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The Dark Knight Rises
  • 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.

Hans Zimmer

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.

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.  **

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  1. Mastadge (Reply) on Saturday 4 August, 2012 at 13:36

    ““fishy fishy pasta pasta” – and it really does”

    I don’t love or even like this score, but I disagree with that. The infamous “Corn on the cob!” fits. The various mondegreens associated with O Fortuna are often hilarious. The “Rise” chant, on the other hand, does not sound like “fishy fishy pasta pasta”. The syllables don’t line up right. I would love to see a proper youtube destruction of that theme, but so far the chant has never sounded to me like anything other than Deh-she bah-sah-rah, which I presume is fairly close to what the words actually are.

  2. elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Saturday 4 August, 2012 at 17:00

    Now that Nolan is done with Batman, I can’t wait to see who will score the reboot (I can’t imagine Warner sitting on the Bat franchise for too long). The character and world of Batman are very fertile ground for a composer, and I can’t believe how Zimmer managed to to make it so barren.
    My choice would be Trevor Jones, but I know I’m dreaming.

  3. Kalman (Reply) on Monday 6 August, 2012 at 11:43

    I’m maybe the minority here but I think that the music of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is very good. For me it works in the movie as well as on CD. This special sound and the melodies Hans Zimmer (and James Newton Howard) created fit the films like a glove. I do think the scores support the scenes in the film, the emotions and the actions as well.
    In my opinion The Dark Knight is the best of them, followed by The Dark Knight Rises and Batman Begins.
    I must add that I’m not a Zimmer-fanboy and usually I prefer big, thematic symphonic scores. But in this case this approach and music by Zimmer was spot-on.

  4. Sean (Reply) on Monday 6 August, 2012 at 11:54

    I must admit, the score for The Dark Knight gets better and better the more I listen to it. The contrast between Zimmer’s material for The Joker and Newton Howard’s theme for Harvey Dent is extremely potent and effective, both in the film and on album.

    The Dark Knight Rises … meh, it’s effective in the film but used somewhat obnoxiously and threatens to drown out the dialogue, especially in the opening scene on the plane. I think it fares worse on album because it introduces some interesting new themes for Bane and Catwoman and then fails to develop them successfully.

    Still I think the worst score of all is Batman Begins, full of droning ambient noise for the most part and it doesn’t enhance the film in the way the score for The Dark Knight does.

  5. TheFireRises (Reply) on Monday 6 August, 2012 at 18:02

    I highly disagree with you on the bane theme. It can’t be further away from being banal.

    The theme is very inventive and HIGHLY unorthodox. The theme is NOT the chant, that’s just a small part of the it. The 5/4 rythm,the 4-note motif and the chant are what makes the theme. The trumpet pattern and the harsh strings could also be attributed to it. The 5/4 rythm is the most important part.
    The vibraphone(or whatever it is) accomponied by high rythmic strings and ethnic percussion in the beginning of “Gotham’s Reckoning” and then switching to a raw sound with random high register brass hits is very thoughtful and fitting. He even uses harsh,dissonant strings and a trumpet pattern later in the cue. An especially clever use of the trumpet pattern is to mimic the sound of a crashing plane. It’s a great cue and much better than the Joker’s theme because it’s actually listenable.
    It comes up again in “The Fire Rises” , this time with a big orchestra with delightfully harsh, dissonant string use. Probably the best,most disciplined action cue of the album(if only the other action cues weren’t just uninspired rehashes).

    Also, on Inception he wrote the whole score before he saw anything from the movie and he wasn’t involved in process of implementing the score at all.
    On TDKR however he was. So some music was written before and some after he saw scenes from the movie

  6. AJ (Reply) on Monday 20 August, 2012 at 13:53

    Yes James, you are getting too stuck your “old” ways. This soundtrack fits the film like a glove.

  7. André - Cape Town. (Reply) on Sunday 2 September, 2012 at 13:50

    Eventually sat through “Dark Knight Rises” before it vanishes from our cinema circuits. Zimmer’s score, as your incisive critique indicates “never shifts…the tone never alters”. You’re spot on>the music drones on, meandering through situations & characters, barely altering tonalities and emotions. Zimmer does’nt bother to acknowledge the human misery & injustices that galvanised the complex psychological make-up of Selena [Anne Hathaway] & good-cop Blake[Joseph Gordon-Levitt]. And where was the music to help us believe the gamut of emotions, traumas & eventual heroics experienced by Christopher Bale’s leading character? I doubt this franchise has been exhausted > there’s that scene towards the end of the movie when the admin-clerk rebukes the cop Blake, telling him to “use your real name ROBIN”. And, of course there’s the final scene at the bistro where Alfred {Michael Caine} acknowledges Bale & Hathaway. Maybe James Horner will be roped in to score a ‘Batman & Robin’ sequel, and infuse his themes with the same enthusiasm & expertise that ‘The Amazing Spiderman’ enjoyed.

  8. Richard (Reply) on Monday 23 June, 2014 at 22:10

    I agree with James’ review in that “…there are no shades of grey….only black”. I rarely listen to this score. It will sound dated in a few year’s time like some of the scores from the 1990’s. There’s no colour. A score doesn’t necessarily need a melody to be good or memorable – just listen to Goldsmith’s frequently atonal “Planet of the Apes” which is outstandingly clever. The Dark Knight Rises score isn’t clever it’s just monotonous.

  9. Vincent (Reply) on Sunday 27 August, 2017 at 17:50

    I have to disagree about the Bane theme, but all your other observations are spot on.