clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Film composer Hans Zimmer has always been a rock star. His live tour proves it.

The acclaimed composer behind Inception, The Dark Knight, The Lion King, and so much more is movie music’s reigning rock star.

2017 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 3
Hans Zimmer performs at Coachella 2017
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Even if people don’t know Hans Zimmer’s name, they know his music — and after this summer, they may know his face too.

Zimmer is one of very few composers who have managed to write film scores that live beyond the movies they’re in; consider how ubiquitous the Inception horns became, or how the Pirates of the Caribbean theme is still so easy to recall even though the first movie was released 14 years ago. Especially now, such hummable themes are a rarity: Familiar hooks are used to evoke nostalgia rather than break new ground. (Consider how John Williams’s iconic original music is still the heaviest presence in the new Star Wars scores, instead of new compositions.)

But Zimmer persists in creating movie themes that endure — the most recent example of which is the instantly recognizable cue for the most recent iteration of Wonder Woman (co-written with the trance and electronica composer Junkie XL).

But beyond that, Zimmer has become something of a rock star in 2017.

When it was announced that the composer would be performing at Coachella in April of this year, the news was met with some bemusement before reactions quickly shifted into disbelief that it hadn’t happened already; after all, Zimmer had already tested the waters with a successful European tour in 2016, his first, proving the appeal of a Hans Zimmer live experience.

Now Zimmer is bringing the live-tour experience to the US, performing selections of his film scores at venues including Radio City Music Hall. Videos from Coachella and the tour are all over the web, including footage of Zimmer himself stepping in front of the orchestra and casually shredding riffs on keys and electric guitar. All of that familiar music — magical in its power to evoke emotion and to endure over time — now has a face.

Hans Zimmer’s rock-star bona fides lie in his commitment to musical innovation

A quick look over Zimmer’s past work makes it clear that he can’t be pigeonholed. His earliest forays into music were in New Wave and punk (notably with the Buggles) rather than in film, and he grew up with an ear — or rather, ears — already geared toward the evolution of music.

He’s described himself as having grown up with one foot in music and the other in technology, and the innovations in his scores prove as much. There’s his collaboration with Junkie XL; there’s the Inception noise, which he achieved by having brass instruments play into the body of a piano with the pedal pressed down; and he got the distinctive sound of the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack by destroying a piano. Any one of these methods might seem unusual for a film composer, but they’re hardly surprising from someone who recalls putting chainsaws on pianos as a young man.

Though Zimmer is more associated with his orchestral scores now, his early film work was largely composed solo, on the synthesizer and through the use of samples that Zimmer took himself. But as his career expanded, so did the scope of his music, and it's that scope that’s made him so enduring in the musical cultural consciousness. Zimmer is a constant innovator, and his embrace of technology means he’s able to adapt without compromising for the sake of whatever is trendy at the moment.

Sometimes he even goes blatantly against the grain; his score for Disney’s The Lion King is heavily orchestral and is supplemented by traditional African music, in contrast to Elton John and Tim Rice’s more Broadway-friendly songs (think about the driving, frantic music during the stampede sequence, or the Pride Rock theme, in relation to “I Just Can't Wait to Be King”), and yet it’s in perfect harmony with the film as a whole. Notably, Zimmer’s Lion King score almost didn’t happen, as the idea of doing a Broadway musical didn’t particularly appeal to him — but it was exactly that sensibility that Disney wanted, and Zimmer’s work on the film netted him his first (and so far only) Academy Award; it still appears in the actual Broadway show.

More recently, Zimmer helped develop an app showcasing the score for Inception that took into account the user’s whereabouts and movements, and even launched a viral event to help populate the 100,000 voices he wanted for the “rise up” chant that forms the base of much of The Dark Knight Rises’ score.

The latter is notable as an example of how Zimmer’s music evolves even within a single franchise, as, from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises, the motifs shift in how they’re arranged (the frenetic energy of “Molossus” carries throughout), and the range of instruments used in them expands. Batman Begins is the most classical and orchestral of the bunch, The Dark Knight is the harshest and most experimental, and The Dark Knight Rises is the volatile middle, combining and then exalting elements of both.

In parallel with the expansion of his music from solo work to orchestral work, Zimmer’s interest in pop music collaboration has developed as well. On the small scale, this has manifested in adapting pop songs into scores that wouldn't seem to fit them otherwise, e.g., Imagine Dragons’ “I’m So Sorry” in Kung Fu Panda 3, or polka (polka!) covers of “New York, New York” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” in Madagascar 2. And on a broader scope, it’s put him in the same orbit as people whose names will readily ring a bell: He worked with on Madagascar 2, with Pharrell on the Oscars telecast, and with the Smiths’ Johnny Marr on a number of scores.

2017 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 3
Pharrell Williams joined Zimmer onstage at Coachella 2017.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

As Zimmer has begun touring with his music, these guests have lent even more of a rock ’n’ roll feel to the proceedings — Marr showed up on the European leg of the tour, and Lebo M, with whom Zimmer worked on The Lion King, has made appearances onstage with him as well. Even Zimmer's protégés reflect just how singular his music is; Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones theme has become a part of the cultural lexicon, and his score for the show is now being played in a similar concert experience as well.

Zimmer’s music defies genre and convention

When asked why he's taking his music on tour, Zimmer said that he wanted to see if his music stands on its own, a feat that’s impressive for any composition, let alone a film score.

As the well-received and -attended world tour has revealed, his music absolutely has legs of its own. Even if it's not a typical concert experience — of his The Dark Knight score and how arrhythmic it is, he said, “We might as well all go off the deep end here together” — all of his music gets at the same nerve endings that might trigger a mosh pit frenzy anywhere else. It's used as a stand-in and in trailers everywhere because it provokes an emotional response without fail; The Thin Red Line was everywhere for a long while, even as temp music for movies that Zimmer was meant to score himself.

It feels fitting, as such, that Zimmer’s concert tour isn’t in promotion of any specific album or movie; it’s just a celebration of his music in every iteration it’s taken. He’s described his goal in composing scores as taking a journey, and it’s a vision that coalesces in the grander scope of his work as well. From the instruments and musicians he’s worked with to just how willing he is to innovate and reinvent his own music, Hans Zimmer is overdue to take his place in the spotlight alongside his music.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.