The Baker’s Wife

Baker CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #986

Screenwriter: Marcel Pagnol

Based on “Blue Boy” by Jean Giono

Director: Marcel Pagnol

Cast: Raimu, Ginette Leclerc, Fernand Charpin

Cinematography: Georges Benoit

Music: Vincent Scotto

Release: September 7, 1938

Country: France

Sometimes I feel like such a buzzkill when I write these. First, I wrote all about how much I disliked the universally beloved “Swing Time” and now here I come for the just-as-beloved “The Baker’s Wife.” I promise I’m not an angry person who screams at the injustice of life and never feels joy… seriously. I love “The Great British Bake Off” and “Queer Eye” just as much as you do, damn it!

Baker 1The Baker of the title is played by Raimu while the much-younger Wife of the title is played by Ginette Leclerc. Together they have just moved to a pretty small town, occupied by a menagerie of eccentric, bickering characters. One of them is the local Marquis (Fernand Charpin), who orders a shit ton of bread per week and promises to regularly dispatch his hunka hunka burning man meat Shepherd to pick it up. We sense the wife takes a liking to the Shepherd since, in their first moment alone, her hands go directly for his chest hair. Soon enough the two run off together, leaving the Baker devastated. He declares he is too upset to bake any more bread until his wife is returned to him, so the town bands together to reunite them.

All of that sounds pretty damn charming, and for a while it is. I especially enjoyed the first half hour or so, as we are getting to understand the personalities of the denizens of this charming town. Farmers squabble over shadows from branches along their property lines and how they may or may not hinder the growth of their crop. A priest (Robert Vattier) and a schoolteacher (Robert Bassac) argue about whether Joan of Arc really heard voices or just thought she heard voices. There’s talk of a dead cat who fell down a well. This is the kind of storytelling I live for – that quirky slice of life exploration with an ensemble of fun character actors.

Baker 2Much has been written about the failure of the movie to hold up under our modern lens (though in every instance, the writer will – in the same breath – say that it transcends these problems), and most of the writing has been in relation to the Wife character. She is introduced in a discussion solely about her age and looks with her husband talking her up to his new neighbors. She has none of the character quirks of anyone else in the cast. But, weirdly, this did not bother me because her character isn’t actually supposed to function as a character. No, she’s a macguffin. A mystery wrapped in an enigma. So the lack of depth was fine… at least until the last scene, where it all fell apart. But more on that later.

Baker 3Where the movie began to come apart at the seams for me was in its wild variance of tone. Now I’m not saying that comedy and drama cannot exist within the same space – it can, and I love films when their makers get this balance right. Near the end of the first act, there’s a long scene where the Shepherd comes to serenade the Baker’s Wife, and the Baker misunderstands the situation, sending his Wife downstairs to give him some bread as a gift. Of course, the second the Shepherd steps inside downstairs, she jumps his bones, all while the clueless Baker stands upstairs, looking out his window and coming up with excuses why it’s taking so long. This is played entirely for laughs, and I should point out that variants of this scene have happened so often since the release that it’s become a comedy clam. That’s all well and good, but I have a hard time laughing at how stupid the Baker is being there considering that he later attempts suicide by hanging while in the throes of grief. These don’t seem like they are from the same universe.

Baker 7The second act also lags greatly once the Wife disappears. Simple scenes last much longer than they need to, with characters doing something, then explaining what they did, and why they are doing it, over and over again. The focus becomes more scattershot and the pacing all but disappears. There’s no way a movie with this premise should be more than 90 minutes, but “The Baker’s Wife” clocks in at 2-hours-and-fifteen minutes… much too long. Now here I’m more than willing to admit that my criticism here may be unfair. In its original French, the dialogue may crackle and breeze by at a fast clip, but the subtitles may have lost that sparkle and wit in their translation. So it may be the movie’s sin, or perhaps not.

Things improve a bit once the town comes together to hunt down the wife so they can get their bread back. Well, partially to get their bread back and partially to help the Baker. Would it have been stronger and cleaner had it been one or the other? Probably. I also wonder what having the Baker and his Wife being new to the town does for the script. Wouldn’t it have been more advantageous for them to be established in the town for years? He’s beloved, she’s gossiped about, and when the Shepherd starts work, the inevitable happens. It may have strengthened the throughline and theme significantly. But oh well.

Baker 4Wait, wasn’t I saying things improved? Yeah, back to that. There’s a great scene where the town is assigning roles and places for its citizens to go in search of the Wife. I wonder if Tim Burton used it as a model for his similar scene in “A Nightmare Before Christmas”? Some bits sparkle, like when the men bickering about the tree line end up bonding during their search. Others bomb, like when those four men, now friends, immediately begin to mock and scorn the Baker. The funniest sequence in the film is when the Teacher and the Priest cross a river together in a most unusual manner, snipping and snarking the entire way.

Baker 8Leading into the final scene, I was relaxed and felt like the movie had gotten back on the rails, but that long finale, where the Baker and his Wife are reunited, destroyed nearly all my goodwill. It’s so badly written and so miscalculated that it was sunk well before the racism and sexism are even brought into consideration. I’m certain that someone will tell me that it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, but for me it’s a convoluted mess that only underlines that Pagnol had no idea what he was trying to say with the film. The Baker, who has been sweet and kind with rare exception to this point, forgives his Wife on a surface level before calling her “Tart! Slut! Piece of filth!” (sure, it was to a cat, but you know exactly who he was really talking to). And while the Wife character served as an enigma prior to this, her blankness comes across as just that here. Plus the part where he says that all black and Asian people look indistinguishable, which I’m not even gonna touch. All things considered, when the movie finally faded to black, my jaw was dropped… and not in a good way.

Baker 5My animosity in this final scene is not aimed at Raimu or Leclerc, who both give exceptional performances. With a cigarette constantly in his mouth and his sweaty, sleeveless undershirt on, the Baker probably doesn’t smell that good, but Raimu gets across his humanity throughout… and bonus points for giving a good drunk performance, which is nearly impossible. His mustache also makes him look like an even schlubbier Charlie Chaplin, while the Teacher looks close to Harold Lloyd – all we needed was a Buster Keaton twin for the trifecta. Leclerc does so much with so little, dominating scenes simple with her presence and stare. In fact, the entire cast is quite lovely, top to bottom.

And while I take issue with Pagnol’s screenplay, his work with the cast and gentle direction are exquisite. This isn’t a movie of great visual invention, but it still finds some great moments to shine. Look, for example, at how Pagnol frames the scene where everyone goes inside the bakery to check the Baker’s bread – it’s from behind the Wife looking out, so we see every person entering checking her out.

But while “The Baker’s Wife” has many assets, I struggle with recommending it. Its problems aren’t as forgivable as other films – they cut me to the quick. But I suppose if you can watch it with blinders and take well-timed bathroom breaks throughout, including during the final scene, you can do worse. But why not seek out something where you don’t have to ignore all the problems instead? Just a thought.

Cover: Manuel Fior captures the look and tone of “The Baker’s Wife” beautifully. It’s not the most memorable cover of the year, but it’s certainly fun and will make fans of the film very happy.

I award it four pastis’ out of five.

Essay: Ginette Vincendeau proves once again why she is one of the most dependable recurring essay writers in the Collection with a well-written, thought-provoking essay that does an excellent job summing up the film, its contents and its origins. Highly recommended.

I award it four-and-a-half sexy Shepherds out of five.

Extras: Meh.

-I enjoyed the introduction by Pagnol, recorded for television while he was still alive. He sums up how the movie came into being quite well, and I like his personality.

-Another Pagnol television interview, this one more disposable.

-A short looking at the town where the movie was shot, which I have already forgotten a day after watching it.

-Pagnol expert Brett Bowles has selected scene commentary, which is quite horrendous. He attempts to place the film and sequences in political context, but ends up just describing what is on screen and trying to explain why it is funny. It’s excruciating and I ended up not finishing them.

I award them one-and-a-half overbearing tree shadows out of five.

Up Next: 1984

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Klute

Klute CoverThe Criterion Odyssey/The Film Noir Odyssey

Spine #987

Writer: Andy Lewis & Dave Lewis

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi

Cinematographer: Gordon Willis

Music: Michael Small

Release: June 25, 1971

Company: Warner Bros.

Country: USA

As with my previous two Criterion Odyssey installments on “Death in Venice” and “Wanda,” I was humbled to be invited back on David Blakeslee’s great “Criterion Reflections” podcast to discuss “Klute.”

You can find the episode on Apple Podcasts, or feel free to click on the link below to listen on your browser or download it. Enjoy!

Criterion Reflections: Klute

Up Next: “The Baker’s Wife”

Europa Europa

Europa Europa CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #985

Writer: Agnieszka Holland & Paul Hengge

Based on the Memoir “I Was Hitler Youth Salomon” by Solomon Perel

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Cast: Marco Hofschneider, Julie Delpy, Hans Zischler

Music: Zbigniew Preisner

Cinematography: Jacek Petrycki

Release: November 14, 1990

Country: Germany, France, Poland

Despite the fact that I’m all for a movie whose plot centers on a penis, I’m not sure that “Europa Europa” measures up. Okay, I’ll stop. I’m sorry.

Europa Europa 1The film focuses on Salomon (Marco Hofschneider), a young German Jewish man who manages to survive World War II by lying – he adjusts his ancestry to a more “in vogue” family tree. He finds himself in a Russian orphanage, then as a soldier, then as a member of the Hitler Youth. Yes, you read that right. Salomon manages to near-perfectly create whatever character he needs to in any situation, but there is one mark which he cannot erase – his circumcision.

Salomon’s story is based in truth, and co-screenwriters Agnieszka Holland (also the director) and Paul Hengge seem obsessed with getting as much of his odyssey onscreen as possible. The immediate, unfortunate result is that the film becomes terribly episodic, with characters of great importance introduced only to be pushed aside a scene or two later so Salomon can head on his next adventure. And the writing isn’t distinct or deep enough for us to engage with these drive-by characters, which makes it a double shame.

Europa Europa 2Salomon’s family is introduced, with his poor sister getting a whole three lines in before she is exploded in a Nazi attack. A gay actor first tries to seduce Salomon but, upon seeing his penis, realizes he is Jewish and wants to be besties instead. He gets a whole two scenes with Salomon before he is shot to death on the front. This gives the viewer whiplash after awhile, and in the climax when Salomon is reunited with his brother… his only surviving family member… the screenwriters have done such a bad job of setting him up that we are numb to the moment. What a shame.

Europa Europa 4Then again, it’s not like we get to know Salomon all that well either. Yes, dear readers, we have arrived at another one of those paper-thin protagonists whose main attribute seems to be existing. Despite the fact that Salomon narrates his own story, what all do we know about him? Not much, I’m afraid. And there is a huge missed opportunity here – we could have watched a character we genuinely love warp and change before our eyes into someone completely different because of his circumstances. But no, he starts out bland and ends things just as bland… with Hofschneider (who reminds me a lot of Jeremy Irvine) doing just fine in the role. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s also a shame because we don’t see him using much ingenuity to get out of his situation. Aside from faking a toothache in order to not have the doctors investigate his penis, he just sort of sits there and does nothing. Okay, that is a little unfair – he attempts to mutilate his penis to look uncircumcised too. But in general, Salomon is the luckiest motherfucker alive, with multiple acts of god happening in order to help him have his secret kept. Literally, battles are ended and buildings are exploded to keep secrets. It’s like that old screenwriting saying goes – audiences will believe any coincidence if it makes the protagonist’s struggle more difficult. If the coincidence helps the protagonist, we will never buy it. I stopped buying things about 20 minutes in.

