by Tom Johnson
I found myself entranced by the horn-laden theme that repeatedly roared through the ads for Inception. Less song-like and more a series of massive, rumbling horn crashes, the music seemed as important as it was mysterious. Hans Zimmer’s score was no mere backing music. Like the biggest scores we’ve come to know, it was a thematic monster, a character all to itself inside writer/director Christopher Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream world. In a way, part of me just wanted to see how this music fit into a film.
Once seen, there is no doubt the role the score plays in the film: without the music, this music, the film would fall flat. Zimmer’s coup is that neat little trick he pulled off of slowing Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” to a glacial crawl as the basis for much of the score. “Trick” is too simple. This is brilliant. Pay close attention in the film and you can figure out “when” you are based almost solely on how slow and massive is the reduction of that Piaf tune. What was originally a beautiful, lilting piece becomes a foreboding menace. It is one of those rare pieces of film music that feels instantly nearly as enigmatic as the theme from Jaws, or the Emperor’s theme from Star Wars.
The orchestra ebbs and flows, rising and falling in greater and greater arcs — propelled by blasting, bellowing horns supplanted by bits of electronic elements, and, in a surprise turn, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who provides some haunting textures and thoughtful accompaniment to the proceedings. Truth be told, you, like I, likely won’t know it’s Marr on guitar, but it’s a cool tidbit — a “name” rather than an unknown session musician. Each piece builds on the previous, requiring listeners to dedicate some time to the score as a single experience. This is not a mass of short cues and textures but an album of long, well-developed pieces created with an intent to deliver listeners from one point to another in an aural version of Nolan’s story.
Taken as a whole, listeners embark on the same emotional roller coaster they experience in the film — loss, heartache, fear, and redemption — and are even left with a nagging musical question at the end. Scores often fade into the background, purposely to lend support to the action on screen and not to be about the music, but in some rare cases the score needs to step out front and be an unseen character all by itself. Zimmer’s score proves to be as intergral to the film as I expected but also is a powerful piece of music that stands tall without the film, as an experience itself. It doesn’t tell a story, but it makes listeners feel as if they’ve been a part of one.