The Hero Complex

“It’s all a big experiment.”

This was Hans Zimmer’s summation of his work on Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster Inception, which is fast becoming one of the composer’s more commercially popular scores. This summer, a viral video on You Tube revealed the origins of the thematic two-note motif that provided Inception with its musical signature. The augmented horn blasts were, in fact, based on a slowed version of a passage from Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Of course, the song itself played an important role in the story world: it was the thematic slumber music by which Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) forces himself back into consciousness.

The two-note brass motif represents a surprisingly small section of Zimmer’s much larger musical work for the film, but has become the chief signifying element of the score. The trailer music, composed by Zack Hemsey, builds an effective motif around a more robust version of the horn blast, which itself has gone viral — in cat videos, no less.

Interestingly, the liner notes of the soundtrack listed the cues that featured “interpolations” of the Piaf song. While some may think Zimmer simply lifted the motif without providing due credit, the decision to augment the original song and integrate it into the sonic tapestry of the film was made by Zimmer and Nolan early in the film’s production. What is truly remarkable about Zimmer’s relationship with Nolan is how early he gets involved. With Inception, for example, Nolan began consulting with Zimmer at the script stage before shooting had even begun. At that point, Zimmer began working out certain musical ideas based on their conversations and his initial impressions of the screenplay, which, to his mind, faithfully conveyed the film’s visual aesthetic in “novelistic” terms.

In the end, the Piaf motif became only one of several musical dreamscapes in the film. The main theme, as it could be called, revolves around another two-note (this time, ascending) motif that is fully developed in the final scene of the film. Zimmer hired guitarist Johnny Marr to add his voice to a selection of cues, including the incredibly expansive “Mombasa” action set piece, which blends Marr’s humming guitar with some driving drum and bass motifs.


Like much of Zimmer’s work, the music is less reactive than it is proactive. The shards of melody and chord swells tend not to work as counterpoint but parallel to the picture. That is not to say he doesn’t hit certain sync points or underline certain dramatic moments, but his stylistic signature remains the “slow burn” technique I outlined in an earlier post. In a motif that echoes the close of The DaVinci Code, Zimmer builds his original two-note motif and adds a cluster of ascending and descending chords in addition to Johnny Marr’s guitar riff for the final minutes of Inception. There’s a clear sync point when Cobb clears customs and is greeted by Miles (Michael Caine) in the airport, which transforms the motif in a more driving figure for guitar, brass and strings. In a narrative sense, the music builds to a climax, but as an audience we’re unsure where we’re going — he’s certainly leading us somewhere, but the music is not necessarily being led by the picture.

In a certain sense, the music could be a projection of Cobb’s character psychology. In other words, Zimmer is following Cobb’s emotional arc in that final sequence. I’m usually not drawn to such flights of psychoanalytic fancy but this might explain how Zimmer approached the emotional tone of the scene. Since the score was mixed particularly high in the film, it is certainly fair to suggest that music plays a greater role in establishing a sound world tapestry that is not entirely locked to every picture beat. It’s precisely that organic quality that eschews clear definitions of point/contrapuntal music. The music leads — but to its own beat, it seems.

In those final minutes we eventually see where he’s been leading us — to Cobb’s home and his children. When we enter Cobb’s home and he spots his children playing in the yard, Zimmer drops the motif and replaces it with a much sparser musical world: a piano arrangement of the two notes built around a rising string figure and the thick undercurrent of an electronic drone, the marker of what might be yet another dream, which is confirmed moments later when Nolan pans left to reveal the spinning top. (The music does not clearly indicate if it’s a dream, though.)

Zimmer cleverly satisfies the desire for a classical denouement by introducing an anthemic quality to the film’s main motif without contradicting the open-ended nature of Nolan’s final image. The repeated motif and thick undercurrent are hallmarks of earlier dream worlds, and Zimmer is not about to scrub the final scene of those markings. If it’s yet another dream, the moving music has fooled us into believing Cobb is safe; however, if he’s reunited with his children, then we are left with a musical reminder of what it cost to get there. That final scene is, indeed, a microcosm of the entire film for how music functions within it.

