Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Composed by Klaus Badelt and the Media Ventures gang

Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the wonderful ride at Disneyworld, is one of the best adventure films I have ever seen, with a lot of wit and good action, not to mention Johnny Depp’s awesome performance as Captain Jack Sparrow (which would unfortunately pigeonhole him into playing off-kilter characters for years). The plot sees Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of a governor in the Caribbean, come in possession of a medallion found on castaway boy Will Turner (who grows up to be played by Orlando Bloom). Will Turner becomes a blacksmith with a secret love for the upper-class Elizabeth. The pirates of the ship Black Pearl attack their island town and abscond with the girl and the medallion. Will Turner finds himself partnering with the strange pirate Jack Sparrow and his colorful cast of associates to rescue Elizabeth. It also turns out that the pirates, led by Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, are cursed by Aztec gold. The film was a massive success and its soundtrack was certainly popular. When I had just started getting into film music I adored this soundtrack, but with more knowledge it’s proven to be a technically troubling, though still entertaining, product.

Originally director Gore Verbinski was going to have his pal Alan Silvestri write the score. But just a couple of weeks before the film was to be wrapped up, producer Jerry Bruckheimer threw in a monkey wrench by throwing out Silvestri’s music and hiring Hans Zimmer and his Media Ventures to once again produce a loud summer action blockbuster soundtrack. With barely any time, Hans Zimmer created a set of main themes overnight and had Klaus Badelt head the scoring duties, so basically Zimmer is really the mastermind of the whole soundtrack. Badelt would not do most of the work, as he would have over ten other composers help score the film. The result is a fun yet vastly overrated score that has unjustly been lodged in the public mind as an equal to John Williams’ Star Wars and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings.

Klaus Badelt is not a bad composer. His Time Machine was wonderful and K-19: The Widowmaker was well-researched in its Russian material. But with such a ridiculous schedule and with pressure from Bruckheimer to deliver a typical powerhouse Media Ventures product, he ended up creating music that is criticized by many film music fans for its unoriginality and reliance on heavy synthesizers. Another complaint is that the music doesn’t evoke the film’s setting. Little bits here and there sound appropriate for pirates (especially the jig which starts the album), but much of it could be used for any blockbuster action score with the greatest of ease. I actually think the music complements the film well enough, though many pieces could have done with more defined an period-appropriate instrumentation. However, Bruckheimer wanted heavily masculine synthesizers and he got them. As a result several melodies that sound piratey lose potential character from the absence of flutes, Caribbean percussion, or other period-appropriate tools.

One can’t complain about too little themes, because there are a lot of them. The problem is that many of them are heavily derivative of Hans Zimmer and other Media Ventures composers’ previous works. The main Pirates of the Caribbean theme (POTC for short) is the centerpiece of the well-known “He’s a Pirate.” This particular track is a favorite among big bands. It’s introduced in mellow fashion at the conclusion of “Fog Bound,” but is more remembered for its energetic, swashbuckling performances in the various action scenes. It doubles as a love theme, with an alternate ending phrase for many of its more soft iterations. It often gets noted for its similarities to the theme from The Rock and it’s not hard to see why during its more heavy performances. The second major theme is another fanfare (“The Medallion Calls”) with heavy similarities to one of the themes from Gladiator. This appears to be a Jack Sparrow theme. When Zimmer took over the sequels and created more developed identity for the character, he kept this tune as the Jack Intro theme. Another recurring theme is a jig on cello (introduced in “Fog Bound”), the only identity to full-on mirror the style of the Disney ride.

The villainous pirates get several themes, two of which would have longevity throughout the initial trilogy. The first theme debuts as an eerie melody (0:50 in “Fog Bound,”) but can get dramatically dangerous, as it does near the conclusion of “Barbossa is Hungry” and the start of “Bootstrap’s Bootstraps.” This theme sounds a lot like Commodus’ theme from Gladiator, down to the same instrumentation. I’ll refer to it as the Evil Pirates theme though it does appear as a motif for the sea criminals when they’re fighting a tyrannical power in the sequels. More meaty is the Black Pearl theme that often interplays with the Evil Pirates theme. It also debuts in “Fog Bound.” Zimmer would cement this as the Black Pearl theme in the sequels, even though the titular ship is in the hands of the good guys for the rest of the series. The biggest sinner in originality is a Cursed Pirates theme. This appears in scenes where the pirates, exposed to moonlight, turn to living skeletons. It’s a blatant rip-off Black Hawk Down’s “Tribal War.” At least the other themes alter their referenced sources to provide some differentiation. This theme appears in “Swords Crossed” and “To the Pirates’ Cave!” There are a couple other themes that I’ll get to in the rundown.

