Hans Zimmer is the voice of the modern movie. With a list of credits that includes The Dark Knight, Gladiator, The Lion King, and Inception, he possesses one of the most diverse bodies of work in the entertainment industry. Indeed, Zimmer is admired and beloved by major movie studios and concert halls around the world.
More important than his universal acclaim, however, is his role as a collaborator in the musical world. Through his company, Remote Control Productions, Hans Zimmer has mentored a remarkable list of proteges, confirming his indelible influence on the development of the modern movie soundtrack. From Harry Gregson-Williams (The Martian) and Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), to Steve Jablonsky (Transformers) and Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class), the iconic sounds of Hans Zimmer have pervaded the industry and influence an entire crop of upcoming composers. If you liked a theme song in a new TV show, or you were moved by a piece of music in an independent film, chances are you were listening to a student of Hans Zimmer.
As for the man himself, selecting the best works from his musical oeuvre remains a herculean feat. Ranked in order of our personal favorites, here are Hans Zimmer’s Best Soundtracks:
15. True Romance
The blend of sound and story in Tony Scott’s True Romance is an unholy marriage. Given the violent subject matter and the offbeat characters involved, Hans Zimmer’s marimba-led melody simply shouldn’t work. Yet somehow, against all odds, the composer’s “You’re So Cool” theme feels right. It’s like discovering the possibilities of mixing beer with grapefruit juice: it doesn’t make sense, but that’s partially why it tastes so good.
The jubilant theme prances into the scene amid Clarence’s (Christian Slater) candid conversation with Alabama (Patricia Arquette). While she tearfully owns up to her sordid line of work, the marimbas reminds us that everything’s going to be okay. “I’ve been a call girl for four days and you’re my third customer… I’m a really good person. And when it comes to relationships, I’m 100% monogamous.”
While credit is due to Zimmer for crafting such a creative score, and to Tony Scott and writer Quentin Tarantino for supporting it, the roots of the True Romance score precede its 1993 release. Indeed, Hans Zimmer heavily adapted his soundtrack from Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer“, of which the comparisons cannot be avoided.
14. The Holiday
He may be defined by his superhero soundtracks, but Hans Zimmer can do rom-coms like the best of them. Indeed, his score for The Holiday is a world away from his other compositions and perhaps the most pleasant of all. Breezy and lighthearted, yet hardly a throwaway soundtrack, Zimmer crafts melodies that make you want to live in the romantic world of The Holiday. As Amanda (Cameron Diaz) chases Graham (Jude Law), and Miles (Jack Black, who plays a composer in the film) woos Iris (Kate Winslet), Zimmer underscores the drama with an atypically complex melody.
“Maestro“, which encapsulates the movie’s major themes, sets the mood with strings before moving into a beautiful piano number. Zimmer doesn’t spend long on the keyboard before cuing the guitar to kicks things up a notch. These little flourishes make the soundtrack enjoyable beyond the experience of the film. In “Definitely Unexpected“, Zimmer crafts a song highly reminiscent of Pixar’s Knick Knack short, reminding audiences that he is equally comfortable in the world of Nancy Meyers as he is in Gotham City.
13. The Da Vinci Code
Composers can’t fix movies, but they can help salvage their reputation. Ron Howard’s adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons amounted to standard blockbuster fare, but the music that accompanied them truly elevated the genre. Ron Howard, Dan Brown and Tom Hanks all delivered the goods, but they needed Hans Zimmer to lift the movie beyond its mortal confines. After all, The Da Vinci Code dealt with personal and religious themes that would inevitably leave audiences either moved, offended, or worse, utterly apathetic. The top-of-the-line talent could only communicate Brown’s story to a certain extent, and they needed someone like Hans Zimmer to pull it all together.
When Robert Langdon (Hanks) locates the Holy Grail and bows before Mary Magdalene’s subterranean sarcophagus, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack absolutely soars. In addition to the rest of the score, his “Chevaliers de Sangreal” theme is truly ascendant. Though the principal photography simply shows Hanks standing above the Louvre, reacting to an object he can’t even see, Zimmer’s regal orchestra turns this moment into the apotheosis of the film. Though the rest of the movie may not have matched the quality of the book, Hans Zimmer made this scene the perfect distillation of Dan Brown’s vision.
