Home > Reviews > PACIFIC HEIGHTS – Hans Zimmer


September 17, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of a spate of Something-from-Hell movies in the early 1990s, Pacific Heights was a thriller which made everyone think twice about sub-letting their apartment to a stranger. The film stars Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith as Drake and Patty, a young professional couple who own a large house in San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood. Drake and Patty lease one of their empty apartments to Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton), a mysterious loner with a hidden past, who immediately sets about renovating the apartment, hammering and drilling at all hours of the night, angering the other tenants. Eventually Carter’s anti-social and disruptive behavior begins to take its toll on Drake and Patty’s relationship, to such an extent that the police become involved. Carter’s response to the legal threats is to make life even more miserable for Drake and Patty, eventually leading to recrimination, threats, and mounting violence. But what is Carter’s motivation? And why do events and women from his past keep coming back to haunt him? The film was directed by John Schlesinger from a screenplay by Daniel Pyne, and features Laurie Metcalfe, Beverly d’Angelo, and Tippi Hedren in supporting roles.

The score for Pacific Heights was by Hans Zimmer, who at that point was continuing to increase his stock in Hollywood off the back of his Oscar nomination for Rain Man, and his successes with scores for movies as varied as Driving Miss Daisy, Black Rain, and Days of Thunder. Pacific Heights was one of the first scores which gave him the opportunity to work in a genre for which he was, and is still, not well-known – jazz. In an attempt to capture the urban life of contemporary California Zimmer combined his familiar orchestral stylings and propulsive electronic rhythms with a jazz combo featuring a number of Hollywood’s great soloists, including Chuck Domanico on bass, Mike Lang on piano, Gene Cipriano on saxophone, and Walt Fowler on trumpet.

The final notable element of the score is the unmistakable voice of Carmen Twillie, who would later go on to work with Zimmer on The Lion King in 1994, singing the opening song “Circle of Life”. Her wordless vocal performances humanize the music to a significant degree, and vary in tone from moodily distant to breathlessly erotic. The end result is a surprisingly sexy, enticing thriller score, featuring a superb recurring main theme, and several moments of moody and sultry jazz writing, alongside some excellent rhythmic action set pieces, and elongated suspense sequences that build on the keyboard writing heard in several of his earlier scores.

The only problem with the score is the album presentation, which combines Zimmer’s music into four long suites of 12, 7½, 8½, and 8 minutes each, with no identifying cue breaks, and no in-context movie specificity. I really dislike this manner of presentation, and Varese Sarabande were guilty of doing that too many times in the early 1990s. An expanded re-release of this score, with more logical sequencing, is badly needed, because the music itself is really excellent.

“Part I” starts with some eerie electronic ambiances and unnerving sound effects, but after around 35 seconds the main title melody kicks in, a catchy motif carried by a dancing banjo and underpinned with sharp string rhythms, making it something of a precursor to the score for Sherlock Holmes that Zimmer would write almost 20 years later. Cipriano’s saxophone takes over at 1:14, offering a nostalgic 1980s throwback to the seedy sound of John Barry’s Body Heat, among others. Twillie’s haunting vocal stylings increase the erotic mood at 1:55, before the urgent banjo motif returns to drive things forward once more. Lang’s elegant jazz piano offers another texture at the 2:55 mark, a touch of melancholy and regret, which Zimmer then combines with strings and watery, cascading synth ideas. Fowler’s muted trumpet first appears at 4:14 in combination with more strident string chords and mysterious-sounding electronic textures, alluding to the threat that Carter poses, and the seediness of his background.

For much of the rest of the track Zimmer alternates between these four or five distinct ideas, often blending them with one another in different ways, creating new sound combinations and dramatic applications. A sequence of action music for snares and cello ostinatos raises the game just after the 6:00 mark, and then a more introspective, almost romantic theme emerges at 6:45, offering a new feeling entirely. Later, around 8:40, a modern electro-pop beat for keyboards and woodwinds makes its first appearance, and then gradually increases in tempo and intensity and encroaches into action music territory, to immensely satisfying effect. The last minute or so of the cue is just fabulous.

