As a certain British super-sleuth might observe, there was nothing elementary about the path that Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer took to bring Gypsy folk music into his soundtrack for “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”
Whether the score earns him an Oscar nomination or not, as the first “Sherlock Holmes” movie did two years ago, Zimmer hopes it will draw attention to the plight of one of the world’s most maltreated and marginalized ethnic groups — the Roma people of Eastern Europe, more commonly (and pejoratively) known as Gypsies.
“Remember, I come from Germany, where the Roma were treated just as appallingly as the Jews and the homosexuals and the communists,” Zimmer, 54, said in his rumbling bass-baritone at his sprawling Santa Monica recording studio compound.
Zimmer’s sonic odyssey began in the 1960s and ‘70s. Growing up in Munich, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer of more than 100 Hollywood film scores (including “The Lion King,” “The Dark Knight” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) became familiar with the intensely emotional Roma sound.
The Roma, a European subgroup of the Romani people, are the widely dispersed descendants of migrants from the northern Indian subcontinent who arrived in Europe hundreds of years ago but still are frequently treated as second-class citizens. Although a small proportion of European Roma have attained middle-class status, the vast majority are substantially poorer and less educated than is average for the countries they inhabit. Those who don’t live transiently tend to cluster in makeshift settlements.
“Especially around Christmastime, you’d go into a restaurant and there would be a Gypsy band playing,” Zimmer said. “Or you’d hear Brahms’ ‘Hungarian Dances’ and you’d go, ‘Oh, yes, this is Roma music.’ So there was this music around, but I didn’t know anything about the culture.”
That changed last July when the composer traveled to Slovakia on a five-day journey in search of music and musicians to perform in “A Game of Shadows,” a steampunk action-thriller directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. A key element of the film’s storyline involves a group of hardscrabble Gypsies who help Holmes thwart a plot by the diabolical Professor Moriarty to touch off a catastrophic European war.
Zimmer figured that Roma music, with its mixture of lightning-quick violins, sly clarinets and opinionated accordion and hammered dulcimer, could express both the heroic life force of the film’s Roma rebels as well as the quirky individuality of the irrepressible Holmes. Musically, Zimmer thought, those elements would contrast nicely with the “perversions of Schubert” he’d devised as a musical motif for Moriarty (“a pretentious classicist”).
“You have two cultures collide on the soundtrack, that you go from this typical heavy Germanic action music to just the frivolity of one of those Gypsy songs, full of life, full of lightness, full of spirit,” said Zimmer, who confesses a soft spot for mavericks; as a youth he got kicked out of nine German schools before settling down at a progressive English college prep (“I had a problem with authority from a very early age”).
Since he’d used touches of Roma music on the first “Sherlock Holmes” film, the composer said, he had Ritchie’s blessing to proceed with “Game of Shadows.” “Guy and I, we don’t have to talk a lot,” Zimmer said. “It’s like, ‘Give me the big feeling here, what’s this going to be, and let’s be bold and let’s go for it.’”
In traveling to Slovakia, home to a Roma population estimated at between 500,000 and 2 million, Zimmer brought a team that included a music editor, a recording engineer, translators and his daughter, photographer-model Zoe Zimmer. They journeyed partly under the auspices of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to foster democracy and human rights around the world.
Bonnie Abaunza, a longtime human rights activist who’s now vice president of Zimmer’s Remote Control Charitable Foundation, said the composer resolved to visit Roma settlements in Europe after French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered a crackdown on Roma living illegally in France and the closure of Roma camps in July 2010. There’d also been recent incidents of Nazi skinhead attacks on Roma settlements in several European countries.
Accompanied by two NDI representatives, Zimmer and his colleagues visited a number of Slovakia’s Roma settlements and met with local politicians. “We get to this village and it’s like out of the 12th century,” Zimmer recalled of one stop. “There is no running water, there’s no electricity.”
Some of the musicians Zimmer eventually recruited had to wait until payday to retrieve their instruments, which were in hock at local pawnshops. Ultimately, Warner Bros. flew 13 Roma musicians from Slovakia to a Vienna recording studio, where Zimmer presided over the sessions.
Paul Broucek, head of Warner Bros. Pictures’ music department, said that the composer’s zeal for experimenting with an array of world music styles and textures has emboldened many of his scores, from “Black Hawk Down” (featuring vocals by the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal) to “Gladiator,” both directed by Ridley Scott.
“He’s not afraid to be seen as, in his words, a dilettante, embracing things that are outside his world,” Broucek said. “He’s the proverbial big kid with the enthusiasm of Christmas morning and ready to open big presents.”
After a somewhat plodding opening week in early December, “A Game of Shadows” has quickened its box-office pace, with total receipts of $136.5 million as of last weekend.
Meanwhile, Zoe Zimmer’s photographs of the settlements she and her father visited are on display through January in the exhibition “Deserve Dignity” at the West Hollywood Library.
Through his foundation, Zimmer intends to continue his partnership with NDI in raising awareness of the Roma and Roma-related initiatives, and to donate to educational programs in eastern Slovakia. A share of proceeds from the new film’s soundtrack album also will go toward assisting the Roma.
“If there’s anything I can do at the end of the day,” he said, “I want people to end up at the place I started at two years ago, which was, I like that music, who makes this music, who are these people?”