Where Have All The Memorable Movie Themes Gone? Hollywood Composers Speak Out [Exclusive]

EXCLUSIVES

Hans Zimmer is one of the most famous composers on Earth, but unless you read industry trades or pay close attention to entertainment news, you may not realize that he doesn’t actually compose the entire score for the movies he works on. Zimmer is the public face of a company called Remote Control, which essentially serves the function of something akin to a musical assembly line. Zimmer does some work, yes, but much of it is delegated to legions of his proteges who tackle various aspects of creating film scores, including generating original cues. I don’t mean to pick on Zimmer here; he certainly isn’t the only composer to engage in methods like this, he’s just the best-known face of the practice. In 2022, Vanity Fair called this figurehead approach “film composing’s biggest open secret” and quoted a now-deleted tweet from composer Joe Kraemer (“Jack Reacher”) as saying, “I can count the number of mainstream Hollywood composers that I KNOW write all their music themselves on one hand” — a pretty damning statement for those of us who assumed all composers individually toiled away to produce their own scores.

“Back in the day, even with me, the concept of working with other composers on a score was like, what? That just sounds wrong,” John Ottman recalled. “I grew up in that John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry era, where if I heard that they even had anyone writing anything for them, I’d be petrified. My point by saying that is that when those composers were on a movie, that one movie was their world. Sometimes it happened that there was overlap between one movie and another, but they weren’t working on five movies at the same time. So they had time to devote to that one movie to impart their own soul, as it were, musical soul, to that film and not a team of five, ten, fifty people.”

In this episode of the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast, sound designer and host Dallas Taylor spoke with several musicians and technicians who work under Hans Zimmer about the themes that are woven throughout Zimmer’s score for Denis Villeneuve’s first “Dune” film. “If you look at something like ‘Dune,’ for instance, there’s three themes, maybe four themes in the whole movie,” said composer Steve Mazzaro. “A lot of them are very subliminal. You might not necessarily notice them.”

Raul Vega, a sample developer, digital instrument designer, and musician jack of all trades who helped create the sonic palette for Zimmer to work with on this score, chimed in: “When you listen to the score, you may not be getting something that is so motif-heavy in a vein of, ‘Here’s our theme and this is exactly what it is. This is the orchestra.’ You’re getting so many different layers of texture that are representing all of these different elements and grains of sand […] the samples are the sand, and how they move apart and move up and down and every which way you can think of in the score, there’s something really beautiful about that.”

Personally, I think the “Dune” score is terrific. It’s one of the few blockbuster scores of the past several years with a theme that got me amped when I heard it, and the complexity of the music feels like a natural extension of the gargantuan scope of that story. But as John Ottman pointed out, once a large team is introduced into the scoring process and a composer begins to be stretched across multiple projects at once, “the scores are going to inevitably suffer in terms of having a musical identity.” When that happens, the stamp of the composer begins to disappear, it becomes more difficult to recognize a person’s work solely from listening to it, and some of that human touch, the distinct personality that composers bring to their work, can get diluted. Whether or not that’s happening to Zimmer doesn’t seem to matter to the entertainment industry: He won his second Oscar for the “Dune” score.

“Most composers working today, I couldn’t tell their music apart from another composer,” Ottman continued. “That’s because this cool factor thing, so to speak, that came in where there’s really no theme. It’s a three-note motif, and that’s the theme of the whole movie.”

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