How Hans Zimmer's the Thin Red Line score redefined Hollywood, for better or worse
'Journey to the Line' has been dubbed the 'forbidden cue' and the scourge of composers — including its creator
Hans Zimmer is the sound of Hollywood. Over the past three decades, the German composer has been behind more than 100 soundtracks and film scores, a number that grows exponentially when you consider the stable of composers under his company, Remote Control Productions, which has become the defacto studio for big live-action blockbusters.
Zimmer's big breakthrough came in 1988 with the Rain Man score, which was nominated for an Oscar. Offers poured in after that, from the Grammy-nominated Driving Miss Daisy to Thelma & Louise, which lead to the multiple-award-winning Lion King in 1994.
While the score for that picture won an Academy, Golden Globe and Grammy award, and is the basis for the most successful Broadway musical of all time, it was a quiet film by auteur Terrence Malick that would turn Zimmer into the ubiquitous presence he is today. Malick's 1999 war meditation, The Thin Red Line, is also where Zimmer says he learned the most. "I worked on that one for what must have been, in one way or the other, a couple of years," he tells q. "I kept coming back to it, but everything I learned on that then helped me a great deal."
You could even say it made his career, and even though neither the score, nor the film, won any major awards, it paved the way for the 60-year-old to become the clear predecessor to John Williams as Hollywood's go-to. You can trace it all back to one particular composition, "Journey to the Line," which appears at the climax of The Thin Red Line and is, almost 20 years later, one of the most commonly used pieces of music in Hollywood.
It begins with a ticking clock (fans of Zimmer will recognize that as a recurring feature in other Zimmer scores, especially Dunkirk), but the defining moment comes a few minutes in, when the principal theme emerges. It's a simple, trance-like movement built around a repeating four-chord structure (D minor, F, A minor, G), with a fifth (E minor) eventually added. As the structure repeats itself, it also builds in intensity, adding new instruments, such as bells, reverb-heavy brass and dramatic sustaining strings, in order to achieve its climax. Christopher Nolan has aptly described Zimmer as a "minimalist composer with a maximalist production sense."
I think it would be horrible to go and, you know, manipulate people in the way of what they should feel- Hans Zimmer
Zimmer has described the piece as "objective," which explains its effectiveness. It expresses a sense of longing, but also hope. It's dark and moody, but also uplifting. It works perfectly whether characters are going into war or at a funeral, it elevates montages to another level, and it can also make you feel like everything will be alright in the end. In other words, it's perfect. It is a universally emotional piece of music that, in its simplicity, hits you in the very place you need it to hit.
"One of the things I really really try to do is, I try to never tell you what to feel," Zimmer says of the piece. "I just try to use the music in a funny way to open a door for you to come and have the possibility of having an emotional experience. But I think it would be horrible to go and, you know, manipulate people in the way of what they should feel, so I leave the pieces actually quite open to interpretation."
The unintended effect is that, because "Journey to the Line" fits everywhere, it's been used everywhere, including TV, film, video games and, especially, trailers, where it has become the Gold Standard.
It also found ubiquity behind the scenes as the most commonly used piece of temp music, meaning that it's often placed in scenes during early stages of editing, before the music has been written, as a placeholder. What happens is, because it fits so well, composers are either asked to replicate it, or the studio simply buys the license for "Journey to the Line." As a result, it's become known as the "forbidden cue," and the scourge of composers everywhere, including Zimmer himself.
"I mean, you know the worst thing," says Zimmer. "'Journey to the Line' is a particular piece and it's based on a very simple and therefore virtually un-rip-off-able idea. You move one note and it doesn't work anymore. The same with, you know there's a piece called 'Time' that I wrote for Inception that people keep sort of flattering me with I suppose."
By flattering, of course, he means borrowing, to the point where it's blurring the line between what is and isn't a Zimmer score. It's inescapable, and you can see the similarities in works like John Murphy's "Sunshine (Adagio In D Minor)," which has been used in countless trailers, including X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Star Trek into Darkness.
There is also Henry Jackman's "Safe Now" from Captain Phillips. Jackman, a student of Zimmer's who works for Remote Control, employs many of the same minimalist techniques to great effect, achieving an emotional punch with an endless rotation of simple chords that build in intensity. Even Zimmer himself has been accused of recycling his own ideas, including "Solomon," from 12 Years a Slave, and the above mentioned "Time," which, to oversimplify, is "Journey to the Line" with Johnny Marr playing minimalist guitar lines over it — and it's amazing. Of course the chords are different and the structure varies, but it's based on that same foundation set by Zimmer back in 1998, one even he can't escape.
In fact, the "forbidden cue" nickname comes from Zimmer himself, who has directed his staff to never use "Journey to the Line" as a temp in any of the films he's working on for fear that he will be asked, yet again, to recreate it.
As far as professional composers go, you could definitely have worse problems, as it's far better to be the person to create the Gold Standard than to be the ones that have to try to best it. But on the other hand, it also lends Zimmer's piece a sense of immortality. "Journey to the Line" was a major milestone in his career, but one that could have easily faded away in prevalence along with The Thin Red Line, one of the most underrated war films. It's permeation in scores everywhere means that it gets to live beyond its original intent, given another breath of life every time it, or an homage to it, appears again (and again). It's no wonder it's one of the most popular compositions in Zimmer's live show.
While it's both a blessing and a curse, Zimmer agrees on one thing — it still holds up. "In one week, I saw 'Journey to the Line' in an urban movie, I saw it on an animated movie and I saw it on a comedy, and you know something? It all worked perfectly well," he says, careful to add, "but none of them, of course, worked as well as on Terry Mallick's amazing movie."
For more from Tom Power's interview with Hans Zimmer, be sure to tune in Jan. 8 or download our podcast here.