12. Sherlock Holmes
With a character like Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, nailing the theme song is nearly as important as casting the lead actor himself. By using a thoroughly destroyed piano to achieve his imagined sound, Hans Zimmer set out to bring Sherlock Holmes to a new generation. While aural vestiges of Victorian England remain present, Zimmer capitalized on Robert Downey Jr.’s eccentric casting and composed a thoroughly rousing score that retains the composer’s signature sound while adding new layers of discovery.
While editing the film, director Guy Ritchie allegedly used Zimmer’s soundtrack from The Dark Knight as a placeholder. While he liked the roughness of the Batman score, Ritchie commissioned the German composer to take Sherlock Holmes in a completely different direction. Zimmer nailed the challenge, using banjos, an out-of-tune and defaced piano, shrieking strings, and an Experibass to truly unique effect. The final result is a soundtrack that elevates the story and matches Guy Ritchie’s modern take on the character with Hans Zimmer’s equally transgressive score.
11. Pirates of the Caribbean
Hard at work on Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai, Hans Zimmer initially declined the opportunity to score Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. After promoting his talented protege, Klaus Badelt, to command the ship, Zimmer found himself seduced by the world of Jack Sparrow. While Badelt received primary credit for the first Pirates score, Zimmer oversaw much of the production and is largely responsible for helping create the epic theme, “He’s a Pirate“. Other tracks, like “Barbossa is Hungry“, are so thrilling that they’ve been known to inspire recently-licensed teenagers to double the speed limit in residential areas and get taken to Tortuga (otherwise known as the local police precinct). True story.
While he laid the groundwork for the series in Curse of the Black Pearl, Hans Zimmer improved upon his original work with Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. From crafting Davey Jones’ organ-heavy theme to the many leitmotifs for the supporting cast, Zimmer’s Pirates oeuvre ranks among his most impressive work.
10. The Last Samurai
Hans Zimmer’s supreme talent lies in his ability to capture the distinctive textures and qualities of a culture while maintaining true to his own musical intuition. Like all great composers, Zimmer has developed an ineffable tonal quality, a sound that comes from his soul. In The Last Samurai, Zimmer imbues his score with the somber cries of a culture that has been swept away by time. Indeed, Ed Zwick’s epic depicts the demise of Japan’s feudalistic culture in the late 19th Century, letting audiences watch the erosion of the Samurai way through the despondent eyes of Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise).
While The Last Samurai employs the bombastic cues typically heard across Zimmer’s oeuvre, there is hardly a major chord progression to be found. Dominated by minor, foreboding flourishes, the movie’s central theme, “A Way of Life“, is an exceedingly epic and emotional piece of music. Other tracks, like “Red Warrior“, are expertly-crafted war cries that put you in the heat of battle alongside the Samurai warriors.
9. Man of Steel
Amid the rampaging action sequences and destruction of Metropolis, there is great beauty in Man of Steel. Hans Zimmer was saddled with the task of competing with John Williams’ original Superman theme, but in writing something original for Zack Snyder’s franchise reboot, the German composer went back to the basics. By starting with a rather simple piano theme, Zimmer captured the goodness of Kansas noy Clark Kent before ramping up the excitement.
Some listeners have criticized the sheer loudness in Zimmer’s Man of Steel (and more recently Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, though that was a dual effort with Junkie XL), but that oppressive volume and dissonance is almost always present when Superman is embroiled in battle. Zimmer follows suit from Snyder’s visceral style of action sequences. While tracks like “Terraforming” are absolutely riveting, the softer moments like “This is Clark Kent” are at the heart of the score.
8. Crimson Tide
In the pantheon of epic soundtracks, Crimson Tide ranks among the very best. Director Tony Scott’s nuclear submarine thriller is a thoroughly macho film that boasts Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in the lead and James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen as supporting players. Like most of Tony Scott’s films (that the legendarily reckless Don Simpson also produced), Crimson Tide is a mainlined adrenaline rush with few moments of respite amid the chaos.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is largely responsible for this, and his work on the 1995 movie launched his career into the cream of the crop composers circling Hollywood’s top projects. Indeed, the “Roll Tide” theme is so overpowering that Steven Spielberg himself called Zimmer to report, “I’ve just wasted my entire day. I’ve listened to your Crimson Tide score eight times and I’ve realized it’s actually an hour long, so I’ve been listening to Crimson Tide for eight hours today.” While blending an economical use of an orchestra, Zimmer employed his beloved synthesizers to a truly modern and creative effect.
