Home > Reviews > DRIVING MISS DAISY – Hans Zimmer

DRIVING MISS DAISY – Hans Zimmer

December 19, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Driving Miss Daisy is a story of the unlikely friendship that develops between Daisy Wertham, a retired white Jewish schoolteacher, and Hoke Colburn, an African American driver and handyman, set against the backdrop of racism and prejudice in the American South in the 1950s. When Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) crashes her car into her neighbor’s house, her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) hires Hoke (Morgan Freeman) to be her driver; despite initial misgivings from both parties, as time passes the unlikely pair grow to become friends and confidants, as both suffer slights and prejudices against them – Hoke for his skin color, and Daisy for her religion. The film was directed by Bruce Beresford, and written by Alfred Uhry, who adapted his own Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play for the big screen. It was a significant critical and commercial success too, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Makeup, and Best Actress for Tandy, who in doing so became the oldest winner in the history of the category at the age of 81.

The score for Driving Miss Daisy was written by Hans Zimmer, whose career was on the up-and-up following his first Oscar nomination for Rain Man in 1988, and his prior success scoring Ridley Scott’s film Black Rain earlier in 1989. Contrary to the expectations and conventions of the genre, Zimmer went against type and wrote a virtually all-electronic score, with a solo clarinet being the only live instrument used. Like a lot of his music of the era, it’s roots are in light pop and rock, but he peppers it up with a little bit of a country twang, as well as the zest of some Southern inflections, making it tonally and geographically appropriate despite its very modern attitude. Zimmer addresses the comedy as much as he does the drama, offering pleasant commentary on the ‘mismatched buddy’ aspect of the story with some light and cheerful themes, but he is also very quick to serve the needs of the story with more serious moments of profundity. These moments speak to the undercurrent of bigotry that Daisy and Hoke encounter in their daily lives, and the courage it takes for them to overcome their own prejudices and see the bigger picture.

The soundtrack album for Driving Miss Daisy contains just 23 minutes of Zimmer’s score, organized into four suites: “Driving,” “Home,” “Georgia,” and the “End Titles.” Despite its brevity Zimmer still manages to put a great deal of thematic depth into the score, and each cue offers several statements of and variations on a core set of recurring melodic ideas. “Driving” is probably the most famous cue of them all, as it immediately launches into the famous two-pronged main theme with its tapped percussion beat and soulful, nimble clarinet melody dancing over the top. Zimmer’s keyboard textures offer bold counterpoint, and the whole thing gradually emerges into a tuneful, almost-dance like piece infused with toe-tapping memorability. After 90 seconds or so the ideas switch, and now the music is a little more refined, but also a touch mischievous, underscoring the personality of the irascible Miss Daisy and her endless demands. Just after the 2:00 mark a more wholesome, wistful theme emerges for keyboards programmed to mimic pianos and chimes, and then 40 seconds later a fourth motif is presented, pianos and keyboards offering a more serious idea underpinned with dramatic synth chords. The rest of the cue moves around between these themes with charming fluidity, often pitting themes against each other contrapuntally, so that they blend seamlessly together. It’s one of the best examples of Zimmer’s suite-writing style.

The rest of the score, for the most part, offers a series of variations and explorations on these core ideas, although there are still some surprises to be found. “Home” begins with a much more dramatic idea for more insistent and urgent pianos, slightly strained-sounding clarinet textures, and ghostly synth pedals, all of which clearly indicate that things are not well in Miss Daisy’s life. There is sadness, too, in the misty-eyed statement of the Wistful Theme that appears in the cue’s second half. Later, Zimmer adds finger-snapping plucked basses, funky saxophone honks, banjo and electric guitar licks and bluesy-inspired piano performances to the numerous statements of both the Main Theme and Daisy’s Theme that span the entirety of the superb “Georgia”. These new arrangements give both themes a new tone, a sense of immediacy, purpose, and even an occasional hint of danger, which makes the cue a genuine score highlight.

Finally, the “End Credits” revisits almost all the main themes for one final go-around, including an especially poignant statement of the Wistful Theme that highlights emotional-sounding synth strings, and a truly outstanding final statement of the Main Theme that again showcases funky honky-tonk pianos, groovy saxophones, and even what sounds like a sampled Hammond organ. The album is rounded out by two period songs, “Kiss of Fire” performed by Louis Armstrong and the sultry “Santa Baby” performed by Eartha Kitt, as well as a sumptuous performance of the “Song to the Moon” from the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák, which is sung by Gabriela Beňačková and is heard in the film emanating from Daisy’s radio.

Driving Miss Daisy is one of Zimmer’s best works from the early part of his career, and it’s not difficult to see why it has become so beloved. Zimmer’s emotional range here is both wide and pleasingly direct, clearly illustrating the dramatic needs of the story and instantly conveying them to the audience. The themes are simple, but fun and instantly memorable, with a pop-rock-country sensibility that perfectly captures a time and place. It’s also worth mentioning the outstanding technical prowess that Zimmer shows in creating so much sonic diversity and instrumental depth from a sound palette that is 99% electronic – the quality of the samples is outstanding by 1989 standards, and the mileage he gets from them puts every single one of his peers at that time to shame. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Zimmer was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television for his work here.

Perhaps the only drawbacks to Driving Miss Daisy are in regard to album presentation. Each of the four suite-cues is clearly made up of several smaller cues stitched together, and it would be preferable to me personally if these could be broken down into their respective individual parts so that theme identification and scene specificity was clearer. Also, there’s simply not enough music! 23 minutes of score on a 36 minute CD is just not enough to do full justice to this excellent work, and I hope that somewhere down the line one of the specialty labels is able to release Driving Miss Daisy in a more comprehensive and sensibly-sequenced expanded form. In the meantime, despite the short running time of the album, I can’t recommend this score highly enough. I love Hans Zimmer when he is writing in this style; it’s just so tuneful, so enjoyable, so full of life and positivity and creativity – why, I might just have to jump into my Hudson Commodore and drive down to the Piggly Wiggly myself!

Track Listing:

  • Kiss of Fire (written by Lester Allen and Robert Hill, performed by Louis Armstrong) (3:04)
  • Santa Baby (written by Tony Springer, Philip Springer, and Joan Javits, performed by Eartha Kitt) (3:23)
  • Driving (6:50)
  • Home (3:23)
  • Georgia (7:55)
  • End Titles (4:51)
  • Song to the Moon from “Rusalka” (written by Antonín Dvořák, performed by Gabriela Beňačková and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Vaclav Neumann) (6:05)

Running Time: 35 minutes 31 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5246 (1989)

Music composed and arranged by Hans Zimmer. Recorded and mixed by Jay Rifkin. Edited by Laura Perlman. Album produced by Hans Zimmer.

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