Is Hans Zimmer the most influential film composer of our time?
by Garrett Tiedemann, Special to MPR
May 16, 2014
"Anything can become a musical sound. The wind on the telegraph wires is a great sound; get it into your machine and play it and it becomes interesting." -Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer is arguably the most recognized film composer in contemporary cinema. His work ranges from big-budget blockbusters like Man of Steel (2013) and quieter fare like Frost/Nixon (2008); and his sound now pervades what we've come to expect from the majority of Hollywood, influencing contemporary scores by all composers, especially his students Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek), Steve Jablonsky (Michael Bay's Transformers series), and Henry Jackman (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
Often utilizing repeating rhythms and cataclysmic explosions, Zimmer has fit nicely into a post-music-video/post-Bourne-franchise world where the desire for bigger mass entertainment with bigger budgets and a complicated moral compass has become the norm. Yet, the reason for Zimmer's longevity is not just his love of largeness, but a subtlety that responds to the human considerations of a film's narrative.
Recognizing that the piano piece in Man of Steel needed to be played on a well-beaten upright piano, for instance. That the score for Frost/Nixon needed to be underplayed, blended organically with the entirety of the film rather than taking the lead. Choices representative of an intelligence beyond just hitting the right cues, but informing the audience's interpretation of the film. It's a job tasked to all film composers, and one Zimmer has become especially good at achieving.
As his students have moved out to take charge of their own projects, Zimmer's influence has become undeniable. Certain elements, such as the theme Zimmer wrote for the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), pop up in scores such as Unstoppable (Gregson-Williams, 2010) and X-Men: First Class (Jackman, 2011). One can assume that a temp track was used and thus influenced the end product, but it also required composers who'd worked diligently with the original composer himself to understand how to develop the idea and have it meld elegantly with their own work.
The end result is a cinema larger than life that succeeds only when the details that connect the narrative to an audience are not forgotten. Zimmer's style is not always well-adapted, and has led to a lot of sub-par clash-and-bang constructions. But, in the best moments, when Zimmer himself or others of like style and quality are given the opportunity to shine, the results can be transcendent.
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