I shouldn’t have been surprised when I read Hans Zimmer‘s name among the list of this year’s Academy Award nominees. And yet I was. Even though Zimmer is the most financially successful film composer of the new millennium, the Academy had ignored his work for the past decade. Since then Zimmer and his Media Ventures stable of composers have, for better or worse, depending on who you talk to, changed the face of film music. With the end-of-the-year timing and the box office success of SHERLOCK HOLMES, I should have seen that it was elementary, my dear Watson, that Zimmer would secure his 8th nomination. (He won in 1994 for THE LION KING and his last nomination came for 2000’s GLADIATOR.)
Not surprisingly, Zimmer doesn’t supply a traditional full orchestral score. With director Guy Ritchie at the helm and Robert Downey, Jr. as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Victorian sleuth, Zimmer gives us music filled with Eastern European rhythms and the sounds of barroom danger in London’s underbelly.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Zimmer said he wanted to create a “Weimar Republic score” for the film, one that sounds like the Irish punk band the Pogues joining a Romanian orchestra. “The way I wanted to take it was the way Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht managed to have these sets of little tunes and used humble, workmanlike instruments, and then just write for soloists. I wanted to get rid of the pompousness of the large orchestra.”
And that unique sound can be heard from the opening track, “Discombobulate.” Instruments such as the Hungarian cimbalom, accordion, banjo, and a broken-down piano that Zimmer’s assistant found on Craiglist open up a sonic landscape far from the traditional view we have of Holmes solving crimes in his smoking jacket in his library.
But the piano isn’t the only instrument to take a beating and be abused. The soloists were also asked to manipulate the sounds of their instruments. “A lot of the percussion in the movie isn’t percussion,” Zimmer said. “It’s someone totally mistreating their upright bass. I found this Italian bass player–Diego Stocco–who’s taken a hacksaw to his bass and added three more necks to it.”
But it is Holmes’ violin that is truly set on its ear, used for spiky sonorities and quirky rhythms rather than the traditional classical-based sounds of the past. Working off of Downey’s interpretation of the character, Zimmer said “it was more about playing the chaos, the multitude of ideas, the synapses firing, and strange virtuosity going on in his brain. I’m trying to play what’s going on in that man’s head.”
If the violin takes us inside the mind of Holmes, the belching rhythm provides the energy of the score. Whether it’s the driving percussive menace of “Marital Sabotage” or the more subtle, scratchy rhythms of the soloists in “Data, Data, Data,” rhythm is the dangerous undercurrent in the score. Listen closely and at times you’ll hear the faint heartbeat of someone thumping on the sound box underneath the piano.
Like solving a crime, the score is pieced together bit by bit until it is all brought together in the massive 18-minute cue, “Psychological Recovery…6 Months.” All the Eastern European melodies and instrumentations fight alongside relentless rhythm and drama for one kickass track that is part action cue, part emotional climax.
Why review a score for a film that came out almost two months ago? Quite simply I needed to complete my reviews of this year’s Oscar nominees. I’m sure the film’s strong box office performance and Zimmer’s celebrity status in the film music community didn’t hurt his chances with the Music Branch. Yet I believe it was Zimmer’s unique sound for the score that ultimately captured their attention.
I’ll admit that I haven’t paid much attention to Zimmer’s output over the last decade. He tends to score big blockbuster films that don’t interest me. And though SHERLOCK HOLMES as a film doesn’t particularly interest me either, I found myself thoroughly enjoying Zimmer’s score.