Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Klaus Badelt (2003)


Why You Should…
If you can accept major fallacies in the Remote Control understading of the pirate-swashbuckling genre, for The Curse of the Black Pearl is a rousing, heroic score taht sits well in both Badelt’s and Zimmer’s career.

Why You Shouldn’t…
If your purist meter is easily triggered by the artifical, faux-pas sound of the Caribbean, its careless choice of instrumentation and lack of complexity detractive enough. 


Release Date: 22nd July 2003 (PHYSICAL RELEASE)
Composer(s): Klaus Badelt (and Hans Zimmer, uncredited)
Length: 43:30
Recorded By/At: Alan “Mizzenmast” Meyerson & Malcolm “Cat o’ Nine Tails” Luker, with the help of The Hollywood Studio Symphony, at the 20th Century Fox Newman Scoring Stage, Los Angeles, CA & Todd Scoring Stage, Studio City, CA.
Label: Walt Disney Records

Additional Information:
Conducted By: Blake “Blackstone” Neely
Additional Music By: Ramin “Salty Dog” Djawadi, James “Boot Tuck” Dooley, Nick “The Admiral” Glennie-Smith, Steve “Bad Boy” Jablonsky, Blake “Blackstone” Neely, James “Marooned” McKee Smith & Geoff “Broadside” Zanelli.
Orchestrated By: Robert “The Dauntless” Elhai, Elizabeth “Darling Poppet” Finch, Walt “Argh” Fowler, Bill “Hempen Halter” Liston, Ladd “Hoist ‘Em High” McIntosh, Suzette “AYE!” Moriarty, Conrad “Peg Leg” Pope & Brad “Chain Shot” Warnaar.
Mixed By/At: Alan “Mizzenmast” Meyerson & Slamm “Scallywag” Andrews, at Media Ventures*, Santa Monica, CA.
Choir Recorded By/At: Geoff “No Prey, No Pay” Foster & Nick “Gibbet Cage” Wollage, at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London.
Choir Conducted By: Nick “Shot Across the Bow” Ingman & Rick “Careen” Wentworth.

Featured Musicians:
Cello: Martin “Scourge of the Seven Seas” Tillman
Flute: Fred Selden
Guitar: Heitor “Pieces of Eight” Pereira
Woodwinds: Danny Kuramoto
Percussion: Emil Richards

* formerly Media Ventures, now known as Remote Control Productions.

One would have thought after the fiscal disaster that was Cutthroat Island, that it would finally be time to lay the pirate-related mythology and associated storytelling to rest beneath the seas themselves. If there were ever three words that could unexpectedly counter that notion, the phrase, “Captain Jack Sparrow” couldn’t have arrived sooner for Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, as he slowly began to use the famed Disneyland New Orleans Square theme park ride, “Pirates of the Caribbean” as a template for a swashbuckling film. Entitled PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio developed a supernatural twist on the pirate genre, providing horror director Gore Vebinski the perfect opportunity to invest in the new technology at the time, in an effort to resurrect a long dying genre that dated all the way back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. For its earliest hours, the film inevitably earned the scowl of the press, sparking speculation as to whether such stories would sell to an audience that by now had become acquainted with the endeavors of Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion, the many quests of Middle Earth and the efforts made by young Harry Potter to stay out of trouble within the wizarding world. Of note was Johnny Depp’s casting, who was humorously met initially with awkward comparisons in the way he articulated the pirate lead. Even more humourous (and ironic) was the universally positive reception to this new adventure, proving that the pirate’s life were still for some at heart. Depp’s unilaterally iconic Captain Jack Sparrow searched for his missing ship, the Black Pearl, after having being unfairly mutineered by former first mate Captain Hector Barbossa, the primary antagonist. A blindingly exhilarating series of events sets him on a path with blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), as the two set out to rescue Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from Barbossa’s crew, now cursed aboard the reclusive Black Pearl by their own greed and Aztec gold. So successful was the first film, that it garnered an Academy Award nomination for Depp, and gave rise to a trilogy that focused on the newfound narrative arc surrounding these characters, before allowing for a fourth spin-off film to be made. And a fifth. And perhaps a sixth, too…