Europa Europa 7And I haven’t even gotten to the tone, which is… a choice. Holland seems to be trying to balance tragedy, dark comedy and slapstick – sometimes all three within a single scene. I don’t think it works. Look, I’m the first to admit that a film about a Jewish man hidden in Hitler Youth whose penis is the only thing that could implicate him has some humor in it. But is it really funny anymore after the guy has basically mutilated his penis to hide himself? Not really. There are multiple dream sequences so odd that my jaw dropped when watching them… and not in a good way.

I guess what it comes down to is this. There is one great sequence in “Europa Europa” – a masterful bit of storytelling where Salomon rides a train through the ghetto. The windows are blacked out, but Salomon wipes a spot open and peeks outside, looking for his family. It’s emotionally devastating to see everything happening outside those windows, raises the stakes for our protagonist because now he understands what would happen if he is discovered, and also excruciating to view as a human being. I cannot for the life of me make peace with the idea that this sequence takes place in the same movie as the following one. In it, a Nazi woman sees Salomon and declares that he looks just like Hitler, and then seduces him. She doesn’t notice that he’s circumcised before the sex, and when she climaxes, she screams “Mein Fuhrer!”

Europa Europa 6It just does not compute for me. It’s like putting a penis joke at the beginning of a Criterion article.

The comedy bleeds into otherwise dramatic scenes, destroying their power. In one, Salomon admits that he is Jewish to the mother of his ex-girlfriend while weeping… pushed over the edge emotionally. The scene is really resonant, except for the fact that Holland frames Salomon’s breakdown right next to a nude statue whose penis is basically center frame. And that’s basically where “Europa Europa” sits, in this weird middle space where it never works as a comedy but is never hard-hitting enough as a drama… and Salomon isn’t engaging enough for us to care either way.

Europa Europa 3I’ve already mentioned Hofschneider’s just okay-ness in the lead. Would he have done better with different material? Probably. The rest of the ensemble speed by without making much of an impact. This includes Julie Delpy as Salomon’s brief Nazi girlfriend. I thought it was impossible for Delpy to not make much of an impact… and yet here we are. The film looks nice, at least, thanks to Holland’s eye and cinematographer Jacek Petrycki. Zbigniew Preisner’s music is essentially one earworm of a two-note theme played over and over again, which is memorable (then again, two notes are pretty easy to memorize), but a major missed opportunity when you consider the grey area the score could have created for Salomon’s character.

Europa Europa 8Which is how I feel about the entire movie. There’s all this grey area about Salomon and his circumstances which are not exploited or delved into. Were the screenwriters afraid to dive deeper because the subject was still alive? Or were they too focused on telling his entire wartime story to stop for any nuance? Even after watching the special features, the answer still eludes me. And, frankly, the movie isn’t good enough for me to keep thinking about it.

Cover: Gerard Dubois leans into the drama way more than the dark comedy of the situation with his cover. It’s not memorable and doesn’t stand out on a store shelf, but then again, I’m not sure what else he could have conjured up that would have been a better option.

I award it two-and-a-half candies falling from heaven out of five.

Essay: Amy Taubin’s very good essay seems much more concerned with Holland’s background and her aesthetic as a filmmaker than the film itself, which may be the smarter way to go. It certainly convinced me to watch more of Holland’s work, even though I didn’t like “Europa Europa” at all.

I award it four healthy pulled teeth out of five.

Extras: They are here.

  • An older audio commentary featuring Holland that is probably the most insightful thing on the disc in terms of why she approached the material the way she did. I didn’t walk away agreeing with her, nor fully understanding why, but it made me respect her point-of-view a lot more.
  • An interview with Holland which is outstanding when it comes to tracing her biography (which is pretty extraordinary) and subpar when approaching the film.
  • An interview with Hofschneider that talks about how this was his first film and what his working relationship with Holland was like. Interesting, but ultimately skippable.
  • An interview with the real Salomon, who is still alive. Interesting enough – I wish it were longer.
  • A video essay by Annette Insdorf which offers no major insight into the film you can’t glean from paying attention while watching.

I award them three barrels out of five.

Up Next: “Klute”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig Cover.jpgThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #982

Writer/Director: John Cameron Mitchell

Based on the musical by John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask

Cast: John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin

Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco

Music: Stephen Trask 

Songs & Lyrics: John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask

Release: July 20, 2001

Country: USA

Becoming comfortable in our own skin is a lifelong process, and I doubt another film inhabits this theme more entirely than “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It may be glossy, loud and made up to the nines, but when that’s stripped away, all it wants to show us is that it’s okay to seek out who you truly are… no matter what form that takes.

Hedwig 6And there has never been another human like Hedwig (played by writer/director John Cameron Mitchell). Born a boy in East Berlin, Hedwig (then Hansel) found a sugar daddy who would be willing to take him to America… if he has a sex change operation. Hansel is initially hesitant, and the surgery goes horribly awry, leaving a one-inch mound of flesh. Now named Hedwig, the moment they get to America, her sugar daddy leaves her, sending her into a spiral of depression until she pulls herself out of it thanks to blonde wigs, make-up and some great eye shadow. Oh, and she’s a brilliant composer who wants to be a rock star.

Hedwig falls in love with the son of a guy she babysits for (Michael Pitt), gives him the stage name Tommy Gnosis and begins to sing with him. But then he steals all the music they co-composed and becomes a Mick Jagger-style superstar, heading around the country on a sold-out tour. Hedwig and her band follow him from stop to stop, playing at much less prestigious venues – usually a knock-off Red Lobster chain.

Hedwig 2Hedwig isn’t comfortable in her own skin… and understandably so. She was resistant to her sex change operation, betrayed by every person she loved and feels rightly robbed of a rock star career that should have been hers. Tommy, though the villain, is likewise uneasy – still coming to terms with his sexuality, he feels bad about stealing the music and obviously has deep love for Hedwig, but is willing to trade it for his rock star lifestyle.

Hedwig 3Also of note is Hedwig’s current partner Yitzhak. Though born a man, it becomes apparent quickly that he wants to be a woman and – in an inspired bit of casting – is played by a female (Miriam Shor). And damn, it must suck for Yitzhak to be in a relationship with Hedwig, knowing every single day that she’s still in love with someone else and literally stalking him across America.

Mitchell gives an astonishing performance as Hedwig – no two ways about it. It would be so easy to paint Hedwig as a caricature, but Mitchell (who originated the stage role) is always digging… always managing to find the small moments of humanity in even Hedwig’s biggest moments. There isn’t a false note in his performance, which is all the more impressive considering the range the role calls for (and I’m not just talking vocally).

Hedwig 4I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast, but if I’m being blunt, this is Mitchell’s show and everyone else essentially just gets out of his way. Shor, who is the best thing on the long-running series “Younger,” is fine as Yitzhak but doesn’t offer up as much depth as I expected from such a great performer. Pitt is quite good as the young, impressionable youth Hedwig falls in love with, but doesn’t manage to convince you for a single moment that he has the gravitas of a rock star. This despite the fact that he played a rock star very well later in Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days.” Usually dependable character actors like Andrea Martin get lost in Mitchell’s wake. But then again, it’s almost understandable – everyone is bowing down to Hedwig, and rightfully so.

Hedwig 5In case you couldn’t tell from the plot summary above, the film is off kilter… but in a great way. It’s difficult to compare it to anything else because there hasn’t really been another movie like it – before or since. And that’s not a bad thing. Like Hedwig herself, this is a singular creation. But its weirdness is one of its strong suits. Mitchell draws us in with the gloss, but his screenplay always keeps its focus where it resonates most – on Hedwig’s journey to self-actualization. It’s a smart script, full of witty dialogue and great zingers, but is also blunt with its emotion in a way that is quite surprising. It wants to be loved as much as we want love in our own lives.

Hedwig 6I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far into the article without mentioning the songs, which is a tribute to how wholly excellent most everything in “Hedwig” is. And the songs, co-written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, are no exception. Probably purposefully, they don’t allow just one specific type of music for the songs, instead going for a pu pu platter when it comes to genre. There are several standouts – my personal favorites are “The Origin of Love,” “Wig in a Box” and “Angry Inch,” but I could have easily listed four or five others in their place. If you’re watching a good musical, you walk out whistling one of the songs. But if you are watching a great musical, you hum several tunes for the next week. This is a great musical.

Hedwig 7Years and years ago, when I was just starting college, I was visiting a friend in New York and met his boyfriend for the very first time. That night, there was a blizzard so we all ended up snowed in at my friend’s apartment. My friend said he had just rented this movie called “Shortbus” – also directed by Mitchell – for us to watch, put it on, then promptly fell fast asleep. This left his boyfriend (who, again, I had met one hour before) and I to watch the film, which begins with a man giving himself a blowjob, goes on to show a threesome where all three men sing the National Anthem while holding one another’s penises like microphones, and ends with an orgy. All the sex is real.

Hedwig 8It was awkward. Like, way awkward. Probably less because of the film and more because of the fact that I was 19 when I watched it next to a stranger. Regardless, this experience is why I have avoided watching “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” until this Odyssey, and now I’m kicking myself for missing it for all these years. I know that it has a cult following, but even though it had a Broadway revival, I feel like it never hit the big time in the way other cult hits have. And yet, here it remains, waiting to be discovered by those lucky enough to find it.

It’s a delight. It’s beautiful. It’s whole. And, as Hedwig herself comes to realize, that is more than enough.

Cover: A solid, colorful representation of the punk rock nature of the film. I really like it but, I’m not going to lie, I had forgotten what it looked like when I came to this section of the article and needed a refresher. So… that’s never good.

I award it three blonde wigs out of five.

Essay: My favorite essay of the year. Stephanie Zacharek beautifully encapsulates the reasons “Hedwig” is as extraordinary as it is, personalizes it and makes you want to read it again as soon as you finish. It’s taking all my strength not to just copy and paste the first paragraph below in quotes, because it almost left me standing and cheering.

I award it five gummy bears out of five.

Extras: There is a lot here. Obviously Criterion wanted to make this one of their biggest releases of the year, and they achieved it.

  • The centerpiece is a fantastic (fantastic!) conversation between all the major cast and crew members about the original Off-Broadway show, the transition to screen and the impact. It’s a must-watch, and one of the best extras Criterion has created in 2019.
  • An audio commentary with Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, which is very fun but covers much of the same territory as the conversation… and I feel like it’s sacrilege to have the songs playing and not be rocking out to them – hard to do with a commentary track.
  • Critic David Fricke interviews Trask about the music, and it’s a great showcase for Trask’s vivacious personality. Some very interesting tidbits here about what the individual songs were trying to accomplish.
  • An old documentary about the development of “Hedwig” that is mostly repetitive and can be skipped.
  • An investigation into the animated centerpiece sequence, which isn’t as interesting as just watching the sequence.
  • Deleted scenes that were smartly deleted but interesting to watch.

