Hans Zimmer and The Lion King

When I started blog posts about movie scores I never thought Hans Zimmer would appear so often. That’s especially true nowadays because he’s on a short break (save for composing the main theme to Planet Earth II). So before I listened to Zimmer’s score for The Lion King I didn’t think much of it. Clearly, I thought, its the songs that are memorable, he probably wrote down some generic blandness nowhere different from anything he’s written the past decade or so. And then I listened.

I have one question. Who is this composer and where’s the Hans Zimmer I know? This sounds something along the lines of James Newton Howard or Jerry Goldsmith mixed with Alan Menken! Now I know why this won an Oscar, why its Zimmer’s only Oscar win, why he became so popular following the release of Lion King: Hans Zimmer wrote the best score he’s ever made.

There’s actual themes, full choir, tribal drums, an orchestra that doesn’t sound like it came from a computer and very few of the Zimmer tendencies that litter his later works. For example, the thundering strings and sheer noise are hardly anywhere to be found. Instead, restrained strings and quiet moments build to thunderous themes. The orchestrations are superb.

At moments he lets tribal drums and the choir take over while the strings sit in the back. When they do pop up much of their work revolves around soaring harmony lines or themes. Occasionally there are moments of the Zimmer we know today, but those are mostly underneath themes and don’t detract from the score.

The central theme sounds like he took half the notes from a hymn and the other half from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” yet unlike many Zimmer themes this one sticks. The moments after Mufasa’s death are among the most emotional I’ve heard from a Zimmer composition. I think the choir has a lot to do with this but also the way he puts instruments in pieces. Many sound deliberate instead of annoying and out of place.

A track titled “Remember” is the best example of the whole score. It’s emotional, restrained, deep and full of everything you wouldn’t expect a Zimmer score to have. And above all its quiet. It knows when to add and back off and does so with grace. The African tribal vocals and drums are icing on the cake.

All of this, the restrained quiet, cues that sound like they belong on Menken’s sketchbook, the heavy depth and percussion of a Goldsmith piece, and the most emotional theme Zimmer’s ever written, combines to create an amazing score.

You might be asking: if this is so good, what happened in between 1994 and today? Why does Zimmer sound so different? I have a couple theories. One is he simply ran out of original ideas. This happens to anyone working in the arts and when it does, you take a break and come back later, which is what he’s doing now. My second theory is he bought into his own hype. We’ve seen this before with other artists. You reach your greatest piece and everything afterwards sounds inferior by comparison.

My last theory is due to the modern movie scene, he’s been forced to write in a different musical style. We’ve heard about temp tracks and the like, how composers feel more and more constricted. Maybe Zimmer is a victim of this too. Maybe he became so popular after this more people asked him to write scores, leading him to throw scores at his understudies, which all became the same overall because his team churned out scores so often. In short, perhaps the man we credit most for making movie scores sound the same didn’t have the time or conditions to write anything as ground-breaking as Lion King.

Listen to Inception and/or Interstellar, two scores I think are overhyped, and compare them to this. Notice a difference? Inception sounds dark and harsh, full of electronics and sharp guitars, all screaming “listen to this, it sounds different”. Interstellar is loud, empty and screams “emotion, emotion”. The Lion King doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be anything, it just is what it is. No desperate attempt to sound different, no BWAH’s or overused chords, no boring repetition.

The Lion King is Zimmer’s best score to date for my money. The next time you listen to the soundtrack, don’t skip past the score.



UPDATE: I’m aware Zimmer wrote this score with/worked alongside Elton John/Lebo M/Mark Mancina. That doesn’t change my opinion of it, but helps me understand why it sounds so different.


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