Score Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Hans Zimmer)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Hans Zimmer

Rating: ** out of *****

Hans Zimmer, who also composed the second and third Pirates film, along with the bulk of the first, is back one more time. After repeatedly saying he was officially done with the franchise after At World’s End, Zimmer was apparently unable to resist the allure of a very sweet contract to return for the fourth (and likely last) film.

Many collectors have criticized the album release of Zimmer’s score, in some cases rightly so, because the legendary composer’s heart just didn’t seem engaged in the composition or album release process. A frequent collaborator with other musicians, for On Stranger Tides Zimmer teamed up with Spanish guitarist Rodrigo y Gabriela to add a South American flair appropriate for a film about the quest for the Fountain of Youth. Gabriela also ostensibly composed the film’s central love theme (featured at great length on guitar in “Angelica”), while Zimmer did not make much effort to create anything particularly original himself. There are two new Zimmer themes in this score, one for the Spanish (featured in “On Stranger Tides”) and one for the mermaids (featured in the aptly named “Mermaids”). There is also a third theme for Blackbeard (featured in the also aptly named “Blackbeard”), but this is more of a motif than a straight theme. It does nothing but progress down the note scale in the deep, rumbling brass, and is not particularly exciting material to talk about.

The crux of the problem with the music, despite its occasionally uninspiring familiarity, is the fact that there simply isn’t enough of it. The album is eighteen tracks long, totaling a run time of over 77 minutes. Of that, the final seven tracks are trance/techno remixes of Zimmer’s music and – being totally intolerable – have no place even being considered in this review. Of the remaining eleven tracks of instrumental music, four are solo guitar performances by Rodrigo y Gabriela, occasionally throwing flairs from Zimmer’s themes into the mix. These tracks aren’t bad (a few are downright enjoyable), they’re just not film music.

The remainder of the soundtrack is seven tracks of Zimmer’s actual music that appears in the film, with a run-time of something approximating twenty-five minutes, a hopelessly meager offering to film score fans the world over. In fact, it is plain unacceptable, especially given the large musical offerings of the previous three scores in the series. This fact is made even worse when we realize that nearly half of the stuff on the score itself is picked up almost identically from the three earlier scores. Cues like “Mutiny” features the Black Pearl theme from the first film, crammed awkwardly into place without any variation from its previous incarnation, feeling more like the new elements were written into the original “Swords Crossed” cue from The Curse of the Black Pearl rather than the other way around.  The fact that Zimmer couldn’t actually be bothered to come up with a new theme for undead pirates is an indication of how uninspired he was perhaps feeling about the whole project (unless the producers of the film demanded its inclusion for some utterly bizarre reason). Either way, the elements don’t seem to mesh well, and the new, pounding rhythmic action music in the cue is oddly harsher than the first three, echoing Zimmer’s far harsher Gladiatoraction pieces. The final cue of orchestral score is the “End Titles,” which is a lively, though generally identical rendition of “He’s a Pirate” from Curse of the Black Pearl also, the only variation coming in Rodrigo y Gabriela’s frantic guitar playing in the midst of the orchestra. This is a nice touch, and I didn’t mind the nearly identical performance – except for the fact that it means even less original music and thematic material for this film.

There is some new music for the fourth film, and it is on the whole quite nice. The “On Stranger Tides” cue features the theme for the Spanish, and is entirely enjoyable, though with a run time of a meager 2:44 minutes it is far too short, and the theme does not appear anywhere else in the released music; it would have been nice to see Zimmer weave it into some different contexts; the cue plays over the start of the film, and there is a lot of musical material involving this theme at the end of the film as the Spanish try to destroy the Fountain. The first track, “Guilty of Being Innocent of Being Jack Sparrow,” features Sparrow’s familiar theme with some nice variation and draws the Pirates main theme in a few times to a good effect, but again, it is far too short, lasting under two minutes.

This leaves the final three new cues of score. “Blackbeard” is, despite Blackbeard’s somewhat annoying and uninspired theme of downward brass progressions, actually quite good, with dark, swirling strings, deep chanting, and a gonging church bell. The only substantive action cue on the entire album is “Palm Tree Escape,” which bears great similarity to the “Wheel of Fortune” cue from Dead Man’s Chest, though it is thoroughly rewritten to include Rodrigo y Gabriela’s guitar accompaniment, which is integrated very well into the overall piece, unlike some of the other cues.

But the real highlight of the score is “Mermaids,” a piece reaching just a hair over eight minutes, and featuring the truly haunting and alluring mermaid theme. It is this cue which Zimmer seems to have put the most thought into. Its build is gradual and subtly done, as the mermaid theme slowly, almost imperceptibly, transmutes from alluring to darkly worrying to completely terrifying. The cue then breaks into more of the harsher action music, though not nearly as badly as “Mutiny,” and finally settles into an enjoyable bit of vintage, testosterone-driven Zimmer chanting guaranteed to put hair on your chest.  Overall, this track is the heart of the score, and a worthy theme for Zimmer.

Thus, my rating of two stars for the album is ultimately for the album. This release was an insult to soundtrack collectors, filled with a lot of bad decisions. One of these bad decisions was the one to stagger the score tracks between the acoustic guitar tracks, making it almost impossible to get a feel for any sort of development or narrative progression in the score at all, leaving the listener, well, rather lost at sea. The first thing I did when I got it was rip it on my computer, rearrange the cues so the score was all in one place and in order, and then burn another copy. Understandably, the score becomes better because you get it all in a row. But this still does not make up for the fact that there simply isn’t enough music to really evaluate it well. By the time you start to get a feel for it, the score’s over.

We can only hope that one day Zimmer will see fit to release an expanded version of the score so it can get properly evaluated and enjoyed.

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