Zimmer’s big break in the movie industry was Rain Man (1988), after which he became a studio workhorse, churning out five to six scores a year for films like Driving Miss Daisy, Days of Thunder, Thelma & Louise, and A League of Their Own, before developing the instrumental score for The Lion King. He was known for collaborating with world musicians like the South African composer Lebo M (whose voice you might recognize from the start of the song “Circle of Life”), Melanesian choir singers from the Solomon Islands (who contributed to his masterful work for The Thin Red Line), and the Australian instrumentalist Lisa Gerrard (who worked with him on the operatic tones of 2000’s Gladiator).
It was Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winner Gladiator that really established Zimmer’s reputation as a go-to hire for big-budget epics, and began to cement his status as the pre-eminent composer of his generation. Zimmer had initially been a synthesizer player who often didn’t work with an orchestra at all; he created his Driving Miss Daisy score entirely by himself. But Gladiator’s sweeping battle music incorporated wailing female vocals, a kind of Armenian flute called a duduk, and thunderous drumming, all of which became oft-used tropes, both for Zimmer and his contemporaries. A German musician named Klaus Badelt contributed to the soundtrack; he became one of Zimmer’s many protégés to hit it big in Hollywood, working on Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003.
Another protégé was Ramin Djawadi, whom Zimmer mentored at his film-score company Remote Control Productions. After working with Zimmer for years, Djawadi has become one of the few other composers who can pack an arena to listen to his movie and TV scores; he’s the man behind Game of Thrones’s vast library of music, which is also currently on a U.S. tour. If Zimmer has become a big name for epic film, Djawadi is his counterpart in television, also working on HBO’s Westworld and FX’s The Strain, though many of his film scores (particularly his work on Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim) have also drawn praise.
Zimmer’s partners at Remote Control work all over Hollywood: There’s Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) of Mad Max: Fury Road, Harry Gregson-Williams (The Martian, the Narnia franchise), Henry Jackman (a favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and John Powell (best known for his work in animated films). Zimmer’s synthesizer-heavy approach has become so recognizable partly because his acolytes are doing similar work throughout the industry. But as the Remote Control team has helped to replicate his bombastic style, making the Zimmer sound synonymous with widescreen action, Zimmer himself has branched off in some fascinating directions.
The point at which he became truly ubiquitous was his collaboration with Christopher Nolan. Zimmer worked on all three of the director’s Batman films (the first two in collaboration with James Newton Howard), taking a superhero who already had very famous theme music (composed by Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movie) and reinventing him from the ground up. Zimmer’s superhero work swerves away from the more august, Wagner-esque romanticism of John Williams’s famous scores; his top-tier work for The Dark Knight Rises is layered with drums, chanting choruses, and mournful minor-key strings.