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Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmervia

Hans Zimmer remembers being piano shy in front of Elton John

The legendary composer behind The Lion King and Inception retraces his circle of life

You've probably seen a movie trailer recently that kicked off with an earthquaking "BRAAAAAAAHM" (Inception, Transformers). The foghorn sound – which has now been used and abused ad infinitum – has been attributed to Hans Zimmer, now dubbed The BRAAAHMfather. Zimmer, holder of many more acclaimed titles, has had an illustrious Oscar-winning career as film score composer that saw him single-handedly bring in the "Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba" guy to midwife the opening of "Circle of Life" (these are the official lyrics, FYI). He kind of fell into composing by accident, skiving off class to jam with friends and then bumping into British film composer Stanley Myers. Best known for blockbuster film scores like The Lion King, 12 Years A Slave, and Pirates of the Carribean, Zimmer's earlier work (True Romance, Rain Man, Thelma & Louise) sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Here, he revisits the mile markers on his circle of life.


Actually that’s wrong, it was nine schools I was tossed out of. Nothing much other than I was questioning everything because I wasn’t a bad kid. I was a day dreamer, I was a musician. And so I was literally bored at school, so I would go out and play music. I remember sitting there taking my time in exams in a room with big windows and I could see all the other guys in the school band standing outside and playing guitar and drums, going, ‘Come on, come on, get out,’ and me just literally in the middle of the paper getting up, walking out, and playing with the band. Luckily, things worked out!


Well it was strange because I was living in Brighton on the south coast of England, and I stayed in this rather brilliant flat down by the seafront. I was wondering why it was so cheap and then I realised why it was so cheap, because there is nothing colder than a leaky flat in the middle of winter with the wind blowing in. Then I moved to London, and London was a lot kinder to me.


London was great because I started working with amazing people. The first person I ever worked with was George Martin. There was a lot to learn, so the great thing about London was that there was this amazing recording studio and I just got in with the right people very quickly. Then through Stanley Myers, who was an outrageously great film composer, I started meeting all these directors. And Working Titles was formed. And none of us really quite knew how to make a movie, but it was a really great time and we took off and they were exciting times. And it partially help that we were experimenting and we didn’t know how to do it. We found a new voice.


Elton is a dangerously brilliant pianist. I mean, he’s a fantastic player. Why feel incredibly little? The good news is, I can get Elton to play the piano in front of me which is the better deal. You always learn from Elton. He’s just an amazing musician.


I think the most important part about that is that we’re friends firstly. The operative work with musicians is that we play, so, we’re not really working, we’re playing. Except we end up really tired somehow at the end of the evening. Or at like 2 o’clock in the morning. And then you get the reverse, like at 9 o’clock this morning. I was feeling it.


Well it’s sort of my way in, the experimentation. I mean I remember a movie I did with Ron Howard. We had to start everything, I’d written all the themes. Ron was just leaving and he just turned around to me and he said, ‘And remember Hans, don’t shut your laboratory doors too early,’ and you know, I think that was really good advice.


It was very much my idea to bring in Lebo M (to sing the opening of "Circle of Life"). Yes. My whole idea was to go and start the movie off, because up until then I think most of the Walt Disney movies felt like we were basically doing a Broadway musical. And I thought, 'I want to tell the audience straight away that this isn’t Broadway.' Of course now I’ve eaten my words because it’s the most successful Broadway musical pretty much of all time. But at the time, I was fighting every Broadway instinct, and I’d said to Lebo, ‘Come and work on The Lion King, it’s going to be great. Will you do it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, of course I will.’ Then he completely disappeared and I couldn’t find him. And ten minutes before the directors and the producers came to hear the first track, the doorbell rang and it was Lebo. And I said, ‘Get in there!’ and I literally plopped him in front of a microphone, played him a few chords, played him a bit of that tune, and then said, ‘Okay, go.' You know, talking about the ink not being dry when everybody else came in. It was literally the first and only take. And then an hour later he said, ‘I’ve always been like this.’ Suddenly, he’ll spark up imagination and we’ll be making music together. Something will happen.


Steve (McQueen) and I, we’ve talked forever about working together. I mean, number one: he’s a great friend; number two: he’s a great director; and number three: we seem to speak the same language. And because we were making a small movie, we were never going to have the big orchestra. At the beginning there were 15 musicians, and I’d written a tune, but we basically started looking at the picture with Steve right there. So in a funny way he was a band member. I like working that way best. His enthusiasm is just so infectious. I’d be writing something and it would have to stop at a certain point in the story. I’d be playing something and he’d go, ‘No no, don’t stop, it’s so beautiful.’ It’s nice to have that sort of enthusiasm.


My initial career ambition was to somehow manage to survive, to not get kicked out of the flat and not to have the electricity cut off. Which is every musicians ambition at a certain point. The ambition is essentially not to take ‘good advice’ like: ‘You shouldn’t be a musician’ and, ‘You should go and get a job.’ My ambition was to basically not listen.


Mozart’s 'Ave Verum Corpus' would play at my funeral because it’s the most perfect piece of music. It’s 40 bars long. It’s one of the last things Mozart wrote and it’s absolute perfection. That’s the piece of music I would think is unthinkable to play.

12 Years A Slave is available on DVD & Blu-ray May 12