Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Geoff Zanelli

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS HEAVY PLOT SPOILERS!

Jack Sparrow’s back – sorry, did I just say Jack Sparrow? Of course, I was talking about the one and only Captain Jack Sparrow. Once again, he finds himself in a considerably hopeless situation: Having lost his mojo and being hunted by ghost captain Armando Salazar whom he once tricked, Johnny Depp’s alter ego, eccentric as always, desperately needs to find the legendary Trident of Poseidon, which bestows control over the seas, in order to prevent any further misadventures.

Six years after the immensely disappointing franchise entry that was “On Stranger Tides”, Disney’s beloved pirate returns in another hilarious installment, namely “Dead Men Tell No Tales” (or “Salazar’s Revenge”, depends on your country and personal taste). Helmed by critically acclaimed directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg and featuring an all-star cast including the acting talents of veterans such as Depp and Geoffrey Rush as well as newcomers Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites, the film itself is currently meeting fairly mixed reviews, covering the enormous range of “best one since the original” and, at the same time, “complete bullshit” – varying opinions were also attributed to the movie’s musical score.

With Hans Zimmer being absent from the successful series for the first time ever, one of his protegés, Geoff Zanelli, who previously worked on all of the franchise’s prior entries as additional music composer, was chosen to navigate the score into safe waters. Arousing attention with his score for the TNT miniseries “Into the West” and his work on Zimmer’s projects, Zanelli, despite his enormous talent, has not yet had the chance to write music for a blockbuster movie all on his own. For “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, the composer unsurprisingly stays within the soundscape that he himself helped creating in the first place: String ostinati, synth, heavy brass, a lot of percussion and distinctive use of choir, the latter being even more prominent in the newest entry. The Pirates scores have always had issues with their recording quality, especially “The Curse of the Black Pearl” was strongly criticized for its cheap synth sound which resulted from massive time pressure in a troubled post-production. Unfortunately, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” not only continues that trend but simultaneously marks a step down from previous scores.

Thematic-wise, Geoff Zanelli relies on the franchise’s well-known themes, as far as their use makes sense within the movie’s context. In contrast to earlier Pirates movies, particularly “On Stranger Tides” comes to mind with character themes being falsely used with regard to the film’s content, his placement of familiar material is always correctly handled. Let it be Jack’s theme, the Black Pearl motif or Will and Elizabeth’s love theme which the composer takes to underline Henry Turner’s aim to break his father’s curse, one of the story’s driving elements, and, turned into a more heroic variation, as a motif for Henry himself – Zanelli succeeds in improving upon the predecessor’s blatantly mishandled thematic work and enhancing the newest entry’s musical narrative.

One could criticize him for heavily relying on previously established material, but luckily, the composer also brings some fresh ideas to the table, noting it was important to break new ground: For the story’s vengeful antagonist Armando Salazar, portrayed by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, Zanelli created a theme that he describes as “layering all sorts of twisted sounds, like Adam Peters’ cello through a horrible guitar amp, plus Martin Tillman’s acoustic cello just digging in with such malice and attitude, layered with a choir, the orchestra and some bizarre woodwinds, ⌊adding up⌋ to a single minded, nasty sound”. Despite its menacing nature, the theme has a slightly generic vibe to it which is only reinforced by obvious melodic similarities to Blackboard’s theme. Nevertheless, it works fine in context.

Next up, prominently featured as well, is Zanelli’s theme for Carina Smyth, build off an elegant 9-note motif, that simultaneously, given the astronomer’s family connection to Jack’s rival Hector Barbossa, acts as the Barbossa love theme. First introduced in the opening credits – it is actually the first melody you are going to hear -, Zanelli marks its essential meaning to the story, and reworks and develops it over the curse of the movie.  Another identity, more a motif than a theme, is attributed to the Trident of Poseidon; the mystical 5-note phrase first appears in the album opener – performed on duduk – with which the composer felicitously points out the plot’s main quest on a musical level. “You Speak of the Trident” brings another prominent rendition.

Rounding out the thematic palette, the composer presents a super-infectious adventure theme, highlighting Jack’s heroics, often performed by rousing brass and dynamic string writing, whose rhythmic progression makes it a powerful new addition to the frachise’s pre-existing thematic canon.