7. Batman Begins
Hans Zimmer accepted the absurdity of Batman. He knew that Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight were schizophrenic figures, and this understanding helped shape his approach to scoring Batman Begins. Rather than rehashing the triumphant tones from Danny Elfman’s 1989 Batman soundtrack, Zimmer created a deeper, more melancholic place of longing to define Bruce Wayne. These themes can be heard early in the film when Martha and Thomas Wayne are murdered, with Zimmer using a choir boy’s piercing voice to represent young Bruce’s mourning.
Collaborating with James Newton Howard (The Village, King Kong), Zimmer continued those elegiac themes through Bruce Wayne development under Ra’s al Ghul. The “Eptesicus” track blends those earlier motifs into Bruce’s training, as he learns jiu-jitsu along with the art of “theatricality and deception.” Zimmer uses incredible music artistry to evolve Bruce Wayne from a helpless orphan into a watchful guardian. Batman Begins is further defined by the riveting battle tracks like “Molossus“, and the apogee of the score, “Barbastella“. Hans Zimmer changed the game with Batman Begins, but his sequel score would ultimately prove even more influential.
6. Black Hawk Down
Some soundtracks are more eminently enjoyable than others. Black Hawk Down may not offer the fruits of listening pleasure like some of Zimmer’s other works, but it must be praised for its unparalleled usage in the film. Amid the panoply of entries in the eternal war genre, Ridley Scott’s Mogadishu-set film remains one of the most memorable. Filmed just eight years after the tragic incidents in Somalia, Black Hawk Down is a transporting experience that leaves the viewer with a sense of powerlessness and fear throughout its two and a half hour run time.
While less suited for the home stereo, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack matches the chaos of the movie. Indeed, Black Hawk Down was a truly collaborative and experimental effort with Zimmer and his team. The music hardly sustains a melody, instead driving home jagged sounds and jolting instruments to capture the frenetic experiences of the U.S. Army Rangers. Though both the movie and Zimmer’s score put audiences to the test, listeners are ultimately rewarded with the deeply satisfying track, “Leave No Man Behind“, and the film-closing adaptation of Denez Prigent’s “Gortoz A Ran“. While Josh Hartnett’s final moments are wonderfully rendered, Zimmer gives way to longtime collaborator Lisa Gerrard as the credits begin to roll.
Gladiator is a miracle movie. When Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe set out to tell the story of Maximus, they had only the first few scenes written and nothing else. Scribes like John Logan and David Franzoni drafted pieces of the script, sending their drafts to the production as fast as they could muster. It was gut-instinct filmmaking that saw Scott and Crowe making momentary decisions based on what they felt the story and characters needed. The results defied expectations and proved the director and his lead actor be truly consummate professionals and storytellers.
With time on his side, Hans Zimmer drew on his own immense talent to deliver a score worthy of Ridley Scott’s epic. Across the board, Zimmer built melodies that literally hit all the right notes: “The Battle” is a rousing introduction to Rome’s ongoing battles against the Teutons, “The Might of Rome” lives up to the title and captures the sheer magnitude of the world’s most famous empire, and the closing “Now We Are Free” remains one of Hans Zimmer’s most popular tracks. With haunting vocals from Lisa Gerrard, the concluding song is doleful and uplifting in equal measure.
While some critics have pilloried Zimmer for drawing on Richard Wagner and Gustav Holtz for Gladiator (Holtz’s estate actually sued the composer for adhering too closely to The Planets suite), acknowledging these influences only enhances Zimmer’s work. Such allegations of musical plagiarism are as unfounded as lambasting Russell Crowe for wearing gladiatorial sandals because Charlton Heston wore them in Ben-Hur.
