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THELMA & LOUISE – Hans Zimmer


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A classic road movie about revenge and female empowerment, Thelma & Louise stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in the titular roles as a pair of meek housewives who get a new lease on life when they decide to go on a weekend vacation away from their husbands in Thelma’s 1966 Ford Thunderbird. Things go horribly wrong when the pair stop for a drink at a roadhouse bar, and Thelma is attacked and almost raped in the parking lot by a local. The incident leaves the attacker dead of a gunshot wound – killed by a furious Louise – and results in an extended chase across the American west, as the two women are pursued by a dogged sheriff (Harvey Keitel) determined to bring them to justice. The film was directed by Ridley Scott, co-starred Michael Madsen and a very young Brad Pitt, and received a great deal of critical and commercial acclaim, with its screenplay by Callie Khouri winning the Oscar that year. The on-screen relationship between Thelma and Louise has been called a breakthrough for feminist filmmaking, while the final scene at the rim of the Grand Canyon is now considered iconic.

Thelma & Louise was the second collaboration between director Ridley Scott and Hans Zimmer, after Black Rain in 1989, and was the second major work of 1991 for the German composer after Backdraft, which opened in theaters literally on the same day. At that point in his career Zimmer was making something of a habit of scoring movies set in the American south; Rain Man was a road trip across it, Driving Miss Daisy was set in Georgia, and Days of Thunder was set in the NASCAR community in North Carolina. With Thelma & Louise taking place mostly in Arkansas, you could forgive Zimmer for repeating what he did on those earlier films, but to his credit he doesn’t. Instead, Zimmer’s score is an homage to country rock, the heartfelt guitar-led music that dominated the airwaves in the 1970s and 1980s via bands such as The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, and many others. To ensure authenticity, Zimmer collaborated with the groundbreaking British rock and blues guitarist Pete Haycock, whose lyrical performances can be heard throughout the entire score.

The centerpiece of the score is the iconic main theme, commonly called “Thunderbird,” a lonely, bluesy, languid Haycock electric guitar solo which somehow captures the essence of the landscape and the feeling of the American southwest, with its towering rock mesas, endless deserts, and hardy people. The “Thunderbird” theme – named after the model of the car the protagonists are driving – is the cornerstone of everything, and is by far the film’s most important musical identity. Scott even loved it so much that he shot an extended main title sequence after the score had been written so he could feature the music more prominently, but to Zimmer’s credit there is more to the score than just this.

Other regional instruments – slide guitar, banjo, harmonica, fiddle, Hammond organ – combine with contemporary percussion, Haycock’s guitar, and Zimmer’s groovy keyboards to increase the tonal palette. There are also some additional thematic motifs that float through the score, including a dejected guitar piece for Brad Pitt’s character JD, a determined-sounding motif that asserts itself towards the end of the score (and combines excellently with Gospel vocals), and a high-spirited chase motif related to Harvey Keitel’s Arkansas State Police Detective Slocumb, and his persistent pursuit of the outlaws, which emerges into some rambunctious action music later in the final few cues.

The chugging, dramatic synth pulses in cues like “Going to Mexico,” “The Hell With Texas,” and others, are prototypical Zimmer sounds of the period. There are echoes of Rain Man and Driving Miss Daisy, plus foreshadowings of things like Drop Zone and Broken Arrow, and the way he combines this with the wail of a harmonica and a languid pick on a banjo is excellent. “JD” is the main iteration of the theme for Brad Pitt’s character, a young and handsome drifter whose presence in the lives of Thelma and Louise leads them down the road of criminality. The almost subliminal vocalizations and hot, sweaty guitar chords have a dangerous swagger to them, one part Elvis Presley, one part Johnny Cash, which is perfect for the character and the actor playing him.

The opening moments of “Happy Birthday Lady/Picking Up JD/Oilfields” are lighter and more lyrical, with pleasing synth tones that have a nostalgic quality, but this all quickly gives way to the first of several toe-tapping finger-snapping action sequences which blend Zimmer’s percussive and energetic synth writing with expressive riffs that move between guitars and banjos. The “Ride of the FBI” is a propulsive action sequence that acts as the introduction to the chase motif relating to Detective Slocumb and the Arkansas State Police, again featuring a fiery banjo element. Variations on this idea occur later in cues like the funky “Getting Out Of State,” and in “Learning From TV,” which comes across like a cousin of Danny Elfman’s rollicking and energetic country score for Midnight Run.

“Louise’s Theme” and “I Got A Knack” provide lovely reprises of the ‘Thunderbird’ theme, while the hilariously titled “Giving Up/Suck My Dick” is a more low-key rock instrumental with notable writing for hi-hat cymbals and electric guitar. This cue eventually moves into the first iteration of the dramatic, forthright ‘determination’ idea that follows the women as they change from meek housewives to free women, in control of their own lives and their own destiny. The extrapolation on this idea in “Charged With Murder” is terrific, especially when Haycock’s guitar comes in towards the end of the cue and performs at its most lyrical.

