Home > Reviews > A WORLD APART – Hans Zimmer

A WORLD APART – Hans Zimmer


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

As I wrote in my review for James Newton Howard’s Russkies last year, one of my favorite things about the Throwback Thirty series is the opportunity it gives me to take a look back at the very beginnings of certain composers’ careers, and examine how they started and where they came from. But first, a little background on the movie: A World Apart is an anti-Apartheid drama from the acclaimed cinematographer Chris Menges, who was making his directorial debut; it was written by Shawn Slovo, and loosely based on the lives of her parents, Ruth First and Joe Slovo. Set in South Africa in 1963, the film tells the story of Diana and Gus Roth, who are strong and determined anti-Apartheid activists. Despite being white and wealthy the Roths are frequently involved in public demonstrations and high profile political activism against the racist South African government, and as a result are often subjected to police brutality, violence, and societal ostracism – something which their pre-teen daughter Molly struggles to understand. The film stars Barbara Hershey, Jeroen Krabbé, a young Tim Roth, and a then 10-year-old Jodhi May, and was a significant critical success in Europe, winning a BAFTA for Best Screenplay, and receiving commendations at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

Towards the end of 1987 Hans Zimmer was a young and ambitious composer living in London – he had just turned 30 – who had an array of different musical experiences to his name. He had been the keyboard player for the band Buggles, which had enjoyed a massive pop chart hit in 1979 with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and had worked as a keyboard and synth player for numerous other new-wave bands across Europe. He wrote advertizing jingles for the Air Edel agency, and wrote the memorable theme tune for the pan-European TV game show Going For Gold, which was massively popular at the time and the royalties from which Zimmer said “paid the rent for the longest time.” However, most importantly, Zimmer had been working with the English composer Stanley Myers for many years, contributing additional music to films such as The Story of O Part II, Castaway, and My Beautiful Launderette, and helping establish a state-of-the-art recording studio facility for them and others to use. It was from this facility that Zimmer co-produced the Oscar winning score and subsequent soundtrack album for the 1987 film The Last Emperor.

Zimmer was recommended to director Chris Menges by Sarah Radclyffe, the producer of A World Apart, who had also produced My Beautiful Launderette in 1985, which had been co-scored by Myers and Zimmer. Menges, who was looking for a new sound to accompany his directorial debut, brought Zimmer on board, and a career was born: with the exception of a long-forgotten straight-to-video comedy called Terminal Exposure the previous year, A World Apart marked the first film for which Zimmer received solo on-screen credit as lead composer. Even at this early stage in his career, you can clearly hear the genesis of the sound that propelled Zimmer to Hollywood stardom within just a few years.

There are only four score cues on the Milan Records soundtrack, the most important of which is the 18-minute “A World Apart Suite”. In this mammoth piece Zimmer weaves together two major themes and several minor motifs, and as it progresses it shifts through several emotional and stylistic tones, mirroring the emotional development of the film. The suite is clearly a dozen or so separate cues edited together to make a single piece of music (occasionally you can tell where the cues have been joined together because the sound fades out slightly, and there is an almost imperceptible pause in the music), which some may find to be a little annoying. My personal preference is for the cues to be distinct from one another so that themes can be more easily recognized, and scene-specific music can be identified, but it doesn’t really harm the listening experience here too much. Having said that, this ‘one long album’ concept is taken to extremes by the album producers – there is bleed-through on every single cue split, even between score and songs, which again some listeners may find off-putting.

In terms of instrumentation the score is mostly electronic, featuring various different keyboards, sampled percussion effects, and electronic instruments that mimic woodwinds, strings, and even brass, although there does appear to be a real piano that makes itself heard in the cue’s final third. Stylistically there is nothing identifiably African about it – Zimmer plays the drama rather than the location – but some of the rhythmic ideas are clearly drawn from what we would now term ‘world music,’ and he does create several moods from his limited palette, ranging from softly introspective to bold and uplifting,

The two major themes are the Main Theme and Molly’s Theme. The Main Theme is the very first thing heard in the suite: a five note idea with a synth melodic line, sampled woodwinds, a percussion beat that makes use of both light taps and more heavy hits, and a ‘whooshing’ effect that would later transfer into the score for Rain Man. The main thrust of the piece is built around dramatic, driving chords which make it sound powerful and important, clearly alluding to the bitter struggle faced by black South Africans at the time, but Zimmer gives it some different flavors too: the performance beginning at 7:35 is more downbeat and thoughtful, while the statement at 14:32 is dark and brooding, and segues into a nervous sequence for stark pianos and rumbling drums.

