To the wider world, Zimmer is best known for film soundtracks such as The Lion King, Interstellar, Gladiator, Crimson Tide, Inception, Dunkirk and Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy. Zimmer also composed the music for Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II and, most recently, the new BBC natural history blockbuster One Planet, Seven Worlds.
That includes a suite of music to accompany the television series, and the program’s title music which was a collaboration between Zimmer, Jacob Shea from Bleeding Fingers Music, and Adelaide-born Australian singer Sia.
As a composer, Zimmer says he approaches the images in the program with an open mind. “And it might not always be acoustic …one of the things that used to get me into trouble at the beginning of my career was that I was the guy who loved using electronics in an orchestra,” he says.
“The technology and the tools we use to try to convey, to create the bridge between what you see and what humans feel,” Zimmer adds. “Whatever gets you closer to what you’re seeing or what you’re experiencing. Whatever heightens that particular moment in the film.”
Natural history programming, in the context of the impact climate change is having on the world, seems to create a political lens through which some art is now seen. Zimmer is not inherently political, though he notes: “No artist, no human being can allow themselves not to be political anymore.
“Everything has to be political these days, everything has to be provocative, which is different from being hurtful,” he says. “I don’t mind being provocatively political, but I do mind hurting people. I wish I was as political as my 16-year-olds because they’re really hardcore. It’s amazing, the consciousness they have.”
While Zimmer’s fame keeps the spotlight on his biggest and most commercially successful films, in the infancy of his career he worked on a number of masterpieces, including Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy, Barry Levinson’s Rain Man and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette.
“Stephen sort of knew how to make a movie but none of us really knew what we were doing,” Zimmer recalls. “It was the ’80s, we had things to fight against. It was the time of Margaret Thatcher. It was the time of the coal miner’s strike. It was a time of everything to rebel against. It was the time of punk. I’m obnoxious because I will always try to be provocative. I will always try to fight.”
The same can be said of his work on Attenborough’s documentaries, he adds. “These programs, it doesn’t matter how beautiful they are, there’s a subtext there, which is something we have to fight for.”
The key to music composition, Zimmer says is playfulness. “I got thrown out of nine schools. I have never lost my sense of playfulness. I can listen to My Beautiful Laundrette, for example, and sort of shudder and at the same time have a bit of a smile. Because the thing I remember the most, it’s not the music, it was being in a cinema and seeing the first gay, multi-racial kiss on the screen. The gasp from the audience because they didn’t see it coming.”
Zimmer does not listen to much of his music after the event. “It might sound ridiculous to you, but because I write and work in surround, and a CD or whatever it is, is stereo, [when I listen to it] I’m going, they’ve taken out half of my world.”
“What are we? We are musical storytellers but at the same time, what are we doing?” Zimmer adds. “We set out originally to tell the story of humanity. I think that’s really what we did when we started writing film music. And now suddenly we are still writing the story of humanity but in the context of our co-neighbours on this planet and being suddenly incredibly inclusive in another way. In a way I never thought of doing.”
WHAT: One Planet, Seven Worlds
WHEN: Nine, Wednesday, 7.30pm
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.