Most people associate Hans Zimmer with big and bold scores. I mean how can they not when you hear his work like The Dark Knight trilogy, Pirates Of The Caribbean or Inception. Hans knows how to involve a score in the storytelling better than most composers, which is why I was beyond ecstatic when it was announced he would score Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. In his last film, Steve McQueen had composer Harry Escott essentially copy Hans Zimmer’s track “Journey To The Line” from The Thin Red Line for the track “Unraveling” in Shame. Was it a blatant copy of the temp track? Absolutely. Did it work for the scene? Absolutely. Last year I jumped at the opportunity to see a focus group screening of 12 Years A Slave here in Los Angeles as Steve McQueen is one of my favorite directors. People in the industry aren’t supposed to attend these screenings, but I won’t tell if you won’t. Anyway, this was early 2013, maybe March or April. I don’t know if Hans was attached at this point, but the entire temp score of the film was Hans Zimmer’s music. In my head I wondered how amazing it would be if Hans would actually score the film. Fast forward a couple of months and here we have one of the best scores of the year. Also, the theatrical trailer for 12 Years A Slave uses “Journey To The Line”, so it looks like Steve McQueen got to use the real piece after all.
So, we know Hans as a composer whose music is fairly prominent in the films he composes. Which is why it’s amazing to see how reserved he needed to be with this film. The story is an amazing human journey, and one that isn’t easy to watch. The film will really force you to watch how terrible humans can be to one another, but the point of the film isn’t to say “slavery is bad”. This is the physical and emotional journey of Solomon Northup as he’s wrongfully sold into slavery where it would take him 12 years to gain his freedom. Hans’ approach is to stay small and simple, and honestly that is the score pretty much summed up.
The music is comparable to the flame of a candle that burns brightly, but is still fragile enough that it could be easily blown out. The score doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t tell you what to feel and it more or less stays in the background. Only during the boat trip scene does the score actually become brash and harsh. The rest of the score echoes one simple theme, which is Solomon’s theme. That theme carries despair and sadness, but it also carries hope. Hans can strip the theme down to feel naked and alone, or he can back it up with the warmth of strings to bring some light into the shadows. It truly is remarkable to see how little he needs to manipulate it to change the whole effect of it. The music at times can have a physical effect on you. In one scene during a hanging we hear this airy squeal, which is actually a saxophone. It literally makes it feel like your windpipe is closing and it affects you physically. Silence is also a huge part of the film’s soundscape, and silence is just as effective as music is in a scene. So to see where director Steve McQueen and Hans Zimmer opted for no music does become part of the scoring process, and one that can’t be experienced solely by the soundtrack alone. There is a powerfully important story here. The simple four-note motif of the score juxtaposed with the haunting beauty of the cinematography, the visceral brutality of the actions and the power of the performances make for a rigorous emotional journey.
Like all of Hans Zimmer’s scores, 12 Years A Slave strives in its simplicity. However, here you will notice how a quiet yet precise approach can evoke just as much emotion as the bolder and louder stuff. The score accompanies the film perfectly, and it never tries to steal the spotlight from the story or the performances. It exists simply as an emotional window into our protagonist, and because of that becomes a hauntingly memorable experience. It also makes it one of the best scores of the year.