How Hans Zimmer’s live show paved new space in activism

Hans Zimmer performs his film scores live in Los Angeles
Hans Zimmer Live/Courtesy
Hans Zimmer Live/Courtesy

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Nearly three years ago, while on a trip to London, I saw one of composer Hans Zimmer’s first live shows. I’ve listened to thousands of hours (literally) of his film scores, mainly from Christopher Nolan films. To say that I’m a fan is a bit of an understatement. So when the tour came to Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, a ticket might as well have been set aside for me. I was going to be there; I just had to find the money for a ticket.

Zimmer’s a force in film, his work in “Dunkirk” garnering acclaim and Oscar buzz. He’s also one of the few composers the public knows by name and one of even fewer to take his compositions on tour. But after his show at the Shrine, he has also become an unexpected voice of activism amid the world’s present political state.

And that’s what separates the Los Angeles show from his London appearance. The crowd was bigger, younger and more engaged. In London, Zimmer drew mostly late-20-year-olds and early-30-year-olds to an audience that comfortably fit inside the modest venue. Most of the Los Angeles crowd was in the range of early to mid-20s. And as for the size and energy — as I told my brother, who came with — it seemed like a crowd assembled for the hip-hop giant Kendrick Lamar.

In those three years, Zimmer seemingly became a revered cultural figure himself — his bizarre visit to Coachella no doubt helped his visibility. And that’s where the difference popped up. Zimmer’s awkward, a bit uncomfortable speaking on stage. In London, that presence was sincere, and not much more — it didn’t have to be. But in Los Angeles, he embodied that sense of being a “figure,” and the gravity of his show followed suit.

Expectedly, the power and layers of sound in the German composer’s seminal scores — “The Lion King,” “The Dark Knight,” “Interstellar” and more — injected each attendee with an energy more lively than even the loudest of EDM shows; it didn’t matter that they were sitting in a room seemingly built for opera shows. IMAX sound may be louder. This sound felt deeper.

But where that gravity truly came through was in the raw emotion of those awkward, and humble, moments in between — when Zimmer would step forward to speak.

Even though he flowed out of the curtains with a coat fit for Bruce Wayne, it became immediately clear that the night was about the entirety of his orchestra and the entirety of the audience — not just Zimmer himself. It became a time for collectivity and for healing, with a specific political angle.

Right before the “Gladiator” medley, Zimmer paused, bringing forward flutist Pedro Eustache, the medley’s instrumental centerpiece, and tributing the music to Venezuela — Eustache’s home country and one currently in crisis.

There’s an initial, jarring bluntness to a political statement, and the night’s first was no exception.

But Zimmer had a clear idea of how he wanted to overcome that, of how he wanted to drive home the heart of the messages. The “Gladiator” tribute wasn’t in-your-face, but something Zimmer asked the audience to consider feeling as the score played. He simply pointed out “all that’s going on there,” before giving Eustache a teddy bear hug. It was then almost impossible not to imbue Eustache’s beautiful performance, both physical and musical, with the weight of Venezuela. It wasn’t just music at that point. It was music for something.

After Lebo M, the iconic voice behind the opening chant of “The Lion King,” and his daughter Refi channeled the deepest parts of their lungs for the animated film’s music, Zimmer held on to the emotion, talking about the story of the “political refugee” of South Africa who went from begging to winning a Grammy. “Circle of Life,” among the many classics performed, was a uplifting, bone-shaking journey. Thinking back on the songs with the journey of Lebo M in mind, the set held every ounce of M’s power, of the journey of a refugee.

Zimmer’s last statement came with the “Batman” medley after cellist, Tina Guo, carved out the rising screech of the Joker’s theme, electric sparks nearly flying from her swaying body, and the rest of the musicians had brought the aura of Gotham City to Los Angeles. The sound momentarily dropped low as Zimmer walked to the front of the stage. While the rest of his intervals had been without sound, this one came with the slow-building accompaniment of his orchestra as it played “Aurora,” a piece dedicated to the shooting at Aurora, Colorado.

Back in 2014, at Zimmer’s concert in London, he had spoken, in a similar way, about the tragedy at the “small town” where a gunman opened fire at a late night screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” In 2017, Zimmer retold the story of receiving the phone call after a long plane ride and how no words could describe the feeling of tragedy. But this time, Zimmer said more, devoting the wordless song to the events at Paris, Brussels, Manchester, Syria and more.

And that’s exactly what separates this show from other concerts, from other live shows — a lack of emphasis on words. Zimmer isn’t the best public speaker, clearly more comfortable communicating through music; he himself even pointed out that he “doesn’t do this for a living” and that he’s not great at telling jokes. But it’s the feeling behind his difficulty in communicating. He powered through his statement, an earnestness, sincerity and vulnerability in each brief stammer, in a speech that didn’t feel rehearsed, in a speech that felt real because it wasn’t about the words — it was about the emotion.

But most essentially, it’s the feeling evoked by wordless music.

The statements alone wouldn’t have been enough; it’s the scores played afterward that drive home their weight and impact in a way that feels new and profound among the many outspoken voices. The audience isn’t told what to feel through lyrics. We’re asked to consider an idea of feeling without words, an idea of feeling, that which cannot be properly described.

That’s the nature of a film score, which tones a movie in ways that dialogue or image can’t. In this light, Zimmer and his orchestra have created a live show that transcends the dimensions of music, that builds empathy with a new method that only wordless music can invoke.

We struggle to find words for tragedies, for human crises. But that’s okay. Just feel.

Contact Kyle Kizu at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.