I’m a movies guy. They’re my preferred artistic medium, a creative union of storytelling, visuals, performance, and of course music. The first CD I ever bought was the soundtrack to The Lion King, so my love for movie scores and composer Hans Zimmer started over two decades ago. When I heard Zimmer, who rarely plays live, was going out on tour, I had to be there, even with the missed opportunity in not calling this tour Hans Across America.
The Man, the Music
Thirty years of film scoring has made Hans Zimmer one of the preeminent names in the industry, alongside guys like John Williams and Ennio Morricone. Even if you know nothing about film scores, you’ve likely heard Zimmer’s name. At the very least, you’d recognize his music, from The Lion King to more recent themes such as The Dark Knight and Interstellar. Just last week I gushed about his work on Dunkirk.
Zimmer’s talent is in recognizing great sounds and repurposing them. He’s neo-classical music’s Kanye West, a rock star more interested in boundary-pushing than genre purity. He famously doesn’t read music, and recalls hacking the family piano as a child. That ubiquitous “foghorn” sound that ended up in every movie trailer started with Inception, when Zimmer created the main horn theme out of a slowed-down version of the Charles Dumont/Edith Piaf song, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” He’s made a career on knowing intuitively how sounds should fit together, making room for electronic and traditional instruments together.
One might accuse Zimmer of recycling too much. Does he have a “thing?” It’s true that a lot of his work follows a similar template. “He’s a Pirate” from The Pirates of the Caribbean series (credited to Klaus Badelt for logistical reasons, but written with Zimmer) sounds an awful lot like parts of “The Battle” from Gladiator. “Solomon” from 12 Years a Slave sounds like a reimagining of Inception‘s “Time.” People have accused John Williams too of reusing much of his own material. But when you’ve been working for as long as these guys have and are as prolific as they are, maybe you’re allowed to borrow from yourself. Besides, isn’t all classical film-scoring just ripping off Gustav Holst anyway?
Perhaps it’s only because we so associate him, especially recently, with scoring the films of Christopher Nolan, that it’s easy to hear sameness when we think of Zimmer. We’ve come to expect the way he frustrates expectations by using Shepard tones to sustain tension and heighten anxiety. But looking at his broader discography, it’s impossible to see him as a one-trick pony. Consider the difference between the electronics-led Driving Miss Daisy, the orchestral The Lion King, the twinkling joy of True Romance, as compared to the abrasive noise of the Nolan films like The Dark Knight and Dunkirk. The latter speaks more about Chris Nolan’s aesthetic than Zimmer’s. The guy scored Boss Baby for god’s sake.
“Now We Are Free” from Gladiator and “Day One” from Interstellar are beautiful, almost abstract orchestral pieces. Driving Miss Daisy was entirely scored electronically, a far cry from something like The Last Samurai, which blends Zimmer’s more contemporary classical trademarks with traditional Japanese music. Rain Man‘s theme is boppy, percussive 80s weirdness, melding synths and Afro-Caribbean steel drums and pan flute. There’s the electric slide guitar and country/blues twang of Thelma & Louise, the sweeping orchestral grandeur of The Lion King, “The Way of the Sword” (The Last Samurai) and “One Day” from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Zimmer easily draws deep emotional resonance out of different kinds of sound; sometimes it’s the sound of adventure, the sound of mourning, the sound of fear and desperation, the sounds of hope and majesty. It’s a storied, varied career, proved by the live concert, which was journey through Zimmer’s love for music of all kinds.
The other thing you notice immediately when seeing him live is Zimmer’s deep love of collaboration. H’es like a proud dad, having a blast just being in the presence of a cadre of incredibly talented musicians. When not noodling around on a synthesizer or any of a half-dozen other instruments, he was hugging, high-fiving, and otherwise praising the band throughout the night. His website lists over 200 people as part of Zimmer’s “team (past and present).” Tracks like “Is She With You?” have the Junkie XL stamp all over it—picture that massive drum rig in Mad Max Fury Road. JXL has worked with Zimmer on no less than 9 scores, works in his studio, and is part of the Magnificent Six, a collaboration with Zimmer that also includes Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr and others. Look at many of his scores and you’ll see the names of credited collaborators: Lisa Gerrard, Joshua Bell, Klaus Badelt, James Newton Howard. He took the Oscars to task for disqualifying the score for The Dark Knight because there were too many names listed on it, successfully convincing them to reverse the decision. For large portions of the concert the focus was not on Zimmer himself, but shifting between his many bandmates as he took the time to name each one, and the spotlight let them shine for solos while the rest of the band remained obscured in dark.