The Arkansas Police action motif reaches its high point in the terrific “Chase/You’ve Always Been Crazy,” which blends Zimmer’s high octane keyboard rhythms with a sampling of every solo instrument, from the wailing harmonica to a fast-plucked banjo, Haycock’s wandering guitar, a terrific Charlie Daniels-style fiddle solo (the devil went down to Arizona?), and a synth sample which clearly wishes it was a brass section. This cue is a wonderful variation on the 1990s Zimmer action sound, and will appeal to anyone who (like me) first came to Zimmer through this type of writing. By the time the final cue, “Thelma & Louise/End Credits,” comes around, Zimmer has blended the Thunderbird theme with his ‘determination theme,’ and augmented them both with a spiritual-sounding Gospel choir to add elements of both tragedy and hope to the conclusive scene in which the women – fed up with their husbands, and facing justice for murder – go out on their own terms, and intentionally plunge their car over the side of the Grand Canyon into oblivion and cinematic history.

The original soundtrack for Thelma & Louise released in 1991 on MCA Records contained just one Zimmer cue – the aforementioned “Thunderbird” – plus a whole host of very good rock and blues songs by artists ranging from Glenn Frey of The Eagles to Martha Reeves of Martha & The Vandellas, Marianne Faithfull, and B. B. King. As a result, for almost twenty years Zimmer’s score was one of the most highly requested unreleased titles in his filmography, but fans had to make do with a series of inferior bootlegs until 2011, when producer Bruce Kimmel of the Kritzerland specialty label released a 1,200-copy limited edition score album – which of course sold out immediately. The Kritzerland album was re-released as another limited edition in 2017 by producers Ford Thaxton and Bryon Davis of Notefornote Music – and, again, this quickly sold out. So, you know, find your copies where you can.

Thelma & Louise was arguably one of the last of Hans Zimmer’s great early-career pop and rock scores, before he moved more permanently into the ‘power anthem’ period of scores like Backdraft, Crimson Tide, and others, which cemented his legacy as Hollywood’s premiere power broker of film music masculinity. It’s not that Thelma & Louise is a particularly feminine score, per se, but it certainly taps into the sense of steely grit and determination that women like them have when faced with the most serious adversity. The way Zimmer blends his personal pop-rock keyboard stylings with the southern and southwestern instrumental textures is excellent, the small set of thematic ideas get plenty of air time, and of course ‘Thunderbird’ itself is iconic – one of the best musical creations of his first decade in film music. I would say that you have to have a high tolerance for what is essentially ‘instrumental country music’ in order to appreciate Thelma & Louise – banjos and fiddles, harmonicas and guitars, and the like – but if you do, as I do, then the score offers a half hour or so of superb evocations of the genre and the geography. Now, all you have to do is find a copy…

Buy the Thelma & Louise soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Going to Mexico (2:12)
  • JD (3:23)
  • The Hell With Texas (1:12)
  • Happy Birthday Lady/Picking Up JD/Oilfields (2:18)
  • Watching Him Go/Ride of the FBI (1:26)
  • Louise’s Theme (2:46)
  • Giving Up/Suck My Dick (3:38)
  • Getting Out of State (1:32)
  • I Got A Knack (2:06)
  • Charged With Murder (3:01)
  • Learning From TV (0:45)
  • Chase/You’ve Always Been Crazy (7:54)
  • Thelma & Louise/End Credits (3:57)
  • Main Title (Film Version) (2:01) BONUS
  • Part of Me, Part of You (written by Glenn Frey and Jack Tempchin, performed by Glenn Frey) (5:59)
  • Badlands (written and performed by Charlie Sexton) (5:34)
  • House of Hope (written by Toni Childs and David Ricketts, performed by Toni Childs) (4:51)
  • I Can’t Untie You From Me (written by Holly Knight and Grayson Hugh, performed by Grayson Hugh) (4:59)
  • Better Not Look Down (written by Joe Sample and Will Jennings, performed by B.B. King) (4:13)
  • Little Honey (written by John Doe and Dave Alvin, performed by Kelly Willis) (4:43)
  • Kick the Stones (written and performed by Chris Whitley) (3:51)
  • Wild Night (written by Van Morrison, performed by Martha Reeves) (3:18)
  • Tennessee Plates (written by John Hiatt and Mike Porter, performed by Charlie Sexton) (3:30)
  • Ballad of Lucy Jordan (written by Shel Silverstein, performed by Marianne Faithfull) (4:06)
  • Thunderbird (written by Hans Zimmer, performed by Hans Zimmer feat. Pete Haycock (4:03)

Running Time: 38 minutes 18 seconds (Score Album)
Running Time: 49 minutes 26 seconds (Soundtrack Album)

Notefornote Music NFN-1003 (1991/2017) – 2017 Score Album
Kritzerland KR-2002-03 (1991/2011) – 2011 Score Album
MCA Records MCAD-10239 (1991) – Soundtrack Album

Music composed and arranged by Hans Zimmer. Performed by Hans Zimmer, Pete Haycock, Luis Jardim and Charlie Morgan. Additional music by John Van Tongeren. Recorded and mixed by Jay Rifkin. Edited by Laura Perlman. Score produced by Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin. 1991 MCA album produced by Kathy Nelson. 2011 Kritzerland album produced by Bruce Kimmel. 2017 Notefornote album produced by Ford A. Thaxton and Bryon Davis.

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