Home > Reviews > HILLBILLY ELEGY – Hans Zimmer and David Fleming

HILLBILLY ELEGY – Hans Zimmer and David Fleming

November 24, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Hillbilly Elegy is a multi-generational family drama directed by Ron Howard, based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by J. D. Vance. Gabriel Basso stars as Vance, a young man from rural Kentucky in the Appalachian mountains, who becomes the first in his family to attend college. Vance is called back from Yale to his home town to deal with a family emergency, and the film explores his relationship with his heroin-addicted mother, his world-weary but kind-hearted grandmother, and his troubled sister, while also looking at the broader socio-economic hardships suffered by communities like his. The film co-stars Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Haley Bennett and Frieda Pinto, and is poised to be a major contender for acting awards at the 2020 Academy Awards.

The score for Hillbilly Elegy is by Hans Zimmer, working with director Howard for the 8th time, following on from such works as Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels & Demons, and Rush. His co-composer is New York-born composer David Fleming, the latest member of the Remote Control organization to graduate from ‘assistant school’ and receive lead composer credits; this is his first significant credited feature composing credit, having previously written music for the documentary series Blue Planet II, and work alongside Atli Örvarsson on a number of TV series and low-budget features. As debuts go, this isn’t bad at all, and the whole thing is noteworthy for being the first Zimmer score in quite some time to explore the sounds of the American heartland; I suppose you could say this is an exploration of, and an expansion on, the Kansas/Jonathan and Martha Kent music from Man of Steel, enlivened by some of the more down-home country orchestrations first heard at the end of the early 1990s in things like Thelma & Louise, and later in lesser-known works like Riding in Cars With Boys and Freeheld.

The score is fairly consistent in terms of tone and texture throughout – the entire score is performed by an ensemble comprising acoustic and electric guitars, Tina Guo’s solo cello, percussion, piano, and strings, plus what sounds a few bluegrass specialty instruments including a banjo, dobro, and possibly a slide guitar. Much of the score is mood-setting and a touch ambient, offering a sort of intimate wash of musical sound that plays across the entire work, but Zimmer’s tonalities are quite fascinating – the emotional core of the score is actually quite unreadable, and can change depending on the whims of the listener; it is simultaneously depressing and uplifting, romantic and lonely, optimistic for the future while lamenting the present and mourning the past. I don’t really quite know how else to describe it other than to say that it plays to multiple conflicting feelings concurrently, and maintaining that balance is a heck of a thing.

There are some lovely textures in Hillbilly Elegy, and some moments where the music really stands out. The main melody, a country-flavored cello lament accompanied by soft piano chords and a warm, inviting string wash, appears a minute or so into the opening cue “Transformation,” which is actually the film’s end titles. Zimmer allows the music to grow as it develops, and the addition of both a dancing string undercurrent and some gentle, upbeat percussive writing, is quite lovely, giving the whole thing a hopeful, optimistic tone. I was especially pleased to hear a guest appearance from the famous Zimmer ‘zuck’ whooshing sound in around the 3:40 mark – he’s been using that little touch since A World Apart and Rain Man back in the 1980s!

“Rust” begins slowly and dourly, again with Tina Guo’s solo cello taking the leading role, but it quickly becomes an earthy evocation of America’s rust belt, the heart of the country; the breathing effects are a nice touch. A rock vibe emerges towards the end of “Kentucky 1997,” which uses both electric guitars and acoustic guitars against statements of the main theme to excellent effect. There is real heartbreak in “We Respect Our Dead,” where again Guo’s cello offers a pain-filled lament, and which is supported by some harsh, intrusive synth ideas. The harshness of the electronic tonalities reach their peak in the intense “Suffocating,” which has a great deal in common with things like Dunkirk, as if the painful reality of life was suddenly transposed from northern France to rural Kentucky. Scraping metallic ideas, insistent rhythms (including hand-claps), and breathing effect combine to make this a dark, menacing evocating of the hardships the Vance family endures.

The music for “Bev” is blighted with tragedy and unfulfilled potential; it’s beautiful, like she is, often shimmering and iridescent, but it’s also harsh and damaged, just like her heroin addiction has made her. The subsequent guitar solos in “Resignation” are bittersweet, but pleasing to the ear. “Old Wounds” uses hand-claps and foot-stomps in interesting ways, cutting through the gauzy, hazy orchestral-and-synth textures with a striking clarity. “Responsibility” is a major score highlight; it uses the entire ensemble in a positive, strident, invigorating way, allows the main theme to shift from prominent guitars to strings, and follows a clear arc that is sensitive and very rewarding. “Usha” has a romantic, compelling sound in the guitars that is wholly lovely, while the conclusive “Steel In Our Veins” brings everything full circle, and presents the main theme with a determined, powerful, deeply-felt drive.

This is a quiet, intimate, but strongly emotional score by Zimmer and Fleming for a movie which is equally quiet, intimate, and strongly emotional. Rather than the large-scale action and sci-fi epics like Dunkirk, Blade Runner, or Batman vs Superman, I am increasingly finding myself much more drawn to this side of Hans Zimmer’s musical personality these days. Hans Zimmer is a sensitive man, drawn to important topics with a social conscience, and I think that when he is called upon to score movies which deal with these real, important issues, a part of him emerges that we don’t get to see when he’s writing for X-Men or Spider-Men or other assorted super heroes.

When you combine this with the able support from Dave Fleming, and discounting his updated version of The Lion King, I might be inclined to say that Hillbilly Elegy is Zimmer’s best score in several years – at least since The Boss Baby in 2017, and possibly even back to Kung Fu Panda 3 in 2016, although of course they are very different types of films. If you are drawn mainly to Zimmer’s epic sound, then Hillbilly Elegy might be a little too quiet and introspective for your taste, but I found myself quite captivated from start to finish.

Buy the Hillbilly Elegy soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Transformation (End Titles) (4:57)
  • Rust (2:45)
  • Kentucky 1997 (2:45)
  • We Respect Our Dead (2:44)
  • Suffocating (4:51)
  • Bev (3:30)
  • Resignation (2:01)
  • Old Wounds (5:44)
  • Responsibility (5:05)
  • Usha (3:04)
  • Steel In Our Veins (4:35)

Running Time: 42 minutes 06 seconds

Milan Records (2020)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer and David Fleming. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Featured musical soloist Tina Guo. Edited by Ryan Rubin and Nate Underkuffler. Album produced by Hans Zimmer.

  1. November 24, 2020 at 9:10 am

    Thanks, I really enjoyed the line about Zimmer’s sensitivity and social conscience.

  2. Arborworks
    November 24, 2020 at 10:25 am

    Nice to see something like this from him. Hard agree on the “Zimmer is currently more interesting on small scale projects, than superhero work” take.

    Also, do you have any interest in reviewing Clouds (Brian Tyler)?

  3. Michael Adams
    December 1, 2020 at 11:47 pm

    I think Paradise Rebuilding was far better in regards to Zimmers’s efforts this year.
    This sounds very 1980’s.

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