I award it five ovens out of five.

Up Next: “Europa, Europa”

War and Peace

War and Peace CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #983

Written by Sergei Bondarchuk & Vasily Solovyov

Based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy

Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk

Cast: Sergei Bondarchuk, Ludmila Savelyeva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov

Cinematography: Anatoly Petritsky, Yu-Lan Chen, Alexander Shelenkov

Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov

Release: Various, from March 14, 1966 through November 4, 1967

Country: Soviet Union

I’m generally not a big fan of the “epic” genre of film. I’ve tried, dear reader, I really have. But with rare exceptions (“Gone With the Wind” and “Ran” come to mind), I end up bored out of my gourd, laughing at things that aren’t supposed to be funny, and then bored again. It’s quite telling that I bought “Cleopatra” on DVD years back and have watched about a third of the actual film… but watched the two-hour “Making Of” documentary five times. How these spectacles were created engage me more than the usually wooden dialogue and those terrible hairstyles (they apparently had hairspray in ancient times. A lot of hairspray).

War and Peace 1So when I say that I was just as engaged watching “War and Peace” as I was learning about its insane (insane!) creation, know how much of a compliment it is.

If you’re reading this, you probably know the statistics. An expert in one of the special features on the Criterion disc says that it cost probably close to $700 million in adjusted dollars to create. That there were tens of thousands of extras. Five years of filming. It gave the co-writer/director/star Sergei Bondarchuk two heart attacks where he was clinically dead for several minutes. That’s all great, but if we didn’t care about the characters and their fates, it wouldn’t matter much.

War and Peace 2Oh, how I cared. At seven-plus hours (split into four sections), there is obviously a lot here, but “War and Peace” ultimately boils down to three characters’ journeys. First is Pierre (Bondarchuk), who goes from a naïf to the voice of a nation. Second is Natasha (Ludmila Savelyeva), a young woman who feels every emotion deeply… sometimes too deeply. Third is Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), a prince who is still grieving the death of his wife and walled up to love. We follow them through – wait for it – war and peace as battles are waged, dances are danced and Moscow burns.

The first thing that struck me while watching was that Bondarchuk was not content with playing things safe stylistically – even though the movie cost more than the annual gross national product of some countries. He tries things early and often, and they hit much more than they miss. A character spies two lovers embracing and walking away… while their silhouette remains, lingering in the character’s memory. A wedding proposal happens not with romantic music in the background, but in split screen with the eternal drip-dropping of a nearby fountain. Twice he remains with a character articulating in voiceover after their death – first (and most impactfully) when a cavalry soldier is felled on his horse and we see… from his POV… him falling to the ground and realizing he has just been murdered. Secondly is when Andrei’s wife dies in childbirth and we hear her final thoughts about her life and how she got to this moment. Both are shattering.

War and Peace 5These moments give an intimacy to the entire affair that helps ground things. Bondarchuk smartly pays as much attention to creating an emotional reaction from the viewer during a ball as he does while exploding things on the battlefield. And it’s a credit to him that we remember the romance of those moments as well as we do the more epic stuff. That ball sequence… damn I was swept away in the romance of it all. The smoldering looks… the innocent stares… the everything. It takes a lot to get me to swoon, but damn if I wasn’t doing so multiple times here.

And then we get to the war stuff.

War and Peace 6It’s an odd thing, really. I suppose I have gotten numb to seeing battles waged onscreen. I’ve seen the CGI wars waged in what seems like every fantasy tentpole since “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” I’ve seen the slow-moving masses attacking one another in ‘50s epics like “Spartacus.” And I’ve seen the scaled-down versions that hide their low budgets with style, like “Chimes at Midnight.”

So when I say it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen on film before and unlike anything you will ever see again, this is not hyperbole.

War and Peace 3The imagery. The scale. The camerawork. There are shots where we are looking at dissipating smoke and then, when it disappears, we see thousands of soldiers moving in formation. And the angle and composition are so precise that you just know that you aren’t looking at a happy accident that they captured on film. This was calculated… but how many takes did they have to make to have the smoke dissipate just so? And how long did it take to reset the thousands (again, it is thousands) of soldiers for every take? And I’m only focusing on a single shot here out of hundreds of battle ones. Add it all together, and you can see why it took five years to make. Hell, you’re kind of surprised it didn’t take longer.

War and Peace 4You also kind of wonder if Bondarchuk was purposely one-upping classic imagery we’ve seen in American epics. A shot of hundreds of dead soldiers on the battlefield reminds you of the soldiers lying outside the hospital in Atlanta shot from “Gone With the Wind.” Scenes of the soldiers marching conjure up memories of the Jews marching from Egypt in “The Ten Commandments.” One has to wonder if he’s really trolling us… and I think because of the similar framing in these instances he must be.

The final shot of the first section of “War and Peace” is truly astonishing. The camera must be mounted on the back of a plane as it ascends into the clouds, looking down onto the battle as we see the armies of soldiers like ants below. Circling one another. Killing. It’s one of the great shots in all of cinema.

War and Peace 8And I should also say that this is not visual trickery. In the first three sections, what you are seeing on screen is what was shot. There are no matte paintings or anything of the like. You do notice a few such moments during the burning of Moscow in the final section… but then again you can’t really blame Bondarchuk for deciding not to burn down the fair city again. Once was enough.

Because you trust what you are seeing is “real,” you key in on moments and visual bits that underline what conditions are like there. All the 1’s and 0’s creating the big Thanos battles (or whatever) have made these sequences too perfect – everything is touched up and every splash of dirt is meticulously placed. In “War and Peace” we see a wagon pulled by horses toward the battlefield and see all the mud piling on the wheels as the heavy thing sinks deeper and deeper. We see the dogs running for cover because of the noise. A soldier trips as he walks in formation. Stuff like that makes you “feel” the weight of the sequences in ways missing in modern film.

At over seven hours, there are problems. Quick single frame flashes of glistening diamonds or fire in the second and third parts, which was intended to create atmosphere, annoy quickly. The third and fourth part rely four times too many on montages of a character (usually Pierre) standing and staring with his eyes wide while the world is in chaos around him. It gets old. I get that Natasha needs to feel emotion deeper than others, but does she really have to cry so much? And though I really liked Savelyeva’s performance as Natasha, it is a problem that she looks so much like Irina Gubanova, who plays Sonya, since they share so many scenes together.

War and Peace 7All this and I haven’t even gotten to the performances yet, which are quite good. Savelyeva was a ballet dancer before getting the role, but holds her own. Tikhonov does well at appearing stone cold on the surface with a deep well of emotion concealed. But the standout is Bondarchuk as Pierre, who is excellent every time we see him onscreen. The man was likely mad, casting himself as the lead in his seven-hour epic film that took five years to create and longer to edit… this after co-writing the screenplay which is based on the most famous, beloved novel in Russian literature. But he took it upon himself. Based on the special features, everyone behind the scenes and in front of the camera (except  Savelyeva) seems to hate him to one degree or another, which is understandable considering what he put them all through.

But “War and Peace” would not have been what it is without Bondarchuk at the helm. Strip all the noise of how the film was created away, and the movie still remains, towering over all other comparable epics. It’s a masterpiece that is one of the greatest filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had – a true peak of the art form in every sense of the word. See it on the biggest screen you can.

Cover: Gary Kelley’s artwork captures the balance between romance and destruction contained within the film itself. It’s crowded, but purposely so… and then again, so is the movie. This is one of my favorite covers of the year. Maybe even my favorite.

I award it five unexpected bears out of five.

Essay: Ella Taylor starts out by personalizing the experience of the film, and then does well ticking off most of the necessary information on the background and creation of the project. It’s a long piece, but I wish it were longer.

I award it four handkerchief dances out of five.

Extras: A bunch of extras fit for a czar.

  • Start out with the lengthy, in-depth, excellent interview with Denise J. Youngblood, who speaks about “War and Peace” the novel, the circumstances that led to the creation of the project, production, reaction and the fates of those connected to it. Unmissable.
  • Cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky talks about his work. Surprise, surprise… he doesn’t speak highly of Bondarchuk.
  • Bondarchuk’s son Fedor speaks very briefly about his father and how the production affected him. Disposable.
  • Three documentaries (well, one is a television episode, but close enough) from the mid-60s about the making of. As I said, I can’t get enough of stuff like this, so I gobbled it all up with glee. Some of the information is repetitious, but the magic contained elsewhere more than makes up for it.
  • A re-release trailer that is awesome.

I award it Five Missing Legs out of Five.

Up Next: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

L’humanite

Humanite CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #981

Writer/Director: Bruno Dumont

Star: Emmanuel Schotte, Severine Caneele, Philippe Tullier

Cinematography: Yves Cape

Release: May 17, 1999

Country: France

When reacting to writer/director Bruno Dumont’s first film, “La vie de Jesus,” I mentioned that I loved his voice – but it was very much a “first film” in terms of both theme and quality. I was looking forward to exploring his filmography further, and now that I’ve seen his second feature, “L’humanite” – which is helpfully the next film on my Criterion Odyssey – I’m happy to report that he has matured further as an artist. It’s not a great movie… but it’s a damn good one.

Humanity 1I feel like the single reason the film exists is Emmanuel Schotte. He is, at once, so terrible as an actor and yet so engaging to watch that his work transcends its content – it becomes a great performance because you genuinely can’t look away from him. You wonder how Schotte is going to react in any given situation, anticipating the next oddity he’ll bring to the screen. Dumont famously works with non-professional actors, and while I had reservations about lead David Douche’s work in “La vie de Jesus,” here I will bow down to Dumont’s decision – there has never been a performance like this onscreen before, and I doubt there ever will be again.

Dumont seems obsessed with Schotte – the way he speaks, walks, stares… the way he everything. His camera lingers in close-up early and often. And yes, it is fascinating. And yes, at 148 minutes, it does get old. The movie sags a bit after awhile – did we really need to just ponder Schotte walking down a street for the fourth time?

Humanity 2You’ll notice that I’ve been going for a few paragraphs and haven’t even touched on the plot yet, and that sounds about right. You remember Schotte about all else. He stars as Detective Pharaon de Winter, a broken man who lost his girlfriend & child recently and is still in the process of grieving. He’s investigating the rape and murder of a young girl, and we catch him in the midst of what I can only describe as one long nervous breakdown.

While there are “twists” in the case and clues to follow, if you approach “L’humanite” as a murder mystery, you are bound to walk away from it disappointed. Though we do figure out who the murderer is at the finale, it comes as no surprise. There was only one real possibility, and the identity of the person is so obvious that there may as well be a flashing neon sign pointed at his head at all times. He’s so guilty that the viewer actually begins wondering if its too obvious… there’s no way Dumont could possibly be that transparent. Whoops.

