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Admittedly, film music was not the first thing on my mind as Big Ben tolled midnight on 31 December 1999.  Seeing in the new millennium in my nation’s capital was a great experience, spectacular fireworks and music and dancing and – a story for another time – an embarrassing encounter with a policeman on horseback while I was urinating up a tree just off Oxford Street.  (Well, you try finding an available toilet at 4am on the first day of the next millennium before you start passing judgement.) 

This website was already three years old by then, and while the quantity of reviews available was nothing like it is now, the quality was just as poor.  As the decade draws to a close (pedants needn’t bother reading this for another year, but in the mean time can ponder whether they really think 1960 should be classified as “part of the fifties”) I can’t help but look back at what has happened to film music over this time.  I don’t know how many of the tens of thousands of film scores written during the decade have found their way into my CD player (or indeed my MP3 player – who knows how I’ll be listening to music ten years from now) – but while it may be reasonably small in percentage terms, I’m sure as an absolute number it’s frighteningly large.

The 2000s (“Noughties”, if you hadn’t already twigged) were my first complete decade as an adult.  Therefore, I know that any “things ain’t what they used to be!” proclamations may just be the sign of me turning into an old fart.  However, let’s not beat around the bush – things ain’t what they used to be.  The pre-eminant film composer of the previous three decades (in terms of his stature within the industry and indeed with the public), John Williams, was still around and still writing some great film music – but he would score only 14 films in the decade, nine of which were directed by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas and three of which were Harry Potter.  His main theme for that series is surely the most memorable film theme of the decade, by the way – but he has seemingly just about retired (I’m sure he will still keep on doing Spielberg films but he shows little sign of doing any other new film music) and has only scored one film in the last four years.  So no, this was not his decade.

Two of the all-time greats took their final bows within a few weeks of each other in 2004 – Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein both lost their battles with cancer (if I have one wish for the new decade, it’s that someone can make real progress towards finding a cure).  More recently, that great romantic Frenchman, Maurice Jarre, passed away.  The world is blessed to still count the great John Barry amongst its number, but he hasn’t scored a film since 2001.  Two of the greats of the “next generation”, Michael Kamen and Basil Poledouris, were taken from us far too young after long battles with illness.  Forgive me for this morbid talk – when thinking of any of these gentlemen, all I now feel is great joy at their wonderful contributions – it is leading me to show why this decade was the one in which the torch was passed.

The torch wasn’t just passed to a younger generation, though – but to a very different one.  There’s no doubting the dominant figure in film music in the 2000s – by any conceivable measure (apart from the highly-subjective one of quality) he is the most successful film composer of our day.  He’s credited with 39 scores during the decade – though admittedly he probably didn’t do all that much on some of them – and his name appears in the credits of many other films in various guises.  I speak, of course, of Hans Zimmer.  He had already worked on countless scores by the time the decade began and was already a somewhat controversial figure – but his dominance of the whole of Hollywood film music was in its infancy.  He has brought a new way of writing film music – but as my title to this piece alludes, it hasn’t been a revolution so much as a devolution.

When film music began, film scores essentially functioned as narrative accompaniment.  These generally grand, orchestral affairs sat on top of the film and told the story alongside the visuals.  Of course there were exceptions, but that was largely the way for a long time.  Then, in the 1950s and 60s, a new generation of composers came along – Alex North, Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith etc – and everything changed.  Film music now tried to do so much more – these were composers who thought “what’s the point in me just writing music which tells the audience what they can already see?” – instead of surface-level music, now scores delved deeper into films and attempted to say things that the audience didn’t already know.  That really was a revolution and it continued through the 1970s.

It was probably Star Wars – ironically frequently (incorrectly) mentioned as the great saviour of film music as we know it – which reversed the trend.  A glorious score, 100% perfect for the film – and it was deliberately pitched as sitting on the surface, essentially replicating the narrative.  George Lucas has said that he really wanted it to function like the score for a silent movie, and that’s what it does.  There wasn’t a sudden step change in film music, but over time more and more scores started to operate the same way again – at least, as with the Golden Age scores, they had the benefit of being wonderful pieces of orchestral music, so few people really minded.  Then along came Zimmer, who accelerated the process considerably.  While his scores are not generally “narrative accompaniment” in the same way that Star Wars is, they are completely surface-level scores which don’t really have anything to say beyond what can already be seen.  It’s taken film music back fifty years – but let’s not stop there.

Next there’s the fact that on many scores (though not all), “Music composed by Hans Zimmer” is a rather misleading credit.  As has been widely-reported (and admitted by him), most of the time he has a large team of people working under him actually writing the score.  He might come up with a theme or two, he might pass on his thoughts about how the main scenes in the film should be scored – but he’s not the man actually writing it.  The extent of this varies from one film to another.  There’s no ghostwriting issue here – the list of credits in a Hans Zimmer CD booklet is often almost as long as the Los Angeles County telephone directory – the issue is whether a score written by 10-20 different composers, perhaps taking just one or two scenes of the film each, can ever have the kind of cohesive dramatic structure as a score written by a single composer with a singular vision.  For my money, the answer is obvious – of course it can’t.  Take something like The Da Vinci Code – for sure, it’s a lousy film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to have a lousy score.  But in Zimmer’s hands, that’s exactly what you have.  Every scene is scored as if it’s the most important one in the film (sometimes it seems as if they’re scored as if they’re the most important scene in the history of film) – now, that may be down to one of two things.  Either Zimmer’s just a terrible judge of what music is needed in a film (and we know that to be true from other scores), or it’s because all of those different scenes were being worked on in isolation by different composers.  Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs.

