- Composed by Hans Zimmer
- WaterTower Music / 2012 / 51:18
Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman trilogy comes to a close in The Dark Knight Rises, the most eagerly-anticipated film in a long time. It hasn’t got the kind of positive reaction the previous two did, and seems to serve more as a sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, but of course it will made an absolute load of money to keep everyone going until the inevitable reboot in a few years. The least distinguished aspect of the series has been its music; the first two films were scored by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, music’s most dynamic duo this side of Chas and Dave (‘av a banana) – but Zimmer’s gone solo (well, as solo as Zimmer ever goes) the third time round.
In fairness, the previous scores felt more like missed opportunities than anything else; they weren’t awful, they did serve the films appropriately enough, they just didn’t seem to be doing everything a good film score should do. Nolan has shown little understanding in the past of what music can do for a film (pretty much the largest criticism a lot of people would make of him) but that all changed with Inception, a perfectly-scored film with some of the finest music Hans Zimmer has ever written, so hopes were high that this time, Nolan’s Batman would finally get the music he deserves. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, with a relentless, oppressive score that seems to miss the point entirely.
As far as I understand it (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), Zimmer’s way of writing scores goes pretty much like this – he comes up with some “ideas” at an early stage, these ideas are then turned into a suite of music (sometimes with the assistance of Lorne Balfe), and when the actual scoring begins, the film is split into chunks and each chunk gets allocated to a team at Remote Control, who take music from the suite and apply it to their scenes. It’s not necessarily a flawed approach – Ennio Morricone wrote some of the greatest scores of all time based on the screenplay, not the film; Alfred Newman and co used to farm out scores to assistants during the studio era – but there is always the danger that with so many cooks having a go at the broth, they want their own part to stand out, seem like the most important, and in the end nothing seems important. Presumably the same process was used for Inception, which turned out wonderfully well, so by no means does the risk become realised every time, but there seems to have been a lack of a steady hand on the tiller driving this one. The music in the film is so relentless – every moment is treated as if it’s the film’s most important moment, and this means the score has no positive impact at all; whereas Inception‘s music was full of forward motion, intelligently driving things along, this is motionless. There are no shades of grey – in fact there isn’t even just black and white – it’s all black. The time signature never shifts, the tone never alters a jot.
When Zimmer talks about his music he does so with such warmth and enthusiasm, and says the most wonderful things, it’s easy to be taken in and expect great things. About The Dark Knight Rises, he said that he was throwing so many crazy ideas around that ended up being used in the score, it was all a huge risk. But the thing is, there are no crazy ideas here at all – there are no risks. He spoke of creating music like nobody had ever heard before – and yet we’ve all heard all this so many times before. When the cheap synth sound worked well for The Kraken in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I thought – well done Mr Zimmer, that’s a nice tongue-in-cheek approach. But it turns out his tongue wasn’t in his cheek, because the exact same sound is heard throughout this film. You think it must be a joke, but it isn’t.
It would be grossly unfair to claim that the whole score (on album) is without merit. Indeed, taken on their own terms, several of the action tracks (and in fact, a lot of the tracks are action tracks) would be enjoyable – it’s only when placed into the context of the whole score that they don’t work so well. By far the finest moments are when the score quotes from its predecessors (I am aware that that may well constitute damning with faint praise). Otherwise the strongest moments come towards its conclusion – “Imagine the Fire” sounds like what someone would write as a parody of the music in Michael Bay slow-mo sequences, but it’s quite enjoyable if you try not to take it too seriously; at long last, “Necessary Evil” presents a bit (the only bit) of subtlety on the album, and is probably its strongest and most intelligent moment, with some really strained emotions coming through; and then “Rise” is a reasonably stirring conclusion. Take those three tracks and you have a decent enough quarter of an hour or so of music which really is all you could need from the score.
The most celebrated new idea in the score (celebrated no more vigorously than by Zimmer himself in various interviews) is the theme for Bane. (Bane… bane-al… banal. Perhaps that was the thought process. Sorry, cheap gag.) The theme features a little phrase in Arabic (I think) and it wouldn’t have been too bad if not for the Youtube user who brought the world’s attention some months ago to the fact that it sounds like the choir is chanting “fishy fishy pasta pasta” – and it really does. Watch the video and you’ll never be able to listen to the music with a straight face again. Without the comedy connotations it’s not a bad idea, not as strong as the Joker theme in the previous score, but it’s this score’s most distinctive element and I think – with a bit more subtlety surrounding its use – would have worked really well. There’s an appropriately apocalyptic tone there, a nice vision of impending doom.
The other major new idea is the piano music for Selina Kyle / Catwoman, heard most prominently in “Mind If I Cut In?” It’s pretty simplistic – a series of little phrases sometimes played with very minimal keyboard accompaniment, sometimes joined by one of those trademark Zimmer arpeggios – and has an appropriately mysterious quality to it, but in keeping with most of the themes in the series (the exception being the one for Harvey Dent, presumably written by James Newton Howard) it seems to be deliberately held back to avoid making too much of a statement itself. That’s really my biggest disappointment – while there are strong thematic ideas, they aren’t actually strong melodic themes that make an attempt to guide the audience along. I’m not so foolish as to think that all scores need to be big and symphonic – times move on – but it does seem that if ever a type of film calls for that kind of leitmotivic approach, it’s a comic book film, particularly one like this where the characters actually aren’t just goodies and baddies, where the score could really drive things forward. Instead the conscious decision seems to have been taken to keep everything pretty murky and atmospheric, which I just don’t understand – the visuals do that, so the music’s free to do something else. (I must admit though – it’s hard to look at the box office receipts or indeed soundtrack album sales and suggest they did anything wrong.)
I don’t want to sound like a completely arrogant moron (perhaps I’m too late), but I wonder if Zimmer had spent as much energy writing his music as he did talking about it how good it might be. This is a disastrous score for the film, perhaps worse even than his previous nadir, The Da Vinci Code. However, that wasn’t a good film to begin with – and in that case, the music still made a really enjoyable album. The Dark Knight Rises does fare better as an album than it does as a film score – you need to really work to remove its association with the film from your mind, but if you can then there are certainly parts that offer some nice cheap musical thrills. When he’s been on fire, Zimmer has delivered some spectacular music over the years; but sometimes he misses the mark completely and sadly this is one of those times. Part of me wonders if I’ve just turned into my dad and I’m having some sort of reaction against the music all the kids are enjoying; I hope that’s not the case – good music is good music, good film scores are good film scores – not everything has to be done “the Jerry Goldsmith way” in order to be good. But surely there was a better way than this. **