The album opener “Dead Men Tell No Tales” carefully escorts the listener back to Disney’s pirate world: Following up a beautiful first hint at Carina’s theme, performed by warm strings and subtle choir, Zanelli presents a rhythmic string motif, anchored by a solo duduk performance, spreading mystery and abstruseness. Meanwhile, the subsequent “Salazar” introduces the antagonist’s menacing theme; with raw cello sounds and deep male choir, the composer, despite the theme’s rather generic nature, succeeds in illustrating the character’s brutal malice and his bent on revenge as he threatens Henry Turner to find Jack Sparrow for him.

“No Woman Has Ever Handled My Herschel” simultaneously guides the listener to the Caribbean city of St. Martin and, on a musical level, back to the franchise’s well-known soundscape. Accompanying a terribly disorganized bank robbery by a completely drunk Jack Sparrow and his crew, now being chased by soldiers, Zanelli throws in several familiar themes such as the Jack Sparrow one and, at the same time, gives his new adventure theme a first work-out. A triumphant “He’s A Pirate” statement ends the energetic action cue.

The trio of “You Speak of the Trident”, “The Devil’s Triangle” – which incorporates a menacing outburst of Salazar’s theme – and “Shansa”, during which the scared Barbossa meets an obscure witch of the same name,  mostly builds up suspense, focussing on the story’s more mysterious plotline. However, neither is the material heard in these cues rich of thematic development nor particularly engaging as a pure listening experience.

Following up is “Kill the Filthy Pirate, I’ll Wait”, which sees Carina being hanged and Jack being executed by the guillotine. When out of nowhere, Henry and Jack’s crew appear to free both of them to find the trident, a hilarious action sequence soon develops. Percussion and string chords anitcipate the upcoming comedy and explode into outbursts of Zanelli’s rousing adventure theme who then weaves the series’s familiar themes, Jack’s cello as well as “At World’s End” ‘s love theme attributed to Henry, alternating with the adventure theme, in and out. As Jack, after having successfully escaped, finally manages to get his rather demolished ship, “The Dying Gull”, out on the sea, a swashbuckling “Hoist the Colours” variation suddenly emerges, the powerful pirate lament introduced in the franchise’s third entry effectively illustrating Sparrow having regained his ship and crew, now full of beans to set sails, with unashamed optimism..

Once again, the setting changes: Telling the origin story of how the pirate-hunting Captain Salazar got tricked by young Jack Sparrow and became the menacing ghost he is, the lengthy “El Matador Del Mar” starts with the antagonist’s theme but, as the scene progresses, weaves through re-arranged versions of the series’s old motifs to highlighten Sparrow’s spectacular trick, forcing Salazar and his crew into the Devil’s Triangle and cursing them to remain undead. An overwhelmingly heroic variation of “He’s A Pirate”, followed by a desperate-sounding version of Salazar’s theme ends the cue. The subsequent “Kill the Sparrow” continues the action with furious electronic cello writing perfectly capturing the current danger coming from undead killer sharks chasing Jack, Carina and Henry. The frenetic rendition of the adventure theme at 4:21, brimming over with bold optimism, illustrates their narrow escape.

While “She Needs the Sea” sees Jack and Barbossa breaking the Black Pearl out of the bottle in which it had been trapped by “On Stranger Tides” antagonist Blackbeard, underlined by a statement of Jack’s theme, “The Brightest Star in the North” concentrates and expands on Carina’s elegant theme that, while the heroes arrive at the location of Poseidon’s Trident and Jack discovers Carina to be Barbossa’s daughter, receives several beautiful variations over the curse of the 6-minute cue; the modest harp rendition at 3:07, beautifully accentuated by plucked strings, is of particular note.

“I’ve Come With the Butcher’s Bill” opens the film’s huge action finale as a battle between Jack and Salazar’s crew ensues. Prominent statements of Zanelli’s adventure theme, constantly shifting between alternating or counterpointed with Salazar’s menacing theme, dominate the scene. Accompanying the on-going fight, both “The Power of the Sea” and “Treasure” are filled with chanting choir and dynamic string ostinati, offering several thematic statements such as Salazar’s theme, as brutal as never before, and, in the latter, the Black Pearl’s motif as Barbossa and Jack’s crew are rushing to our heroes’ rescue. However, Zanelli immediately contrasts this action with a full orchestra-and-choir work-out of the cursed ghost’s theme. As Barbossa sacrifices himself to prevent his daughter and his rival Jack from being murdered by Salazar and his men, paving the way to their safety while the divided sea returns to its original state, Zanelli’s “Myths of the Sea theme”, immortalizing the dying character, appears, forming both the film’s and the score’s emotional climax. Rising strings, heavy brass and dominant choir accompany the Black Pearl’s captain’s last journey.

