How to score a sequel…

It has been a long time since I originally posted about Geoff Zanelli. In that time he has worked on a number of films, taking on an increasingly prominent role. When I heard that he was taking over as lead composer for the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film (Dead Men Tell No Tales/Salazar’s Revenge), I was excited to listen to the result. Just over a month ago1 I was lucky enough to see the film2 and I was not disappointed.

An extract from some Piratey music I wrote back in 2008. © 2008 Mark Hogan.

An extract from some Piratey music I wrote back in 2008. © 2008 Mark Hogan.

Originality versus continuity

I’d like a slightly nuanced point: I think that both originality and continuity are important in soundtracks. With more and more film scores failing to stray too far from temp tracks, originality perhaps adds more value than ever. However, one of my biggest gripes lately is sequels with soundtracks that are barely related to the preceding film(s) (I’m looking at you Marvel). Yes, a change in tone, new themes, etc. are normally required, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be thrown out of the window! Themes can be re-arranged and motifs can be reused where they could enhance the sense that we are seeing the same characters or places in new situations.

A good example of this problem is the Thor series. I like both Patrick Doyle’s score for the original film and Brian Tyler’s Score for Thor: The Dark World3. While the scores are not worlds apart, I feel the series is really let down by the sudden and complete change in themes from one film to the next. The soundtrack is very much part of the identity of a film, so having so little continuity contributes to it being relatively forgettable in the scheme of things.

Many other soundtracks – even the Harry Potter film series, the first few of which were scored by the great John Williams – do better but leave room for improvement, in my opinion. Admittedly, soundtracks for film series where the journey and ending are known, such as The Lord of the Rings, are easier to score in many ways. However, in the Harry Potter case, the original themes weren’t brilliantly targeted: Hedwig was unlikely to benefit from a dedicated theme.

I suspect that, where there is a change in composer between films, licensing issues play some part in the poor reuse of themes. This is a shame as subjecting the same music to different creative minds can produce interesting results. The “Heroes” track from Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good example of the opportunities that were available in Marvel’s films.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5

Back to Geoff’s score for Pirates 5: thankfully Geoff does make plenty of use of the rich library of themes inherited from previous Pirates of the Caribbean movies, to which he contributed significantly. Even where they do crop up, they are rarely played in exactly the same way, helping to keep them fresh. One of the most fun examples of this is “The Dying Gull”, which mostly consists of a rendition of “Hoist The Colours”:

We do see plenty of new themes too, both borrowing from, and pushing the boundaries of, the sounds of the previous Pirates of the Caribbean films. In a franchise so rich with bad guys, each supposedly worse than the preceding one, it can’t be easy to come up with themes for them. One of the most interesting tracks in this respect is “El Matador Del Mar”, which showcases both Salazar’s theme and fresh arrangements of numerous old themes as Jack becomes Captain Jack Sparrow:

Carina also has a great theme that is used to push the “Pirates” sound into new territory. The following example, “The Brightest Star in the North”, is the best example of this and features a brief similarity to my own arrangement of “Drunken Sailor”4 at 3:35:

Even with these new themes, Geoff never strays too far from the existing “Pirates” sound to join everything together. In the soundtrack’s final track, “Beyond My Beloved Horizon”, Carina’s theme sounds like it could always have been the “B” section of “He’s A Pirate”:

It’s tempting to put feature many more tracks here5, but I’ll resist the temptation. Instead, you can check them out for yourself. Interestingly and usefully, Disney has made the entire soundtrack available on YouTube.

One of the best aspects of the soundtrack as a whole is the generous quantity of music. Previous Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack albums have been relatively short or padded out with remixes, often missing some of the most beautiful music from the films6. This is not the case with Pirates 5: well over an hour of original music is included on the CD and the single remix associated with it is banished to the downloadable album.


Overall, I really do like Geoff’s new soundtrack: it has a great balance of freshened up versions of what we know and love along with great new content that feels at home in the “Pirates” universe. I am a great fan of Hans, but giving Geoff the opportunity to take centre stage this time has allowed the soundtrack to move forward in exciting ways and has been a welcome breath of fresh air. Hopefully this will lead to further great opportunities for Geoff.

Thankfully, as he contributed significantly to the previous four Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks before taking the wheel for the latest installment, Geoff seems to have been given a lot of opportunity to talk to the press about Pirates 5. The view into his world is fascinating. Below is a brief “behind the scenes” video of a Pirates 5 recording session:

Finally, if you’re still reading, here’s a lengthy but very interesting interview with Geoff himself, covering mostly his history in the industry and the latest Pirates soundtrack:

  1. I’ve been busy writing music for an event, otherwise I would have finished this post much sooner. []
  2. I’ve seen it twice now: once in an IMAX screen and once in a more normal screen. I won’t go into the visual merits of one screen over another, but the soundtrack was unexpectedly much more vibrant in the IMAX screen. []
  3. I do prefer Patrick Doyle’s though, in case you were wondering. []
  4. Posted here many years ago but now gone. Maybe I’ll resurrect it at some point and get it exported from a more modern version of Sibelius with better sounds. []
  5. If you’re interested in a detailed breakdown of other tracks from the soundtrack, you can find one here. []
  6. The Soundtrack Treasures Collection goes some way towards resolving this, though there is further music from the films floating around on services like YouTube including alternative cues that weren’t featured in the films, as previously mentioned. []