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Hans Zimmer on his ‘Sherlock Holmes’ score: ‘Real life takes place in pubs'

December 24, 2009 | 12:00 pm


Before Hans Zimmer even began work on Guy Ritchie’s take on “Sherlock Holmes,” the film was loaded with Zimmer music. As he was about to embark on the seven-month project that would be composing and conducting the score for the film, which will open wide on Friday, the director had one request for the workhorse Zimmer. 

“Guy phoned me up, and he said he was shooting a Sherlock Holmes movie,” recalls Zimmer. “He said  every time he went to the cutting room, 'Dark Knight' was temped into the film. He said, ‘I don’t want "Dark Knight." ’ It was a liberating first conversation. I don’t want to do ‘Dark Knight’ again. I’ve done it, and it belongs to Chris Nolan. So it’s nice when you get someone who asks you to do something completely different. “

Zimmer’s score for the 2008 “Dark Knight,” which he composed with James Newton Howard, would seem to be the go-to template for dim action movies, with its sinisterly industrial horror movie violins creeping around every corner. “Sherlock Holmes” itself comes equipped with plenty of nighttime action sequences, as well as a murderous plot. Its depiction of London isn’t exactly old-timey sheen, either, as David Denby, in his review in the New Yorker, described the image of the city as “rubbled and mucky, with beggars underfoot, and fouled by half-finished industrial monstrosities.”

Listening to Zimmer’s score divorced from the film, however, it’s one that would seem more fit for raising a pint glass than some cinematic brawling. Like “The Dark Night,” there are minimalist violin notes, but here they twist and bend in a more upbeat manner. Accordions, banjos and maritime pianos dot Zimmer’s score, creating what he described as the sound of the famed Irish punk band the Pogues joining a Romanian orchestra.

“Guy got it from that description,” said Zimmer, who’s just begun initial work on Nolan’s upcoming film,  “Inception.”

“The best German in me came out,” he continued. “I thought, ‘What happens if you write a Weimar Republic score for "Sherlock Holmes"?' The way I wanted to take it was the way Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht managed to have these sets of little tunes and used humble, workmanlike instruments, and then just write for soloists. I wanted to get rid of the pompousness of the large orchestra.”

At times, Zimmer employed a “humble” 32-piece orchestra, but even when striking up the big band, he wanted a more working-class atmosphere. The Oscar winner for 1994’s “The Lion King” said he ordered the 10-piece brass section to mimic the sound of a Salvation Army band. He also relied on key soloists, such as Italian bassist Diego Stocco, one of the many musicians responsible for manipulating the sound of an instrument. 

“A lot of the percussion in the movie isn’t percussion,” Zimmer said. “It’s someone totally mistreating their upright bass.  I found this Italian bass player – Diego Stocco – who’s taken a hacksaw to his bass and added three more necks to it.

“We don’t have a lot of virtuoso musicians on scores where they can go out and play and play fun. It’s usually about being very internal and very insensitive -- very grown-up and intellectual. This was basically getting great virtuoso musicians and telling them, ‘Put your violin down. Now pick it up again and think it’s a fiddle.’ ”

That sense of zany experimentation is evident on the soundtrack’s opening “Discombobulate,” in which any orchestral swells are soon tempered by playful accordion notes, eventually giving way to a rousing banjo from Davey Johnstone, a longtime Elton John collaborator. More off the wall still is “I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before,” with its trash-can rhythms and violin throwing an Eastern European dance party. Folksy European stringed instruments, such as the Hungarian cimbalom, add to the festive atmosphere.

The off-kilter violin, said Zimmer, is a nod to the hobby of the film’s main character, resurrected here by Robert Downey Jr. Though Holmes is a practitioner of the violin, one won’t hear traditional classical sounds in “Sherlock Holmes.” Zimmer wanted room for his violinists, Ann Marie Calhoun and Aleksey Igudesman, to cut loose. 

“The one thing that was always in the back of our minds and was the unspoken thing is that Sherlock Holmes is a violinist,” Zimmer said. “But our Sherlock Holmes is different, and it was more about playing the chaos, the multitude of ideas, the synapses firing, and strange virtuosity going on in his brain. I’m trying to play what’s going on in that man’s head.”

Or capture the sound of a bar. 

“This movie looks so gorgeous. I promise you -- I haven’t seen such opulence, overwrought Victorian-styled set design,” Zimmer said. “The rich people’s houses are so gorgeous, but real life takes place on the streets. Real life takes place in pubs. 

“I just came back from London, and it was 1 a.m., snowing, and everyone was out in the streets, standing outside pubs and talking,” he continued. “The streets were packed. It’s such a spirit of fun, but there’s an edge to it. There’s a slight danger to it. I know what that feels like, and I know what that sounds like.”

--Todd Martens


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Photo: Warner Bros.