Hollywood Movies

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April 16, 20246 Mins Read

Hans Zimmer: Hollywood Rebel (Netflix) is a BBC-produced documentary that originally appeared in 2022. Narrated by Lolly Adefope – aka noblewoman Katherine “Kitty” Higham on the original British version of Ghosts – and featuring appearances from filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Steve McQueen, Ron Howard, Stephen Frears, Barry Levinson, and Gore Verbinski, Hollywood Rebel sketches the arc of Hans Zimmer’s career from 1970s and ’80s keyboard player to highly sought-after, Academy Award-winning composer for major Hollywood films. “It’s about getting the big picture,” Zimmer says of his process in the doc. “It’s about figuring out what moves somebody. It’s about playfulness.”  

The Gist: There are many examples from his nearly 40 years composing for films. But listen to Hans Zimmer’s score for Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune, and it’s hard not to bite down on Arrakis grit between your teeth, or be carried toward something weird and spiritual by the music’s foreboding tone. Zimmer won an Oscar for his work on Dune, a score that draws from his respected bag of tricks and experiments, and Villeneuve says it proves the composer’s genius. “He has the incredible capacity to reinvent himself without losing his identity.” Working nowadays out of Remote Control Productions, his spacious studio complex in Santa Monica, Zimmer is the kind of high-demand composer who turns down one A-list project to work on another. Christopher Nolan had to find somebody else to score Tenet, because Zimmer had already booked Dune.   

Maybe it didn’t seem like music would stick as a career, back in post-war 1950s Germany, when a rebellious young Hans Zimmer lasted the duration of exactly two professional piano lessons. But once he’d moved to England with his mother, studied at a progressive music school, and discovered the first generation of keyboards and synthesizers in the late seventies, Zimmer’s music career was off and running. And it wasn’t going to be in traditional rock bands. “You suddenly could have access to computers, so the whole idea about doing things on stage was far less exciting than the idea of ‘How far could I push this technology?’” Zimmer says in Hollywood Rebel. The manipulation and application of sound that synths, sequencing, and sampling allowed would become a mainstay of his music for film.  

Rain Man in 1988, True Romance in 1993, and the Oscar-winning score for The Lion KIng in 1994: once Zimmer broke through, he never looked back, and Hollywood Rebel includes highlights of the composer’s 2022 European concert tour, where he performed many of his most stirring themes on stage with a large band. The doc also features testimonials from Nolan, Villeneueve, and other directing notables on key aspects of their collaborations – Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski says Zimmer doesn’t read scripts; instead it’s all vibes – but it’s at its most revealing whenever the doc dives deep into the places where the technical meets the philosophical. Can the various mischiefs and motivations that drive Captain Jack Sparrow be represented and accentuated with just a few specific music notes? Hans Zimmer says yes. And then he shows you how.

Photo: Netflix

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? 2017’s Score: A Film Music Documentary also delves into the process of uniting music with image to tell a story, and includes interviews with major composers like Zimmer, Quincy Jones, John Williams, Rachel Portman, and Trent Reznor.  And if you want to see Zimmer in his element, check out the 2017 documentary Live In Prague.

Performance Worth Watching: It’s the studio, man. Even in this documentary, Hans Zimmer’s personal studio is presented as an inner sanctum where hi creativity really happens. All of the filmmakers interviewed describe being inside of it as a wild experience. And once you get a look at the Doepfer A-100 modular analog synthesizer Zimmer literally had built into its walls, you’re going to wish you could visit, too. “It’s sort of a samurai thing, you know,” says filmmaker Steve McQueen, who worked with Zimmer on 12 Years A Slave. “This room is like an old Buddhist temple, or something like that, what’s going on with the keyboard and whatnot? And you just sit on a nice couch, and you just feel it, you talk about it, and he’s on the keys, and he’s feeling it. He’s having a conversation with the keys as you talk about it.”  

Memorable Dialogue: Zimmer’s music for Dune won him his second Academy Award for Best Original Score. But to the composer, the work is another example of his willingness to disrupt conventional thinking. “I don’t think anybody’s ever won an Oscar for a score that blatantly is bagpipes, heavy metal guitars, and a woman screaming at you.”   

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: “It was everything that music school tells you you can’t do.” It’s with quotes from the man himself that Hans Zimmer: Hollywood Rebel lives up to its title. There is a curiosity that’s very clearly been a driver for the composer since he got his start, and a willingness to use technology in pursuit of wherever that sense leads. Zimmer, seated before a bank of massive monitors linked to computers and keyboards, begins to play parts of his music for 1998’s The Thin Red Line. “They’re all minors, and it’s asymmetrical,” he says of his score. “Music school will teach you you’re not supposed to do things in these parallels. They’re not chords. A chord needs three notes. This is two notes, always. And it just sort of meanders, while this note always stays, so you get these really interesting clashes, a new language in film.” Nerd-out moments like this are the best part of Hollywood Rebel, because it’s the same as a director breaking down shot selection, or even a musician using a soundboard to isolate the sounds on a recording. When a film score is happening, we sometimes aren’t aware of its representative parts. But with access to the mind and hands of the composer, the meaning expressed in the music becomes as integral to a film as the actors’ performances.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Hans Zimmer: Hollywood Rebel is for film score fans especially – it offers access to the mind and mechanics of a major composer. But movie buffs have cause to listen and watch, as well, since Zimmer’s work has become enmeshed with so many memorable Hollywood moments.

Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. 

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