These fine proceedings were supported by a score courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt. Zimmer, having achieved glory for his outstanding work on Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator was more or less still riding his wave of success since, despite losing out on the related Academy Award nomination. Alan Silvestri was first contracted to score the franchise, however, a dispute between him and Bruckheimer regarding the “appropriate musical style” for the film severed that connection intangibly. Somewhere along these lines, you could easily predict Zimmer’s involvement with the mention of Bruckheimer’s name itself, their strong collaborations yielding interesting results, to say the least. Generally, the Pirates films were oft hailed as the definite summer blockbuster during the first half of the 2000s, despite no claims made towards any perceived notes of artistic craftsmanship. Through a long and arduously enduring debate about the music for the franchise that has lasted well into the 2010s, such praise seemed faint, mixed at best, if not at all within the film scoring community. Primarily, any well-learned listener could point to legendary composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold as the father of swashbuckling pirate and adventure music, with timeless classic entries such as The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood still being performed by certain select orchestras today. When you consider his influence on the genre at large, how remarkable it remains that nearly a hundred years later, the thirst and longing for this man’s voice has not diminished one bit. It goes without saying that the score to The Curse of the Black Pearl veers massively away from the parameters set by Korngold long ago, and this has transformed to a bane of content within the community that has split it down the middle. When composers such as Bruce Broughton, John Debney and Patrick Doyle have perfectly embodied these musical veins within their own line of work, one can’t exactly fault criticism thrown towards Zimmer and Badelt for not following this style of music. That criticism has developed, however, into a silent attack on the methodologies commandeered (if you’ll excuse the phrasing) by Remote Control Productions, who were still named Media Ventures at the time. Endlessly regurgitated, if not entirely amusing claims have struck Zimmer, decrying his music as “the destruction of the art of film scoring” itself, and other similarly crafted hyperbolic pieces of exaggeration. This all seems grossly ironic when you consider the looming shadow his influence sets on the industry as a whole even today, and whilst most film music critics remained passively unsupportive of these works, the mainstream audiences were enthralled, their passionate support for Zimmer’s work on the franchise easily overpowering these concerns. To the general movie goer, the Pirates franchise is memorable and adventurous, and a great deal of that sentiment arises from the music set by Zimmer and friends. Standing in the composer’s favour is the undeniable fact that he has created one of the greatest, most iconic, enjoyable, revered and hummable themes of the 21st century, only bested in trivial contest by John Williams‘ work for the Harry Potter franchise.

But an even more convoluted web lied in wait for anyone interested in the scoring process for The Curse of the Black Pearl. You see Klaus Badelt’s name on the front cover, but so goes the saying, “never judge a book by its front cover”– no greater example of that proverb has existed in film music as we know it today. At the time Zimmer was asked by Bruckheimer to fill in for Silvestri’s departure as composer for the project, he was already invested in his work for Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, which would yield him a Golden Globe nomination, as well as further state his admirable craftsmanship in understanding and applying ethnical fusion in music. Because of legal constraints that still raise eyebrows even today, he couldn’t be legally contracted as the composer due to his commitment on The Last Samurai, a result of conflicting studio clashes that briefly evoke the image of two titan bulls charging at each other and locking horns. The score booklet provided in album asserts his responsibilities as consultant and synthesizer programmer. Contrary to popular belief, he is the primary composer for the film, with much of his material invested in the tapestry of the narrative. He then handed the project to his friend Badelt, who had a few noteworthy projects in his kit, to complete the task at hand. But time was also a limiting factor, and thus, Bruckheimer enlisted a wide array of Remote Control composers ranging from conductor Blake Neely, arranger Geoff Zanelli, Steve Jablonsky, James Dooley, etc. Before the assessment on the actual score itself begins, it is important to consider this team based approach. There is nothing wrong in composing music with others, so long as reasonable credit is maintained between the parties at all times. For the greater part of film music, it has always been one man behind the piano, shifting his musical voice through a vast orchestra of instruments with the help of orchestrators, be it himself, or others known to him. These criticisms are valid, in that using an overbearingly large presence of creative minds to achieve the same purpose (too many cooks and something else) has only illuminated another aspect for the score to be negatively analyzed. Zimmer’s best scores arise from his own planning and conceptualization, and his solo works easily stand tall over other composers’ works on a good day- you only have to look further into his discography to find numerous examples to support this statement. You could argue however, that the gathering of these composers is almost like Zimmer leading the Remote Control ship on a voyage of his own with his loyal crew mates, as evidently seen by the loving crew names given to them in the booklet. The quality of the score itself has been over-exaggerated as abominably bad, which is only really anchored by three (they do say three’s a charm…) valid complaints- the lack of an organic, robust orchestral presence, and the insufficient complexity that one normally hears in these scores. Zimmer’s tendency has always been to integrate orchestral and electronic colours, and whilst he is an unparalleled titan at doing this, it’s the way he does it that causes purists to scratch their heads. The bass presence that characterizes this score is of interest, in that it achieves functional purpose to evoke muscular realms of action music. But the mixing of this score lessens the input from the orchestra, allowing for its synthetic counterpart to dominate the tonal reaches, creating a predominantly electronic soundscape. This doesn’t help- pirates lived in a time without technology, and so the necessity to emulate that atmosphere not being met is indeed a shame.

