9. Gladiator (2000)
Zimmer’s score for Ridley Scott’s genre-resurrecting historical epic is controversial for how it liberally deploys Holst’s Mars during the battle sequences. In truth, there’s an extraordinarily rich amount of other material going on in the Gladiator score, from the powerfully dramatic ‘Am I Not Merciful’ to Lisa Gerrard’s piercing, haunting vocals depicting Elysium. A more varied, dramatically engaging score than many give it credit for.
8. The House of the Spirits (1993)
Strangely enough given its A-list cast (Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close) and literary pedigree (based on Isabel Allende’s acclaimed debut novel), Billie August’s movie has been somewhat lost in the annals of time. However it does offer Zimmer a prime opportunity to showcase his dramatic chops, the composer fashioning a melancholic, powerful tragedy that perfectly captures the spirit of the story.
7. The Lion King (1994)
Disney’s blockbuster was an truly emotional experience for young audiences back in 1994, refashioning Hamlet with lions and playing on the tear ducts. Zimmer’s remarkably powerful, Oscar-winning score, leaning heavily on his melancholic string undercurrents with stirring choir, is as responsible as anything for getting our emotions going, brilliantly interweaving around Elton John and Tim Rice’s audience-friendly hits.
6. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Zimmer’s sound may have curdled in recent years and turned people away due to its sameiness. But it’s important to remember what a pioneering, refreshing figure of film music he was back in the early stages of his career. The charming score for this twee Oscar-winner consists entirely of synthetic approximations of real instruments, a showcase for how revolutionary he was in blurring the lines between orchestral and synthetic.
5. Backdraft (1991)
Ron Howard’s firefighting action movie was something of a watershed moment for Zimmer, an early test of his musical capabilities that would later flourish in the mid-90s. It’s interesting listening to Backdraft and hearing how much of an organic presence the orchestra has, synths very much placed as a supporting feature in favour of noble snares and brass, as well as the fascinating burst of atonal choir to add menace.
4. Thelma and Louise (1991)
Zimmer’s second collaboration with Ridley Scott (after 1989’s Japan-infused Black Rain) and it’s almost certainly their best: a wistful and evocative slice of Americana that deploys haunting electric guitar, banjo and synths to brilliantly depict Susan Sarandon and Genna Davis’ rebellious yet ill-fated road trip. It’s a score by turns defiant and melancholy, one of Zimmer’s greatest achievements for how it gets beneath the skin of the storyline.
3. Rain Man (1988)
Zimmer’s breakout Hollywood score presented him with a number of challenges, namely how to depict Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Tom Cruise’s autistic on-screen brother? In the end, the composer decided to filter the music through the former’s perspective (as if he “were on the moon”), the end result a spellbinding blend of specialty instrumentation (including didgeridoo) and electronics to give a powerfully mystical mood to Barry Levinson’s movie.
2. Beyond Rangoon (1995)
John Boorman’s war-torn drama stars Patricia Arquette but is little remembered. Its greatest asset is arguably Zimmer’s sensitive and evocative score, one that fuses his burgeoning confidence with electronic soundscapes with carefully chosen instrumentation like bamboo flutes. It’s a superb depiction of a country on the cusp of change, and of nature being ravaged by war. It’s also the perfect set-up for the number one choice…
1. The Thin Red Line (1998)
So powerful was Zimmer’s outstanding score for Terrence Malick’s World War II drama that it exerted a considerable influence over the composer’s subsequent works, both piecemeal (the ‘Time’ track from Inception) and wholesale (the entirety of the 12 Years a Slave score). It’s not hard to see why: Zimmer’s mastery of the orchestral/electronic divide has no greater showcase than this, a majestic and heartrending musical depiction of the futility of war and the impact is has on the natural landscape. Zimmer’s steady build of tension and slow-burning tragedy is perfectly matched with Malick’s contemplative style. In fact the director’s insistence on shooting mounds of footage resulted in Zimmer writing four hours worth of music for the project, most of which was never used.