(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works to picture. SPOILER ALERT: This review includes Spoilers for Part 1-4 of Pirates Of The Caribbean)

Back in 2003, “Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl” made cinema and movie music history. In a time when, due to the devastating flopping of “Cutthroat Island”, no one believed in movies about pirates anymore, Jerry Bruckheimer took it on him, to turn the beloved Disneyland ride into a movie. And he made it work.

Gore Verbinski helmed the adventure flick, starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. It became so successful that it rained a whole lotta sequels. During the 2000s, the “Pirates” franchise was pretty much THE staple of what summer blockbusters should be and Verbinski’s initial trilogy still has a huge fanbase. Despite the unfavorable reviews.

Equally earth shattering was the score. At first, Alan Silvestri was assigned to the task of writing the music. He had already written the scores to Verbinski’s “Mouse Hunt” and “The Mexican”. It seemed like a natural choice and a welcome one. Film music fans all over the world were excited to hear, what the composer behind so many rousing adventure scores would bring to a pirate movie.

Then, sometime during post production, Jerry Bruckheimer went to see the doctor and learned that he was suffering from a lethal allergy to woodwinds. He had a fever and the only prescription was more Media Ventures. Otherwise, his testosterone levels would never recover again.

How Jack Sparrow entered the dancefloor in 2003

Hans Zimmer, head of Media Ventures, was called immediately and having worked with Bruckheimer a lot of times, he naturally wanted to help his friend. He even worked with the director already on the American remake of “The Ring” in 2002. However, Zimmer was already scoring Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” and had signed a specific contract that forbid him from working on any other film during its production time. Thus, young MV-composer Klaus Badelt was set to write the music.

But Hans Zimmer is a clumsy man. One day he tripped and while trying to catch his fall, his hands hit his keyboard and he accidentally sent a number of unused musical sketches to Badelt.

When he finally got up again, the damage was already done. He rushed over to Badelts’ office, trying to tell him, that it was just an accident, but Badelt had already begun using the melodies as the basis for the Pirates score. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

The soundtrack had to be done very soon and Badelt was aided by at least seven additional composers (among them Ramin Djawadi and Steve Jablonsky). The limited timeframe also didn’t allow for excessive recording sessions, which lead to a finished product that sounded like it was performed on a keyboard from a cereal box. Despite the poor sound quality, the music itself was rather enjoyable, though nothing new. It followed the trademarks set by Hans Zimmer and his studio for Bruckheimer films in the 90’s with scores like “Crimson Tide” and most famously “The Rock”. This didn’t set well with many soundtrack fans who were put off by the more “rock band” approach.

The audiences, on the other hand, loved it and catapulted it into an incredible success. The end credits opener “He’s A Pirate” joined “Hedwig’s Theme” and various “The Lord Of The Rings” melodies as the most recognizable movie themes of the 21st century. It was impossible to escape the music. It was everywhere. They played remixes of it in dance clubs for god’s sake!

Oh yes, the remixes. But that’s something for later.

How the scores improved until 2007

After “The Curse Of The Black Pearl” Disney gave the world two sequels, which retroactively turned the first one into the first act of a trilogy (kinda like what Zemeckis did with “Back To The Future”, including shooting the sequels back-to-back). Verbinski directed both of them and Zimmer could now officially score them, though still with a big team behind him. The films gathered worse reviews with every entrance, while the scores kept improving. The second film, “Dead Man’s Chest”, had a much better recording quality to it and introduced a lot of brilliant themes to the franchise. Most notably one of the best villain themes of all time for one of the best villains of all time, “Davy Jones”.

The peak, however, came in 2007, when the world was graced with the modern masterpiece that is “Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End”. It’s an orchestral powerhouse with a boatload of themes, which all get their deserved development, clear sound quality, a great album representation and even freakin’ woodwinds! [read our interview with composer and orchestrator Penka Kouneva]

Of course, if the Media Ventures/Remote Control approach didn’t work for you to begin with, there was a chance that “At World’s End” would still disappoint you. It was way more orchestral and organic, but the trademark techniques were still in there. Another grain of salt for some was that the “Pirates” scores were all group efforts. There may have been one big name on the cover, but every single one of them was done by a group of “Additional Composers”. Although that doesn’t change the overwhelming quality of

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“At World’s End”, some traditionalists took, and still take, offense in that.