Humanity 3That said, the movie isn’t about the murder. Not really. Dumont is far more interested in how it affects Pharaon’s humanity. The writer/director also dives into different approaches to masculinity. The only real relationships that Pharaon has are with his friend Domino (Severine Caneele) and her boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier). Domino is sweet with Pharaon and empathetic to what he is going through, insistent that he’s included as a third part of any outing she and Joseph go on. Joseph is nothing more than a blunt object – he insults everyone around him, doesn’t seem to care much for Domino and in general is a violent fucker. Domino doesn’t seem to like him very much either, and yet there they are.

Hanging out with Domino and Joseph together isn’t much fun, so why does Pharaon do it? Well, he has nothing else to do. Home alone, he thinks of the deaths of his loved ones, or the body of the young girl he saw. With them, he at least gets something of an escape. But all he does is sit or stand there passively while Joseph postures. Pharaon is a cop, so of course Joseph makes a point of breaking every traffic law he can. This is just the smallest behavioral thing – there are many, many more.

Humanity 5Despite Schotte’s magnetism, there are a few moments where Dumont pushes things too far. I’m thinking specifically of the opening sequence, which is rightly praised visually… but the idea that Pharaon would fall over and basically be dead for a minute in the mud, eyes fixed and mouth agape long enough for a bug to crawl into it – it’s inhuman. And part of the reason we are drawn so much to Pharaon (and Schotte’s performance) is because he is always human… often the most intense version of human possible.

Dumont (working here with cinematographer Yves Cape) has matured his visual style since “La vie de Jesus.” Everyone remembers that first shot of Pharaon on the hill, but there is much more. In his previous film, he seemed content to merely show the characters standing or sitting in their environments. Here he has the characters interact with them, and in doing so showcase or underline their own character traits. Look at the main trio as they walk through a museum together. Or Domino on the beach.

Humanity 4As written previously, “L’humanite” is almost two-and-a-half hours, and while it certainly feels long, the expanded running time allows Dumont more room to paint around the edges. This is more of a meditation than a movie when you boil down to it. It’s not a mystery and it’s not really a character piece because Pharaon remains an enigma to the very end. Roger Ebert called it a “prayer” in his review, and that is a fascinating description. I’m not sure that I agree with it, but in its best moments, it retains a power of movement and image that feels transcendent.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect – often I was flying high, completely surrendered to the power Dumont had conjured, only to be yanked back down to earth. Did it bug me that he didn’t spend more than thirty seconds crafting the mystery? Hell yes. And no, I’m not saying it should have been a procedural or anything like that… I simply feel like he could have gotten across everything he wanted to thematically while still offering up a coherent mystery whose payoff would land even more emotionally as a result.

Still, “L’humanite” is special. It doesn’t hit masterpiece status, but it assures me that Dumont has one inside him. I’m so happy it exists… and that it allows Schotte a showcase for a performance I’ll never forget.

Cover: Vivienne Flesher is back again after doing the cover for “La vie de Jesus” and, aside from the font, does little to connect the two. Which is smart – this is a very different film. It doesn’t wow you on first glance… instead this is the kind of cover that rewards you staring at it for a long while, and I mean that as a compliment.

I award it four busts out of five.

Essay: Nicholas Elliot is also back with another essay. This one lacks a bit of the personal connection that made the first so outstanding, but it’s still a solid work that tells you everything you need to know and why the film – and Schotte – is so special.

I award it four vaguely hidden handcuffs out of five.

Extras: They are essentially the same as the ones we found on “La vie de Jesus” except the television excerpts are from a show called “Tendances.” Instead of addressing them one at a time, I’ll just sum up my feelings thusly – Dumont is a writer and director whose work speaks deeply to me when I watch it up onscreen, but I do not enjoy listening to him speak. He comes across as condescending, and his over-intellectualization of his films takes away from their power. Honestly, I’d just watch the movies and skip the extras.

I award it one-and-a-half unexpected kisses out of five.

Up Next: “War & Peace”

Hans Zimmer: The 100 Best Cues Finale

Welcome back, friends, to the final installment. If you missed Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3, please click away and check them out at your convenience. That said, let’s finish this up!

  1. “Run Free” – “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002)

SpiritThere is no soft intro to “Run Free” – Zimmer begins the propulsive movement in the first second of the cue. Almost like hoofbeats thundering across the frontier. I adore the main identity introduced here – one he would mature later as a love theme in “Winter’s Tale.” The cue increases exponentially in excitement as it goes along – look at the left turn it takes around 2:25. All in all, this is Zimmer working at the peak of his inspirational powers.

Bias Check: I was a staff writer on DreamWorks Animation’s sequel series “Spirit Riding Free” for its first eight seasons.
Co-Composed by Steve Jablonsky
  1. “Molossus” – “Batman Begins” (2005)

Okay, I think we can all agree that the naming process of this album was… uh… not the most ideal. This is why I believe it’s less discussed than the other two scores for the Christopher Nolan trilogy – it’s more difficult to talk about names like “Antrozous” and “Corynorhinus” without wasting time looking up the score. And yet one cannot ignore that this adrenaline-pumping work (co-composed mainly with James Newton Howard) set the template for Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan, and most of his future action work for the next decade.

Co-Composed by James Newton Howard, Ramin Djawadi and Mel Wesson
  1. “Budget Meeting” – “King Arthur” (2004)

It’s not often that one would call a cue “hysterical,” but that is what we have here. It’s as if Zimmer took all of his major recurring action score techniques and threw them into a blender set on high. In other words, “Budget Meeting” is a lot, but in all the right ways. From the choir to the bass to the drums to the everything, the entire nine minutes feels like one protracted musical climax.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith and Rupert Gregson-Williams
  1. “160 BPM” – “Angels & Demons” (2009)

angelsdemonsfrontThough there are many highlights from the Robert Langdon trilogy, “Angels & Demons” represents the best score of the three, and the best mash-up of Zimmer’s rock sensibilities and his love for classical music. “160 BPM” has both in spades, pitching an insane choir of what I can only imagine are demon priests against his trademark drums and electronics. You finish the cue sweaty, exhausted… and exhilarated.

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe and Atli Orvarsson
  1. “Maestro” – “The Holiday” (2007)

One of the high points of Zimmer’s romance writing (a genre he sadly seems to have abandoned since “Winter’s Tale”), “Maestro” is one of those goosebump-inducing cues that makes you smile and reach for “repeat.” The soft cooing of the female vocalists has rarely mixed better with strings. Bonus points for the fact that the cue (and film itself) have increased in popularity over the past 12 years – it seems to have entered the zeitgeist in a way few other cues do. It’s now a mainstay at weddings and anniversary parties.

Also, “The Holiday” was my first Zimmer album, so there is that.

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe, Heitor Pereira, Henry Jackman, Imogen Heap, Atli Orvarsson and Reyland Allison
  1. “Beyond Rangoon” – “Beyond Rangoon” (1995)

BeyondRangoonThere are two kinds of Hans Zimmer fans: those that count “Beyond Rangoon” as one of their very favorite scores by the maestro, and those who have not heard it yet. The John Boorman film is barely remembered, but the music? It has persevered, remaining one of his most highly regarded works. This finale cue represents Zimmer at the height of his creative powers, deftly mixing horror, suspense and the awesomeness of the culture & landscape without allowing one aspect to overwhelm the rest. It’s a nearly impossible task, and yet here we are.

  1. “Love” – “The Boss Baby” (2017)

There is a reason there are three cues from DreamWorks Animation projects in the top 25 – it is one of the most viable, creative partnerships ever between a creator and studio. Not since the Golden days of Hollywood have we seen such a pairing. “Love,” which was written by master orchestrator and composer Conrad Pope, is a true highlight. He takes the main theme of the film and layers it over and over, until we get a stunning piece of film music you would never guess comes from something called “The Boss Baby.” I cried the first time I listened to it.

Co-Composed by Steve Mazzaro and Conrad Pope
  1. “A Small Measure of Peace” – “The Last Samurai” (2003)

Though the content of “The Last Samurai” film hasn’t aged well, Zimmer’s exquisite score has only gotten better as the years pass. A beautiful ode to the music of Japan, Zimmer utilizes many instruments primarily used there to create a tragic, almost Shakespearean mood, never more gorgeously rendered than in “A Small Measure of Peace.” You can tell the work was very personal for him, and the results speak for themselves.

Co-Composed by Blake Neely, Geoff Zanelli and Trevor Morris
  1. “Peacemaker” – “The Peacemaker” (1997)

ThePeacemakerIn 1995, “Crimson Tide” changed film music forever… and in 1997 Zimmer created its spiritual sequel in all but name. “The Peacemaker” is all blunt force trauma – deftly carrying over all the style and execution that made “Crimson Tide” groundbreaking. It doesn’t break new ground, but then again it doesn’t have to… there’s something to be said for an action and suspense score that simply embodies those feelings entirely. As will become normal the closer we get to the top, there are many cues here that could have been chosen, so I’m going with “Peacemaker” because it functions as an attractive summation of all the major ideas within the score.

Co-Composed by Gavin Greenaway and Harry Gregson-Williams
  1. “Finale” – “The Lone Ranger” (2013)

This astonishing nine-and-a-half minute “Finale” cue isn’t just content with reprising the classic William Tell Overture that is so famously identified with the title character. No, it then warps and reconceives the theme (after a straightforward presentation at the outset) and then begins rolling in the major ideas of Zimmer’s score for good measure. In many ways, it perfectly represents the meshing of the classic and the modern… and how both can coexist within the same outstanding piece of music.

Co-Composed by Geoff Zanelli, Rupert Gregson-Williams, Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski, Jasha Klebe, Lorne Balfe and Jack White
  1. “Life Must Have Its Mysteries” – “Inferno” (2017)

INFERNOThough I have little love for the “Inferno” score as a whole, and frankly think its mediocrity robbed us of one of the best film score trilogies of all time, I will nevertheless bow down to the excellence of “Life Must Have Its Mysteries.” Within these magical four minutes are the most outstanding rendition of Zimmer’s iconic “Chevaliers de Sangreal” theme. So beautiful is this iteration that it may lift the listener out of his or her chair with joy at the way Zimmer carefully enhances and toys with the original theme. Unmissable stuff.

Co-Composed by Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski, Richard Harvey, Michael Tuler and Paul Mounsey
  1. “Oogway Ascends” – “Kung Fu Panda” (2008)

Speaking of the best film score trilogies of all time, whoever would have thought that “Kung Fu Panda” would be one of them? And yet here we are. Co-Composed with John Powell for the first two parts and Lorne Balfe for the third, these movies represent Zimmer at his most exotic and playful. For me, it doesn’t get better than “Oogway Ascends” – a cue that, while only two minutes long, is just about as perfect as film music gets.

Co-Composed by John Powell and Henry Jackman
  1. “Stampede” – “The Lion King” (2019)

The scores for the live-action Disney remakes have been wholly outstanding – though they have been most interesting in that in certain cases they allow the composer of the original score to reinterpret and update their own work. Alan Menken did it with “Beauty & the Beast” and “Aladdin,” managing to one-up his original in both cases. And now Zimmer has done the same here. Though “Stampede” follows the same basic structure of the classic cue, Zimmer has rolled up his sleeves to make it sound bigger… more epic… more everything.

