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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

It has been six years since On Stranger Tides and while many might think we really didn’t need another Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Men Tell No Tales returns the franchise to the Caribbean after the misadventures in Florida, and back to the more swashbuckling heights reached in At World’s End and even Curse of the Black Pearl. Stepping in to take over the scoring for this film is Geoff Zanelli, who is a perfect choice as he was involved in writing the scores of every film in the franchise. His skill at energetic, bold, thematic action scoring is exemplified in his recent work on Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power (I know, it’s Scorpion King 4, but it really is an awesome score). Here, for Pirates of the Caribbean, Zanelli deftly takes over from Zimmer and weaves in the well-loved themes for Jack Sparrow, some of the important character themes developed for At World’s End, and some great new themes he composed for this film. Zanelli’s musical style certainly fits the Pirates films, but does differ a bit from Zimmer, and his own approach is refreshing. Zimmer’s On Stranger Tides score, featuring Rodrigo y Gabriela on guitar, fell a bit flat, whereas Zanelli’s ability to energetically weave together numerous thematic ideas is a much better reflection of the history of the franchise and breathes new musical life into it.

The score opens mysteriously, not with the swashbuckling bombast of the previous films, but remains consistently in the same soundscape with brass and low choir. Zanelli introduces a new instrument for the franchise here, the duduk, which performs the Neptune’s Trident theme. The second track introduces the villain, Salazar, and both his theme and sound design, which the composer describes as an “army of solo cellos” that he used to musically challenge the bouncing solo cello music of Jack Sparrow. This theme returns in more force in “The Devil’s Triangle”, “El Matador Del Mar”, and “Kill the Sparrow”. Featuring later in the album, “I’ve Come With the Butcher’s Bill” is a pounding cue with the Salazar theme marching all the way through, but is interspersed with some Jack themes as well as the Neptune’s Trident theme in the brass. It is reminiscent of the “Mermaids” cue from On Stranger Tides that Zanelli wrote, a dark, pounding cue with choir and brass permeating throughout.

"No Woman Has Ever Handled My Herschel” returns us to the varied themes of the Jack. This cue bounces through a series of the Sparrow themes, tied together deftly by Zanelli with a light, bouncy percussion and twists the themes together in a more interesting manner than a simple medley. The more I listen to this track, the more little references and thematic twists I pick up. Having worked on Sparrow’s films for a decade, Zanelli gets the character and it shows in the energy he brings to scoring Jack's antics. With many of the Jack themes, the composer opts to use moments or hints of a variety of them interspersed rather than rehash statements we’ve heard over and over and it makes for a fun, engaging and refreshing listen to our favorite themes. We get broader, more complete statements of some of the early Jack themes later in “She Needs the Sea”.

I personally love Zimmer’s score for At World’s End (see my review here). While he could have easily Return of the Jedi’d the third film with the huge amount of thematic material for the first two films, he instead pulled out all the stops and wrote a whole suite of brand new themes including the love theme for Will and Elizabeth and the Hoist the Colours song to represent the pirate community. Thematically, At World’s End remains one of my favorite films of the past decade. Zimmer opted not to use any of these themes for On Stranger Tides (and that film didn’t really have any reason for them) but Zanelli weaves them back into this score and I was very excited to hear that. Dead Men Tell No Tales also brings the son of Will and Elizabeth back into the mix and further explores the world of pirates, so the return of these themes are both welcome and appropriate.

“Kill the Filthy Pirate, I’ll Wait” introduces the At World’s End themes in a similar approach to Jack’s themes, mixed in with new score rather than rehashing old orchestrations. Like aforementioned cues, it really takes a few listens to start to hear everything Zanelli put in here. We have both the main love theme and a hint at Hoist the Colours with the brass, ending with a bit of the solo cello Jack theme from Curse of the Black Pearl. “The Dying Gull” is a short cue that brings the Hoist the Colours theme to bear in full force in a triumphant return.

“The Brightest Star in the North” introduces the other major new theme Zanelli wrote for this film, for the character of Carina. A fuller version of the theme is best heard in the end credit suite, “Beyond My Beloved Horizon”. Carina’s theme is a good melody that fits well into the tone of the Pirates music and still starts with the rising three notes that Zimmer used in all his themes, or at least a variation of that. The end credit version of the theme actually has a bit of a Game of Thrones feel to it and maintains the cello prominence in the Pirates soundscape. I needed to listen a few times to the suite statement of the theme before being able to find it’s renditions in the score because of Zanelli’s skill at twisting and weaving thematic material together. “Treasure” features a dramatic statement of her theme toward the end of the cue with an At World’s End finale feel to it, and “My Name is Barbossa” mixes Carina’s theme with the At World’s End “One Day” theme (no spoilers, but there’s good reason for that).

Zanelli’s score definitely takes more from At Worlds End in tone and sound design than the other scores, bring to bear large sweeping orchestral themes with both the lighthearted Jack music with the more serious tones like the Hoist the Colors theme. The Jack Sparrow melodies, while prevalent, take a backseat to some of the bigger themes, like in At World’s End, with him bouncing in and out as a bigger film takes place around (and in spite of) him. Zanelli’s use of (many, not all) the Jack themes from the franchise remind us that at the end of the day, it is all about Jack after all. “My Name Is Barbossa” closes the score with some parts nearly identical to the end of At World’s End. There are definite similarities between the third film main theme and Carina’s theme. However, at the end, we seem to get a final thematic bow out to Jack after the At World’s End theme statement.

Overall, Zanelli’s work for Dead Men Tell No Tales steps up to the challenge of both staying true to well-loved themes as well as writing new ones that propel the film into fresh, new territory. His handling of the multitude of thematic material from the franchise – primarily from Curse of the Black Pearl and At World’s End – is skillful and the end result is a quite interesting fusion of melodies that casual listeners to the franchise’s musical history may miss. This fifth film fits nicely within the soundscape set by Zimmer in the first films but does not fall into the sequel trap of being repetitive or boring. While this may be the last Pirates of the Caribbean film, I almost wish there would be another if only to hear more of Zanelli’s Carina theme.

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