Anyway, now audiences practically had a beloved trilogy on their hands. There may still have been a minor cliffhanger, just for fun, but all the character arcs were concluded.

[insert a subheading as dull as PotC 4]

So, naturally, there had to be a fourth one.

Which should never be talked about in any way, but sadly, this review requires it.

“On Stranger Tides” was directed by Rob Marshall and released in 2011. The atrociousness of the film was only matched by the atrociousness of the music. Not because it was “bad” per se, but because it threw the whole thematic structure of the original trilogy out of the window. “Pirates 1-3” followed a sophisticated leitmotif-ic approach. Almost every character had his/her theme and these themes went through an intricate evolution throughout the runtime of the movies.

For some reason though, “On Strangers Tides” consists to 90% of copying and pasting. Not “bringing beloved tunes back” but literal copying. Entire tracks from the first three films were just needle dropped during the fourth one like it was nobody’s business. The theme for the villainous East India Trading Company playing when Jack Sparrow fights an imposter? Why the hell not?! The whole movie is full of this which is unacceptable. Add to that one of the worst villain themes in human history and an abysmal album representation (featuring Spanish guitar pieces and a bunch of techno-remixes) and you got yourself one hell of a stinker.  It’s unimaginable what sorts of chaos Zimmer and his team were confronted with while making this film, but one can just be happy that they made it through. Zimmer even refused to talk about this one during an interview.

Finally, 2017 is (mostly) a good year for PotC fans again

The film rightfully underperformed and a fifth one spent some time in development hell. Now it is 2017, the world is right in the era of never-ending sequels, reboots, and what-not. So the dead seahorse had to be kicked once more and so we have “Dead Men Tell No Tales”.

This time Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, of “Kon-Tiki” fame were set as directors. Zimmer didn’t return as well and handed the franchise to regular collaborator Geoff Zanelli, who had already done major composing work on the other four scores, as well as the Verbinski-films “Rango” and “The Lone Ranger”. He even contributed a character-theme to “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” for the mysterious Tia Dalma. Considering this and the fact that the best cue of “The Lone Ranger” was credited to him, the music seems in good hands.

After a bazillion paragraphs of more or less necessary backstory, let’s delve into “Dead Men Tell No Tales”!

“Pirates” fans can rejoice because Zanelli did what was to be expected and kept true to the famous soundscape of the series. It’s a throwback to the enjoyable side of Remote Control from yesteryear, though he indeed updates it a bit. In an interview he mentioned, that he “modernized” the sound and when you listen to the score, you can immediately tell what he means:

Drums.

Lots of drums.

To be fair, as RC scores, the “Pirates” scores always had a lot of percussion in them, but their application and mixing in this one really does seem hammed up.

Sadly, not for the better. It has been a common criticism by skeptics of the franchise’s music, that it tends to overscore each single moment as an overly important one and bashes you over your head with its epicness.

Those people should stay away from “Dead Men Tell No Tales”. With over 70 minutes of runtime, it can really get mind numbing. To add to this problem, the overall sound quality is really disappointing. Gone is the wonderfully orchestral sound of “At World’s End”. We find ourselves back in the overly processed muddy sounds of the first two scores, closest, probably, to “Dead Man’s Chest”. It really doesn’t sound as horribly artificial as “The Curse Of The Black Pearl”, while much of the villain and action material resembles the sound quality of “The Kraken” or “I’ve Got My Eye On You” from the second film, where Hans and his team chose to put the orchestra through electric guitar amplifiers. Martin Tillman’s E-Cello passages are also equally as prominent, compared to his more organic application in the third one.

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In addition to the style, Zanelli also brought back the beloved and iconic themes of the franchise. Yeah, “On Stranger Tides” did that as well, but this time, there actually seems to be some sense in it! Jack Sparrow’s collection of themes and motifs each get their times to shine, while also adding a new one among their midst and the main theme has its statements as well.

