in movies, music

The fine line between (soundtrack) homage and rip-off

[This post may contain SPOILERS for Captain Phillips, but only if you don’t know what Phillips’ fate was in real life. It also contains spoilers for Inception]

Captain Phillips was one of my favorite films of the year. I’m a huge fan of Greengrass’ hyper-real style, which ratcheted up the tension throughout, and Tom Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career. The score by Henry Jackman was also pretty solid, but one thing about it did catch my ear: the very last track.

I knew it sounded familiar, but as the track went on, its similarity to Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from his Inception score became impossible to ignore. Here’s the latter track:

The chord progression is obviously the same, but so is the instrumentation and the way both tracks play with dynamics (i.e. hear how the volume swells at the same point in the chord progression in both tracks). Furthermore, both tracks play at similar points within each film: right at the end as the credits begin, when some relative level of safety has been established for many of the main players.

Sure, certain chord progressions have been borrowed time and time again in different scores, songs, symphonies, concertos, etc. But their implementation is often so different that new iterations are either transformative or unrecognizable.

This, on the other hand, feels like almost a direct lift. If I had to guess, I’d surmise that “Time” was used as a temp score for Phillips, and it worked so well that Jackman had to create something incredibly similar, but different enough that his film couldn’t be sued. What do you guys think?

Update: Readers have pointed out that Zimmer received a “The director would like to thank…” shout out in the end credits of Captain Phillips.

  • Dave,

    I'd agree this appears to be a direct lift. I'd be curious to hear you take on composers "borrowing" in other ways.

    For instance, there's also a distinct similarity between Thomas Newman's themes for A Series of Unfortunate Events ("The Letter That Never Came"), Road to Perdition (main theme), and Finding Nemo ("Nemo Egg") perhaps stemming from the fact these films all deal with the theme of parental loss and all were composed within the span of roughly a year and a half.

    None of the three iterations are "transformative" or "unrecognizable" when compared to the other two, but they do enhance each other in the context of their films – assuming the viewer has seen the other films – precisely because they bring the emotions of the other piece to mind so readily. (There's also the fact that Newman was only 'stealing' from himself in this example).

    Also, on the soundtrack to Gladiator in the track titled "The Battle," Zimmer lifts directly from Holst's "Mars" from The Planets Suite. A couple years later the other melody of the track was in turn lifted by Klaus Badelt (himself credited as an assistant to Zimmer on Gladiator) and became what we now all recognize as the main theme in Pirates of the Caribbean (at that time, not yet a Hans Zimmer property, but of course later reclaimed). Again, not at all unrecognizable, and transformative only in the way in which it became embedded in our popular culture.

    Was it okay to lift directly from Holst because the work was so much older and a perfect classical fit? Was it ok to lift 'Pirates' from 'Gladiator' if Badelt was instrumental in composing that portion of "The Battle" track?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on any of these.

  • I wish someone would compile a whole list of these examples. I find it really interesting

  • Something you have to know is that when Hans Zimmer compose a score for a movie it is not just him creating the song. I work in the film industry and had an interview for him once. How it works is that he has a team of 30 composers. When he takes on a project, a team is made with a few composer that are going to propose different ideas, Hans Zimmer is then going to refine the ideas of his team, add a direction and so on until the final music is achieved. All credits on a movie go to Hans Zimmer and none of other members of his team are mentioned. Jackman like Steve Jablonsky and others were people that used to work for him and then became independent. It's absolutely possible that Jackman did the song for inception and then wanted to re-use it for Captain Phillips by changing the arrangement. He of course needed to clear the right and the green light from Hans Zimmer to do so which is why you can see a thanks to Hans Zimmer in the credits. I hope this clears things up a bit.