Home > Reviews > PEARL HARBOR – Hans Zimmer

PEARL HARBOR – Hans Zimmer

pearlharborOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Director Michael Bay so much wanted for Pearl Harbor to be his Titanic – an epic love story that takes place within one of the most tragic, violent, and talked-about events of the 20th Century. But, with Michael Bay being the director he is, it had to not just equal, but eclipse James Cameron’s Oscar-winning watery thriller. Instead of sinking one boat, Bay sinks a couple of dozen. Not content with presenting a simple boy-meets-girl story, Bay turns Pearl Harbor’s romance into a love triangle. And, in an effort to outdo James Horner’s work on the earlier film, Bay hired Hans Zimmer to wring every last emotional drop from his audience and his listeners. And he succeeds – almost.

The central story involves two best friends from rural Tennessee – Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) – who enlist themselves in the US Air Force in January 1941. Rafe quickly meets Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse in the Navy, and the two fall madly and passionately in love. Growing increasingly frustrated at his Government’s refusal to get involved in the war in Europe, Rafe volunteers to be transferred to a Unit helping the British RAF in and, despite Evelyn’s vigorous protestations, is granted his request. Rafe is shot down in combat over the English Channel, and presumed dead. Stricken by grief and turning to each other for solace, Danny and Evelyn tentatively begin an affair of their own, and are further encouraged by their respective transfers to the idyllic Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii. However, tragedy looms just around the corner, not just because Rafe turns up alive and well and wanting his girl back, but because the Japanese have sided with the Nazi aggressors, and are planning a surprise attack which will change the future of the world forever…

For about 45 minutes, Pearl Harbor is an amazing, breathtaking, truly brilliant film. As the first of the Japanese warplanes skim over Hawaii on the morning of December 7th 1941, until the fateful moments when the USS Arizona and her crew slip underneath the waves of the Pacific, Bay’s dazzling pyrotechnics, lightning fast editing and deafening sound design place the listener squarely in the middle of the battle – you find yourself ducking in your seat as planes seemingly whiz overhead, holding your breath for the tragically doomed crewmembers of the sunken navy vessels, and cheering when Rafe and Danny take to the skies themselves. Its just a shame that the love story before it and afterwards is so leaden and uninspiring. Individually, Affleck, Hartnett and Beckinsale are competent performers, and the assembled supporting cast (Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Alec Baldwin) is impressive. It just that Randall Wallace’s screenplay seems intent on flogging every last drop of faux-emotion from the film, adhering to every possible genre cliché along the way. Is this really the same man who wrote Braveheart?

If nothing else, the one thing Pearl Harbor finally does do is to prove that there is much more to Hans Zimmer than the ear-shattering action music for which he has become famous. The main romantic theme from Pearl Harbor is a lovely creation, featuring a series of soothing string passages overlaid by a simple, three-note motif for piano and synth and, occasionally, support from a solo soprano voice. Zimmer is not noted for the delicacy of his orchestral palette or the attractiveness of his themes, so it may come as a surprise to many that he is capable of such restraint. Cues such as the opening ‘Tennessee’, the soaring ‘And Then I Kissed Him’, the cathartic release during ‘War’, and the conclusive ‘Heart of a Volunteer’, which includes a noble solo horn performance of the main theme, and a cooing choir to increase the emotional kick, rank among some of the best melody-driven moments of Zimmer’s career.

It is well documented that Zimmer labored long and hard over his main theme, as the expense of more depth in the rest of the score, and although the energy invested in getting his thematic core correct is plain to see, it’s a shame that the rest of it never quite lives up to its beginnings. Much of the actual “underscore” is rather bland and straightforward, relying on high-tone synth textures and orchestral phrases which seek to lend the film a sense of nostalgia, sadness and heroism all at once. There is action music too of course – the portentous percussion and vague ethnic inflections that open ‘Attack’ act as a recurring leitmotif for the Japanese element in the story, while a minute and half into ‘War’ the tempo picks up again, and Zimmer can’t resist letting loose with yet another heroic anthem set squarely in the Backdraft/Crimson Tide/The Rock mold, with tempos and ostinatos lifted from the more frenetic moments of Gladiator.

It is also worth noting that ‘Brothers’, the second score cue, begins with the three note opening motif from the Faith Hill song “There You’ll Be”, cleverly providing a tangible link between the score and its commercial pop music tie in, which more often than not bears little or no relation to the music from the film it is promoting. I wasn’t that fond of Hill’s song when I first heard it, but I have to admit it has grown on me a great deal in the period I have owned this CD, and I would not be unhappy if über-songwriter Diane Warren picked up an Oscar nomination for it next year.

The CD release itself is a little peculiar, omitting much of the more violent action material Zimmer wrote in favor of the more audience (and consumer)-friendly romantic slush, which although attractive and appealing does not really provide a true reflection of the score as heard in the film. In a summer where the majority of the scores released have been greeted with derision or indifference, Pearl Harbor is undoubtedly one of the better efforts to emerge from Hollywood – praise, for sure, but when you think about it, that’s really nothing more than faint praise.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • There You’ll Be (written by Diane Warren, performed by Faith Hill) (3:42)
  • Tennessee (3:39)
  • Brothers (4:04)
  • And Then I Kissed Him (5:35)
  • I Will Come Back (2:53)
  • Attack (8:57)
  • December 7th (5:07)
  • War (5:15)
  • Heart of a Volunteer (7:05)

Running Time: 46 minutes 17 seconds

Hollywood/Warner 9-48113-2

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Fiachra Trench, Klaus Badelt, Steve Jablonsky, James S. Levine and Geoff Zanelli. Featured musical soloists Heitor Pereira, Craig Eastman, Martin Tillman, Bruce Fowler, Emil Racacchio, Michael Fisher, John Mori and Dan Kuramoto. Special vocal performances by Julia Migenes. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Jennifer Nash. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Bob Badami.

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