Nick Glennie-Smith conducts the strings and woodwinds. (Photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser/ScoringSessions.com)

The biggest surprise, however, is the appearance of the love theme from “At World’s End”. This might be a head-scratcher at first, but then you learn, that the son of Will and Elizabeth is playing a crucial part in this film, suddenly, everything makes sense. It’s actually quite a brilliant move. Zanelli amps it up and uses it in a more adventurous mode (similar to some statements during “I Don’t Think Now Is The Best Time”). The best example of this is probably in “Kill The Filthy Pirate, I’ll Wait” which also features some nice statements of Jack’s themes as well as the franchise’s main theme. The new adventure theme is also really great!

Not every recurring theme has as clear a reason though. “The Dying Gull” starts off with a glorious statement of the Pirate hymn from AWE, “I’ve Come With The Butcher’s Bill” features a cameo of the East India Trading Company’s theme and “Salazar” ends with a string progression that sounds like a weakened version of Davy Jones’ theme. Could there still be some reasoning behind this? Get ya tinfoil hats I say! The trailer confirmed that Will and Elizabeth are both set to return in this film, so the “Hoist The Colors” statement could mark Liz’s entrance since she was pronounced pirate-queen in AWE. This theory could also explain the Davy Jones-reference (if it actually is one) which would consequently be the track for Orlando Bloom’s return. He inherited Davy Jones’s ship, job, and crew after all! The Beckett theme really seems boggling, though. It could be connected to Barbossa, who joined the Brits in OST, where some Beckett stuff was actually tracked under some of his scenes.

In addition to giving us the old, beloved themes, Zanelli knows how to keep it fresh by introducing a set of new ones.

The most notable is, of course, the villain theme for Javier Bardem’s drowned, floaty Captain Salazar (who apparently did not find a magical school in this film). It’s a cool, memorable identity, which gets quite a few of moments to shine (“I’ve Come With The Butcher’s Bill” or “El Matador El Mar” come to mind). There is an imposing quality to it, which fits Salazar’s background as a former officer in the Spanish navy, while the electric guitar adds the obligatory menacing badassery. The only thing it’s missing is depth in its applications.

There are some nice statements, like the last minute of “Kill The Sparrow”, where the theme, trying to get its resolution, gets interrupted multiple times by upbeat string movements. Still, it always just sounds like “bad guy is here” whereas Davy Jones’ theme had moments of heart-wrenching tragedy. Even Beckett’s themes had instances, where it addressed the meticulous scheming of the character rather than just villainous entrances all the time. Maybe Salazar is just written that boringly in the film and therefore never called for added layers, but it remains a shame. This doesn’t change the fact, though, that it is immensely superior to the laughable Blackbeard theme from OST.

Then there is the already mentioned new Jack Sparrow theme. It seems to replace the epic action theme Jack had in the previous films, best to be heard in the last third of the six-minute suite from DMC, which makes it a bit unnecessary. But when it’s a catchy jig like this, it’s hard to complain.

Another addition is a theme for the new female lead, Carina Smyth (played by Kaya Scodelario). The album kicks right off with a mystical, dark variation of it in “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, though it’s great fulfillment comes in the lengthy “The Brightest Star In The North”.

The last new melody supposedly represents the Trident Of Poseidon, this film’s MacGuffin that has to be found by Jack&Co. Introduced in “You Speak Of The Trident” it also appears in “I’ve Come With The Butcher’s Bill” and “Treasure”, the latter statement being pretty majestic, so probably underscoring the scene in which the characters finally find Aquaman’s toy.

Composer Geoff Zanelli and scoring mixer Alan Meyerson. (Photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser/ScoringSessions.com)

Zanelli successfully crafts a rather coherent narrative out of all these themes, old and new. “No Woman Has Ever handled My Herschel” and “Kill The Pirate, I’ll Wait” are probably the prime examples of this album. Both seem to be written for rather lighthearted, small action set pieces and feature some enjoyable statements of all of Jack’s themes. Especially the latter is one of the best tracks on the whole album, while the former suffers from some seriously cheap sounds from time to time.