Inception: The Final Shot

In addition, Zimmer’s current stylistic fingerprints are all over the sound world of the score. Zimmer’s current axiom seems to be that fewer notes work best. What this basically amounts to is a series of small melodic parts stretched and augmented over a period of time. Although Zimmer shies away from being called a minimalist — Anne Thompson tried to assign the label to him in a recent interview — because, to his mind, every film presents a different field of possibility with which to experiment. In other words, he’d rather not be pigeonholed as a “minimalist” composer who simply likes to use two or three notes extended and stretched like Gabe Louis’ “soundscape” projects on The Office.

Zimmer did, however, reveal some thoughts about his creative process in a series of online interviews that coincided with the release of Inception. One particular answer popped up in more than one place and struck me as fascinating and even a bit contradictory. Here’s the full quote from one of the interviews, where he was asked about composing “heroic” music for characters such as Batman, and if his style has changed over the years. Zimmer said,

Yeah, I think so. It’s evolutionary. For instance, I wouldn’t be able to write a tune like Gladiator anymore because it feels like it’s inappropriate for where we are. I think I have a very good sense of that other devilish German word “Zeitgeist”—the heartbeat of the times. If you wrote a big overtly heroic theme, it would just feel wrong. I think I’m getting better at what music can do in a film, thank God. [Laughs] Maybe it’s just because my interests have changed. I’m not interested in the massive heroic tunes anymore. I’ve been there, done it, got the t-shirt, even the crew jacket [Laughs]. Now, I’m interested in how I can take two, three or four notes and make a really complex emotional structure. It’s emotional as opposed to sentimental. It’s not bullshit heroic; it has dignity to it.

In effect, Zimmer is discussing two very different things but they appear conflated in his answer. First, he states that stylistically he has reached a point in his career where he prefers to use “two, three or four notes and make a really complex emotional structure” out of them as opposed to building a series of long-lined motifs. Second, he raises the ever-so-popular notion of “Zeitgeist,” or what can be called the “cultural barometer.” He notes that it is not necessarily fashionable to signify characters or events with grand orchestral “themes” in the vein of Gladiator. This is also applicable to his approach to Nolan’s Batman films, which eschew the Wagnerian textures of Danny Elfman’s scores for Tim Burton’s two Batman films (Batman and Batman Returns) in favor of a more cellular approach. Writing that kind of bold theme would just sound “wrong,” he says.

He conflates the two issues by noting how he feels he has reached a point in his musical education that he can better deal with such film music moments than to revert to past practices (i.e., the grand symphonic tradition of classical Hollywood). In an October interview with Anne Thompson, Zimmer touches on the same issue when he says, “I couldn’t write like GladiatorGladiator would not fit into this movie. I was using the language that was appropriate for this movie.” He tones down the rhetoric and simply argues that Inception did not require a grand thematic score, but did not venture an opinion about the use of such an approach in ALL films.

It’s pretty obvious from the examples I’ve cited above that Zimmer has fully embraced the minimal note approach to which he refers. He is keenly aware of his current mode of practice, and is one of the only commercial film composers who openly discusses his creative process with journalists and researchers, and often neatly contextualizes how his approach for one film informs his greater overall style and “evolution” as a composer.  Other composers, including John Williams, prefer to speak generally and opaquely about their methods, as if musical ideas simply appear before them as tangible options.

Zimmer’s honest self evaluation has also led him to suggest that certain musical options are no longer tenable. But here’s where Zimmer seems to confuse what isn’t tenable for himself and what aspects of film music do not reflect the current Zeitgeist. We can waste a lot of digital ink debating the key characteristics of our socio-cultural milieu and what constitutes the current cinematic Zeitgeist, but I think it’s fair to say Zimmer is primarily talking about the modern treatment of epic filmmaking, spectacle, and heroes. As he says, his approach is “emotional as opposed to sentimental. It’s not bullshit heroic; it has dignity to it.”

It’s unclear what exactly he means by “bullshit” heroic and heroism with “dignity.” It’s also unclear whether or not long-lined themes are still effective options for film music. Three examples might help illustrate this point. Consider the main title sequences from three acclaimed super hero scores and films: Superman: The Movie (1978), Batman (1989), and The Dark Knight (2008). The first difference between these three title sequences is that The Dark Knight does not have one.

