“It took 30 years for me to get out of a dark, windowless room, and look where I am,” joked Hans Zimmer, gesturing out to the dark, windowless, boxy Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles Friday night (April 14).
But this was a very different scene for the Oscar-winning composer than the usual solitude that accompanies writing music to such movies as The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Knight, Driving Miss Daisy, Interstellar and dozens more. This night, he was in a dark, windowless room with more than 7,000 rabid fans, who treated him like a rock star from the minute he walked on stage. There’s good reason for that — he does appear in the Buggles’ music clip for “Video Killed The Radio Star,” after all — but the reception was more due to Zimmer’s status as the most famous living composer today, after John Williams. His body of work is renowned for his deft ability to fuse seamlessly electronic, synthesized music with traditional orchestration.
That skill was on display almost from the start as Zimmer, who is on tour through August, first appeared with the members of his band all on the same level, and then the curtain rose to reveal another tier with more members of his 20-piece band. As the music swelled, a higher tier showcased an orchestra, and then the curtain rose even more to expose a 16-piece choir on the upper-most level. The dramatic layered presentation, plus the impressive lighting, hung nearly four stories high, added to the grandeur of the night.
However, make no mistake, this is not your grandfather’s typical movie concert featuring a tuxedo-clad pop symphony (not that there’s anything wrong with that, and, perhaps as a joke, Zimmer did come out in tails, which he discarded less than five minutes in). This was a full-on rock concert, which makes it all the more fitting that Zimmer will take the show to Coachella the next two Sundays (April 16 and 23). Forget any of the expected movie clips. Instead, projected behind the musicians were tight shots of hands playing instruments or trippy, psychedelic pop art images that made the show resemble a Pink Floyd concert. That’s what you get when you hire Pink Floyd’s lighting designer, Marc Brickman, who deserves an award for his innovative, impactful work here.
While the lack of clips initially seemed odd, it soon became apparent that the lack of contextual movie footage meant that the music — written to accompany pictures — now had to stand on its own. And the compositions resoundingly did, with some taking on a new resonance in such a setting. For example, the score for Terrence Malick’s 1998 WW2 epic, The Thin Red Line, played as only pulsing red lines appeared behind the musicians, took on a throbbing tension that took it out of the battlefield and into the current stress of everyday life as the strings and guitars collided.
Under less skilled hands, having more than 50 musicians and singers on stage would likely result in cacophony. Whenever things threatened to become too bombastic, such as during the rallying battle cry of Gladiator, the mood delicately shifted, with Czarina Russell, whom Zimmer has known since she was four, arriving to vocalize the lilting “female soul” of the piece, as the composer put it. In addition to Russell, his ties with several of the musicians went back more than 30 years, with many of them playing on the original scores they recreated Friday night. Though all were exceptional, standouts included drummer Satnam Singh Ramgotra, cellist Tina Guo, and woodwinds player Pedro Eustache. The joy Zimmer took in extolling his colleagues was genuine and infectious. Zimmer himself tackled piano, acoustic and electric guitar and even banjo (on Sherlock Holmes).
Though the crowd was in Zimmer’s hands from the start, the opening African vocals of The Lion King received the most thunderous roar as Lebo M, who sang on the original score, emerged from the wings. The exultant, majestic theme was a highlight, as was The Dark Knight trilogy, a suite that perhaps showed off the most range of the evening, with its industrial, metallic strikes giving way to anarchistic, tribal rhythms. In one of the evening’s most emotional moments, Zimmer then introduced “Aurora,” a refined, exquisite piece composed after Zimmer and director Christopher Nolan learned of the movie theater attack in Colorado the night the film opened. “We wanted something that felt like our arms were reaching out to embrace you,” he said.
The concert began with Zimmer at the piano playing the jaunty theme to Driving Miss Daisy and, clearly by design, ended with him alone at the piano again, this time performing a piece from Inception. After taking us through time and space (literally, with Interstellar’s themes of infinite possibilities) and extravagant adventures on the high seas (Pirates of the Caribbean’s menacing fun), he brought the music back to the solitary element of the piano as a reminder that distilling down to its barebones essence is always where the search for musical truth begins.