Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Hans Zimmer Live in Prague DVD

For me, the score can make or break a film. A good film can be elevated into the realms of greatness by a standout score, and even a poor film can be rescued from being a total disaster if it has some nice music.

Hans Zimmer is a composer who has an impeccable handle on what it means to write music for films. His soundtracks always suit the style, tone and theme of the films they are in. The pieces are easy on the ears and catchy, but they aren’t so carried away with pomp that they draw attention away from the film. Rather, they capture the essence of the story.

His score to Dunkirk is a fantastic example of this, in the way it embodied the grittiness of war, as well as underscoring the potent feeling that time may be running out at any moment.

There’s a reason Iggy Azalea namechecked Zimmer in her song Team, ‘You gotta set the score right, call it Hans Zimmer’.

When one is watching a film, there is already so much going on (visuals, acting, directing, script), that it can be easy to overlook the craft that the composer pours into the pieces. By watching all the individual instruments come together in Hans Zimmer Live in Prague, one can truly get a sense of the sheer scope of his creations.

The concert opens with an opening medley of Driving Miss Daisy, Sherlock Holmes and Madagascar, three pieces which highlight Zimmer’s versatility at scoring films, regardless of the genre. ‘Driving’ from Driving Miss Daisy is cleverly chosen as the first piece because it starts with just the piano (Zimmer playing) and the clarinet, and the other instrumentalists are able to gradually assemble on stage over the course of the piece, before revealing the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Choir behind them.

Zimmer personally curated his tracklist, and his selection of pieces allows him to give showcases to the very talented musicians who have performed with and often composed alongside him over the years.

Johnny Marr gets to demonstrate his inimitable strumming skills in The Electro Suite from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Tina Guo and her electric cello take centre stage on the Pirates of the Caribbean suite. Zimmer modestly called the composition a ‘trivial piece’, which many film fans would contest, given that recognisable ‘He’s a Pirate!’ theme is both ubiquitous and iconic.

Guo’s playing is certainly worthy of the piece; I loved her occasional displays of flamboyance as she really got into the medley, a hair flick here, a back arch there. For these virtuoso players, they are not simply playing notes memorised from a music score; they are the music score.

I myself play the violin and the guitar, and through consumption of this DVD, it made me more complete as a musician. It also made me a more informed movie buff. I wondered how he got the tick-tocking effect in Dunkirk that so effectively ramped up the tension. The Interstellar suite solved this mystery for me nicely: it was string players hitting the strings with the wood of the bow.

Hans Zimmer incorporates vocals into this music to epic effect, and 'The Wheat' from Gladiator and 'Circle of Life' from The Lion King testify to this. In the former, Czarina Russell, puts her ethereal voice of an angel to good use, singing hauntingly. In the latter, that recognisable opening is belted out with gusto by Lebo M, the guy who actually sang it originally in the film, another musician who has been on Zimmer's musical journey with him.

The Gladiator score was a collaboration with Lisa Gerrard, and Zimmer reveals, between suites, that he felt he needed a female influence on the soundtrack, lest the film get carried away with its masculinity. Zimmer also collaborated with James Newton Howard for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, because he said he wanted help capturing the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne's suave business magnate and philanthropist by day, and badass world-saver by night. That Zimmer is receptive to working with his peers demonstrates his astuteness at reading the films he's been given, and when having a second opinion will make the soundtrack more complete.

The concert is fantastic, whether the musicians go big or small. I loved the sheer texture of ‘Chevaliers de Sangreal’ from The Da Vinci Code, but ‘Aurora’, scored for victims of the Colorado shooting, was remarkably moving in its restraint. A good composer has to know when not to play music just as importantly as when to play music, and Zimmer judged that poignant balance perfectly in this elegy. The sparse, mournful notes and vocals depict the heartbreak the composer feels about tragedy.

Whilst Hans Zimmer is famed for his composition nous, he's no slouch at playing instruments either, juggling the piano, the guitar and the banjo, often switching instruments mid-piece. What I was struck by throughout was how he, and, indeed, all the musicians always played with a smile on their faces, and this joie de vivre was infectious to the audience and the viewer.

The standout performance on the DVD, for me, was 'Mombasa' from Inception, although I may be biased because that's long been the go-to track of mine when I'm jogging. It's a high-octane piece which requires extreme technical ability from the orchestra, yet they make it look effortless.

There's a lot of call-and-answering in the piece, with the musical point of interest jumping from the hyper-kinetic drum, to the electric guitars, to the strings. The interplay between all components of the orchestra in 'Mombasa' is just astonishing. In lesser hands, it could have sounded heavy, clunky, trying too hard. In Hans Zimmer's dextrous fingers, it's the musical equivalent of a rollercoaster ride and a complete feast for the ears. 

Just as concert opened with Zimmer playing piano, it ends in the same way, with ‘Time’ from Inception. 'Time' is a very moving piece which encapsulates the themes of Christopher Nolan's ambitious film, and that closing exchange between the violin and piano, with the way the track does not conclude definitively (as film music often does) ingeniously portrays the closing of Inception, an ending which still puzzles and frustrates viewers. Hearing that last ambiguous note on the violin was reminded me how in synch it was, with the shot of the spinning (possibly toppling) totem in the movie.

The Hans Zimmer Live in Prague DVD is a fantastic showcase to one of he finest composers at the peak of his talents. He needs to win the Oscar next year for his exceptional work on Dunkirk. And you need this DVD in your life.

Grade: A+

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