For all the unoriginal music and near-lack of any music relating to the Disney ride, I can’t help but enjoy this album. It’s technically dumb, understandably so given the ridiculously tight scoring schedule, yet its fun to listen to and does give listeners new variations on old Zimmer themes. However, the album production is one of the sloppiest I’ve ever seen. Some of the music will segue into the next track while still in the middle of a cue! The track titling is particularly horrendous. “Will and Elizabeth” suggests a love piece, but it’s actually a loud dueling cue with clangs and highly-charged rhythms. “Blood Ritual” sounds creepy, but instead we have a calm theme and a light-hearted adventure cue. Track 5 is from the awesome Moonlight Serenade scene, but track 9 gets the name. Similarly, “One Last Shot” should be the title of track 13. I wonder if these are the correct titles all mixed up by last-minute rearranging. I will provide an alternate track listing at the end for fun.

I suppose I should give a rundown, as there are a couple rousing cues worth more discussion. “Fog Bound” starts with the jig and about half a minute in gets serious with flutes and eerie ambience. This introduces two of the villain themes. The POTC theme appears at the end and keeps going into the next track in a terrible album edit. “The Medallion Calls” heroically introduces Jack Sparrow’s theme, with a brief choral-and-trumpet bit as the pirate pays his respect to hung brethren. “The Black Pearl” is the first proper action track and introduces a secondary adventure theme (0:52) that mixes with the second phrase of the POTC theme. “Will and Elizabeth” brings together all the heroic adventure themes (with more emphasis on Jack’s theme) for a great swordfight. “Swords Crossed” is really “Moonlight Serenade.” Villainous underscore builds to some cheesy synthesizers in the middle. This breaks out into the Cursed Pirates theme as Elizabeth learns the horrifying truth about her captors. The Black Pearl theme closes out the track, building to a climax that is annoyingly put at the start of the next track. “Walk the Plank” is a suspense cue centered around an extended playing of the jig.

“Barbossa is Hungry” is a very engaging track. It starts with a dramatic variation of the POTC theme that sounds ripped from The Rock. After some suspenseful ambience the action picks back up with an urgent rhythm and the POTC theme as the villains close in during a ship chase (1:12). At 1:50 a slower, more urgent rhythm takes over. The POTC goes on some more with some interjections by the Evil Pirates theme. The rhythm is broken up at 3:10 as the ships draw closer together for a sea battle, with ominous male choir and harrowing statements of the two villain themes. “Blood Ritual” starts with some downbeat material. At 1:10 the tracks shifts to a heist cue with all the adventurous themes. This is all tied together by a tense rhythm. “Moonlight Serenade” is a more peaceful version of the POTC theme. At 1:30 the theme breaks into action mode. “To the Pirate’s Cave” starts with the Cursed Pirates theme.  Around 1:20 the Evil Pirates theme transitions towards a brief action curst of the POTC theme. The second half of the track is a sad version of the POTC theme with an interjection of the Black Pearl theme in the middle and the Evil Pirates theme at the end.

“Skull and Crossbones” is another meaty action cue for the ship battle, with an abundance of the POTC theme. Nearly two minutes in the swashbuckling action cuts out. A choir preludes the Black Pearl theme as the villains take control. After some suspenseful rambling the POTC theme returns in defiantly heroic fashion (2:59). “Bootstrap’s Bootstraps” starts with the Evil Pirates theme in action mode. After some cheesy synthesizers a secondary villains motif breaks out. The last minute of the track is a highly energized playing of the POTC theme as the final duels reach their conclusion. “Underwater March” begins with what can be called the Death theme. The POTC theme triumphantly breaks forth (1:50) and then resumes in a more reflective tone. This is followed by an aggressive iteration of the Black Pearl theme (3:08).

“One Last Shot” covers the last scene. The POTC theme heads into a final reprise of the jig. The jig concludes with Jack Sparrow’s theme (1:30) and the romantic angle is resolved with more of the POTC theme. The theme swells at 3:15 to lead to the final shot (as in film shot, not an actual bullet as the track mistakenly implies). Jack Sparrow’s theme helps end the track. “He’s a Pirate” is a minute-and-half finale that presents the POTC theme with segments of Jack’s theme.

Overall, despite the unoriginality and shockingly horrendous album production, this is actually a very fun listen, especially for those who want to relive the experience of the movie within a 45 minute album. It’s the epitome of a guilty pleasure, so much so that those who admit that it fails on technical grounds have still given it four out of five starts. There are a few nice ideas that would be expanded upon in the next installment (though if I listened to more Hans Zimmer scores I might recognize more unoriginality amongst the themes). If you love the movies, you’ll probably enjoy this. I certainly do in spite of my average rating.

Rating: 5/10

Actual Tracklisting

  1. Fog Bound (2:16)
  2. The Medallion Calls (1:53)
  3. The Black Pearl (2:16)
  4. Will & 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 (4:12)
  14. One Last Shot (4:46)
  15. He’s a Pirate (1:30)

My Tracklisting

  1. Fog Bound
  2. Jack Sparrow
  3. Jack Sparrow Gets Away
  4. Swords Crossed
  5. Moonlight Serenade
  6. Bottom-Walking
  7. Barbossa is Hungry
  8. Bootstrap’s Bootstraps/The Interceptor
  9. The Pirate’s Freedom
  10. Battle on Deck/Pirate Blood
  11. Skull and Crossbones
  12. The Final Duels
  13. One Last Shot/Underwater March
  14. Finale
  15. He’s a Pirate

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