(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works to picture.)

Nature documentaries have the habit of providing great opportunities for composers since they feature countless of breathtaking images that demand equally breathtaking music. George Fenton, for example, is well known for his works on ‘Deep Blue’ and ‘Planet Earth’.

The 2016-produced sequel to ‘Planet Earth’, ‘Planet Earth II‘, however has been given to two relatively new faces in the business: Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe both have some history with famous Hollywood-composer Hans Zimmer. Klebe actually started his career with an internship at Zimmer’s studio Remote Control Productions and his musical contributions can be found in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘Rush’ and ‘Man of Steel’. Shea, on the other hand, wrote some additional music for ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’, ‘Transformers: The Dark Of The Moon’, and ‘Battleship’ while also having worked with Elliot Goldenthal.

Under the guidance of Hans Zimmer, Shea and Klebe were handed this project and while the prospect of three Remote Control composers handling such a picture may sound reasonably terrifying to many film music enthusiasts, everyone can lay back and relax. They really delivered.

Beautiful soundscape

The soundscape of ‘Planet Earth II’ is simply beautiful. There is no other word. The duo managed to portrait an astounding amount of instrumental diversity which is perfectly suited for the film, leading the viewer on a journey around the globe.

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While some typical RC-trademarks are to be found, there are so many tracks moving in a baffling, orchestral world.

The opening Planet Earth II Suite actually gives a solid first impression to what is expecting the listener: woodwinds, a solo cello performing the main theme, celestial sounds and only light synth textures. The theme itself is credited to Zimmer and the opening suite as well as the final Epilogue are the only cues where he is listed, so it seems pretty safe, that Shea and Klebe really provided the actual bulk of the music, with Zimmer only acting as a producer.

Watch the Official Extended Trailer below featuring a part of the Planet Earth II Suite

Planet Earth II: Official Extended Trailer – BBC Earth

Soundscape can be found in many other tracks like Albatross Dance, Snow Leopards or Something Worth Protecting while some tracks focus more on certain aspects. Take Early Morning Frog, which makes prominent use of metallic percussion and a gorgeous piano performance, or the more string-based Chinstrap Penguins as examples.

The one section that will always amaze you, however, are the woodwinds. Be it the dynamic doubling of bassoon and flutes in Competing Hummingbirds, or the playful flute-figures in Garden Of Ice (which also features wonderfully etheral vocals and glockenspiel).

A fresh approach to the classic trailer music formula

Many tracks, however, are built on the always-popular “Trailer Music Formula”, meaning that they start pretty calm but then introduce some small string-ostinato or a little motif that gets played louder and louder … and louder. In feature films it often makes scenes feel like trailers or music videos, but Planet Earth II is a documentary and thus, the trailer music approach actually makes good sense: BBC’s documentaries in particular are famous for many scenes relying on the visuals alone without much narration. The viewer just gets immersed in the beauty of his own homeworld and the sweeping pans over earth’s most spectacular landscapes are always enhanced by such music.

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And thankfully, it’s good “trailer music”. The formula might be known, but Shea and Klebe keep it fresh by varying the orchestrations: The last part of Chinstrap Penguis has prominent drums and a brass-hook, while Flight Over Alps emphasizes the strings.

Typical RC action music vs. variety of cultural influences

The other part of the score showcasing the composers’ Remote Control-tendencies is the action music. The documentary has its amount of chase scenes and tracks Razor Snakes vs. Iguanas is typical RC action music: Chugging strings, propulsive drum-rythms but sadly a lack of melody. Long-Eared Bat vs. Scorpion works just like that and there are more similar moments. Considering the rich orchestrations of so many other cues, this really seems like a missed opportunity.

Tracks like Ice Skating Flamingos, Dancing Bears, The Butcher Bird and Market Thieves make up for that with their sheer variety of cultural influences. Greek mandolins, jazzy 70’s flutes, egyptian melodies… you will find everything! Hunting Buffalo Heards and Monsson Deserts even throws electric guitars into the mix!

‘Planet Earth II’ is as beautiful as the world surrounding us

‘Planet Earth II’ simply won’t get boring, despite its over 120 minutes long run-time over 2 CDs. Highlights like Snow Leopards (feeling like a wonderful contained 5-minute story), Jungle Weather (featuring a cool rhythmic beat) or The Great Migration and Nomadic Life (which both have great statements of Zimmer’s main theme) will always reactivate your interest without making the album feel scattershot all over the place.

It’s diverse, but coherent. And it’s beautiful. Like earth.

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Jacob Shea’s and Jasha Klebe’s soundtrack for BBC’s Planet Earth II, featuring a main theme composed by Hans Zimmer, is out today in all your favourite digital stores.

Posted by Bernhard H. Heidkamp

Long-time film music enthusiast, living and studying in Bremen, Germany.

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