Co-Composed by Lebo M, Steve Mazzaro and David Fleming
  1. “No Time For Caution” – “Interstellar” (2015)

InterstellarThe fact that “No Time For Caution” – one of the best Zimmer composed cues of all time – was not available on the original release of “Interstellar” is still cause for frustration by many fans. In fact, the entire release, with hidden cues only available if you scour different distributors, remains ludicrous, greedy, and something thankfully not repeated since. As to the music itself? Brilliant. Here is the best rendition of the ideas that Zimmer was exploring with the project – the organ, the slow build, the layers upon layers. It all clicks, it all works, and its brilliance is almost otherworldly (okay, I need to stop now).

  1. “Tennessee” – “Pearl Harbor” (2001)

Though an argument could be made for the love theme in film up next on the list, for me the most beautiful romantic theme Zimmer ever penned was the central one for “Pearl Harbor.” Harkening back to the Golden Age of film scoring, this feels like something Alfred Newman or Miklos Rozsa could have penned back in the day. It feels eternal, ageless and hits you right in the heart. The tender piano! The aching violin! Michael Bay’s abortive film didn’t deserve this lovely melody, but I’m so happy it exists.

Co-Composed by Klaus Badelt, Steve Jablonsky, James S. Levine, Geoff Zanelli and Fiachra Trench
  1. “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” – “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007)

potc3This ten-minute monster of a cue serves as the climax to the original “Pirates” trilogy, and its high point. Nearly every major theme and idea Zimmer had conjured gets a nod here, and the rendition of the franchise’s love theme also gets a spectacular display for good measure. But to me, this cue – and the score itself – represents another climax and moment of transition for the maestro itself. With it, Zimmer takes all his sounds, statements and trademarks of his career, many tracing all the way back to “Crimson Tide” and brings them back for one victory lap. Though there are exceptions, after this Zimmer would alter his voice – leaning more toward ‘80s Vangelis (“Dark Phoenix,” “Interstellar”) or experimental (“Inferno,” “Dunkirk”). It’s a beautiful goodbye and glorious reminder of what he can achieve at the height of his action prowess.

Co-Composed by Geoff Zanelli, Lorne Balfe, Henry Jackman, Nick Glennie-Smith, Tom Gire, Atli Orvarsson and John Sponsler
  1. “End Titles” – “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989)

Without “Driving Miss Daisy,” there would be no Hans Zimmer as we know him. A low-budget, entirely synthetic affair, it is grounded by a catchy main theme that one could argue Zimmer has never quite topped. Actually, I take that back. It doesn’t ground anything… it lifted the movie… and Zimmer’s career… into the stratosphere. This final cue represents five minutes of pure magic – and the best rendition of that theme – one that has become even more popular than the film it supports. This is the type of feel-great music that touches your soul – it’s simple, lovely and gorgeously rendered.

  1. “Burn It All” – “Backdraft” (1991)

BackdraftAs far as cues of relentless action, both within Zimmer’s career and within all film scores, you can’t do much better than “Burn It All.” Produced just as Zimmer was perfecting the sound that would represent his Remote Control Productions, there is not a wasted breath or note in these five minutes. Bold, loud and with distinct, well-used electronic manipulations… it breaks out the children’s choir just when you think it can’t get any more tense. In here, you can feel the sounds that he would mature fully in his other iconic scores like his three “Pirates” films, “Gladiator,” “King Arthur” – even the Robert Langdon trilogy.

  1. “Vide Cor Meum” – “Hannibal” (2001)

This incredible mini-opera was composed by Patrick Cassidy and used in the film when Hannibal Lecter and one of his soon-to-be victims attend a performance together. An adaptation of Dante’s “La Vita Nuova,” it builds beautifully to almost heavenly proportions. The entire “Hannibal” score is one of Zimmer’s greatest, and yet its release perhaps the most infuriating his career, right along with the lack of expanded release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and the lack of any release of “The Preacher’s Wife.” Several cues are mixed with Anthony Hopkins’ voice reciting random lines, many of which are not from the film. Indeed, even this cue has it – stop the recording before the last twenty seconds, I beg of you. Still, the quality speaks for itself – this is some of the best music composed this century. It has so entered the zeitgeist that even the “Hannibal” television series used it for impact in its first season finale.

Co-Composed by Patrick Cassidy, Klaus Badlet, Jim Dooley, Nick Glennie-Smith, Steve Jablonsky, Geoff Zanelli and Clay Duncan
  1. “Now We Are Free” – “Gladiator” (2000)

GladiatorsIt would be remiss of me to not take a moment during this countdown to praise all of the fabulous Co-Composers and collaborators the maestro has worked with throughout his career. Many of the moments on this list, including this and the previous cue, would not have been possible without their input. Here Zimmer teamed up with two of his most important muses: Klaus Badlet and Lisa Gerrard. Indeed, beyond composing, Gerrard’s voice is the one we hear singing throughout the transcendent four minutes. I encourage you to look back down the countdown to see how much of an impact they had – “Pirates,” “The Bible,” “Mission: Impossible 2” “Invincible”… Zimmer knows how to surround himself with the best and brightest.

As to the music itself, the words Gerrard is singing aren’t actually a language, but that doesn’t make the feelings and emotion it invokes any less impactful. I love the instrumentation and uplift invoked here after a difficult score of battle cues and explosive action – the film revitalized director Ridley Scott’s career, made an A-lister of Russell Crowe… and gave us one of the best scores of all time.

Co-Composed with Lisa Gerrard, Klaus Badlet, Nick Glennie-Smith and Jeff Rona
  1. “Journey to the Line” – “The Thin Red Line” (1998)

TTRLINEIf you asked me what single cue made the most impact in Zimmer’s career, my answer would be “Journey to the Line.” Not only is it one of his most brilliant single works, but it has been used endlessly (endlessly!) in temp tracking and trailers to this day. Hell, Zimmer himself would create variations on the cue in his famous “Time” from “Inception” and less successfully in “Solomon” from “12 Years a Slave.” It would be rude of me to call out other composers for using the music because it is more likely the fault of the directors for insisting on its inclusion, but a quick Google search would show you if you are curious.

Regardless, there is a reason for its popularity… it is awesome. You’ve got that ticking clock which Zimmer loves so much at the opening, building slowly and slowly over the course of its nine-minute runtime into something of great power. Though it seems simple and straightforward on the surface, it’s deceptively so… its movement speaks to your very soul, washing over you and sweeping you away with its power.

Co-Composed by Klaus Badelt and John Powell
  1. “Kings of the Past” – “The Lion King” (1994)

TLKLEGACYFor these top three scores, nearly any cue from them could have easily found its way onto this Top 100 list, so figuring out which one best represented the work has been… uh… weirdly stressful. At least I got to cheat a little bit with “The Lion King” because I included “Stampede” from the remake a little further down the ranking. It’s kind of shocking that the maestro has only won one Oscar – for this score – but at least it’s for one of the greatest works of his career and one of the best scores for an animated feature period.

I chose “Kings of the Past” because I think it’s the best cue across all the various album releases, but also because it moves me every time I listen to it. The strings strike something deep inside me, and the soft cooing of the choir during the second half only underlines the beauty contained herein. It’s the last time I’ll mention this (because we are almost out of cues), but here we have yet another example that the music of Africa inspires the maestro more than any other … and every time he uses it, you walk away with a great score.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith and Mark Mancina. Choir arranged by Lebo M
  1. “Roll Tide” – “Crimson Tide” (1995)

CrimsonTideAnd here we are. At the score that changed everything. There was adventure music before “Crimson Tide,” and then there was adventure music after “Crimson Tide.” Not only did it win a Grammy Award, but it was instantaneously a smash hit among score fans and everyone who mattered in Hollywood. Testosterone is the name of the game, and the music has the impact of a sledgehammer to the chest. It’s got everything that would become a hallmark of Zimmer’s methods – deep male choir, electronic enhancements of percussion and those strings… oh those strings. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer would love it so much that he would begin a long-lasting relationship with Zimmer, using him or his Remote Control studios for blockbuster after blockbuster, often booting the original composer after he or she failed to properly emulate the maestro’s sound.

And for decades, that sound has been the prominent one in action. But while lesser composers can copy the methodology, they lack Zimmer’s talent at composing amazing themes. I chose “Roll Tide” as the highlight from the album because it gives the listener the fullest overview of all the amazing theme work Zimmer accomplished with this masterpiece, and hearing the entire seven minute cue is one of the most exhilarating experiences someone who loves music can have. Bonus points for the beautiful segue into “Eternal Father Strong to Save” at the end.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith
  1. “Chariot Race” – “The Prince of Egypt” (1998)

prince of egyptWhile my head was telling me that “Crimson Tide” was the obvious number one pick, my heart kept telling me otherwise. In the end, I decided to follow the latter. If you’ve never heard “Chariot Race” before, that’s because you have the regular edition – the cue only exists on a special “Collector’s Edition” that was available at Wal Mart and is mostly filled with songs. But it is essential Zimmer and, for me, the best cue of his entire career. In other words, you need to track it down pronto if you have never heard it before.

I need to break down the reasons for this choice. First, why “The Prince of Egypt” and secondly why this cue in particular. As to the first, whatever your belief in a higher power may be, it is clear that this project unlocked something in Zimmer we have never seen before or since from him. His inspiration is clear in every note of music, and the themes he conjured here have never been topped – my favorite being the primary one for God himself. It’s music you will never forget once you hear it… music that will stay with you and haunt you for the rest of your life. And I mean that in the best way possible.

Secondly, why this cue? For awhile, I was going to go with “Red Sea” and then “Burning Bush” became the favorite, but in the end nothing topped “Chariot Race.” The six-minute masterwork is divided into two distinct three-minute sections.

The first is the actual chariot race in the film, a blockbuster of a playful action cue that plays to all of Zimmer’s strengths. It’s pure adrenaline, building quickly and a joy to listen. Alone this cue would have probably made it to my top 15.

But then we have the second three minutes, which is the finale of the movie. Within it are all the major themes of the film (including instrumental versions of the “Deliver Us” song), culminating with the transcendent God theme that ends the cue with an explosion of musical bliss.

It’s a testament to Zimmer’s compositional excellence, his unmatched theme creation and the beauty of his melodies, all wrapped together. That’s why I chose it as the best cue in his filmography.

Film music… scratch that… music doesn’t get better.

Co-Composed by Harry Gregson Williams, Rupert Gregson-Williams and Klaus Badelt. Songs by Stephen Schwartz.

But what about you? What is your favorite piece of music from the maestro? Hit me up in the comments and let’s talk about all the reasons we love Hans Zimmer.

