Thursday, July 20, 2006

HIGH NOTES: The Last Samurai

Hans Zimmer is best known for delivering some powerful music. He comes right out with the kind of music that pretty much goes perfect with action-adventure. With his score to “The Last Samurai,” we’re treated to something quite different. The first track we’re given “A Way of Life” opens with a gentle piece of music, contemplative. You typically crank up the volume with Hans Zimmer to embrace the loudness, but with the opening to “The Last Samurai,” you turn up the volume just so you can hear it.

This might well be the most beautiful score Zimmer has done to date. You can hear some subtle touches that draw on his previous work with movies involving Japan, such as “Black Rain” and “Pearl Harbor.” That work was good, but with “The Last Samurai,” he really delivers the goods. You get the feeling the other films were just practice.

We finally get to some percussion and action music within the second track (almost ten minutes into the CD), but it’s short-lived. That’s not a bad thing. Zimmer’s score recognizes this isn’t an action film. “The Last Samurai” is a spiritual journey, first with the main character played by Tom Cruise and second with the country of Japan as it makes a bloody entrance into the modern world. That said, Zimmer delivers what might well be the best piece of action music he’s done for any film.

“The Way of the Sword” gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. This eight-minute track accompanies the climax of the film. This song is both heroic and tragic. The action comes within the first three minutes, and if I had to make a complaint, then it would be I just wish this part was longer. Good as this piece is, it’s best when listened to along with the two tracks before it, “Ronin” and “Red Warrior.” Those two pieces provide the perfect buildup. As Zimmer’s scores are notorious for extremely long tracks, I’m surprised he didn’t at least merge “Red Warrior” and “The Way of the Sword” into one track. I’m glad he didn’t, though, because I often skip ahead to this part.

Zimmer finishes this score with a song just as powerful as “The Way of the Sword,” but where the one is explosive, “A Small Measure of Peace” relies on subtlety with a lot of low strings. It’s a great close.

One of the most interesting stories behind this score is how Zimmer was recruited for the film. You can attribute this happenstance to a little thing called “alphabetical order.” Director Ed Zwick and Zimmer were attending one of the pre-Academy Award functions in which nominees were introduced. These introductions were done in alphabetical order based on last names. This placed these two men beside each other for quite a while. As they chatted, Zwick mentioned his project “The Last Samurai” and Zimmer said he’d be interested in scoring the film. Years went by and Zimmer forgot about the film, assuming the project had simply fallen apart. He said he failed to consider how long it takes to organize all the pieces to a historical film of this scale. Sure enough, when the time arrived to get a composer, Zwick remembered his discussion with Zimmer and called him. This was an interesting departure for Zwick, since James Horner has scored most of his historical films. These films include “Glory” and “Legends of the Fall,” some of Horner’s best work.

Other Scores by Hans Zimmer:

I don’t often get my hopes up for a film or score when it comes to the Academy Awards, but this was one film I wish had received more nods. I felt this score deserved a nomination, at the least. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Even though this was “pre-Oprah couch,” I think the film got hammered because of the “Cruise effect.” Oscar just doesn’t seem to like him, and this was a film in which I think he deserved a nomination. While the film itself is pretty inaccurate in its portrayal of the Samurai (in real life, they were essentially the bad guys), Cruise delivered a great performance that makes this film very believable. In a lesser actor’s hand, this could have smacked of clichĂ©, despite a strong script. I was at least glad to see Ken Watanabe nominated for supporting actor. Some of the best scenes are the ones between Watanabe and Cruise’s characters.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things for me personally about this score was that my wife was the one who insisted on getting this CD. She saw the film before I did and couldn’t wait to get the music.

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