“Part II” is probably the standout of the four cues, and will give listeners the best overall flavor of what the score has to offer. It contains virtually all the same elements as Part I, but in their best incarnations. The romantic parts are the most romantic, especially as heard in the first three minutes or so of the track, where Lang’s piano, the string section, and the contemporary keyboard stylings sing in wonderful complementary harmony. The sultry and sexy parts are at their most enticing, especially when Twillie’s vocals are accompanied by a sensual urban groove. The performance of the banjo main theme that begins just after the 3:00 mark is sensational, especially as it combines with dancing flutes, flamboyant jazz piano riffs, toe-tapping synth jams, and power anthem brass. Then, the saxophone flourishes are pure film noir, rain-slicked streets and neon lights, and are given a real sense of power and importance through repeated explosions of bass-heavy synth percussion. This is the Hans Zimmer I have always loved – creative, modern, and not afraid to experiment, while still retaining a strong melodic and emotional core.

“Part III” opens with a lush reprise of the piano romance theme, and then segues into some light mock-oriental textures that sound like holdovers from Black Rain and which speak to the characters of Mr and Mrs Watanabe, the other set of neighbors in Drake and Patty’s building who are also terrorized by Carter. However, large parts of the rest of this cue are harsher and more abrasive than the others, as it tends to underscore the more intense action and suspense sequences of Carter carrying out his vindictive revenge plot against his landlords. Zimmer’s electronica is much more experimental, less melodic, more textural, with lots of bubbling ideas, layers of sound, and long sequences of electronic dissonance and chaotic noise. Little hints of the thematic ideas and the jazz instrumentals peak through here and there, but for the most part this is challenging stuff.

What’s interesting to me, though, is how, in numerous moments, you can still hear little echoes of previous scores in the samples and sounds Zimmer applies, including some interesting uses of the ‘shaking’ sound from Driving Miss Daisy, and the little sound from Days of Thunder that sounds like a tolling bell. Other samples foreshadow sounds that would appear in later scores like Backdraft, Drop Zone, Point of No Return, and many others. This is a Zimmer score through-and-through, and it’s fun to spot all these familiar little ‘isms’ in their original incarnations.

The conclusive “Part IV” wraps everything up perfectly; it opens with a couple of stylish action riffs, separated by more electronic ambiances and orchestral dissonances for the increasingly thrilling moments of suspense and tension (the ‘creaking’ and ‘whispering’ noises are fascinating), while still allowing both the main piano theme and the vocal motif to play a primary role. The vocal texture that begins at 5:16 has a funereal finality to it, tempered by a sense of loss and heightened emotion, while the superb dance-like contemporary groove that kicks in just before the 6:00 mark sounds like a refugee from Rain Man, and has an unexpected tropical vibe.

Considering how popular so many of his other scores from this period are, I have always felt that Pacific Heights is something of an overlooked gem in Hans Zimmer’s early filmography. His wholehearted embrace of jazz and film noir scoring techniques were, at the time, something entirely new for him, and remains something that (in my opinion) he has not explored enough over the years. The way he blends his highly personal electro-acoustic style with the instrumental soloists, especially the piano and the saxophone, is outstanding, and the unexpected use of both the banjo and Twillie’s vocals as primary textures gives the whole thing a wonderfully evocative sound. As I mentioned earlier, the only negative thing about Pacific Heights is the way it is presented on album, and that can be easily rectified by a specialty label willing to spend some money. In the meantime, I recommend Pacific Heights wholeheartedly, especially to those wanting to have a Hans Zimmer musical experience that is a very different from the norm.

Buy the Pacific Heights soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Part I (12:13)
  • Part II (7:28)
  • Part III (8:39)
  • Part IV (8:06)

Running Time: 36 minutes 25 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5286 (1990)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Shirley Walker, Bruce Fowler and Steve Bartek. Recorded and mixed by Jay Rifkin. Edited by Laura Perlman. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin.

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