Hans Zimmer: The 100 Best Cues Part 3

Oh hello again. It’s been so long. If you missed Part I (which has a handy dandy explanation of the rules of this countdown you should definitely read before you hate post) or Part II, please follow the links and check them out. Here we go…

  1. “Bus Stop” – “Spanglish” (2004)

spanglishWhat better way to showcase a cultural meshing of American and Mexican families than by meshing together strings and guitar? One of the very best of Zimmer’s lighter scores, the maestro plays the two off one another in various cues throughout, but the highlight has got to be “Bus Stop,” which deftly transitions from comedy to drama to emotion and back again.

Co-Composed by Heitor Pereira, Henning Lohner and Trevor Morris
  1. “A Better Man” – “As Good As It Gets” (1997)

Witness Zimmer roll his style into the more romantic sides of Thomas Newman and Rachel Portman. Like “Spanglish,” the strings here are the key to our emotional engagement. “A Better Man” represents the full maturation of the lovely love theme (see what I did there?)… and its best rendition… it builds beautifully over its five-plus minute runtime.

Co-Composed with Harry Gregson-Williams and Bruce Fowler
  1. “Rise” – “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

TDKRThough as a whole, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a step down in quality from “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” both of which were co-composed by James Newton Howard, Zimmer pulls out all the stops for “Rise,” which serves as a climax to his work across the entire franchise. It manages to address both the bombast and explosive nature of his sound and the quieter, softer moments.

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe, Tom Holkenborg, Andrew Kawczynski, Jasha Klebe, Steve Mazzaro and Ramin Djawadi
  1. “The Preacher’s Wife Suite” – “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996)

An uplifting ode to gospel music in one moment and some of Zimmer’s most engaging romantic writing in the next (6:20ish always gives me goosebumps), this nearly 18 minute suite is a mainstay on my Christmas playlist. Though nominated for an Academy Award, the score has never seen an official release – a major frustration for Zimmer fans and a huge missed opportunity for record labels.

Co-Written by Nick Glennie-Smith and Bruce Fowler
  1. “Lullaby” – “Lauras Stern” (2004)

As delicate as Zimmer’s music comes, this little-heard gem shines brightly, never moreso than in this string-led cue. Co-Composed with Nick Glennie-Smith, this 2-minute lullaby may bring a tear to your eye… in the best way possible.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith and Henning Lohner
  1. “The Journey/Kopano Part III” – “Tears of the Sun” (2003)

tearscoverAs I wrote in earlier installments of this countdown, mixing Zimmer and Africa will inevitably yield excellent results, and his work on “Tears of the Sun” is no exception. Reunited with several fantastic talents, including his “Lion King” collaborator Lebo M and “Gladiator’s” Lisa Gerrard, the entire score is an embarrassment of riches, never more so than in this final cue, which is centered around a beautiful song and melody guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

Co-Composed by Lisa Gerrard, Lebo M, Steve Jablonsky, Jim Dooley, Heitor Periera, Andreas Vollenweider and Martin Tillmann
  1. “Life Goes On” – “A League of Their Own” (1992)

I would not fault you for preferring the gangbusters “Final Game”, which is rightly universally praised, but for me the heart of the “A League of Their Own” will be this beautiful melody that represents the love of the sisters. Dramatic without ever veering into melodrama, the main theme here is one you whistle for weeks after.

  1. “Broken Arrow” – “Broken Arrow” (1996)

Seven minutes of bombastic action fun – we all know that the main theme here was lifted by the “Scream” quadrilogy to serve as the character theme for (of all people) dummy Officer Dewey. But here the music gets its proper opportunity to shine as Zimmer embraces his love for Morricone’s Western stylings and merges them with his own action sensibilities.

Co-Composed by Harry Gregson-Williams and Don Harper
  1. “Chevaliers de Sangreal” – “The Da Vinci Code” (2006)

da vinciOkay, before your head explodes, calm down. I love the “Chevaliers de Sangreal” theme just as much as you do, and I agree that it is one of the maestro’s most transcendent pieces. So why is it all the way down here at 41? Because I like this rendition, despite it being the first iteration, much less than other versions of it elsewhere in the Robert Langdon trilogy. So stay tuned…

  1. “Honor (Main Title Theme From ‘The Pacific’)” – “The Pacific” (2010)

An outstanding ode to the sacrifice of our soldiers, “Honor” gets the goosebumps going as soon as that lonely trumpet begins. The rest of the cue holds that quality, merging Zimmer’s best dramatic sensibilities – it’s telling that he doesn’t embrace the action route that we would expect. It’s manages to be that rare piece of music that works on a cerebral level and also tug at your heartstrings.

Co-Composed by Blake Neely and Geoff Zanelli
  1. “Rock House Jail” – “The Rock” (1996)

Though “The Rock” is primarily credited to Nick Glennie-Smith, Zimmer provided the film its memorable main theme. That theme gets its biggest workout in this poorly titled cue – turn it up all the way and feel that bass throbbing.

Co-Composed by Harry Gregson-Williams and Don Harper
  1. “Discombobulate” – “Sherlock Holmes” (2009)

SherlockSdtk1Zimmer completely re-envisioned Baker Street’s most famous resident here, making him sound off-kilter, quirky and just plain fun – and in the process uses every variant on violin playing possible. This approach would reverberate into dozens of other period scores for film and television shows that wanted to feel modern. Do I still prefer something like Bruce Broughton’s masterpiece “Young Sherlock Holmes” for the character? Yes. But Zimmer’s vision is nonetheless admirable.

Bias Check: I am currently developing a television series for Dan Lin, one of the producers of this film.
Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe
  1. “Escape” – “The Little Prince” (2015)

One of the most overlooked scores in all of Zimmer’s oeuvre, “The Little Prince” is an astonishing work. The score itself was primarily composed by Richard Harvey (Zimmer handled the songs), and “Escape” provides a beautiful encapsulation of all the main themes. It’s inspiring, explosive and playful in all the right places – if you haven’t had the luck to listen to the entire album before, it comes highly recommended.

Co-Composed by Richard Harvey
  1. “Call Your Wives” – “Hidden Figures” (2017)

HIDDENFIGURESOSTZimmer and his co-composers had little interest in providing a routine dramatic score for this historical drama. Here we’ve got soul music at its very best that is guaranteed to get your toes tapping. It elevated the film itself and every time this cue comes on, I can’t help but listen on repeat.

Co-Composed by Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch
  1. “You’re So Cool” – “True Romance” (1993)

Few other cues in Zimmer’s extensive filmography are as recognizable in the zeitgeist as this one from the Tony Scott film. It’s kind of astonishing that Scott allowed this type of music to be the main identity for the movie, especially considering its content, but it is, in its own way, a perfect representation of the whack-a-do nature of the protagonists.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith, Mark Mancina and John Van Tongeren
  1. “Injection” – “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000)

Though Zimmer’s installment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is the weakest score of the bunch, there are still several highlights. But the one cue that transcends the rest is “Injection” – which is brilliantly grounded by the voice of Lisa Gerrard. The way Zimmer puts her voice together with his usual suspense pacing somehow explodes with emotion, and the guitar accents later the cue are a welcome surprise.

Co-Composed by Klaus Badelt, Lisa Gerrard and Nick Glennie-Smith
  1. “Jack Sparrow” – “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2007)

potc2Perhaps Disney’s most popular live action character of all time, Jack Sparrow’s identity is fully explored here. He’s a perfect match for Zimmer’s more eccentric side, and the cue is playful and memorable throughout. Though there would be better individual cues within the franchise, this theme stands up above theme all, even the main “Pirates” theme from the first film.

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe, Tom Gire, Nick Glennie-Smith, Henry Jackman, Trevor Morris, John Sponsler and Geoff Zanelli
  1. “Radio Flyer Part 1” – “Radio Flyer” (1993)

Master composer John Williams has a much different, distinct style than Zimmer, but Zimmer did warp his usual methods only once to sound like the maestro: for the much-maligned film “Radio Flyer.” Most likely director Richard Donner (who famously collaborated with Williams on “Superman”) insisted on that style of music, and Zimmer gave him what he wanted. The results are beautiful, often heartbreaking and sometimes transcendent. This kind of music may be a blip in Zimmer’s career, but it’s an unmissable one.

Co-Composed by Shirley Walker
  1. “Cold War” – “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014)

SpiderMan2With apologies to Danny Elfman, James Horner and Michael Giacchino – Zimmer’s main Spider-Man theme remains my favorite for the character (I know I’m in the minority here). “Cold War” is a mash-up of that, the Electro theme (which is much more famous and well-regarded) and some Goblin content. The mixing is a smidge off in places, but this is such a cool mash-up of great themes that you can’t help but love it.

Co-Composed by Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Tom Holkenborg, Mike Einzinger, Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski, Arturo Sandoval, Czarina Russell, Andy Page, Adam Peters and Anne Marie Simpson
  1. “Zen Ball Master” – “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011)

Zimmer and co-composer John Powell managed to one-up their already-excellent score for the first “Kung Fu Panda” movie with this sequel. “Zen Ball Master” takes their theme for the title character and explodes it into a big, delightful action cue that moves so quickly it often seems like it’s dancing.

Co-Composed by John Powell, Lorne Balfe, Dominic Lewis and Paul Mounsey
  1. “Planet Earth II Suite” – “Planet Earth II” (2017)

PLANETEARTH2Many people, myself included, consider George Fenton’s scores for the original “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet” to be the best documentary scores ever created. So obviously Zimmer had quite a mountain to climb if he was to come anywhere close to matching that quality. And while I don’t think he quite managed it, his sequel scores are – on their own – absolutely beautiful. This suite is, for me, the highlight of both scores, and one I return to often. That last minute… wow. Just wow.

Co-Composed with Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe
  1. “Mother Africa” – “The Power of One” (1991)

I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but Zimmer + Africa = Happiness. This won’t be the first cue that embraces that continental sound on this list, and it is also far from the last. Some incredible choir work accents this slow-build cue, which is the best of an album full of great cues.

Lyrics by Lebo M
  1. “Matt” – “I’ll Do Anything (1994)

This barely remembered James L. Brooks vehicle was supposed to be a musical… until preview audience scores led Brooks to excise all the numbers and go into heavy reshoots. Zimmer’s score represents him at the heights of his light, airy powers, juggling several themes with ease and seeming to have a grand time while doing it.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith
  1. “Las Vegas/End Credits” – “Rain Man” (1988)

Yes, it has aged worse than other Zimmer scores, but “Rain Man” still deserves a spot high on our list simply for how much of an impact it had on the maestro’s career. The music is engaging – gotta love that saxophone – and an addicting listen throughout, never moreso than this final cue.

  1. “Time” – “Inception” (2010)

InceptionWait, what?! “Time” is all the way at 25?! There must be some mistake! Argle bargle! Yes, I love “Time” too, and I recognize how it has entered the zeitgeist in a way few other pieces of film music have. Hello, even 2Cellos has covered it! But the reason it’s stuck at 25 is simple – it in many ways mirrors/pays homage to/rips off an earlier Zimmer cue. A better one. One you’ll read about tomorrow in my top 25…

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe

Up Next: Cars, Wheat Fields, Lions, Cannibals and even more Pandas

Hans Zimmer: The 100 Best Cues Part 2

Welcome back! If you’re joining us for the first time in our celebration of the 100 best cues from the scores of Hans Zimmer, please click here and check out 100-75 along with a breakdown of what I’m doing and how I’m going about doing it.

