Avast, Ye Matey!

“‘Avast, ye matey’?!…What the hell does that mean?”
—Jerry Seinfeld

Maybe it’s the time period, the powdered wigs, or all the repetitive (though usually impressive) sword fighting that turns me off, but I’ve never been a big fan of pirate films. So it should come as no surprise that I had very little, if any, interest in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films over the years. Even with all its popularity, I only saw the first film when it came out on DVD. When all was said and done, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, much less why it made so much money. And I understood the appeal of the sequels even less.

So how can I explain why I looked forward to the fourth film? I can’t. But I was so jazzed about seeing ON STRANGER TIDES that I purchased the first three POTC films on Blu-ray and the boxed set of the soundtracks to gear myself up for the latest romp.

As I’ve said many times before, much of my love of film music over the years has come either from the Oscars or from films I’ve wanted to see. If I don’t care about a particular film, I tend to not care about the score, no matter whose name is in the credits. Of course there are exceptions, but that’s the general rule. And since I didn’t care about the POTC films, my interest in the scores was nil. In fact, outside of that one time of viewing the first POTC film, I’d never heard a note of any of the scores. Made to walk the plank, I couldn’t have recognized a single theme. So the viewings of the first three films and listening to the soundtracks were a big discovery for me. The goal? To put the latest score in perspective (more on that in a later post) and to try to understand not only the music’s appeal, but what divided film music fans so decisively about these particular scores.

In the video “The Man Behind the Pirates Music” included with the soundtrack box set, Hans Zimmer admits that the scores are not what is traditionally known as “pirate music.” “I got criticized quite heavily by ‘the purists,’ because it’s not Korngold and Errol Flynn movies,” he said. “It’s not that at all. It’s sort of our own language.” Once you accept the fact that (rightly or wrongly) it’s not going to be Korngold, it frees your mind to look at the pros and cons of the music a little more objectively.

When producer Jerry Bruckheimer called Zimmer to work on the first PIRATES film, THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, Zimmer was already attached to another project and assigned the film to Klaus Badelt, a member of the Remote Control team. Zimmer contributed most of the major themes, which were written in the span of two days. Then it was up to Badelt to flesh out the score. As with many Remote Control projects, other RC composers—Lorne Balfe, Ramin Djawadi, James Dooley, Nick Glennie-Smith, Steve Jablonsky, Henry Jackman, Blake Neely, Geoff Zanelli, and more—have contributed “additional music” to the music for the franchise over the years.

There’s an energy and a charm to the first score compared to the others in the franchise as Zimmer & Co. experimented with their new “language.” But there’s something missing from BLACK PEARL as well. The score is a carbon copy of what it should be. Even with Zimmer at the helm of the majority of the themes, the score is “Zimmer lite,” missing the composer’s unique touch as a composer and producer. This is fixed (or worsened, depending on your point of view) in the later scores when Zimmer devotes more time and energy to the project, no doubt encouraged by the box office receipts of the original.

Zimmer points out the music’s “anarchy and recklessness, and…simplicity.” The anarchy and recklessness can be found in the inclusion of rock and other electronic elements, such as director Gore Verbinski on electric guitar. The scores, especially from DEAD MAN’S CHEST on, are produced (or “overproduced” as it’s pointed out in the CD credits) to the nth degree. The score has to compete with numerous sound effects and, by God, Zimmer is determined to win the battle as layer upon layer of electronically enhanced instrumental lines are assembled together to make a raucous whole. All of these remove the music further and further away from the Viennese romanticism of Hollywood’s Golden Age into the digital world of the 21st century.

If the production values are busy by half, the themes themselves represent the scores’ simplicity. “If you strip the orchestration away,” said Zimmer, “it could all be Irish sea chanties.” Nearly all of the themes throughout the franchise are in minor keys. Combined with the layers and layers of mixing and a feeling that “more is more,” this lends an oppressive weight to the music that can become wearying. Your ears long for a major key and some quiet.

“The marriage of images, etc., now conjure up the idea that this is pirate music,” says Zimmer, and perhaps that is what irritates many film music fans the most. They long for the acoustic, musically intricate days of Korngold et al, and I can’t say I blame them. But for better or worse, the POTC scores have changed the face of film music and there’s no turning back. This is pirate music to today’s moviegoing public. But as high school bands and orchestras (professional and otherwise) continue to perform selections from the scores, new generations of fans are being introduced to film music. And I’m okay with that.

Though I normally prefer to be taken on an emotional journey with my film music, not every score has to do so. So I confess that I unashamedly like the POTC scores. I like their energy and their bombast. Though it goes against every fiber of my being as a film music fan and journalist, I like the simple themes that seldom change in their orchestration or key. I like that I can turn my brain off and just enjoy them for what they are—pure entertainment. I still prefer the pirate music of yore, but there’s nothing wrong with a little anarchy, recklessness and simplicity every now and then.

Arrrrr, there goes me film music street cred!

5 comments

  1. Even as I began to read your piece, I was in the middle of listening to Dead Man’s Chest, my favourite of the three scores. I deliberately ignored the new release, because it is insulting to call it a proper film score. I do love both the films and their scores; they are all, big, loud, stupid and very happy making.

    1. Hi Hannibal. Thanks for commenting. I’ll be featuring a review of the ON STRANGER TIDES score tomorrow…if I get it done in time. :)

  2. i love all the POTC movies – Depp and Zimmer both went against the grain and it paid off big time

  3. My problem with these scores is that the “over produced” nature of them gets in the way of the themes. I am always a bit baffled in listening to them that the music seems to bury itself under its own weight. The moments when the themes, particularly the Jack Sparrow theme, are allowed to rise through the mess are my favorite parts of the score, but they are fleeting at best.

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