The videos I’ve included here are not from the Toronto show I was at, but the performances here are basically what I saw. As I didn’t take any video myself, I’ve looked for the best versions of these recordings I could find on YouTube.
It was an intimate arena concert, if such a thing exists: the balcony section was closed, but the lower bowl and floor of the Air Canada Centre were packed full. It started with a modest arrangement of instruments on stage. There couldn’t have been room for more than a dozen musicians. A disembodied drum beat told the crowd things were ready to begin. Zimmer emerged to great applause in a suit with tails, waved to the audience, and took a seat at the piano where he began to play the jazzy theme from Driving Miss Daisy. Joined in sequence by the others, they kept things building until the curtain rolled up to reveal the percussion section which, much to the audience’s delight, was led by Satnam Ramgotra, face-melting Canadian drummer—from my hometown of Saskatoon! The crowd was already all-in by this point, as the band shifted into “Discombobulation” from Sherlock Holmes and Zimmer moved from playing the piano to a banjo.
As they moved into a pair of songs from the Madagascar films, it was evident how much of a rock show—an experience—this was intended to be. Halfway through the audience lost their collective minds when another curtain came up to reveal an orchestra in the back, a perfectly calibrated moment of surprise. At this point there were no less than 35 people on stage.
Then they added about twenty more as Zimmer told the story of how much people initially hated his idea of using a choir in the score for an action movie. Backed (literally, they were in line behind the orchestra) by a choir, they played through a version of Crimson Tide‘s “Roll Tide” that prominently featured Guthrie Govan, one of the best guitar players in the world. They then transitioned into the choral-heavy “160 BPM” from Angels & Demons, and what more aptly-named song could there be for Ramgotra and his drum team to unleash a blistering 90-second drum solo during. You might expect this many people on stage to sound utterly chaotic, but they didn’t. It was dense, sure, but refined as hell. Rock show level: 11.
As the versatile Zimmer switched to guitar, Czarina Russell came out to take up vocal duties for a medley of tracks from Gladiator, filling the role originally played by Lisa Gerrard. The beautiful medley of “The Wheat,” “The Battle,” “Elysium,” and “Now We are Free” was a really nice encapsulation of Zimmer’s more traditionally classical stylings, heavy with strings and woodwind.
A brief piece from The Da Vinci Code called “Chevaliers de Sangreal” came next, preceded by a short story Zimmer told about how he was inspired to write the song by noticing the juxtaposition between traditional art forms in the Louvre and the modern, architecturally-distinct metal and glass pyramid outside. Violinist Molly Rogers would take centre stage while, Zimmer said, “the rest of us are going to make a whole lot of electronic racket.” It was a nice summation of his style as a whole.
And then, in what may have been my favourite point in the night (up until that point, anyway), the familiar voice of Lebo M. broke out—you know, the NANTS INGONYAMA BAGITHI BABA! guy? It was time for The Lion King. But unexpectedly, this medley of “The Circle of Life,” “This Land,” and “King of Pride Rock” were arranged with stunning new vocal melodies sung by Lebo M and his daughter Refi (and Czarina Russel, who came out to join them towards the end). If the hairs on your arms weren’t standing already, they definitely were after the powerful vocals these singers belted over the triumphant medley fit for a (lion) king. If there was any point in the night I was almost moved to tears, it was here.
But we weren’t done yet. Not even close.
With legs planted apart and hair blowing in the wind like an actual goddamn pirate captain about to burn the Queen’s armada, cello virtuoso Tina Guo took the band and the audience on a high seas adventure for the ages. Over twelve minutes they played through “Jack Sparrow,” “One Day,” and “Up is Down.” They ended this medley with “He’s a Pirate” AKA the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, a recognizable and popular piece full of rollicking energy that was a perfect way to end the first half of the evening.