Then there’s the compositional intelligence. Frightfully simplistic doesn’t even begin to describe Pirates of the Caribbean, even though it does its job effectively well as a listening experience. There is a sufficient leitmotivic approach here, though the clear focus lies on the main theme and the love theme variant for Elizabeth and Will, over the more ferocious material for Barbossa and the cursed pirates. The synthetics chose the wrong day to turn up to Zimmer’s party, and they haven’t learned their lesson since. But the third complaint is a mixed bag- that there is nothing remotely swashbuckling about it. You hear shades of swashbuckling material scattered across all scores, but not to a depth of sufficiency that is often met with these efforts. The material for the cursed pirates is reduced to a series of electric growls and muscular banging on the percussion, showing animalistic traits more than supernatural. Choice of instrumentation adds to this- where are the marimbas, the celestas, the glockenspiels? Blame Bruckheimer for dismissing the role of woodwinds as a whole in the score, his misguided belief of them being “non-masculine” allowing the score to suffer a hit in creativity. Since when did pirates require electric guitars to characterize their valiant and daunting quests on seas? The solo fiddle and cello performances are of distinction, in that they stay true to the seven seas, a statement which sadly doesn’t extend all the way across the score. Was it time constraints that enabled this politically incorrect ensemble of instruments to shine? No, it was willful negligence and productive demands taking the treasure away too soon. Tired comparisons to Debney’s Cuththroat Island spark endless debates, though everyone knows these days that the high quality and orchestral power of that score needn’t be dragged into discussion. Zimmer’s work on Muppet Treasure Island showed a greater demonstration of these swashbuckling styles whilst retaining his domineering voice. Even his friend and fellow talented composer Harry Gregson-Williams gave Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas a rollicking score that followed in line with expectations, resulting in a fine effort. Complaints in voice of tone and atmosphere are ridiculous, however, personal preferences being inferior to what the film actually demands. There is a deadly cursed pirate crew roaming the seas, which the main character intentionally targets. How on Earth would light-hearted, affable jigs suit that mutiny harboring over Sparrow, or the demonic crew? Heck, how would it even work for the monkey? When you’re dealing with undead pirates terrorizing the seas, don’t expect an overly monotone, nor arrogant feel from the film, let alone the music. The villains matter, too.

