Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Dead Men Tell No Tales is the fifth entry in Disney’s tentpole Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, based on the classic dark rides found at Disney theme parks the world over. Directed by Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, it picks up the story of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) several years after the events of the fourth film, On Stranger Tides. Down on his luck and having to resort to robbing banks to make ends meet, Jack becomes embroiled in a new adventure when the ghost of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), fearsome pirate hunter of the Spanish Navy, is released from a cursed prison in the so-called Devil’s Triangle; Salazar, who blames Jack for his long imprisonment, begins to track Jack’s ship looking for revenge. In an effort to stop Salazar, Jack teams up with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an intelligent young woman accused of being a witch; his old nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a wealthy shipping fleet owner; and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the now-adult son of Jack’s old friends Will and Elizabeth. Together, they search for the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which they believe has the power to break Salazar’s curse… and may hold other magical powers too.

It’s interesting to observe how, in the 14 years since the first Pirates film, Curse of the Black Pearl, the sound of the franchise has seeped into public consciousness. Prior to the release of the first score, pirate music had a very distinct different sound: the fully orchestral, swashbuckling music which was created by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in scores like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, was continued by composers as varied as Alfred Newman and Elmer Bernstein, and was arguably perfected by John Debney in Cutthroat Island. Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt changed all that, bringing a contemporary rock and roll edge to these seafaring adventures. There was quite a bit of consternation and backlash initially, most of it directed at Zimmer for usurping the genre, but nowadays if you ask anyone to define ‘pirate music’ they will invariably think of these scores, and not Korngold or Newman. Whether this is a good thing is a matter of opinion and taste, but one thing’s for sure: no-one can deny Zimmer his place at the table, especially when he wrote one of the greatest scores for the genre – and one of the best scores of his own career – in 2007 for At World’s End.

Although Klaus Badelt was the credited lead composer for the first movie, and although Hans Zimmer was the credited lead composer for the second, third, and fourth, in truth the Pirates scores have always been a team effort. Pretty much every major composer to come through the ranks at Remote Control – Ramin Djawadi, Jim Dooley, Nick Glennie-Smith, Steve Jablonsky, Blake Neely, Lorne Balfe, Trevor Morris, Henry Jackman, Atli Örvarsson, Matthew Margeson – has written ‘additional music’ for Pirates somewhere along the line, but on this fifth installment the torch has passed to a composer who has been omnipresent since the beginning – Geoff Zanelli. Despite having been the lead composer on films as varied as Secret Window, Disturbia, Hitman, and Gamer, as well as on acclaimed TV series like Into the West and The Pacific, this is by far the most high-profile assignment of Zanelli’s career to date. Personally, I’m very happy for him, as he deserves this break. He’s written some great music for unheralded projects, and done some sterling work supporting Zimmer over the years – who can forget his stellar arrangement of the William Tell Overture for the finale of The Lone Ranger?

Thankfully, unlike my review of his score for Gamer, I won’t be pulling out the old ‘polar bear with a migraine’ image here. Dead Men Tell No Tales is a worthy addition to the music of the franchise; although inevitably inferior to At World’s End, it’s a clear step up from the uninspiring fourth score, On Stranger Tides, and it enlivens the musical palette with several new themes to bolster the roster of identities from the previous scores. In fact, one of the things that doesn’t get enough positive film music press is the fact that, over the course of what is now five films, the Pirates scores have maintained a truly impressive thematic continuity, adding to the lexicon with each successive film. At this point we have at least three themes for both Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl, a pirate anthem in ‘Hoist the Colors,’ a sweeping love theme, a theme for the recurring villain Davy Jones, several prominent action motifs, and much more besides.

The new ideas in this score are mostly related to Captain Salazar and the ghostly crew; Salazar’s theme, as presented in the cue of the same name, has some instrumental similarities to the Flying Dutchman theme from Dead Man’s Chest, and usually features an aggressive electric guitar riff with the vaguest hint of a Spanish classical bolero, underpinned by a throbbing orchestral line and harsh, menacing electronic effects. Subsequent performances in cues like “The Devil’s Triangle,” “El Matador del Mar,” and the deeply belligerent “Kill the Sparrow” maintain Salazar’s prominent place as the film’s primary antagonist. Some of the cello writing in “El Matador del Mar” is impressive – one could almost call it Tina Guo-esque – although the more prominent electronics in “Kill the Sparrow” start veering off into Mad Max Junkie XL territory at times, which may be a negative for some people.

The lovely theme for Carina Smyth is actually the first thing we here in the first cue, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” but it disappears for much of the score, only really becoming prominent in “The Brightest Star in the North” where it’s warm, romantic tones conflict with more ominous chords and a powerful choir. Also introduced in the first cue is the mysterious motif for the Trident of Poseidon at 0:34, which is often heard on a reedy, exotic-sounding woodwind. The Trident motif tends to act as an all-encompassing identifier for the ‘Curses of the Sea,’ cropping up in relation to Salazar in “Salazar,” accompanied by an unusual faraway choir in “You Speak of the Trident,” in the dark and brooding “The Devil’s Triangle,” with more exotic hues in the cue for the sea-witch “Shansa,” and as the protagonists get closer to their goal in “The Brightest Star in the North”. By the time the score reaches “Treasure” the Trident motif is explored at its grandest, re-orchestrated for full orchestra and choir.