Molly’s Theme is lighter and more innocent, representing the worldview of the little girl who witnesses the events unfolding. Its first clear performance comes at around the 3:50 mark, and sounds distinctly more classical than the Main Theme, with more elegant lines and heavier use of synth strings. The performance of Molly’s Theme at 8:33 switches the instrumental lead to synth woodwinds, which gives it a dream-like and childlike ambiance, as well as an unexpected Irish flavor – some of the chord progressions remind me a little of the traditional song “Danny Boy.” The theme returns again at 10:41 on breathy synths, underpinned by Vangelis-like dissonances which sound aggressive and intentionally intrusive, as if the young girl’s naïve life is being shattered. The final performance, beginning at 16:20, sees the theme accompanied by a stronger counterpoint, and chugging synth strings, giving it an air of determination and defiance.

The time between the thematic statements offers an interesting blend of writing styles and melodic variations. There is a tertiary motif that first appears around the 1:19 mark, lyrical but tragic, which sounds like a theme that would later appear in Backdraft, but which actually may be a variation on the B-phrase of Molly’s Theme. Some sequences contain more abstract synth chords, clattering metal percussion, dissonance, and even some grinding sound effects to signify anguish, while others – such as the one beginning at 6:02 – are much more upbeat, with more dance-like percussion rhythms, ethnic woodwinds, and rousing, celebratory countermelodies.

The three other cues are “Molly’s Theme,” which is a standalone statement of that theme, and which again features the vaguely Irish-sounding arrangement; “Amandla,” which is a dramatic synth drone and pulse overlaid by crowd sound effects and dialogue clips, including an inspiring speech; and the 5-minute “End Credits,” which revisits much of the same material as the Suite. The album is rounded out by several tracks of traditional South African music performed by The Messias Choir, one of which – “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” – is now the South African national anthem, plus a trio of songs by the Zimbabwean pop singer-songwriter Lovemore Majaivana, including the toe-tapping instrumental “The Pennywhistle Song,” and a surprisingly cool cover version of the Chubby Checker pop classic “Let’s Twist Again.”

Looking back at A World Apart with the contemporary knowledge of everything that Hans Zimmer has accomplished in the thirty years since it was released, it would be very easy to dismiss it as a fairly inconsequential synth score, but what you have to remember is that, in 1988, this was completely groundbreaking. Of course there had been synth artists before – Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder had won a couple of Oscars between them, and composers like Harold Faltermeyer, Brad Fiedel, Jack Nitszche, Sylvester Levay, and Tangerine Dream were very popular – but what Zimmer did on this score was to take the core of the music they wrote and give it a totally different vibe that had really never been heard before. The way he blended the synths with world music rhythms and influences from pop and rock was completely new, but completely cinematic.

It’s worth noting that the score for A World Apart was directly responsible for Zimmer being hired to score Rain Man later in 1988; the Oscar nomination Zimmer received for that score led directly to his Hollywood career, and within five years he had written Black Rain, Driving Miss Daisy, Days of Thunder, Backdraft, Thelma & Louise, and others – essentially his musical backbone, the scores on which his entire career is built. As such, it’s fascinating to see where everything began for Zimmer: although he wouldn’t perfect it until Black Rain, this score was the genesis of the ‘power anthem’ that would come to dominate his early sound, was the catalyst for the career-long love of African music that resulted in scores like The Lion King and The Power of One, and was the keystone for the music that would eventually inspire an entire generation of composers, all of whom fell in love with Zimmer’s ear-pleasing, emotionally gratifying sound.

Buy the World Apart soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (written by Enoch Sontonga, performed by The Messias Choir) (2:18)
  • A World Apart Suite (17:51)
  • Zithulele Mama (traditional, performed by The Messias Choir) (1:55)
  • Amandla (2:41)
  • The Pennywhistle Song (written and performed by Lovemore Majaivana) (2:50)
  • Let’s Twist Again (written by Dave Appell and Kal Mann, performed by Lovemore Majaivana) (2:26)
  • Bhayakala (written and performed by Lovemore Majaivana) (3:38)
  • Molly’s Theme (0:51)
  • A World Apart End Title (5:00)

Running Time: 39 minutes 29 seconds

Milan A-CD-CH302 (1988)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Orchestrations by Brian Gulland. Synth arrangements by Hans Zimmer and Mel Wesson. Recorded and mixed by Al Clay. Album produced by Hans Zimmer.

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