been awful, but hearing the music keelhauled in the same style for seven tracks at the end of the Walt Disney Records album is positively dreadful. As with all Cap’n Zimmer’s efforts, the 45 minutes of actual score is thoroughly rearranged from what appeared in the film as well. In the end, On Stranger Tides was a red-sky-in-morning warning for the Remote Control sailors: with dozens of cooks in the galley but ultimately sounding as bland and samey as watered-down grog due to the maneuvering needed to make all the collaborators cohesive. It makes one wonder why the new crew was even brought on at all, if their music had to wind up so soggy and waterlogged to fit together. Worse, Cap’n Zimmer would make the same mistake on voyage after voyage following this one: lining up a glittering list of collaborators and then proceeding to turn their efforts into bland mush that sounded like a listless version of Remote Control autopilot. Steer well clear of this reef.

Rating: star

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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

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Klaus Badelt)

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Turning theme park rides into movies may seem like a scurvy move, but in the remake-happy 2000s it was as close to originality as pre-Pixar-merger Disney seemed to sail at times. 2003 saw the Mouse House attempt to keelhaul movies based on two of its most popular and enduring theme park attractions onto the big screen: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite starring a post Lord of the Rings Orlando Bloom and a crew of fresh young midshipmen mixed with salty sea dogs, no one seemed to think Pirates would plunder all that much swag in a genre still stunned by the wreck of Cutthroat Island. But Pirates had two things Mansion didn’t: veteran overproducer Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp, whose hugely enjoyable mincing comic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow shanghaied the show, earning him a shot at Oscar gold in the process. The film ultimately hauled in eight times as much treasure as Mansion, to boot.

Director Gore Verbinshki originally enlisted Alan Silvestri to score his film; the two had sailed together previously on 1997’s Mouse Hunt and 2001’s The Mexican. Bruckheimer, however, insisted on a more “modern” score and reportedly ordered Silvestri not to use prominent woodwinds in his synthesizer mockups; when Silvestri did so anyway, Bruckheimer decided have him walk the plank. The producer turned instead to Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios crew, which he had sailed with on hits as diverse as Crimson Tide and The Rock in its former guise as Media Ventures. Zimmer and Verbinski had sailed together once before, on The Ring, but there was a catch: there was an extremely limited sailing season left in which to write the score, just three weeks, and Zimmer was contractually committed to Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, which left him officially unable to sail for other skippers.

Zimmer navigated around the problem by charting his usual course: collaboration. He christend a suite of synthesizer mockups of the film’s themes before handing it over to his crewmates at Remote Control to be adapted and orchestrated. Klaus Badelt, Ramin Djawadi, James Dooley, Nick Glennie-Smith, Steve Jablonsky, Blake Neely, James McKee Smith, and Geoff Zanelli, longtime Zimmer sailors all, contributed music or orchestrations to the finished shanties. Due to The Last Samurai, primary credit for the score was given to German composer Klaus Badelt, who had sailed a bit for Verbinski the year before for The Time Machine; Zimmer was merely listed as a producer, but ultimately was just as much at the helm as in any of his other projects.

The score opens with the most nautical music for the film as Zimmer and his midshipmen offer up some themes in “Fog Bound” and the immediately following “The Medallion Calls,” a lively fiddle jig and a grandstanding, slightly pompous brass motif that both seem to represent Jack Sparrow. “The Black Pearl” gives the first slow intimations of the most enduring theme in the series for the rather dull character of Will, given a much bigger and more grandstanding performance in “He’s A Pirate” at the album’s close. These themes are attractive enough, and certainly have a jaunty swagger to them like a sailor getting his sea legs. The material for the titular black-sailed galleon and the undead pirates thereon is much less impressive, a rowdy collection of menacing sounds and blasts with a vague Andean lit, perhaps intended to represent the cursed Aztec gold of the plot (with Zimmer’s compass mistakenly pointing him to the Aztecs’ contemporaries, the Incas).

While the themes aren’t going to give Erich Wolfgang Korngold or John Debney a run for their doubloons, aside from the weak Black Pearl motif they’re functional. But the way they are played out has the effect of making them sound cheaper than a third-rate wooden leg, with Zimmer’s favorite technique from his Gladiator and The Rock days making an unfortunate appearance. By having large sections of his orchestra play in unison, and then adding in a synthesizer playing the same notes at the same time, Zimmer’s squadron of hundreds winds up sounding like a skeleton crew, and a cheap one at that. Far better to let the orchestra or the synths to have the deck to themselves with the other as support.

The haste with which the music was made occasionally makes parts of it sound like bilge from the holds of The Rock, Crimson Tide, and Gladiator, with the new themes overlaid and mixed in like watered-down rum. Not every pirate score has to lay a shot across Korngold’s bow, certainly not, and the jauntiness in the themes shows that Zimmer’s crew had appropriately piratey ideas of their own. But with so much that seems cut from the mainsail of past successful scores from the same cutthroat crew, Cap’n Zimmer seems to be saying that the same music that fit ancient Rome, Alcatraz, or the USS Alabama is suitable for piratey adventures without much manipulation. It’s the sort of thing that affects James Horner’s much more complex music at his worst, too.

It’s also a shame that the score’s scurvy crew didn’t see fit to plunder a few bars from the theme music George Bruns wrote for the park ride, “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me,” not even to accompany a character singing the shanty onscreen. And the one piratey score Zimmer and his buccaneers wrote before, Muppet Treasure Island, seems to be their only big score from the previous decade they didn’t refit. And it was the first of many such refits to come; by the end of the decade, many similar summer blockbusters would be flying Zimmer’s flag and bedecked in the same bilge, even as his crew’s later Pirates scores rediscovered their nautical roots.

Walt Disney Records shipped 45 minutes of Cap’n Zimmer and Long Klaus Badelt’s music in 2003, but like many soundtracks from their crew it was extensively rearranged for the album and the track titles often bear little relation to where in the film the music is heard–to say nothing about the amount of extra material simply thrown overboard. So while most of Curse of the Black Pearl’s themes can cut a jaunty dash with the best of them, the cheap sound and recycled timber in most of it–to say nothing of the barely shipshape album–the music is best suited for a quick scuttle to the depths. Cap’n Zimmer and most of his crew would be back, though, for the film’s three sequels–each a massive box office hit and an interesting scoring situation in its own right.

Rating: starstar