So the overall consensus is this: as a pirate score, it simply doesn’t suffice. But as a film score, as an entertaining listening experience, and as a vehicle to engineer a new sound for the genre, it just about succeeds. The bombast that comes with this score is a welcome aspect, even if its subtlety could be articulated more expressively. The main theme for the series is no less than fantastic, a prime example of Zimmer at his greatest and most shamelessly muscular. It elicits comparisons from the middle portions of “The Battle” from Gladiator, perhaps due to the time constraints. Simply one of the greatest themes of the 21st century, it serves as a swashbuckling anchor for the score’s thematic identities to springboard. Given full performance as a concert cue in “He’s A Pirate”, its staccato movements on strings are jaunty and robust. Its ascending and descending flight across the D-minor chord spectrum is akin to a wave receding and arriving at shore hurriedly, and at the very least, it’s harmonically satisfying. The interlude is nothing less than strong bravado, and its closing statement of rhythmic hits on snares and horns are well performed and achieve defiant minor-major key heroism. Zimmer and Badelt’s successful conquest of making the theme memorable enough for audiences to remember long after the film ended fourteen years ago was by consistently delineating the full theme to its opening three notes in ascent, using it as a calling card for the more action-inclined moments within the film. This tactic is littered across the score in various cues, loyalty to that theme being well cemented. The first track, “Fog Bound” uses that refrain, extending the theme in simple 3-note statements as Will is found at sea, and young Elizabeth sees him as well as the piece of cursed Aztec gold for the first time. It opens with a tinkling stringed instrument and a curiously entertaining jig on cello, that actually serves as the overarching motif for the pirates across the films. The rhythmic motif for the Black Pearl and the seas themselves is introduced with heavy bass emphasis from cellos and choir (Zimmer wasn’t lying when he mentioned he overproduced the score!). The pseudo-theme for Sparrow in this film is that of the horn melody in “The Medallion Calls”, during his legendary introduction scene to the audience that uses its deception of Sparrow seemingly standing on the mast of a ship only to discover he is sailing on a tiny boat slowly sinking into the water- one of the most memorable and hilarious scenes within not only the film, but the franchise too! The militaristic snares that come with, as well as the solo trumpet are sincere in their performances, before returning to the low region strings. This pseudo-theme is diminished however, as a more clear-cut theme for Sparrow is given by Zimmer in the sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

“The Black Pearl” serves as the main motif for not only the ship, but Sparrow’s escapades, as the heroic rhythms and melodies play over the scenes where he tricks the two guards to escape and pretends to threaten Elizabeth so as to confirm his escape from the British government. This theme extends into “Will and Elizabeth”, as Sparrow unwittingly finds himself in a battle with a confident Will in his blacksmith’s shop, with regular changes of meter. The interlude from the main theme is given chord progressions and colours as its overly major key development with weighted percussive influence. Not necessarily strict pirate music, but rousing enough to evoke a sense of adventure. The synthetic quality makes a terrible appearance in “Swords Crossed”, its otherwise functional atmosphere spoiled by false string tones. The main rhythm for the cursed crew is in 7/8, a series of deafening blasts with tom-toms pounding, and electronic distortions. Aggressive distorted electric guitars and bass guitars add an ugly polish to this identity, with stock dissonance and glissandi continuing into “Walk The Plank”. The actual theme for the cursed crew and to a lesser extent, Barbossa is depicted by a trio of minims, slowly plodding unintelligently to evoke their moment onscreen. The latter half of the cue returns to the opening pirate jig, tepidly showing Sparrow as he runs again, with basic counterpoint. “Barbossa Is Hungry” showcases the masculine rhythms of the main theme, with waltz-like precision, and variations around the core melody are welcomed, in their soothingly valiant heroism. A new action rhythm is established at 1:10 in simplistic fashion, with generic key changes, despite pleasing enough harmonically to the ear. Fluctuations in meter with interesting rhythms keep the theme anchored firmly in memory in its soaring heroic glory, with thudding bass drums and romantic strings in minor key. A loosely swashbuckling string progression gives way to discord scattered across the entire ensemble with appropriate choral blasts, and even a shakuhachi flute, of all things.

