When I wrote my review of Klaus Badelt’s score for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl back in 2003, my opening paragraph read: “In giving Pirates of the Caribbean a four-star review, I’m making myself undergo a crisis of conscience. How can I, as a “respected” reviewer of film music, give such a high rating to a score which is quite blatantly inappropriate for the movie, predictable to the extreme, and derivative of virtually every major Media Ventures action score written in the last ten years?”. Three years later, and Hans Zimmer’s score for the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, has me thinking the exact same thing. Yet again, though, the bottom line is this: it may be inappropriate, and simplistic, and bear no relation to either the Disney ride or the musical genre conventions of pirate movies, but each and every time I listen to it, I have a bloody good time, and thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Dead Man’s Chest takes place shortly after the conclusion of the first movie, and sees Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the flamboyant captain of the pirate ship The Black Pearl, at large on the high seas. However, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of the Governor of Tortuga (Jonathan Pryce), and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), her husband-to-be, are arrested for treason by the nefarious Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), a new administrator sent from Britain to the islands. His bargain to Will is to have him track down Sparrow and his compass, which Beckett believes is of significant value. Succeed, and he and Elizabeth go free. Fail, and they both will face the hangman’s noose. Jack, however, has got problems of his own – years ago, the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) rescued Jack and his ship from a watery grave, and now the captain of the Flying Dutchmen and his crew of aquatic buccaneers are looking to make good on their bargain and claim what Jack promised them… his eternal soul.
The film is a superb, rollercoaster ride in the grandest tradition, which at the time of writing has already taken $380 million at the US box office. There are cannibals and great escapes and sea monsters and and mysterious voodoo women and armies of fishy brigands, swordfights and fistfights and moments of derring do, romances and rehabilitations and double crossing and trickery – it’s all wonderfully entertaining and breathtakingly exciting, as every summer blockbuster should be. Returning alongside the central cast along with director Gore Verbinski are Jack Davenport, Kevin McNally, Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook, as well as newcomers Stellan Skarsgard and Naomie Harris. The difference musically is that, this time, rather than simply act as an “over-producer”, Hans Zimmer himself has taken over the lead composing reigns from Klaus Badelt – although, in truth, the handover is as seamless as if Zimmer and the team of ‘additional musicians’ had been involved all along.
As one would expect, the general tone of the score is exactly the same as its predecessor: power anthems, thunderous action cues, low male voice choirs, rousing themes, and all that. If you liked the first Pirates score, there is every chance you will have the same feelings for this one. To his credit, though, Zimmer has managed to integrate several new themes and motifs into the new score to give it its own sense of being and identity. Martin Tillman’s ubiquitous electric cello opens the proceedings, performing a jaunty, slightly-drunken sounding theme for “Jack Sparrow”, which somehow manages to capture the unusual dichotomy of heroism and effeminateness, and his lazy swaggering walk all in one, before launching into a rousing rendition of Sparrow’s main themes from the first score.
Zimmer has said in interviews that he saw the tortured ancient mariners of the Flying Dutchman as being a kind of fishy biker gang, and as such his music to accompany their nefarious aquatic endeavours has more than a hint of axle grease: bass guitars, brooding synths, low-end brass clusters, and thrusting, pugnacious rhythms accompany them in “The Kraken”, which gradually develops into an astonishingly powerful action cue, complete with a classical pipe organ undercurrent which acts as a recurring leitmotif for Jones himself, who plays the keys with the tendrils of his squid-like features. The second major action set piece, “Wheel of Fortune”, is also a stand-out, maintaining its tremendous pace and breathless energy throughout its 7-minute length. The grand finale, which comprises “You Look Good Jack” and “Hello Beastie”, is like a musical battering ram, encompassing every major theme and motif in the film (including several from the original), performed at high volume, with a massive orchestra, and at a rapid pace. It builds up to a truly melodramatic climax, featuring the familiar Zimmeresque echoing male voice choir from Crimson Tide and others, before ending on a reflective note which sets the scenario for Pirates of Caribbean 3, coming in 2007.
All this bombast is tempered by a couple of lighter cues, notably the pretty, music box-like “Davy Jones”, which also features a second menacing performance of the pipe organ theme. “Two Hornpipes (Tortuga)” is Zimmer’s only real concession to typical pirate music, whirligig sea shanties which gradually increase in pace and intensity as they develop, and which sound like they were great fun to perform. Its not quite George Bruns and ‘Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me’, but it’s as close as this score is going to get.
The “Tia Dalma” character, a voodoo fortune teller who lives deep in the swamps (and whose house strikingly resembles the opening room of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland), has her own musical ambiance, provided mainly by the haunted tones of vocalist Dolores Clay, whose moans and wails form a twisted lament, giving the bayou sequences a twisted, inhuman, exotic element. The island cannibals from whom Jack must escape also have their of musical presence, characterised by a massive, percussion-heavy theme which makes superb use of layered vocal effects (including what sounds like Tuvan or Inuit throat singing) in “Dinner is Served”, before blasting sideways into a full-bodied Straussian waltz, to accompany the balletic antics of Will and the crew of the Black Pearl as they try to escape from their spherical prisons.
Sadly, the least said about the remix of “He’s a Pirate” by Dutch trance DJ Tijs Verwest, aka Tiësto, the better: it is quite indescribably horrible, and it remains beyond my capacity to understand why record producers think these abominations are worthwhile. I suppose the kids like them.
My esteemed friend and colleague, the excellent Mr. James Southall, wrote an absolutely superlative review of this score at his site, Movie Wave, which I wholly recommend you read (the link is at the bottom of the page). He somehow got into my head and wrote down my precise feelings about the political state of modern film music, and did so with much more clarity and intelligence than I would have – so bearing that in mind, and knowing that I feel precisely the same as he does about the ‘industry’ in general right now, that still brings me back to the original question. Knowing all that, how can I still give Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest a four-star review? Because, for just under an hour, it is monumentally entertaining and exciting, and provides listeners with the same kind of popcorn escapism the film provides for movie-goers. And, sometimes, that’s all you need.