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


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: Dead Man’s Chest (Hans Zimmer)


The completely unexpected success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie with audiences and critics made it inevitable that Captain Jack Sparrow and his hangers-on would sail again; $600 million in worldwide box-office gold and five nominations’ worth of Oscar gold was just too much plunder for the producers to ignore. So virtually the entire cast and crew, from star Depp to director Verbinski to overproducer Bruckheimer, was shanghaied back for not one but two sequels to be filmed back-to-back and released a year apart. This sort of filming had undergone a resurgence in the 2000s following the success of The Lord of the Rings, with The Matrix sequels taking the same route. Therefore, production began without a finished script, leaving the film feeling soggy and underwritten in many places, despite some memorable moments, and it concluded with a particularly poorly-done cliffhanger.

Despite its hasty genesis, the soundtrack to Curse of the Black Pearl had sold well for Walt Disney Records, and had helped cement Hans Zimmer and his scurvy Remote Control crew as the kings of summer blockbusters. No one was surprised when they reboarded the franchise for the second movie, Dead Man’s Chest, though some eyebrows were raised that despite the presence of “his” themes, Klaus Badelt wasn’t credited at all. With no contractual obligations and plenty of time to pen the score, Zimmer struck the false colors and took primary credit for the music, although as always the collaboration-minded German was assisted by his Remote Control hearties. Lorne Balfe, who would become Zimmer’s primary collaborator for the latter 2000s and 2010s, joined old Remote Control sea dogs Nick Glennie-Smith and Geoff Zanelli from the first film along with up-and-coming midshipmen Henry Jackman, Trevor Morris, Tom Gire, and John Sponsler.

The most memorable themes from the original Pirates sail into port along with them, with the dual silly/serious themes for Jack Sparrow reappearing right out of the gate in, appropriately, “Jack Sparrow.” The flighty and jaunty cello is punched up a notch for a much more satisfyingly piratey sound this time around, though it’s periodically shot across the bow by the usual massive orchestra with synth doubles that Zimmer adds to his provisions for every voyage. The Cthulloid villain of the film, Davy Jones, is given an affecting music box theme that builds to a satistfying, massive organ-led crescendo in “Davy Jones,” while the “He’s a Pirate” theme crops up in the rousing, if often eardrum-shattering, “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s all very rousingly piratey stuff, though “Two Hornpipes (Tortuga)” is the true delightful pirate leader of the album.

But for all that resurgent nautical lit to Cap’n Zimmer’s tunes, the music still has some sargassum-fouled doldrums. Chief among these is “The Kraken” which, despite some token nautical “heave, ho!” chants in the far background, is a crushingly powered-up power anthem scraped from the bilge of earlier and better-realized power anthems. In addition to his usual unison playing and synth doubling, Zimmer feeds the entire orchestra through an electric guitar amp, an idea that sounds swashbuckling in theory but in practice just seems to add an anemic faux electric guitar to the titular giant gastropod and its attacks. Add to that some painfully anonymous music in other places–“I’ve Got My Eye on You,” “A Family Affair,” “You Look Good Jack”–and you’ve got some of Cap’n Zimmer’s lowest soundings next to some of his highest shoals.

It goes without saying, too, that the 50-minute patchwork of the album leaves yards of mainsail left in the hold, with plenty of rearrangement into lengthy suites that often only vaguely resemble the musical block and tackle heard in the movie–to say nothing with ending on a truly dire remix of “He’s a Pirate.” It’s an improvement over the first Pirates, with a more genuine nautical spirit and better themes alongside better interpretations of old themes. But there are still a lot of places where Cap’n Zimmer and his scurvy crew couldn’t resist recycling or swabbing the decks with banal music. It wouldn’t be until their third voyage that the crew got their topsail and mainmast sorted out.