However, fans will be delighted to know that plenty of the series’s main themes crop up throughout the score too, bridging the gap between Zanelli’s original identity for this film, and the tone of the franchise as a whole. The three primary identities for Jack – the heroic ‘He’s A Pirate’ theme, the more jaunty and slurred ‘Jack Sparrow’ hornpipe, and the majestic ‘Black Pearl’ motif – are heard in abundance, with especially rousing performances in “No Woman Has Ever Handled My Herschel,” “Kill the Filthy Pirate, I’ll Wait,” the spectacular “El Matador del Mar,” “She Needs the Sea,” and “Treasure.” These three themes are now firmly embedded into contemporary film music’s list of most popular melodies and, I have to admit, I still get a thrill out of hearing them in context. They have always had a slightly illicit, devil-may-care attitude, speaking as much to the listener who enjoys them as a guilty pleasure as they do to the Jack Sparrow character itself.

There’s plenty of action music too, all of it generally bold and loud and heroic. Cues like “No Woman Has Ever Handled My Herschel,” the second half of “You Speak of the Trident,” and the unstoppable “I’ve Come with the Butcher’s Bill” are a ton of fun, full of rousing brass fanfares, flashy string runs, some of the whooshing electronic effects that made the finale of The Lone Ranger so unique, and even what appears to be a flamboyant new brass action motif for Jack – listen are the 3:00 mark of “I’ve Come with the Butcher’s Bill”.

The aforementioned “Kill the Filthy Pirate, I’ll Wait,” is a frenetic set piece involving a witch, a pirate, a hangman’s noose, a guillotine, and some wonderful fan lip service to the Hoist the Colors theme from At World’s End (popularly known as ‘Up is Down’) which carries into the subsequent “The Dying Gull” as Jack’s new boat is eventually launched into the sea. Several other cues also revisit action riffs from previous films: both the ‘One Last Shot’ idea from Curse of the Black Pearl and the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ motif from Dead Man’s Chest feature in “She Needs the Sea,” while the ‘Swords Crossed’ action riff from Curse of the Black Pearl is prominent in “I’ve Come with the Butcher’s Bill,” and the portentous Cutler Beckett/East India Trading Company motif appears in the same cue, although this time it relates to David Wenham’s character Lieutenant Scarfield of the HMS Essex.

The score’s finale, from “The Power of the Sea” through to “Beyond My Beloved Horizon,” is hugely entertaining. Statements of all the main themes, including ‘He’s a Pirate’,,‘Jack Sparrow,’ and ‘The Black Pearl,’ are inserted into the propulsive action material, as Jack, Henry, Carina, and Barbossa do battle with Salazar and his rotten crew at the bottom of the ocean. Some of the brass writing and choral chanting in “The Power of the Sea” is impressive, and a huge performance of the sweeping theme heard in “I Don’t Think Now Is The Best Time” from At World’s End emerges during “Treasure” to excellent effect. The conclusive “My Name Is Barbossa” builds to a spectacular performance of Will and Elizabeth’s love theme, replete with tremolo strings and cymbal clashes that raise goose bumps for all the right reasons. Some may find this onslaught a little overwhelming – it really does never let up – but from my point of view the creative and intricate interplay between the themes makes up for any ear damage suffered through the aural bombardment.

The end credits piece, “Beyond My Beloved Horizon,” sends Jack off on his next adventure with boldness and fortitude and an especially stirring statement of Carina’s theme – and that’s where you should hit the stop button, lest you be forced to endure the horrific remix of “He’s a Pirate” by people named Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike. Just say no.

Anyone who never warmed to the sound of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – and I know there are still some people out there – will be disheartened by Zanelli’s strict adherence to the tried and tested formula laid out for him by Zimmer and Badelt. In terms of tone and style, this is very much firmly within the franchise’s wheelhouse, and if you still pine for the pirate sound of Korngold – sorry, it ain’t happening. For everyone else, however, listeners will be pleased to know that Dead Men Tell No Tales is a marked improvement over the last score in the series, with several impressive new themes sitting alongside the now familiar classics, and Zanelli really going to town and showcasing his proficiency at action writing. Drink up me hearties, yo ho!

Buy the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dead Men Tell No Tales (1:50)
  • Salazar (4:33)
  • No Woman Has Ever Handled My Herschel (3:58)
  • You Speak of the Trident (1:58)
  • The Devil’s Triangle (2:45)
  • Shansa (3:12)
  • Kill the Filthy Pirate, I’ll Wait (4:50)
  • The Dying Gull (1:00)
  • El Matador del Mar (8:05)
  • Kill the Sparrow (6:15)
  • She Needs the Sea (2:32)
  • The Brightest Star in the North (6:00)
  • I’ve Come with the Butcher’s Bill (6:40)
  • The Power of the Sea (4:07)
  • Treasure (5:43)
  • My Name Is Barbossa (5:34)
  • Beyond My Beloved Horizon (2:40)
  • He’s a Pirate Remix (Hans Zimmer vs. Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike) (3:30) – BONUS TRACK

Running Time: 71 minutes 32 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2017)

Music composed by Geoff Zanelli. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler, Rick Giovinazzo and Suzette Moriarty. Additional music by Phill Boucher, Paul Mounsey, Steve Mazzaro, Anthony Willis and Zak McNeil. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Peter Snell. Album produced by Geoff Zanelli.

  1. Ryth
    June 19, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    Nice review; I did enjoy the soundtrack while watching the film, and I’ll be getting my copy of the CD soon. In the new movie, it seemed as though variations on the “One Day” theme were used as a theme for Henry (for obvious reasons, I suppose 😛 ). It’s my favorite piece of music from the franchise, so I was incredibly happy to hear it. Carina’s theme is also beautiful.

    (Just one minor thing: In your review, you mention that the “Hoist the Colours” theme is also known as “Up is Down.” They’re both from PotC3, but “Up is Down” is based on Will and Elizabeth’s love theme, “One Day,” which is separate from “Hoist the Colours”).

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