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Enjoyable collection of themes from film music's most controversial figure

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Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Silva Screen Records Ltd; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall

A few years ago it would scarcely have seemed possible that a film composer would become so controversial that James Horner could be knocked off his perch as the most-debated film composer, yet Hans Zimmer has now gone so far beyond anywhere that even Horner reached in terms of the passionate discussions he generates with every mention of his name.  It's a different kind of controversy surrounding Zimmer though, one relating to his whole method of working, and his way of applying music to films.  For my part, I think he's generally a pretty awful film composer, usually happy for his music to sit on the surface of films rather than try to dig down inside them, but paradoxically he has written some of the most entertaining easy listening soundtrack albums of recent times.

He is certainly a composer whose music lends itself well to compilations, and given his enduring popularity I'm surprised there haven't been more of them.  The simplistic, surface-level nature of much of his music means that extracting a main theme or two from his best scores and putting them together on a compilation album is almost bound to succeed - and that's exactly what Silva Screen has done with its new Essential Hans Zimmer album.

The disc opens with what has probably become the composer's most famous score, Gladiator, but it's a bit of a shame that the symphonic suite which opens the album finds time to squeeze in the notorious lifts from Wagner and Holst (the latter of which is actually the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit against Zimmer).  After this comes a piece from the composer's most accomplished film score, The Thin Red Line, surprisingly not the famous "Journey to the Line" but instead "The Village".  On this occasion Zimmer really did bury himself in the film, and the apparently-absurd nature of his collaboration with Terrence Malick inspired him to hit impressively high heights.

The Da Vinci Code is a film I could never think of without laughing out loud, such is its level of absurdity, and sadly that level of absurdity is not helped by its music, which forever seems to be telling us that we're witnessing some of the most important dramatic scenes ever to have been captured on celluloid when our eyes tell us something entirely different.  Still, as usual, the music functions very well away from the film and the best piece, "Chevaliers de Sangreal", is given an impassioned performance here, along with Richard Harvey's "Kyrie for the Magdalene" (only Hans Zimmer could find music by other people on an album billed "The Essential Hans Zimmer"!)

In his early days, Zimmer was more likely to be writing for electronics than an orchestra, and his breakthrough score, Rain Man, is a very good example.  He was obviously so much more at home writing for keyboards and the multi-layered themes presented from this score - while not hiding their obvious inspiration - are very satisfying and actually rather more complex than anything Zimmer's written for orchestra.  Back in those days Zimmer was almost like a thinking man's Harold Faltermeyer, and he was very good at being that, certainly extending into how well the music functioned within the films.  Contrast that with the two pieces which end the first disc - ridiculously overblown music from Pearl Harbour and The Last Samurai which again make the films seem even worse than they already are - and again are most enjoyable on disc!

The second disc opens with the hugely-influential Crimson Tide, the score which really put Zimmer on the A-list and has had a profound effect on the way films are scored ever since.  "Roll Tide" is a wonderful, adrenaline-filled piece of action music, though the concious decision for this album to turn it into a fully-symphonic piece (the original was full of electronics, of course) doesn't quite work for me - it's a valiant effort, a worthy experiment, but for me makes the music sound a little too thin.  The same is true, to an even greater extent, with The Rock which comes later on the same disc - somehow, the essence of what gives the original its life is lost in this arrangement.  By contrast, the synths are dropped from Batman Begins and suddenly a score that was shamefully dull in its original incarnation suddenly acquires a bit of life.

Perhaps Zimmer's finest scores in terms of how they function in the film are his comedies, yet ironically that's the one genre he receives little attention for scoring.  Scores such as As Good as it Gets and Spanglish are marvelous - sadly, they're not here, but the softer side of the composer is presented with Green Card.  Not comedies, but still allowing Zimmer to write lovely music, were Regarding Henry and especially Driving Miss Daisy, which features the composer's catchiest theme.  

The disc is rounded out by the latest action blockbusters scored by Zimmer, the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies - "The Kraken" from the second is given a terrific, rousing performance, though the suite from the first sounds a little stilted.  All in all, this is a fine presentation of some of Zimmer's best music, and makes for a very enjoyable couple of hours' listening.  Regardless of your thoughts on Zimmer's merits as a film composer, as a provider of pop-based instrumental easy listening music he is terrific - and all of his fans, whether the hardcore devotees or the more casual acquaintances, should find much to enjoy in this compilation.

Disc One

  1. Gladiator - Symphonic Suite (7:21)
  2. Gladiator - Now We Are Free (4:22)
  3. The Thin Red Line - The Village (6:11)
  4. Thelma and Louise - Main Title (2:54)
  5. The Da Vinci Code - Chevaliers de Sangreal (4:08)
  6. The Da Vinci Code - Kyrie for the Magdalene (3:53)
  7. Rain Man - Las Vegas (4:23)
  8. Rain Man - Main Theme (3:10)
  9. Days of Thunder - Main Title (4:42)
  10. Pearl Harbour - Heart of the Volunteer (3:50)
  11. The Last Samurai - Suite (6:29)

Disc Two

  1. Crimson Tide - Roll Tide (4:09)
  2. Crimson Tide - Eternal Father, Strong to Save (1:22)
  3. Green Card - Restless Elephants (6:13)
  4. Regarding Henry - Walking Talking Man (3:34)
  5. Batman Begins - Eptesicus (4:52)
  6. Hannibal - Vide Cor Meum (3:01)
  7. True Romance - You're So Cool (3:43)
  8. Driving Miss Daisy - End Title (4:56)
  9. The Rock - Main Theme (5:07)
  10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - The Kraken (5:02)
  11. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - Symphonic Suite (7:41)
  12. Gladiator - Now We Are Free (instrumental version) (6:08)