Rating: starstarstar

Stealth (BT)


Director Rob Cohen isn’t known for his cerebral cinema, yet his would-be summer 2005 blockbuster Stealth makes the rest of his oeuvre look like Citizen Kane. A bizarre mashup combining, of all things, Short Circuit and Top Gun, the film’s story of a suddenly-sentient drone aircraft and its human wingmen was shunned by audiences. It was one of two large-scale action movie flops that summer (alongside Michael Bay’s The Island) which were seemingly part of the impetus to put more money behind safer remakes and sequels, rather than original fare, that resulted in Cohen and Bay’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Transformers over the next few years.

Rather than his usual collaborator Randy Edelman, Cohen reunited with Brian Transeau, known to his fans as BT, who had scored Cohen’s earlier hit The Fast and the Furious (though neither man would have anything to do with its innumerable sequels). Transeau, best known as a composer of electronic music, a remixer, and a DJ, moved into film scores in the early-to-mid 2000s and composed for several high-profile films (even attempting a serious drama score with Catch and Release in 2007) before largely returning to his roots in popular music.

On The Fast and the Furious, Transeau had been assisted by composer Randy Miller, who orchestrated and conducted the score. For Stealth, though, which included a much larger 100-piece orchestra, the composer was taken under the wing of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studios, with several Zimmer pupils responsible for orchestration, conducting, and additional music. Chief among them was Trevor Morris, perhaps best known for Immortals and The Tudors who not only helped arrange the work but also composed or co-composed nine cues (nearly 20 minutes of the album’s 63-minute runtime). Fellow arranger and Remote Control associate Michael DiMattia contributed or co-contributed six more cues totaling another 15 minutes, meaning that Transeau was solely responsible for only about half of the music.

BT’s portion of the music includes some interesting ideas. In addition to the composer’s trademark aggressive and hard-edged electronics, he provides a descending piano-led theme with harp accents that debuts in “Stealth Main Title” and presumably represents the computerized hero/villain of the film. Parts resurface in “I’ll Tell You Back At The Boat” and much more aggressively in “Henry’s Death” among other places. BT also attempts to give the music an international flavor with vocals in “Thailand” and “Tin Man Will Prosecute,” but relying as it does on the stereotypical mid-2000s “wailing woman,” the effect is limited at best. The rest of BT’s tracks primarily rely on his abrasive electronics, often presented alongside surprisingly ballsy brass, to unify their sound.

Morris’s music is rooted in electronics in much the same way, but his synths lack the harshness of BT’s, making the difference immediately clear to anyone with an ear for it. His primary contribution is a heroic theme for the human pilots, appearing first in “The Pilots’ Theme” and incorporated in many of his other tracks as well. The theme is very much in the heroic/masculine/patriotic Remote Control scoring mold, and could easily be dropped into Transformers or Battleship without anyone noticing the substitution. Morris’s use of the “wailing woman,” in “EDI’s Sacrifice” and elsewhere, is scarcely better than BT’s.

DiMattia does a much better job of integrating his music with BT’s, with his electronics bending in much more smoothly. He also makes use of harp arpeggios in fragments throughout his portion of the score to match up somewhat with the “EDI Theme” from BT. However, his music often lacks the clever production of the former DJ’s, and the electronics often become completely overbearing, especially when paired with an orchestra for many of the album’s centerpiece action cues.

In the end, Stealth sounds surprisingly like many of the other action scores in contemporary American cinema. And therein lies the problem. While there’s nothing wrong with collaboration, the Remote Control artists are experts at integrating disparate voices into a single, watered-down whole. When their skills are used to smooth over a neophyte scorer’s inexperience, though, whatever distinct voice that person brings to the table is often lost. This leaves a score that, despite the names on the credits, sounds like it was an everyday product of the Remote Control studios, begging the question of why the assignment wasn’t simply given to them in the first place. M83’s Oblivion is a prime example, and BT’s Stealth is another.

While there are some interesting ideas, and many of the electronic textures will be pleasing to fans of that particular sound, it’s hard to imagine a BT fan being satisfied with the album–the sound is just too watered-down. Therefore, the album can only be recommended to people who enjoy the overall sound of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio and would like to hear it livened up a bit with some interesting electronics and textures.

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