piratesofthecaribbeanOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In giving Pirates of the Caribbean a four-star review, I’m making myself undergo a crisis of conscience. How can I, as a “respected” reviewer of film music, give such a high rating to a score which is quite blatantly inappropriate for the movie, predictable to the extreme, and derivative of virtually every major Media Ventures action score written in the last ten years? The answer, simply, is that it is a whole lot of fun. Pirates of the Caribbean is possibly the ultimate soundtrack guilty pleasure. Directed by Gore Verbinski, Pirates of the Caribbean is a large-budget action film based on the classic ride at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, in which visitors are treated to a stately underground boat ride through the old Caribbean, where animatronic pirates shiver their timbers on a daily basis.

Johnny Depp stars as Captain Jack Sparrow, a comic combination of Long John Silver and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, who inadvertently saves the life of the beautiful Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), but finds himself being arrested for piracy by her father, the Governor of Tortuga (Jonathan Pryce). However, the city is attacked by The Black Pearl, a legendary pirate ship commanded by the evil Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and Elizabeth is kidnapped. Sparrow is sprung from jail by Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a local blacksmith secretly in love with Elizabeth, and together they set off to after the Black Pearl to rescue the maiden. But things are not quite that straight forward. It seems that Barbossa and his crew have been placed under a powerful curse which renders them members of the “living dead”, which cannot be lifted until they have performed a blood sacrifice in a cavern that houses a mountain of Aztec gold, and Elizabeth has been chosen to be the one who will set them free…

There are several good things about the score for Pirates of the Caribbean. The action is relentlessly exciting, as illustrated by such cues as ‘The Medallion Calls’, ‘Will and Elizabeth’, ‘Bootstrap’s Bootstraps’ and the epic ‘One Last Shot’, in which the instrumental performances come to the fore to perform a majestic crescendo. The orchestra, bolstered by a massive bank of synthesisers and electric instruments, pounds out cue after cue of rousing music to accompany the action and, as an assault on the senses, it works tremendously. There is a great deal of energy coursing through the veins of this score, and the pacing and intensity of the music makes it a breathless listening experience.

There are actually several themes weaving their way through the score. Firstly, there’s the jaunty pirate jig, the only concession to George Bruns’s “Yo Ho” melody from the ride, and which appears performed on electric cello in the opening track, ‘Fog Bound’, and then again during ‘Walk the Plank’ and ‘One Last Shot’. A variation on this theme acts as an underplayed leitmotif for Depp’s character, and first appears in the closing seconds of ‘The Medallion Calls’. A trio of epic anthems form the cornerstone of the main thematic material. The first, a strident march, bears close resemblance to Nick Glennie-Smith’s main theme from The Rock, and appears in the opening moments of ‘The Medallion Calls’, during ‘Barbossa is Hungry’, and features snippets of a vaguely Slavic choir. The second is another strident march, albeit with a slightly different melody, and acts as the call for the appearance of the pirate ship “The Black Pearl”. The third first appears in ‘Swords Crossed’, and subsequently in ‘To The Pirates Cave!”, and features flamboyant string work underpinned by a strong synthesiser element. Each of these themes weave a thunderous tapestry for the duration of the score’s 43-minute running time and the whole thing, if taken as a piece, ignoring the various political and “background” arguments, makes for a wonderfully enjoyable album.

However, the score’s one major problem is that it really has no personality of its own. Rather than being a Klaus Badelt score, and being filled by his own nuances and textures, this is perhaps the greatest example of what a true Media Ventures product sounds like. When producer Jerry Bruckheimer controversially fired original composer Alan Silvestri and brought the Santa Monica boys on board, he undoubtedly knew that his movie would be getting another variation on the über-anthem that the Media Ventures team have provided for so many of his features in the past. There is none of the intelligent subtlety Badelt showed in his excellent scores for Invincible or The Pledge. Instead, Pirates of the Caribbean plays like a Media Ventures sampler CD, with bits from Nick Glennie-Smith’s The Rock, Zimmer’s Drop Zone, Zimmer’s The Peacemaker and Zimmer’s Crimson Tide, and which just happened to have Badelt’s name on top to give him some exposure.

As well as Badelt, there are seven “additional composers” from the MV stable and nine orchestrators, with Zimmer himself credited as “overproducer”. In these circumstances, and taking into account the mitigating circumstances surrounding the time constraints, it was absolutely impossible for Badelt to attempt anything original, or be expected to be truly creative. This is commercial film music at its worst; the score could accompany any old action movie, and has nothing remotely “swashbuckling” about it. When you think back to the great pirate scores of the past, from Korngold to Alfred Newman, to John Debney on Cutthroat Island, Badelt & Co’s work pales in comparison. This is not to say that Badelt should simply have aped the “pirate” sound, but some degree of innovation and thought concerning the setting and the genre would have been welcome. At the very least, he should not have merely raided the Media Ventures archives and written what is nothing more than a composite.

In some ways, it is commendable that such an identifiable “sound” should have been created by Hans Zimmer and his proteges in such an over-crowded market. The one thing you can say about Media Ventures is that it has a style all of its own. However, in other ways, I can’t help feeling that, by joining Media Ventures, Badelt (or any composer for that matter) signs the film music equivalent of a deal with the devil: all the riches of the soundtrack world shall be yours, but you must give up your musical identity in order to succeed. I simply refuse to believe that this kind of music is Badelt’s own, as Zimmer was writing exactly the same stuff 10 years ago while Badelt was still toiling away on German TV movies.

However, having said all that, and despite understanding how inappropriate a film score it is, I still can’t stop listening to it. It’s bad, but I like it anyway. What can I do? In the end, Pirates of the Caribbean is a score which you have to listen to with all your critical and intellectual sensors switched off, lest you be driven insane by the knowledge that something so overbearing, unoriginal, and commercially unethical can give you 43 minutes of excellent film music pleasure.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Fog Bound (2:16)
  • The Medallion Calls (1:53)
  • The Black Pearl (2:17)
  • Will and Elizabeth (2:08)
  • Swords Crossed (3:16)
  • Walk the Plank (1:59)
  • Barbossa is Hungry (4:06)
  • Blood Ritual (3:33)
  • Moonlight Serenade (2:09)
  • To the Pirates’ Cave! (3:31)
  • Skull and Crossbones (3:24)
  • Bootstrap’s Bootstraps (2:39)
  • Underwater March (4:13)
  • One Last Shot (4:46)
  • He’s a Pirate (1:31)

Running Time: 43 minutes 30 seconds

Disney 60089-7 (2003)

Music composed by Klaus Badelt. Conducted by Blake Neely. Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra and Metro Voices. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Robert Elhai, Elizabeth Finch, Walt Fowler, Bill Liston, Ladd McIntosh, Suzette Moriarty, Conrad Pope and Brad Warnaar. Additional music by Ramin Djawidi, Jim Dooley, Nick Glennie-Smith, Steve Jablonsky, Blake Neely, James McKee Smith and Geoff Zanelli. Featured musical soloists Martin Tillman, Fred Selden, Heitor Pereira, Danny Kuramoto, Emil Richards and Mel Wesson. Choir conducted by Nick Ingman and Rick Wentworth. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson, Slamm Andrews and Malcolm Luker. Edited by Christopher Brooks. Mastered by Bruce Maddocks. Album produced by Hans Zimmer.

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