Recapitulating the tragic events and simultaneously underlining the relationship between Carina and Henry, a mourning rendition of the astronomer’s theme, counterpointed by the “At World’s End” love theme, opens “My Name is Barbossa”, a highly emotional 5-minute piece that sees the composer beautifully combining new with old material. Heartbreaking cello performances herald the legendary pirate’s loss and, as the film’s setting changes and the audience gets to see Henry and Carina waiting for the returning Will Turner, whose curse is now broken and who reunites with his wife, Elizabeth Swann, Zanelli quite fittingly presents a powerful statement of “One Day”, Will and Elizabeth’s love theme as featured in the franchise’s prior entries.

The conclusive “Beyond My Beloved Horizon”, played during the movie’s end credits, keeps up traditions by launching into a dynamic statement of Hans Zimmer’s ever-popular “He’s A Pirate” which then fades into a cello variation of Carina’s theme, underpinned by heavy percussion, that culminates into another truly powerful orchestra-and-choir rendition. Heavenly choir, swirling strings and a haunting cello solo end the pirates’ spectacular journey.

Geoff Zanelli scoring Pirates
Composer Geoff Zanelli (left) during the “Dead Men Tell No Tales” recording sessions (Source: ScoringSessions.com).

Zanelli’s first solo adventure in Disney’s PotC franchise is by no means a misstep; however, it is still hard to judge. The composer, already having more than enough experience with working on the popular series, wonderfully continues the adventurous pirate sound established in previous movies. Simultaneously, he succeeds in combining old with new material, enhancing the musical narrative by successfully introducing new themes, while providing intellectually appealing placements within the movie – Zanelli’s thematic work on “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is probably the score’s greatest strength. Apart from that, the music has a consistent sense of engagement and entertainment to it that makes it enjoyable as a pure listening experience even though the 71-minute album, by far the best presentation of any score in the franchise, feels a tad too long. Unfortunately, this impression is only further cemented by the composition’s overwhelming nature – from time to time, it all feels a little bit too much – in combination with the rather generic action writing. Although Zanelli weaves in numerous thematic statements, some parts just seem to wander aimlessly only to return to pre-existing material. Sadly, the overall synth sound simply does not help making the album a purely enjoyable listen.

If you have already loved seefaring in the musical Pirates universe before, never mind: Zanelli perfectly honors the series’s legacy by succeeding in capturing its characteristic sense of adventure and reckless optimism. Everyone else might take a first listen at the samples, but while the score never reaches the quality of “At World’s End”, Zanelli’s “Dead Men Tell No Tales“, despite its flawed execution, still remains a clear improvement upon its troubled predecessor and, for the most part, an entertaining listening experience on its own.

Rating: ***



Music composed by Geoff Zanelli. Additional music by Paul Mounsey, Steve Mazzaro, Phill Boucher, Anthony B. Willis and Zak McNeil. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler and Rick Giovinazzo. Album produced by Geoff Zanelli.

1. Dead Men Tell No Tales (01:51)
2. Salazar (4:27)
3. No Woman Has Ever Handled My Herschel (03:59)
4. You Speak of the Trident (01:58)
5. The Devil’s Triangle (02:45)
6. Shansa (03:12)
7. Kill the Filthy Pirate, I’ll Wait (04:50)
8. The Dying Gull (01:01)
9. El Matador Del Mar (08:05)
10. Kill the Sparrow (06:16)
11. She Needs the Sea (02:32)
12. The Brightest Star in the North (06:00)
13. I’ve Come With the Butcher’s Bill (06:41)
14. The Power of the Sea (04:07)
15. Treasure (05:43)
16. My Name Is Barbossa (05:34)
17. Beyond My Beloved Horizon (2:41)


Album available on Walt Disney Records.


Check out these interviews with composer Geoff Zanelli if you are interested in learning more about the film’s scoring process:


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