  1. “The Decision/End Credits” – “Thelma & Louise” (1991)

Zimmer matured his “Thunderbird” theme – that’s the one you’ve heard on all the compilation albums – beautifully in this climactic cue, adding in female vocalists to underline the beauty of the central relationship. It would have been so easy to make this tragic tearjerker, but Zimmer made the better decision.

Co-Composed by John Van Tongeren
  1. “Lost But Won” – “Rush” (2013)

RUSH.jpgThis wonderful throwback to the early ‘90s Zimmer sound is underlined by a throbbing beat that almost reflects a tire spinning on the road. The cue, while it does certainly rock, is surprisingly tender for a movie called “Rush,” and works like gangbusters in the film itself.

Co-Composed with Lorne Balfe, Bryce Jacobs, Jasha Klebe, Michael Brook and Martin Tillman
  1. “First Born” – “First Born” (1988)

This miniseries main theme music is astonishingly awesome for the first minute, so much so that it would be ranked much, much higher on the list were it only that sixty seconds. But then the rest of the cue happens, which is… odd… at best. As a result, the cue took a tumble to the 70s. Do yourself a favor and when the singing starts, turn it off.

  1. “Honest, Brave & True” – “Muppet Treasure Island” (1993)

MTIslandLesser known than his Jack Sparrow stuff, Zimmer worked on this other Disney franchise entry with pirates, and smartly does not get lost in the parody aspects so many other Muppet scores have. “Honest, Brave & True” is a beautiful, emotional cue, almost James Horner-esque in places, that climaxes at 3:20 – any kid who grew up with the Muppets remembers this specific musical moment and the goosebumps it causes.

Co-Composed with Nick Glennie-Smith, Harry Gregson-Williams and Graham Preskett. Songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
  1. “Hate” – “Point of No Return” (1993)

Oh, how I love “Hate.” This little-remembered gem is a remake of “Nikita” and Zimmer’s score is everything you expect/want out of a ‘90s action score. Is it dated? Sure! But that’s not a bad thing in this case. Cheesy fun, with guitar riffs, rock & roll, and everything else awesome in excess. Some would call it a guilty pleasure, but for me it’s just a pleasure listening to it.

Co-Composed with Nick Glennie-Smith
  1. “Victory Starts Here” – “Renaissance Man” (1994)

“Renaissance Man” is the kind of score you either go with… or hate until you turn it off three minutes later. I have a soft spot for military-style music and appreciate Zimmer’s more zany mannerisms… so here we are. The build, ebbs and flow of this seven-minute cue can be quite exhilarating.

Co-Composed with Nick Glennie-Smith, John Van Tongeren and Bruce Fowler
  1. “The Ascent” – “K2” (1991)

K2Zimmer’s music only appears in the European version of “K2,” and this is one of those instances where the cue is over 27 minutes (!!!) long and a compilation of multiple moods, scenes and sequences. The quality is quite good throughout, though sound is an issue on album, and several sequences feel like what would happen if Zimmer scored a James Bond movie.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith
  1. “Millennium Theme” – “Millennium: Tribal Wisdom in the Modern World” (1992)

I attempted to read what the direct-to-VHS documentary series “Millennium: Tribal Wisdom in the Modern World” was about… but kept falling asleep. That said, this theme is fire – I really wish it had been attached to something bigger in the zeitgeist — it’s hugely unfair that it has fallen through the cracks of history.

  1. “Martha Lifts the Elephant” – “Invincible” (2001)

Is this the best title of all the titles on this ranking? Maybe. But while the name may bring a smile to your face, the cue is dead serious. A beautiful choir mixed with stunning string work, this is a two-minute powerhouse cue that fans of “Crimson Tide” will eat up.

Co-Composed by Klaus Badelt
  1. “What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” – “Man of Steel” (2013)

MOSZimmer had his work cut out for him creating a new theme and identity for Superman – John Williams’ work on the character may well be the most recognizable, beloved such theme in film history next to the one for James Bond. And though he didn’t eclipse Williams, what we got was still damn good – the slow build here to the explosive main theme is sublime.

Co-Composed by Tom Holkenborg, Atli Orvarsson, Steve Mazzaro and Andrew Kawczynski
  1. “Becoming Stars” – “Winter’s Tale” (2014)

It is not an exaggeration to say that Zimmer’s score (which he co-composed with Rupert Gregson-Williams) is by far the best part of this movie – one of the most notorious bombs of recent years. As a result, the score has barely gotten any notice, which is a bummer because of its excellence. Some ideas previous introduced in “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” mature here brilliantly, and this ten-minute climactic cue is heartbreaking & romantic in all the right ways.

Co-Composed with Rupert Gregson-Williams, Halli Cauthery and David Buckley
  1. “The House of the Spirits” – “The House of the Spirits” (1993)

Perhaps Zimmer’s most blatantly depressing score, this is still beautiful… but a lot. Making it through creates a lot of attention and emotion on the listener’s part, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

  1. The Walk Home” – “Cool Runnings” (1993)

I love the quirk of “Cool Runnings.” The uplift. Those weird instrumentation choices. It all shouldn’t work… and yet it does. The entire score album is a treasure, but nothing beats the emotion Zimmer conjures here, especially in that last minute.

Composed with Nick Glennie-Smith
  1. “Faith” – “The Bible” (2013)

TheBibleWere it not for the recording issues, “Faith” would have probably cracked my top 30. Alas, something weird happened in the mixing (or the production couldn’t afford the full orchestra it needed), resulting in a cheap-sounding listen that nearly destroys the beauty and power of the composition. This slow-burn cue is begging for a re-recording with a gigantic orchestra that can capture its excellence.

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe, Jasha Klebe, Steve Mazzaro, Dave Fleming, Satnam Ramgotra, Gary Dworetsky, Andrew Christie and Max Aruj
  1. “Oogway’s Legacy” – “Kung Fu Panda 3” (2017)

With co-composer John Powell’s exit from the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, Lorne Balfe joined Zimmer for the third entry and the high quality remained. “Oogway’s Legacy,” which balances the piano and strings for a tear-inducing start to the album, is the highlight, thanks in part to Lang Lang’s gentle piano work.

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe and Paul Mounsey
  1. “A World Apart Suite” – “A World Apart” (1988)

Like Zimmer and DreamWorks Animation, whenever you mix Zimmer and Africa, you’ve got a winner on your hands. This really, really long cue, which is credited (along with “The Power of One”) for getting the maestro “The Lion King,” goes through all the emotions and lingers long after with the listener.

  1. “Part II” – “Pacific Heights” (1990)

PacificHeightsThis odd, neo-noir thriller stalker mash-up gets a score it doesn’t deserve. Zimmer creates great tension throughout, grand romance… and when that saxophone plays over the piano? It’s pretty damn transcendent.

Co-Composed with Shirley Walker
  1. “Genius” – “Genius” (2017)

At only 50 seconds, Zimmer creates a fantastic explosion of main title music that is difficult to get out of your head. Lorne Balfe would provide the often-quite-good series score, but you walk away humming these 50 seconds.

  1. “The Fruit Machine” – “The Fruit Machine” (1988)

If you asked me which cue in this top 100 sounded the least like Zimmer, I’d point you towards “The Fruit Machine.” A long, schizophrenic work that has more in common with John Barry or Jerry Goldsmith, it is nonetheless a fascinating listen that creates a crackling, nerve-wracking atmosphere.

  1. “Surfing Dolphins” – “Blue Planet II” (2017)

BluePlanetIIOne of the biggest, most pleasant surprises of Zimmer’s output in the ‘10s has been his music for nature documentaries. Between “Blue Planet II” and “Planet Earth II,” there is barely a moment that doesn’t hit the mark. “Surfing Dolphins” is the high point of the album, a playful, triumphant explosion of notes and choir that can’t help but inspire.

Co-Composed with Jacob Shea, David Fleming and Jasha Klebe
  1. “The Island” – “Fools of Fortune” (1990)

Another really long cue – this one at 18 minutes – that serves up the melodrama with flair. You listen to this and picture sweeping Irish moors, beautiful vistas and grand romances, played straight and without the usual Zimmer flourishes.

  1. “Vorspiel” – “Younger & Younger” (1993)

Here is Zimmer making you feel good about your life – giving you an entire eight-minute cue whose only purpose is to make you smile. He embraces classic European sensibilities here, specifically the brighter work of Nino Rota… the music here is so light it could very well float away.

Co-Composed by Alex Wurman
  1. “Like a Dog Chasing Cars” – “The Dark Knight” (2008)

TDKFrontI have very mixed feelings about this cue, and “The Dark Knight” soundtrack in general. I intellectually appreciate what Zimmer was trying to do with his Joker theme… but it doesn’t work for me. For a long while I had “Harvey Two-Face” selected, because that is my favorite cue. And yet, I would be remiss if didn’t admit that, while I didn’t care for the Joker theme, I am in the minority – its impact among Zimmer fans and on film music in general is inarguable. It merits a place on the list if only for that.

Co-Composed by James Newton Howard and Lorne Balfe
  1. “Baby, Baby” – “Nine Months” (1995)

Zimmer leans into his love for classical with this sublime romantic piece that plays to all of his light strengths. I have never seen “Nine Months,” nor do I want to, because I have a feeling that nothing will be quite as good as the feeling this music leaves in my mind.

Co-Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith
  1. “Is She With You?” – “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2017)

This cue opens with perhaps the most instantly recognizable theme created in the past decade: Wonder Woman. And, were it shorter and just that theme, it would be higher on my list. But then, at 2:00 in, it devolves into a just-decent action cue. There’s some interesting interplay between the Batman (not Zimmer’s theme), Superman and Wonder Woman themes after, but nothing that matches the awesomeness of those first two minutes.

Co-Composed by Tom Holkenborg, Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski and Benjamin Wallfisch

Up Next: Da Vinci. Baseball. Princes. Pirates. Spiders.

Hans Zimmer: The 100 Best Cues Part 1

Hans Zimmer has done more to create the sound of modern film scores than nearly any other composer. To coincide with the release of “The Lion King,” I have been revisiting every one of the maestro’s works, all the way from “My Beautiful Laundrette” to the aforementioned remake. Below, the first installment of the four-part “The 100 Best Cues.” I set a few rules for myself before I got started, and here they are:

1 score = 1 cue. It would be unfair to fill up the list with multiple cues from “Gladiator” or “The Prince of Egypt,” so I have chosen a single outstanding cue from each of his works.

This list encompasses Zimmer’s film and television work.

– Don’t expect all action. This is a celebration of Zimmer’s excellence at scoring all genres of film and television. If you’ve come here expecting all action, look elsewhere… though there will be plenty of action, don’t worry.

Zimmer technically didn’t have to write the chosen cue. Because of Zimmer’s collaborative way of creation, it is sometimes difficult to figure out what specifically is composed by him and what is composed by others on any specific album. As a result, I am just choosing the best music, full stop, and am crediting the album’s co-composers beneath each individual cue.