Yeah, ninety minutes in and it was only half time.
For a change of pace, they came back from the intermission with “You’re So Cool” from True Romance. “I just wanted an excuse to play the big drums. I’m not very good at it,” Zimmer said. He was.
Back on piano, Zimmer played a beautiful rendition of the end credits theme from Rain Man, which transitioned into Thelma & Louise‘s “Thunderbird,” giving Guthrie Govan a chance to showcase his sultry slide guitar skills and then a 90-second solo. The man has talented fingers.
A pair of tracks from Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice served as a reminder of how great Zimmer is at creating character-based themes. The Superman theme “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” and the Wonder Woman theme “Is She with You” were probably the best elements of those Zack Snyder DC Comics films, and perfectly distinct in how they capture the respective spirits of those two characters.
One-by-one the women in the band came to the front of the stage to perform the driving, aggressive Wonder Woman theme against a chaotic pulse of strobe lights. This was the night at its most metal. When it ended, Zimmer proclaimed, “you don’t get to feel the real power until you bring the wonder women to the front of the stage.” The crowd loved it.
A piece from The Thin Red Line followed, set to a metronomic visual of an actual red line that slowly spilled out to fill the entire screen while the musicians remained in darkness the entire time. “Our art project,” Zimmer called it, promising, “you’ll survive it; we usually do.” It was a gorgeous piece, and a nice consolation for the fact that they didn’t play anything from one of my favourite Zimmer scores, The Last Samurai. Sonically, this one is pretty close.
The total ridiculous over-the-top density of “The Electro Suite” from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 actually played better live than in the recorded version. Here, it was possible to see each piece of the chaotic vision of the genre-diverse supergroup The Magnificent Six working together.
At this point we were two hours in and they had yet to play anything from the Christopher Nolan films. So, naturally, the next 50 minutes were only the music of Christopher Nolan films. The nearly 20-minute Dark Knight Suite started with the familiar, unnerving sustained note that signals the theme of Heath Ledger’s Joker. “Why So Serious?” and “Like a Dog Chasing Cars” from The Dark Knight were followed by “Why Do We Fall?,” “Fear Will Find You,” “The Fire Rises,” and “Gotham’s Reckoning” from The Dark Knight Rises. Zimmer led the choir in a chant of deshi basara that, along with the booming horns, pounding drums, and ominous strings made room for a building sense of dread and some bass notes that came dangerously close to making me shit myself.
Things got emotional when Zimmer recalled the death of Heath Ledger and the shooting in Aurora, Colorado on the night of the Dark Knight Rises premiere. He told of how his one-word response to the shooting was “devastated” but that the word felt empty and that “my language isn’t words, it’s music.” He dedicated the mournful, wordless track “Aurora” to the victims of violence of all kinds all over the world.
And the emotional tenor of “Aurora” couldn’t be a better way to transition into one of Zimmer’s best scores, Interstellar. Against a visual backdrop that looked like organ pipes hurtling through space, the medley of “Day One,” “No Time for Caution,” and “Stay” perfectly encapsulated the role Zimmer’s brillaint score played in the emotional arc of Interstellar. The audience was rapt as the sound swelled to fill the arena.
And then it was over. But of course, it wasn’t really. As the uninitiated began to pour out, the faithful waited.
We had come for Inception, so of course, they saved that for the encore.
Spotlights spun wildly through the crowd like a drunk lighthouse as “Half Remembered Dream” and then “The Dream is Collapsing” played. Ramgotra’s pattering drums kicked off “Mombassa” as the screen depicted an Inception-like rabbit hole of snare drums within snare drums. Rock show level: 12.
“Time” finished the night, slowly building from minimal piano and strings to swell across the stage and throughout the building as the whole band became involved. And then in a moment it all fell away as a spotlight shone straight down to illuminate Zimmer, alone at a piano, a reminder of why all of this was possible.
Three hours in, with the clipped zip of a violin, the music ended. They all took a bow, and then Zimmer ran down the line of bandmates giving high fives to all. And then he turned around to high five the audience, leaving everyone in the room feeling like we had all been part of something special.