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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END
Thrilling climax to not-always-thrilling musical trilogy
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Disney Enterprises; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
Back when he was making his name as an action music composer, Hans Zimmer was writing boisterous, full-bodied, distinctly masculine music. Over the years, as he has become more and more successful, somehow his action music has lost that, gradually becoming more and more effete, and often seeming comical as it wallows in a sense of (ill-deserved) self-importance. Still enjoyable, but it was in danger of coming across like some kind of circus act, of turning into a parody of what the composer used to serve up. A couple of years ago, the first Pirates of the Caribbean provided Zimmer with what seemed like a perfect canvas on which to paint - humorous, but exciting, the film could have been blessed with a score mixing the old Zimmer with the new. Unfortunately it ended up with music which was fun, but utterly insubstantial; the second film improved things slightly, but there was still always the sense that the score was slightly missing the point of it all.
For the third film, it's safe to say that Zimmer is well and truly back to his best - his wonderful music combines all of the best facets of his career over the years, with rollicking action music dominating, but a sense of mischievous fun being maintained throughout. Of course, Zimmer is still Zimmer, so nobody will be expecting a substantial feast here - but you might just be surprised by just how much meat is actually on the bones, and how much colour Zimmer manages to bring forth.
There are occasions - the general lack of synths, the rasping brass trills in the orchestration, the colourful, varied emotions brought by various ethnic winds, the Goldsmithian way a pair of themes are introduced separately in the score before being revealed in counterpoint to one another in the sweeping finale - when one sits back, scratches one's head and wonders where this Hans Zimmer has been for all our lives. In fairness, I guess he has demonstrated all of these things on occasion before, but I'm not sure he has ever written a score where all these elements come together in such a mature fashion. (Which is not to say the music has lost the earlier scores' sense of fun - it certainly hasn't.)
Highlights are numerous. "Hoist the Colours" introduces a little dirge sung by the pirates, which becomes one of the score's main themes; "Singapore" presents the first reading of the familiar main theme from the previous scores; "At Wit's End" brings forward the love theme, which opens with a similar chord progression to the main theme from the earlier movies, but becomes something bordering on the exquisite; there are no fewer than two different homages to Ennio Morricone, with the bells, whistles and samples of "Multiple Jacks" recalling his western scores, and "Parlay" being a wonderful play on Once Upon a Time in the West's "Man with the Harmonica".
"Up is Down" is a sensational piece of action music, based around a little jig theme, before a propulsive, driving heroic theme takes over - it's absolutely Zimmer at his best. Combining his familiar action style of 15 years ago with the attempts at more serious music in recent years, it's the culmination of his journey over the years. The love theme is given a tender, surprisingly touching variation in "I See Dead People in Boats", featuring a lovely oboe theme. Now, Jerry Bruckheimer - producer of these movies, of course - reportedly despises all wind instruments, and this was one of the reasons Alan Silvestri was thrown off the first film. (For the record, that phobia strikes me as being about as sensible as Billy Bob Thornton's reported fear of Benjamin Disraeli's hair.) Maybe Zimmer has finally made him see the light - and a beefier presence from the winds is certainly a strong ingredient in the extra flavour detectable throughout the album.
Zimmer's list of orchestrators is long, as usual, but there's a new name on there - Steve Bartek - and I wonder what kind of influence he had on the more considered sound of this score. It's not hard to listen to the oompah accompaniment to "The Brethren Court" and think of Danny Elfman, Bartek's usual boss. "Calypso" is imaginative, with the dramatic Da Vinci Code-style strings accompanied by a female vocalist, producing a delightful effect (and never seeming so over-strained as that score), before it builds into a frantic choral chant which sounds (don't kill me, Howard) like it could come from Lord of the Rings. "What Shall We Die For", despite its confusing failure to add a question mark to the end of what is clearly an interrogative, marks the full return to the masculine Zimmer of old, the kind of music which could accompany heroic, handsome men fighting fires or saving submarines from mutineers or the like.
The score's longest piece is action all the way - the 10'45" "I Don't Think Now is the Best Time" presenting extended variations of the main action themes, including a wonderful progression from Jack's Theme into a rousing action variant on the score's opening "Hoist the Colours". Throw in the main "At World's End" theme, the score's new, Goldsmithian heroic theme and an amazingly energetic pace throughout and you get what must be a dream come true for Zimmer fanatics. Finally, what any trilogy of scores really needs is a dynamic ending which brings closure to the whole thing, and Zimmer doesn't disappoint, providing the rousing "Drink Up Me Hearties" presenting thrilling versions of both the series' main theme and this film's - it's one of the most wonderful pieces to come from his pen.
Of course, this is no great work of art, but it would take the most stubborn of Zimmer-haters to say it is as insubstantial as the previous scores in the series - so much effort has gone into creating this music, and many criticisms of the previous two scores have been addressed in a big way. It's unlikely to win any awards, but Zimmer has never before written an action score with quite so much to it as this, and it makes the perfect start to the summer blockbuster film score season.