July 21 heralds the return of Christopher Nolan. Although the eye-popping spectacle of Interstellar may still be seared onto your retinas, that film, his space-opera, came out in November 2014. Since then, apart from the eight-minute short Quay, Nolan’s efforts have been focused on realising his war epic, Dunkirk. Nolan is a master filmmaker, with rabid fans for his craft and widespread audience appeal, and there are many elements to look forward to with his new release.
To briefly mention a first: 70mm film projection is back. Dunkirk may be Nolan’s shortest recent film, at a spritely 106 minutes, but all of that was shot on 65mm film, and 75% using IMAX cameras. So go and see it on the biggest screen you can, preferably IMAX, and preferably film rather than digital. The second element of excitement, and the focus of this article, is that a new Christopher Nolan film means a new Hans Zimmer score.
Hans Zimmer has a discography of prodigious and prestigious compositions. His work ranges from the bubbly lightness of ‘Driving’ from Driving Miss Daisy and ‘Zoosters Breakout’ from Madagascar, to the rock anthems of Rain Man‘s ‘Las Vegas’ and Thelma & Louise‘s ‘Thunderbird’ – finding space in-between for the vocal rollercoaster of ‘160 BPM’ from Angels & Demons and the emotional pull of ‘Lea Halalela’ from The Lion King. But it is his collaboration with Christopher Nolan which has pushed Zimmer to new heights and produced some of his most memorable and interesting works. Let’s take a look and listen:
1. Dunkirk (2017)
A new collaboration between Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan is such an event that the music is released only once the film is in cinemas. Such store is set on the score that Zimmer and Nolan intend for it to be first experienced as part of the holistic immersive cinema experience, before being enjoyed in isolation. However, one track from Dunkirk has been given early release to tease would-be listeners as the trailers have teased soon-to-be viewers. ‘Supermarine’ is a heady cocktail of Zimmer’s previous work, mixed together to create something new, exciting and downright intense.
A blending of Inception’s rattling dreamscape, The Thin Red Line’s radar undercurrent, The Dark Knight’s rising sense of urgency, and interspersed with a melodic yet stressful air-raid siren, ‘Supermarine’ is a superb piece of cinematic composition. The test remains whether it will work within the visual setting for which it was created, but if past performance and early hype is any indicator Dunkirk looks set to be another Nolan cinematic masterpiece with a Zimmer score to match. One Room With A View’s five star review compliments the “eerie and atonal score” which keeps “the viewer on a knife-edge”.
2. Interstellar (2014)
The stories behind the crafting of Interstellar’s unearthly, ethereal score are well-documented. In his search among the stars, Nolan wanted a soundtrack to elevate and, most importantly, to innovate. He challenged Zimmer, without any script to work with, let alone visual cues, to compose a piece as a father searching for his lost son – leading directly to the wistfulness of tracks such as ‘Where We’re Going’, a piece washed over with wind and sea and lone instruments calling out for an answer.
That answer is huge, with Zimmer returning to the organ. The pipe organ was once the most scientifically advanced of mankind’s inventions, so its inclusion in this love letter to science and exploration (as much as the emotional and spiritual connection between separated families) is especially meaningful and well-chosen.
It is difficult to pick a star track; Interstellar, more than any other, is a score worth setting aside time to sit and appreciate in its entirety. Yet the majesty of the slow, powerful buildup of the organ and the constant ticking away of time in ‘No Time For Caution’, gathering momentum before a euphoric release, is a four-minute encapsulation of the ninety-minute whole.
3. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012)
The triumvirate of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises redefined the superhero movie. Nolan, with his grittier take and a more realistic approach to the comic book world, defined how it would look; Zimmer defined how it would sound. From the rolling, momentum-building percussion and strings of the Tumbler’s ‘Molossus’ in Batman Begins, to the chanting refrain of “deshi basara” in Bane’s theme, ‘Gotham’s Reckoning’, in The Dark Knight Rises, Zimmer builds the soundscape for Bruce Wayne and foes to inhabit.
These scores are not as distinctive or original as other Zimmer creations, taking clear inspiration from previous iterations of Batman (most notably Danny Elfman’s), but this is of course an adaptation: in the same way that Nolan’s story and visuals are based on what has come before, so is Zimmer’s score, and the departures and flourishes from that baseline are what show the strength.
As with the films, the musical pinnacle comes in The Dark Knight. ‘Like A Dog Chasing Cars’ grows from darkness into Batman’s heroic light, but the counterpoint is the opening number – ‘Why So Serious?’. You know the line, expertly delivered by Heath Ledger, and the track is imbued with the Joker’s anarchic malevolence, a chaotic, free-wheeling, clash of sounds and ideas, experimental from the off but with a solid core motif.
4. Inception (2010)
Inception’s soundtrack is, as should be expected, a deeply meta experience. Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ almost didn’t feature in the film, when Nolan considered the casting of Marion Cotillard too out-of-place since her most famous previous role was as The Little Sparrow in La Vie en Rose (an odd complaint considering how on-the-nose the naming convention in Inception is). Taking inspiration from the slowing-down of time in each layer of dreaming, Hans Zimmer took ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ and slowed it right down.
The long, slow brass blare for which the film and Zimmer are wrongly mocked is a stretched-out rendition of the opening note of that piece. From the bombast of ‘Dream is Collapsing’, to the heavily electronic change of pace in the rushing power of ‘Mombassa’, Inception‘s score is varied and inspired.
The standout track from Inception, and the perfect note on which to finish this article, is ‘Time’. A slow, stripped-back version of the repeating theme, deep strings holding an emotional charge in every draw of the bow, ‘Time’ wraps you up as it builds the film to its climax, bringing together all that has come before, helping to make sense of it and to accept it, before dropping back into the quietest piano notes one by one as the dream ends. Or starts.