The problems don’t stop there.  Zimmer wears the fact that he doesn’t really know how to write for an orchestra as a kind of badge of pride.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a film composer who doesn’t really know how to write for an orchestra – Zimmer is by no means the first – but it does severely restrict the number of films that composer can sensibly score.  The problem is that it hasn’t severely restricted the number of films that Zimmer has scored – he ploughs on regardless, asking a 100-piece orchestra to play virtually in unison (check out Pearl Harbour!)  It’s like listening to one of those “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays the music of The Carpenters” albums.

Finally, there are all the composers working under him.  People have tried to argue that his Remote Control studio structure is a kind of hotbed of creativity.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  You’ve got a large number of composers there – several of whom get their “own” films to work on, though in truth the collaborative style is still used there just as much as it is in the scores credited to Zimmer – and they’re being forced to write music in a certain way, regardless of what their own instincts say.  If you want an example, then listen to scores which say “Music by John Powell” when he was still working for Zimmer – which are generally bland, predictable, uncreative – and then listen to the ones he wrote after he branched out on his own, which are the complete opposite.

Of course, not all Zimmer scores are awful – a broken clock is still correct twice a day – and I’ve said many times that I really enjoy listening to many of his albums.  He can score more lighthearted films (comedies and some action films) very well.  But do we have to have such a large number of the biggest films of the year receiving scores which are so similar to each other?  Can’t someone else have a turn?  Not just one person, please – it’s not healthy to have something so dominated by one individual.  Hopefully a new generation of composers who are more appreciative of what music is able to do for a film can start dominating.  If I have one great hope for film music in the coming decade, it’s that the torch is passed again, to composers more progressive, with a more intellectual approach, a group of composers who are able to do something other than just skim the surface of films.

All is certainly not lost – this decade has seen the emergence of people like Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, the previously-mentioned John Powell – and some truly wonderful film music has been written.  To that end, the second part of this piece will be a celebration of what I think are the thirty best scores of the 2000s.

  1. Elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Wednesday 30 December, 2009 at 10:34

    Excellent article. Very well written, thoughtful and funny at times. Thank you.

  2. Mikael Carlsson (Reply) on Wednesday 30 December, 2009 at 13:20

    A very good article, James. Your analysis of the Hans Zimmer dominance during this decade is spot-on.

  3. Lasse (Reply) on Wednesday 30 December, 2009 at 20:14

    Bravo James, i couldn’t agree with you more whole-heartedly about Zimmer and his many cohorts and they’re interference with art as we know it. (Even though a small portion of it is good, sometimes)

  4. Paul Roper (Reply) on Wednesday 30 December, 2009 at 20:45

    Another great piece James but don’t be so self-depreciating! I’ve always found your reviewing style refreshing, accurate and entertaining. And, listen, if “a broken clock is still correct twice a day” is an original Southallism then that’s nothing short of genius!

  5. James Southall (Reply) on Wednesday 30 December, 2009 at 21:01

    Unfortunately I can’t claim that one for myself, Paul!

  6. Mark Camilleri (Reply) on Wednesday 30 December, 2009 at 21:29

    Great stuff! Looking forward to the second bit, where I’m sure you’ll drop the main name missing from Part 1…. Morricone!

  7. Clark Douglas (Reply) on Wednesday 30 December, 2009 at 21:37

    Superb wrap-up of the past decade, James. You’ve voiced many of my own feelings better than I could have myself.

  8. Jockolantern (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 09:55

    Excellent, spot-on analysis, Mr. Southall. I’m looking forward to hearing your continued thoughts and best scores of the decade.

    Zimmer’s prominence and influence on the modern scene of film music is definitely something I hope leads to a rebellion against that very manner of surface-level film scoring and ushers in a new age of 60s-esque intellectual, deep-thinking film composers.

  9. Rob (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 15:08

    While many so called ‘film composers’ bash Zimmer the way you do many of them lack any real world experience. I agree that his dominance has been maybe overblown but I would never fault another composer based on success. Sure he makes Mozart look experimental in regards to chromaticism but the guy gives the director what they want and thats really all that matters. People seem to forget how and why movies are funded these days. The man is teh sure thing right now – not to mention the resources he can pull in to get a job done quickly.

    I do agree with you about Powell, Desplat and Giacchino all doing great work recently. Zimmer is what he is – love him or hate him. The man will always have the last laugh. If you chose to hate him maybe you should look more at the industry rather than MV.

  10. Bhel Puri (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 22:09

    Excellent article, James! Perfect and spot-on! Like it was said by an earlier commenter, the omission of ‘Il Maestro’ is a bit surprising but I see that you make amends in Part II.

  11. Ben (Reply) on Monday 4 January, 2010 at 00:31

    Zimmer’s score for the latest “Sherlock Holmes” represents all of the composer’s worst excesses in full force.

    It might classify as cruel and unusual punishment to ask James to review Zimmer’s “Sherlock Holmes” – but it would neatly epitomise everything that James has said about the man and his approach to scoring films.

  12. christopher (Reply) on Tuesday 19 January, 2010 at 05:36

    What can I add to what has been said by everyone else already? I just wanted to add my thanks to you, James, for an excellent (if depressing) read.