The latest and least-likely rock star on the stadium circuit is far from Springsteen or Pearl Jam. He's one of the more successful composers of our time. At 59, film composer Hans Zimmer, with his thinning hair, German accent, and resumé of massively successful films — including The Lion King and Christopher Nolan's take on Batman — is to arrive Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center on a world tour. He is as bemused as anybody. He feels like the tour chose him.
"I was happy to be in my dark, windowless room writing music … but I had musician friends badgering me [to give concerts] until I said yes," he said last week. "And if not now, then when?"
Manipulating millions via the scores of Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, and (opening Friday) Dunkirk from the safety of the recording studios is one thing, but looking his admirers in the eye is a near-everyday challenge. During his concerts — played with orchestra and chorus, but without the backstop of film clips — he has to stop himself from walking off stage.
"The most entertaining part of the evening might be seeing Hans Zimmer having a meltdown," he says, not entirely joking. What stops him from acting on his stage fright is his regard for the musicians, who number 56 instrumentalists and singers. Leaving them in the lurch wouldn't be nice. Or professional. And that's not him.
Zimmer's 150 film scores — which have won him an Oscar and four Grammy awards — have mainly come from close collaborations with directors. In contrast, the great Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird) once said he just wanted to be left alone as much as possible. The greatest film composer of them all, Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo), was passed over for some jobs because he was so prickly.
Not so with Zimmer — and not because he necessarily lets directors tell him what to do. He is attracted to characters who raise more questions than they answer, moral ambiguity in other words. That's one reason he lives in terror of the blank page. Then there are days when he wakes up realizing that he has scored his own dreams. Most of the time, the ideas are gone before he can write them down. But one of the few times it did, it turned into 45 minutes of music for The Dark Knight Rises.
"I went to Warner Bros. and said, 'Have I earned the right to go to London and hire a really big orchestra … to try this out? And if it's horrible … you won't say I blew the whole budget?' They didn't blink," Zimmer said. "It worked out. But the music broke a gazillion rules. I never would've written it consciously."
The tour isn't a rule breaker by any means, but isn't typical either. Movies with live orchestral accompaniments are sure-fire box office hits for the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and others. But Zimmer's Derek McLane-designed, Peter Asher-directed show uses mostly lighting — albeit the sort you might see at a Pink Floyd concert — to supply the visual element. The chorus that lines up along the rear of the stage sounds enigmatic and ghostly, and looks that way, too. Instrumentalists play with rock-star animation. Much of the lighting arrives in arresting vertical flashes, whether in brilliant blues or piercing pinks. One of Zimmer's compositional hallmarks is making orchestra music rock like Led Zeppelin. And here, the music looks the way it sounds. As for the lack of specific visual images from his films, Zimmer says, "Let the people make up the movie in your head."
Leaving space for the audience's emotional participation is Zimmer stealth weapon. In the first half of his Dunkirk score, Zimmer barely delivers music but a series of pulse effects, some soft and subliminal, some thundering and frenetic — in the story of the emergency evacuation of about 400,000 soldiers from the shores of World War II France. Zimmer's intention was not to tell the audience what to feel, but to suggest something that would let viewers have their own emotions.
The masterstroke is Zimmer's introduction of a quotation from the Enigma Variations of Edward Elgar — the symphonist whose music most fully embodies the British soul — with a slow burn that still amounted to playing with fire. Anticipating a commotion with his incredibly slow tempo, he said to his musicians, "Just trust me," and had violinists sustain the tempo with unsynchronized bowing that made the sound undulate. This is one part of the Dunkirk score that leaves no room for optional audience reaction: Eyes will not be dry.
Zimmer's belief in the power of the symphonic medium has a socio-political side. In such a divided world, the very act of a musician's achieving a singleness of purpose by listening to each other is a humanitarian act, he said, though with some trepidation about sounding pretentious. But his music hardly comes from a superficial place. With remarkable clarity, he recalls seeing Mozart's The Magic Flute during his Frankfurt upbringing, and being seized with the possibilities of storytelling through music. Then, at age 6, when he was already a practicing pianist, Zimmer's father died of a heart attack at age 46. "I don't care what any child psychologist will tell you: Children don't know how to deal with death," he said. "My world had been turned upside down." The minute the school day was over, he was at home with his piano.
Decades later, he wondered why he signed on to the animated film The Lion King, and realized it was that the story was primarily about parental loss. "The Lion King became a requiem for my father," he said. The film also won him his only Oscar.
"Music is a refuge to me. I write from that place. It certainly saved me as a child. Forget about career. Forget about any of those things. It's a very personal endeavor," said Zimmer. "I'm good at talking. I hide behind language. But when I play music, you can truly see who I am."