Composer vs. Filmmaker: Hans Zimmer’s Score to The Dark Knight

6 May

By Josh Rousseau (composer) and Tanner Smith (filmmaker)

NOTE FROM TANNER: This is something my musician friend, Josh, wanted us to work on together–what does a composer take from a music score in a film and is it any different from the point-of-view of a filmmaker/critic? Obviously, I’m not going to be as specific in my review as Josh is here, but I’m still willing to give my two cents on the subject. So, to get it started, we’re going to talk about the infamous Hans Zimmer score in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Scene 1: “Why So Serious?” (The Joker’s Theme)

Josh’s review: Here we go! Analyzing one of my favorite scores, and one of the scores that started the new modern epic sound. This scene starts out with the suspenseful ticking clock sounds that Zimmer loves to use for momentum. Then as soon as we see what could be our iconic villain, we get his famous motif on electric cello (sliding a dissonant 2 note chord up the strings). Zimmer himself described this as “a string that keeps on stretching but never breaks”. Then we hear the same dissonant chord played in a sort of groovy rhythm in violins (another Joker motif that we hear throughout the film). This piece of music is a great example of electronic instruments like the pulsing synth basses and percussion combining with live orchestral elements like the string players. The music dips down during the standoff between the last two clowns. Which is a good choice. Sometimes less music is the correct choice to fit the emotion of the scene. When we finally see The Joker himself, we get one big dark minor chord. This piece of music breaks rules! It has both a sense of chaos and control (it has dissonance and rule breaking with the note choice, but control with the specific rhythms), very much like The Joker himself.

Tanner’s review: This is what starts the film with a bang–a bank heist that shows us the dark, gritty world we’re going to fight our way through in this new Batman flick. It’s thrilling, gorgeously executed, and sets the tone early on for the chaos that our main villain, the Joker, stands for. And the best part–it doesn’t feel like your typical action-movie opener. We need the right music for this scene, and this is the perfect choice. Why? Because it doesn’t make a big deal about itself. It flows with the scene rather than distract from it. And given that the score is composed with a bombastic orchestra, that’s saying something!

Scene 2: “A Dark Knight” (Ending Theme)

Josh’s review: This clip starts off with the Harvey Dent/Two Face theme which is mostly subtle dark chords and was probably written by James Newton Howard (it matches his style). At the point where Batman says “I’m not a hero” though, this theme starts. This theme is a variation of the Batman theme from Batman Begins with the pulsing violin ostinato (repetitive rhythmic groove), but it develops more and has a beautiful soaring melody. The first of this track is a more traditionally orchestral than most of the music in this movie. It doesn’t have a ton of electronic stuff in it, and it’s mostly strings, brass, and timpani drum (not like the huge tribal drums we hear in the action scenes) until the end where it brings back the electronic elements, and the big drums to close out the movie into an epic finale.

Tanner’s review: Whoa…that was one of the best movies I ever saw in my life… If you’re like me, you came out of “The Dark Knight” feeling like your world was rocked severely after witnessing an ending that was uncompromisingly dark and brutally compelling. It deserved a hell of a closing theme, and it got one! Using mostly percussion and violin, we get a haunting, bombastic score that says one thing to you, which is, “That was the f***ing Dark Knight.” Remember what I was saying about the music in the first scene about how the music didn’t make a big deal out of itself? Well, by this point, it earned its ability to go big or go home.

And that’s it for now. Maybe we’ll do some more in the future!

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