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“El Matador El Mar” also shines from a storytelling point of view. Salazar’s and Jack’s themes get plenty of room to go back and forth between each other with some “He’s A Pirate” thrown in there for good measure. The heroic variation of Jack’s theme during 3:10 is especially awesome, despite its terrible sound. When considered, that the motif was mostly used up until now for scenes where the character was staggering around drunk, this is particularly commendable.

Suddenly, though, we get a weird “Gladiator” ripoff at the six-minute mark. It sounds like someone tried to press Salazar’s theme into the mold of the epic main theme statement during the ending portion of “Barbarian Horde”. The samples are equally as grating.

Speaking of temp tracking (because this is probably what happened): For some reason “Kill The Sparrow” decides to go full-on “Mad Max Fury Road” on the listener, throwing the infamous descending string ostinato into the mix. Just like the overblown drums, this motif is suddenly everywhere (Looking at you, “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2”). The appearance of a drum rhythm reminiscent of “Man Of Steel” in “Treasure” (starting after 90 seconds) falls into this category as well.

The action music has some great parts if you can get past the already discussed drums and upped volume. At 3:15 in “Kill The Sparrow”, for example, we get a great riff for electric cello which surely must be delivered by Hans’ Number one cellist Tina Guo. Her trademark metal-inspired sound is clearly present in this piece and some more, like “El Matador El Mar”. Speaking of Celli: No PotC score would be complete without aforementioned cellist Martin Tillman, who basically is the musical voice of Captain Jack Sparrow. While Guo has some dark, rock-y action scenes to show off in, Tillman remains the defining soloist of the franchise and gets quite a few moments to shine. Obviously, there are the numerous statements of Jack’s themes, but we also got the dark moody E-cello textures which were so prominent in DMC. “Salazar” is a prime example of this. That track, by the way, does not seem to be a theme suite for the villain, like we got with “Davy Jones” and “The Kraken”. The track might be simply called “Salazar”, but the way it plays out and progresses, it’s probably rather underscoring the entrance scene.

A particularly divisive track is “My Name Is Barbossa”. The staggering beauty of it is only matched by the frustration. Beauty, because it has glorious reprises of “One Day” and “One Last Shot” (from AWE and TCOTBP). Frustration because those reprisals are actually just copied and slightly remixed, thus stirring up the PTSD from the fourth score. Though it is really satisfying to hear the gorgeous main theme variation from “One Last Shot” in such orchestral and less-cheap fashion. No matter the needle dropping. This is one hell of a cue and a highlight of the score!

It’s a bit similar to the second half of “Treasure” which is basically the music from Beckett’s demise. However, this cue gets huge extensions and additions to make it sound fresh again.

Last but not the least, we get the obligatory opening of the end credits, again starting with “He’s A Pirate”, though this time without the string opening and with a little bit more emphasis on the bells, before it segues into a nice adventurous cello statement of Carina’s theme. The women’s choir picks up the theme and the album ends.

Or does it?

For some reason, they couldn’t restrain themselves from giving us another remix of “He’s A Pirate”. At least, it’s the best one, yet (which isn’t saying much, to be fair). The melody is present throughout and we get some cool guitars in the end. It’s still unnecessary.

All in all, a worthy entry into the beloved franchise

All things considered, Zanelli delivered a worthy entry into the beloved franchise. He might not hit the soaring heights of “At World’s End”, but “Dead Men Tell No Tales” can compare to “Dead Man’s Chest”. Where one has great suites but lacks engaging underscore, the other delivers that underscore with a tremendous sense of narrative, but sadly doesn’t present its new themes in similar suites. A step like that would really have helped the score because naturally, the old themes are cemented in the audience’s minds. That way, the new themes have difficulty in grabbing the listener. Salazar’s theme is pretty “in your face”, but Carina’s wonderful theme would have really benefited from a concert arrangement, though “The Brightest Star In The North” makes up for it, a little bit. It’s just too overwhelming in its beauty.

With better mixing and less samples, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” would have been one of the best soundtracks of the year. As it is, it is not that, but still a solid recommendation. Yaarrrrrrrr, me maties!

Posted by Bernhard H. Heidkamp

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

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