Great artists are not afraid to change. Through Interstellar, Zimmer’s sixth collaboration with Christopher Nolan (including his soundtrack production of The Prestige), the great German composer reached for a new range of musical inspiration. Rather than using a finished film to guide his instrumentation, Zimmer started composing well before Nolan filmed the epic space odyssey. Indeed, the auteur director sought inspiration for himself, sending Zimmer a letter asking for a musical composition based off of two lines of dialogue between a father and his daughter. After telling her he’s leaving for an extended period of time, the father assures his child: “I’ll come back,” to which she asks, “When?”
Without having any context for the story, Zimmer spent a single day composing the motifs that came to mind. They were distinctly personal in nature and rooted in Zimmer’s own fatherly love for his children. These musical concepts would evolve into the magnum opus that Interstellar later became. Through the brilliant usage of an organ, haunting choruses, and lengthy moments of atmospheric silence, Hans Zimmer turned Nolan’s space epic into a boldly human journey. “No Time for Caution” may be the most crowd-pleasing track, but it’s the slow-burning songs like “Where We’re Going” that leave the most lingering impressions. Whether enjoyed during the movie or on its own, the Interstellar soundtrack is an emotional journey that awakens our most human fears and insecurities while providing an undeniable sense of hope.
3. The Lion King
This Disney smash-hit earned Hans Zimmer an Academy Award and cemented his place as a leading blockbuster composer. Landing the job for The Lion King was no easy feat, but Zimmer had displayed his internationally-tuned ear with his work on The Power of One (Stephen Dorff, Morgan Freeman, Daniel Craig). Zimmer nailed the sounds of 1940s South Africa and impressed Disney Animation Studios so much that they hired him for their animal adaptation of Hamlet.
While many individuals were involved with the success of The Lion King (which has since become a mainstay of Broadway and the international music scene), Hans Zimmer is largely responsible for such hits as “The Circle of Life” and “Be Prepared“. The composer admitted to identifying with Simba’s plight, as he himself lost his father at a young age. Despite the vivid animation and the rip-roaring pace of the movie, Zimmer excelled in making The Lion King score a realistic and human venture.
2. The Dark Knight
To borrow a title from its soundtrack, The Dark Knight is a truly “aggressive expansion” of Batman Begins. Each of the elements introduced in the origin story is amplified to a factor of ten: Gotham feels bigger, the criminal world seems more dangerous, Batman appears more world weary, and Bruce Wayne is more broken. On whom can the blame be placed for such unfortunate developments? The Joker.
Knowing the legacy of the infamous villain, Hans Zimmer centered The Dark Knight soundtrack on the Clown Prince of Crime. Using razor blades on violin and cello strings, Zimmer imbued the two-note Joker theme with one intent: to make the audiences loathe him. He succeeds almost instantaneously. Indeed, the movie opens with a searing tension that welcomes the Joker into Christopher Nolan’s grimy Gotham.
While strengthening the sounds of the enemy, Zimmer cultivates the motifs first created for Batman. “Like A Dog Chasing Cars” gives the the Caped Crusader center stage, and the closing track, “A Dark Knight“, employs synthesizers and electronic instruments to create an impressively empowering effect. Ultimately, this soundtrack was so impressive that it will take years for a new Batman score to supplant the value of The Dark Knight.
Inception is the stuff of dreams, and only Christopher Nolan could ensure its labyrinthine plot made sense to the uninitiated audience. This is the hallmark collaboration of Nolan and his trusted composer, Hans Zimmer. With Batman Begins and The Dark Knight already under their belts, they had clearly developed a working relationship to rival that of Steven Spielberg and John Williams. In telling the story of Dom Cobb’s redemption (Leonardo DiCaprio), Nolan and Zimmer built on their foundation while eschewing previous musical tropes to find something truly resonant and original.
Today, Inception contains the most oft-parodied and plagiarized pieces of music in the entertainment industry. Though “Mombasa” has a rhythm that could wake the dead, and “Old Souls” creates an utterly ethereal vibe, the “Dream is Collapsing” track remains the most transcendent of all. Like the plot, it welds layers of complexity to a foundation of pure tension. After all, it’s the founding father of the signature “bwomp! bwomp!” sounds that have dominated film trailers ever since. Finally, Hans Zimmer’s “Time” is the perfect amalgamation of beauty and suspense. The song never fully resolves, leaving audiences in a state of purgatory over the fate of Dom Cobb and his wobbling totem.
What are your favorite Hans Zimmer scores? Let us know in the comments below!