Superman: The Movie

Batman (1989) Titles

The Dark Knight Titles

Both John Williams and Danny Elfman used the title sequences in Superman and Batman, respectively, to set a dramatic tone for the films and introduce the key musical motifs that structured their scores. The themes were also unabashedly heroic, featuring driving, up-tempo brass writing. Each theme is comprised of several parts, including fanfares and marches, A-motifs and B-motifs.

On the other hand, Zimmer had very little time to introduce any musical ideas into the first few minutes of The Dark Knight since the only real title — aside from the corporate logos — was a foggy black bat signal emerging from a haze of blue flame. No heroic fanfare, just near-silence. What we do get is a thin, sustained string chord that tracks over the bat signal — an embryonic statement of the Joker’s theme. In a certain sense, Zimmer saves the large orchestral flourishes — grand theme and all — for the film’s final sequence. During Gordon’s hero speech, Zimmer develops the two-note Batman motif into a powerful anthem that reaches its crescendo just as the screen goes black. Then, as the title appears on screen, the reverberant horn blasts become more structured and resemble a fairly “heroic” fanfare that takes us into the Joker’s creepy sustained string chords.

Is Zimmer’s Batman motif more “dignified” than Elfman’s? Is Williams’ Superman too sentimental? Hardly. Each composer responded to the material they were given and worked to create a musical sound world that fit the aesthetic parameters and narrative focus of their films. Obviously, each composer imbued the material with their own musical voices — could there be anything more John Williams-y than that famous preparatory phrase? Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader inspired Elfman to seek a cathedral-like quality to his score. The mix of gong and organ to signal the entrance or exit of Batman perfectly captures the excessive romanticism and Gothic textures of Burton’s visual style.

What is really at issue here is the kind of films Zimmer and Nolan are making and how they do not seem to lend themselves to the romantic tendencies of these other super hero examples. But, in a way, Zimmer’s un-heroic (or dignified) themes simply represent a slightly more modern (i.e., new) way of characterizing the same themes, symbols, and myths that populate these super hero narratives.

That is not to say the “old fashioned way” isn’t palatable anymore; it’s just not currently very popular. In another interview, Zimmer noted that he didn’t believe he could write another Gladiator-type score again because the lyrical, long-lined melodies and romantic tone seemed out of place in the current milieu. It seems that scoring films with fewer notes and more “soundscape” elements — that is, expanding and varying one- or two-note motifs into lengthy suites — will be with us for a while. Even fairly long-lined writers like John Debney have recently tried their hand at writing more immediate, “slow burn” material (see Iron Man 2).

Despite Zimmer’s claim that he has abandoned certain classical tropes of film scoring, he hasn’t completely done away with long-line writing and grand themes. The current Zeitgeist may emphasize a darker and “less-is-more” approach, but the Pirates of the Caribbean series begs to differ. Zimmer’s score for At World’s End, the third film in the series, contains a set of sprawling themes that evoke the action writing and romantic material of composer Jerry Goldsmith. The blocky whole-note writing is still there, but Zimmer cuts through the heavy undertones with a sweeping love theme that is augmented to fit into several different contexts, much the same way that Elfman’s Batman fanfare could be treated delicately to suggest romance or recklessly to suggest anger.

It’s possible that At World’s End represents an anomaly or a serious attempt to re-capture the romanticism of classical Hollywood swashbucklers like The Sea Hawk. The Zeitgeist may forgive attempts at pastiche. Indeed, Madagascar could be riffing off the winding John Barry melody from Born Free.

In any event, it is difficult for any artist to see past their current stylistic impulse. Obviously, Zimmer finds himself working in particular narrative environments that do not lend themselves to the kind of music he wrote for Gladiator. That is not to say, however, that the Zeitgeist precludes those kinds of scores from being acceptable. Studio executives may not find them all that appealing, but there is an appropriate context for them.

With Inception, Zimmer may have composed a thoroughly contemporary film score that rejects the “bullshit heroism” of an earlier era, but it would be a mistake to conflate the suitability of a particular approach to all film with its applicability to a composer’s particular working style.

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