“Blood Ritual” explores the melancholy realms of the seas with bass choral presence and melodramatic strings, since recycled from Crimson Tide. Triplets on trumpets and wavering trombones offer semblances of complexity with the Black Pearl motif and main theme on dutiful snare and timpanis. You can’t help but smile at the false sense of etiquette and regalia in “Moonlight Serenade”, as it opens with the love theme variant for Elizabeth, as Barbossa kidnaps her and dines with her aboard the Pearl. The typical fluttering string rhythm that anchors the main theme features on low cellos, and the theme finally arrives in full with rollicking tom-toms, with an action variant that features in the following films, at 1:49. Segueing effectively into “To The Pirates’ Cave!”, the discord rhythm for the cursed crew returns with more brazen action, and low pianos. Guitar plucking offers quirkiness, as the pirates duel for dominance, with Sparrow and Will having reached the treasure at the same time as Barbossa and his men. A heroic statement of the theme is cut short by more heavy cellos and ambience, with rolling percussion. The oboe is present too, for the love theme variant, albeit briefly, when Will sees Elizabeth at the hands of Barbossa. “Skull and Crossbones” couples on the guilty pleasure scale, with more dynamic performances from the percussion, with fluctuation of meter. Its dynamic flashes of the theme are gratifying, with flutes doubling on the main theme as the battle continues- by this point, the theme is firmly cemented in the audience’s mind as one to remember. The final statement of the theme with cymbals and majestic French horns is simply glorious, before moving to “Bootstrap’s Bootstraps”, with a coy trumpet fanfare echoing loose shades of previous scores from the composer.The pulsating electronics are matched with the snares and whirling brass, as they menace and shriek, and the muscularity is well enunciated, even if at this point it has become all too predictable. There isn’t any counterpoint in the theme, a true shame given its elemental appeal to the common listener. “Underwater March”, despite the title, is anything but, with the mortality of the pirates illuminated by the Aztec gold, as they are reduced to bones, with solemn choral mourning and bass drum booming, with whining cellos of minor key respite.  The sincerity behind the haunting tone is to be commended, though the sudden turn towards the triumphant theme is all too disjointed, and its synthetic nature sticks out poorly. “One Last Shot” shows a feeble attempt by woodwinds as they join the overall ensemble in bursting the pirate jig in anthemic fashion. It plays feebly as Sparrow bids his goodbyes to Will and Elizabeth, as he makes his escape one more time, before the lovers become married in a gorgeous swirl of strings as the orchestra and synthetics give way to an emotional statement of the theme on high strings and woodwinds. The strings slowly and poignantly swell as Jack reclaims his beloved ship, before he declares it’s a pirate’s life.

So with a blinding portfolio of highlights and face-palms to be thrown towards the score, where does the fairest judgement stand? This is by no means, a work of art, nor a technically accomplished score, and in that respect, expect the firmly rooted orchestral purists to shun this score in eager mannerism. But to deny its successes only unearths bias and prejudice, never a healthy symptom when listening to any film score. The instrumentation and overall sound is all horribly wrong and out of place. But sometimes, the weirdest of occurrences comes about, in that the most juvenile of efforts can yield a solid, thematically concurrent score with enough rousing bravado and relentless heroism to at least evoke imagery of sailing the high seas. For the modern generation, it would be the defining sound for many an individual’s childhood, and Zimmer earns his plaudits for crafting an astoundingly brilliant title theme that deserves utmost recognition. Ultimately, one has to listen to music with their heart rather than lament whilst analyzing it with their minds- the basic purpose of film scoring is to enhance the narrative with a fantastic realm of musical colours and techniques that garner emotional responses as intended. In that regard, The Curse of the Black Pearl sails on the seas for the most part, undisturbed. It is in many ways, the epitome of the “guilty pleasure score”.

Rating: ****

Track Listing: 
(all music written by Klaus Badelt, Hans Zimmer and co.)

1) Fog Bound (2:16)
2) The Medallion Calls (1:53)
3) The Black Pearl (2:17)
4) Will and Elizabeth (2:08)
5) Swords Crossed (3:16)
6) Walk the Plank (1:59)
7) Barbossa is Hungry (4:06)
8) Blood Ritual (3:33)
9) Moonlight Serenade (2:09)
10) To the Pirates’ Cave! (3:31)
11) Skull and Crossbones (3:24)
12) Bootstrap’s Bootstraps (2:39)
13) Underwater March (4:13)
14) One Last Shot (4:46)
15) He’s a Pirate (1:31)

ASCAP Film and Television Music Award for Top Box Office Films (2003)

Online Film Critics Society Award for Best Original Score (2003)
Saturn Award for Best Original Score (2003)
World Soundtrack Award for Best Original Soundtrack of the Year (2003)



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