How Hans Zimmer learnt to stop worrying and embrace rock star status

The legendary composer and producer, performing on May 31 and June 1 at Dubai's Coca-Cola Arena, discusses his landmark Coachella performance, the tragic origins of his Lion King score, and more

Celebrated German composer Hans Zimmer will perform two shows in Dubai. Photo: Frank Embacher
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For decades, Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer has been something of a rock star. In 2017, at the insistence of his friends Pharrell Williams and Johnny Marr, he finally started to embrace it.

“Pharrell and Johnny were right. They told me: ‘Hans, eventually you have to stop hiding behind a screen. You have to stand in front of people. Look people in the eye, and it’s going to be OK,’” Zimmer says.

That year, Zimmer created a live experience that would set the course for the next stage of his life, a course that has brought him to Dubai’s Coca-Cola Arena for two shows on Friday and Saturday.

At Coachella 2017, he performed a medley of some of his best-known film compositions, including those for Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Inception and The Lion King. The moment was revelatory in more ways than one.

For the tens of thousands in attendance and those streaming the show across the world, it cemented importance of film scores in modern-day culture, and their ability to maintain that power in a completely different setting.

For Zimmer, he finally got over a fear he had quietly held for years.

“It was astonishing to watch 80,000 grown men and women get emotional. I thought bringing an orchestra and a choir out to the desert seemed like a fun thing to do, but it was something extraordinary,” says Zimmer.

“I always have stage fright, but not at Coachella. I just walked out there. Our lights weren’t working, I could hear the engineers freaking out – they couldn’t find the plug for their lives. I just said, ‘I don’t care – I’m going on stage now. It’s a complete shambles out there but I don’t care if it’s a shambles – I’m going to embrace it.”

The most emotional moment for many was when Zimmer played sections from The Lion King – perhaps his most enduring composition.

That arrangement is on his mind again lately – not only because he plays it at each live performance, but because he is once again stepping into that world, teaming up with his friend Pharrell Williams for the upcoming prequel, Mufasa: The Lion King, headed to cinema in December.

The reason that music remains so powerful in any setting, Zimmer believes, is that the emotions behind it were real.

“It wasn’t written because of an Oscar. It wasn’t written because of the money. It wasn’t written for fame and fortune or any of those things. IT was written because I wanted to take my daughter to a premiere and show off as a dad, and suddenly found myself writing about something really serious,” says Zimmer.

The serious aspect, Zimmer says, caught him “somewhat unaware” he says, back in 1994.

“The movie was about death and dying – it was about a father dying, and how a son dealt with it,” says Zimmer.

“And I hadn’t realised that, even though my father died when I was six years old, I had never dealt with it.

“Children excel at how to compartmentalise their emotions – tuck things away and build walls. But this story became a bridge over those walls. I ended up writing a requiem for my father,” Zimmer continues.

That is precisely why, apart from key snippets such as the famed opening vocal ode, the music takes more inspiration from European musical traditions than African ones.

Well, one of the reasons. “I wasn’t going to commit cultural imperialism!” Zimmer notes.

“I said to them I’m going to write this for my father. I’m going to write completely European, and we’re going to go to Africa, and I’m going to throw these notes at you, and let’s see what happens when these two cultures collide. Maybe something new comes out of it.”

In Zimmer’s view, while films may be, as the critic Roger Ebert often noted, empathy machines, music is integral to the medium because it brings to the fore so much of the raw emotion hiding beneath the surface.

“I’m painfully aware of that at all times – aware of not manipulating. My music should feel like a door opening, and once that’s open, there’s a possibility to feel something – to experience empathy.

“But what’s important to understand that music is an autonomous language,” Zimmer says.

For him, it is the language of emotion.

“Let me give you an example,” he says. “This happens a lot between my girlfriend and me. We’re in the middle of a conversation, and suddenly I run out of words, and so I go to the piano and I start playing something, because I can express myself better that way.

"It’s especially effective because music is the only language that unites all of humanity.

“That’s especially useful for me because it can be hard to communicate. I’m already speaking a foreign language most of the time. I’m German originally, and there’s so many expressions that don’t exist in English. In German, you’re invested in everything all the time, so the words are very precise. Sometimes I can’t say what I need to say in English, so music helps get me there,” he says.

Music and film are both powerful tools to bridge cultures, Zimmer notes. That’s why he has invested himself in both. And the way that he sees it, it is the international diversity of film that has always made it such a powerful medium.

“If we look back, so many of the contributors to early film were refugees from Nazi Germany, or European immigrants more broadly. Cultures collided, and that brought something special,” Zimmer notes.

“Now, we have a multitude of voices contributing to film from across the world – from the Middle East as well. Now we’re suddenly all allowed to be part of this wild culture, and that’s really a great thing.

“I love that I’m in a world of dreamers.”

Hans Zimmer is set to perform at Dubai's Coca-Cola Arena on Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available at www.coca-cola-arena.com

Updated: May 31, 2024, 11:08 AM