No big musical moments. Sure, Zimmer composed the score (and sometimes songs) for several musical films like “The Lion King,” “The Little Prince” and “The Prince of Egypt.” But I’m trying to focus on the scores wherever possible, so you won’t be seeing “The Circle of Life” here.

Everything is subjective. My personal top 100 cues will differ wildly from yours, and that is fine. Taste is subjective. The entire point of these lists is really to underline excellence and point out to readers art that deserves discovery.

That said, let’s get started…

  1. “Spider-Pig” – “The Simpsons Movie” (2007)

SimpsonsChoosing Zimmer to score “The Simpsons Movie” seemed at first to be an odd choice, especially considering that the franchise’s sound is so engrained with the original theme by Danny Elfman or the series compositions by Alf Clausen. But Zimmer rose to the occasion, providing a funny, engaging, and smart score supporting the concept. This cue, a parody version of the original “Spider-Man” television theme (except… y’know… with a pig), throws in a male and female choir to make the cue as epic – and funny – as possible.

Co-Composed by Ryeland Allison, Lorne Balfe, Henry Jackman, James Dooley, Michael Levine and Atli Orvarsson. Original theme by Danny Elfman.
  1. “Supermarine” – “Dunkirk” (2017)

DUNKIRKIt’s difficult to know exactly where to rank a cue like “Supermarine.” Listened to it on its own, it is overbearing, loud and blunt… almost impossible to get through on album. Worse, in terms of content, the cue is almost completely a regurgitation of previous Zimmer mannerisms, then adds nothing to the table. All that said, I must admit that it works incredibly well in the film itself, which is the main purpose of a score. So I’m putting the cue at 99, throwing up my hands and moving on.

Co-Composed by Benjamin Wallifisch, Lorne Balfe, Satnam Singh Ramgotra, Andy Page, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro
  1. “Our Little Bit of Score” – “Riding in Cars With Boys” (2001)

The main theme here, which kicks in at 1:25, is one of the loveliest Zimmer (working primarily with Heitor Pereira here) has conjured for a romantic film – it’s a shame it isn’t better known or regarded. The cue would be much higher on the list, but there are definite problems with the suite, specifically the weird soft-rock with voice efforts from 2:00-3:00.

Co-Composed by Heitor Pereira and James S. Levine
  1. “Main Title” – “Days of Thunder” (1990)

So upfront, apparently Zimmer hates his score to “Days of Thunder,” which is why it was so difficult to track down for years after its release. That said, it would be insane of me not to recognize the one instance where he manages to mash up his regular action swagger with… “Driving Miss Daisy”? It’s weird, it’s wild, and somehow it works in that gleeful cheesy ‘90s way.

Co-Composed by Mark Mancina
  1. “Illest Gangsta on the Block” – “Chappie” (2015)

Chappie“Chappie” provided an opportunity for Zimmer to compose his first all-synthetic score in years, and it definitely brought out his playful side. This is never more clear than in his ode to all things arcade – “Illest Gangsta on the Block,” which is a grand bit of fun… if you listen to it in the right mood.

Co-Composed with Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski and Tom Holkenborg

 

 

  1. “The Banker’s Waltz” – “Matchstick Men” (2003)

A lovely waltz from a score where Zimmer has a lot of fun capturing the magic of Europe. The piece is obviously a nod to maestro Nino Rota’s Fellini scores (plus his work on the two “Godfather” films), but he never loses his own voice in the at-times-sublime excesses here.

Co-Composed by Geoff Zanelli, James Dooley and Clay Duncan
  1. Gas Station Shootout” – “Bird on a Wire” (1990)

An explosive mix of Zimmer’s late ‘80s/early ‘90s action sensibilities – the cue feels quite dated, but in a fun way. The constant building tension gets your blood pumping, and you’re going to be smiling the whole damn three-plus minute running time.

Co-Composed by Luis Jardim
  1. The General” – “Toys” (1992)

“Toys” is one of those genuinely insane albums that feels like a weird amalgamation of every style of music trend from the early ‘90s, both in songs and score. It can get under your skin, you may want to pull your hair out… but it’s got that weird “something” that sticks with you long after you finish the album itself.

Co-Composed by Trevor Horn, Bruce Woolley, Bruce Fowler and Jeff Rona
  1. Walking, Talking Man” – “Regarding Henry” (1991)

RegardingHenryThis little-remembered drama has a stacked creative team – directed by Mike Nichols, written by J.J. Abrams and starring Harrison Ford & Annette Bening. After disastrous sneak previews, master composer Georges Delerue had his very-good score removed from the film and replaced by one created by Zimmer. The result is light, emotional and airy, never more so than in the piano-driven “Walking, Talking Man.”

  1. Paperhouse Overture” – “Paperhouse” (1991)

This fascinating score has fallen through the cracks of time, but merits rediscovery. The cue is almost silent for the longest time, but when the score kicks in – it’s definitely worth the wait. We have a weird mix of Zimmer’s writing style and Jerry Goldsmith’s more grounded emotional fantasy from the ‘70s and ‘80s that doesn’t quite work in places. But when it does? Wow.

Co-Composed by Stanley Myers
  1. Burning Secret” – “Burning Secret” (1988)

Okay, here’s the thing about this ranking. I would say that 85% of the cues are just that – cues that range anywhere from 1-10 minutes. But early in his career, Zimmer would often prefer creating gigantic suite cues which rolled many smaller cues together. “Burning Secret” is 24 minutes long (!) and is the only representation of the score available. It’s unfair to rank a single cue higher because it has the chance to develop in ways others can’t… but then again there’s a lot of slow space here. The result is a beautiful dramatic score with flutes that predate “Beyond Rangoon” and romance akin to John Barry.

  1. The Crown” – “The Crown” (2016)

TheCrownS1Though Zimmer was not the composer for the series itself (that would be Rupert Gregson Williams in season one and him again with Lorne Balfe in season two), he places his stamp on the series with this regal main title theme, which is fitting considering the content.

 

 

  1. Restless Elephants” – “Green Card” (1990)

This delight of a short cue is highly reminiscent of Zimmer’s “Rain Man,” though with a different theme. It’s not quite as memorable as that iconic score, but still an easy listen and a welcome addition to any playlist of the maestro’s lighter work.

  1. Giant Blue Head” – “Megamind” (2010)

It’s a well-known fact that anytime you mix Zimmer (here co-composing with Balfe) with DreamWorks Animation that you’re going to walk away with a winning score, and this is no exception. “Giant Blue Head” introduces the world and character themes, along with a gentle male choir and a bunch of quirk that will make you grin.

Co-Composed with Lorne Balfe
  1. Grace” – “Something to Talk About” (1995)

This country-tinged cue, which runs nearly six minutes, is a lovely embodiment of the main theme for Julia Roberts’ titular character. Soft but also roaming, it could do without the electric guitar that ages the cue, but the positives more than make up for it.

Co-Composed with Graham Preskett
  1. Best Friends” – “Madagascar” (2005)

Though Zimmer has not provided as much original music to this DreamWorks Animation franchise as he has others (thanks to the musical aspect of the trilogy), this infectious theme – heard through whistling – remains one of the sweetest representations of friendship in his oeuvre.

Co-Composed with Ryeland Allison, James Dooley, James S. Levine and Hector Pereira
  1. Leave No Man Behind” – “Black Hawk Down” (2001)

BlackHawkDownA beautiful slow-burn of a track, “Leave No Man Behind” functions as a tribute to our soldiers. Simple in its composition, it is also a surprisingly emotional listen that grounds an otherwise schizophrenic album experience.

Co-Composed by Rachid Taha, Denez Prigent, Michael Brook, Craig Eastman, Hector Pereira, Martin Tillman and Mel Wesson
  1. Liberty Theme” – “Sons of Liberty” (2015)

Zimmer penned only the theme to this little-seen History Channel miniseries (Lorne Balfe would compose the series score and also work on the theme), but it’s a gangbusters opening, with Spanish dancing reminiscent of “Mission: Impossible 2” and the swashbuckling & fiddles of his “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. If you missed it upon first release, it’s worth seeking out.

Co-Composed by Lorne Balfe
  1. Opening Tango” – “Two Deaths” (1995)

Zimmer has written several tangos over the course of his career, but the most memorable – and quirky – of the bunch has to be this two-minute treasure from “Two Deaths.” Playful and a great mood-setter, the instrumentation here brings the cue to a different level.

  1. The Critic Main Theme” – “The Critic” (1994)

This beloved-but-short-lived animated series’ main theme represents a distinctive feel for 1970s and early 1980s sitcoms, but in a good way. You can pick up nuggets here of movements Zimmer would perfect later with his romantic comedy scores, and when the theme kicks in it is quite an earworm.

  1. Bank of England” – “Thunderbirds” (2004)

This late-album cue has everything fans of Zimmer’s Remote Control action scores love, but the big difference is that iconic sound is mixed here with the boldness of a John Barry/David Arnold-style James Bond score.

Co-Composed with Ramin Djawadi. Original theme by Barry Gray.
  1. First Ideas” – “Frost/Nixon” (2008)

frostThis tense-as-hell ten-minute cue underlines that Zimmer should really be scoring more thrillers. A beautiful slow burn with pianos and violins (yes, those are the expected instruments, but they are beautifully used), it quickly gets under your skin and puts you on edge… but in a good way.

Co-Composed with Lorne Balfe
  1. Rango Suite” – “Rango” (2011)

Certainly one of the most eccentric scores Zimmer has ever composed, his “Rango Suite” stylishly meshes his adoration for the work of Ennio Morricone with the lighter comedy of the animated film. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I love when Zimmer plays with his music like this.

Co-Composed by Heitor Pereira, John Thum, David Thum, Rick Garcia, Kenneth Karman, Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit
  1. Piece Offering” – “An Everlasting Piece” (2000)

Oh, how I wish Zimmer would create Irish music more often. His grossly overlooked work for the all-but-forgotten “An Everlasting Piece” is not only the best thing about the film, but a fascinating mix of classic Irish melodies and rock. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. And beautifully. This cue is the most emotional of the album, but the rest is highly recommended.

Co-Composed by The Jigs, Heitor Pereira and Martin Tillman
  1. Too Many Notes – Not Enough Rests” – “Drop Zone” (1994)

DropZoneThe sound quality of this otherwise awesome cue leaves much (much!) to be desired. The title says it all, but really, does that have to be a bad thing? The most notable thing in the cue happens at 2 minutes in – a beautiful section that points the way towards one of the most iconic themes ever produced at Remote Control.

Co-Composed with Nick Glennie-Smith, John Van Tongeren and Ryeland Allison
  1. 120 Days and Nights in a Laundrette” – “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985)

Though his career technically started with a television film called “Success is the Best Revenge,” Zimmer considers his first major score to be “My Beautiful Laundrette” – co-composed with Stanley Myers. Allow me to underline this upfront – this music is insane. But it’s got personality, life and certainly is a major first impression for the maestro.

Co-Composed with Stanley Myers

Up Next: 74-50. Get ready for Batman, Superman, God and Pandas.