With the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more accessible than ever, and a summer season void of blockbusters, this month we’re diving deep into Disney’s swashbuckling series. Grab your cutlass and hoist the colors: here be Polygon’s take on all things PotC.
In 2017, Hans Zimmer took the stage at Coachella, joining the ranks Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, just as God intended. At first glance, adding a film composer to a music festival’s lineup might seem like a strange choice, but the highlight of Zimmer’s set, a medley of Pirates of the Caribbean cues, was proof that Zimmer crafted the perfect music to rage to.
Zimmer’s film music stands on its own. Unlike many contemporary scores, the German composer, self-described as “the guy who can’t help but throw a hand grenade to a room just when everything’s calmed down,” has made a specialty out of crafting cues that stick with the audience long after the credits have rolled. The pounding, gothic Batman theme in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, for instance, instantly brings to mind the famous hero and the streets of Gotham.
The same goes for the music Zimmer composed for the Pirates movies, which are inextricably linked with the wobbly walk of Jack Sparrow and adventure on the high seas. It’s not typical festival music, but that’s part of the point. “We’re not trying to sell people anything,” Zimmer said. “We’re just trying to entertain them, trying to give them an experience that they haven’t had before.”
The roaring Coachella medley is made up of four distinct parts: the first is the Jack Sparrow theme, the second and third pull from At World’s End’s “One Day” and “Up is Down,” and the final element is “He’s a Pirate,” which was co-composed with Klaus Badelt for the first movie. It’s Zimmer blazing through his greatest hits (with the exception of the Davy Jones theme, which I’ll allow because Jones was admittedly a villain), and still telling a story within.
The Jack Sparrow theme starts slowly and sparsely; a cello (played by Tina Guo), backed by Zimmer on the piano and Nick Glennie-Smith on a wheezing accordion, plays the barest version of the pirate’s intro. More and more instruments join the group until a staccato violin lead-in gives way to the faster, fuller theme. The addition of wailing electric guitars and synths to the orchestration help bring the music into the festival/concert space, creating a whopping wall of sound.
The electric guitars also help connect the Jack Sparrow theme to the much slower and seemingly disparate “One Day.” The song is the grand finale for At World’s End, and the last song in the movie before “Drink Up Me Hearties” leads audiences into the movie’s end credits. It’s a ponderous song, victorious but still a little bittersweet, in respect for the pirates lost during the preceding battle. Zimmer layers the electric guitar above the strings that carry the melody in the song’s original arrangement, and the addition keeps the medley from losing momentum, especially as it segues into the much faster and much more dynamic “Up is Down.”
“Up is Down” is as rowdy as you’d expect of the song that accompanies At World’s End’s ship-flipping sequence, in which Jack and the crew realize that the only way to escape Davy Jones’ Locker is to flip the Black Pearl upside down. The sense of organized chaos involved in the entire crew running back and forth on the ship’s deck to create momentum is captured in the theme’s 12/8 time signatures, which makes triplets the focus of the beat rather than the more traditional eighth notes. It’s an instant ticket to adventure, or at least a sense of it, hence its leading into the medley’s final part, the all-time great “He’s a Pirate.”
The most recognizable Pirates theme needs no introduction; it’s ubiquitous enough that it even has its own Tiësto remix. There’s no pause before it hits right at the climax of “Up is Down.” It’s a musical victory lap, and in video footage of the set, this is where people really start cheering and dancing as if they were listening to the latest, hottest song of the summer, not a song from a movie that came out a decade ago.
Through it all, Zimmer mostly cedes the stage to Guo, who headbangs and sways with the music — while playing her cello! — as though on the deck of a pirate ship. There’s also Glennie-Smith, who wanders the stage with a fake parrot perched on his shoulder. But Zimmer can still be seen bouncing at the keyboard behind them, his face lit up by the constantly flashing stage lights. He’s like a sorcerer, summoning his ghost pirate orchestra to do his musical bidding.
The other medleys Zimmer performed at Coachella — music from Inception, The Lion King, Gladiator, and The Dark Knight — are fire, but the Pirates of the Caribbean medley is the most dynamic of the bunch. It earns the triumphant pose that Zimmer strikes at the end. Right on the final note, he jolts away from the keyboard he’s been playing like he’s being propelled away by the sheer force of his own music, and raises a hand into the air, a single finger pointing up as if to say he’s the champion. If anything, the Pirates medley proves that he is.