Director Ron Howard's dramatization of the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, Rush has garnered widespread acclaim, with many critics saying it's on pole position to do well at next year's Oscars. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl give brilliant performances as Hunt and Lauda respectively, the former a dashing, English playboy, whose hard-partying image belies steely determination, and the latter the Austrian perfectionist, whose obsession with technical detail governs every race. Howard's film has been praised for accurately portraying the 1976 race season in which Hunt and Lauda's rivalry was at its peak.
The film sees Howard reunite with composer Hans Zimmer, with whom he has worked on Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels and Demons and The Dilemma. Howard has worked with several fine composers over the course of his career, most notably James Horner but he now appears to have permanently settled on Zimmer as his collaborator of choice.
Of all the pair's collaborations, 1991's Backdraft is perhaps the most noteworthy, coming as it did near the start of Zimmer's Hollywood career, and being one of Zimmer's first scores that demonstrated his flair at mixing electronics with an orchestra. This merging of synthetic and classical has become Zimmer's hallmark, yielding popular scores from Crimson Tide and Beyond Rangoon to The Thin Red Line and this year's Man of Steel. It's a sensibility that's immediately apparent from the opening bars of the Rush soundtrack – whatever Zimmer's critics say of him, there's no denying he has one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary film music.
However, what's refreshing about Rush as opposed to, for example, Man of Steel, is that it never substitutes noise for storytelling. Zimmer has always excelled at scoring character-driven dramas (Rain Man; Thelma and Louise; Beyond Rangoon); and with Rush, he sets out to capture not just the racing but, crucially, the racers themselves who are willing to court death in their relentless desire to win. At the same time, given Zimmer's background in pop music (he was involved in Buggles classic 'Video Killed the Radio Star'), he also infuses the music with a swaggering rock and roll sensibility, capturing the adrenaline rush of the races themselves.
These two approaches – character sensitivity and rock infused bravado – become immediately apparent in the opening track, "1976". The distant sound of roaring F1 engines gradually merges into the sort of brooding synth wash familiar from Zimmer's Batman scores, before a beautiful electric cello bridge adds an unexpectedly soulful edge to the music, humanising the characters at the centre of the drama. The track then concludes with aggressive rock and roll thrashing, an effective device for reflecting the punk-dominated mood of the 70s and also the playboy persona of James Hunt himself. The brief "I Could Show You If You Like" with its funky guitar rhythms further affirms Hunt's swaggering personality, underscoring an amusing seduction scene near the start of the film.
"Stopwatch" begins with the familiar Zimmer staccato strings, which are gradually joined by the synths to create a palpable sense of movement and urgency. The soaring electric guitar that emerges midway through is terrific, painting the F1 racers as true heroes. "Into the Red" continues with the rock and roll theme, the guitars and drums pounding out an incessantly brash rhythm that captures the equally brash nature of Formula One itself. The tone of the music is familiar from many recent Zimmer scores but feels more substantial.
"Budgie" and "Scuderia" offer moments of brooding introspection, as Hunt and Lauda come to terms with the danger of their profession. The wonderfully expansive "Oysters in the Pits" carries the rock ensemble to even bolder heights. The authentically relentless guitars of "20%" capture the 1970s spirit brilliantly, punkish and energetic. "Watkins Glen", much like the previous track "Into the Red", again races forward with staccato strings before that wonderful electric guitar again erupts with a sense of unbridled attitude. "Loose Cannon" calms things down once more before a strident guitar/string ostinato propels the drama forward again in "Car Trouble". The sadly brief "Gluck" is surprisingly attractive, deploying the electric guitar to more melodic, thoughtful effect, allowing a note of humanity to puncture the energetic nature of the score.
The score's first properly lengthy piece "Nurburgring", then gets underway; at 5 minutes, it accompanies the film's most shocking scene – Niki Lauda's horrifying crash at the infamous German race track. Pensive synths begin the piece, adding a sense of tension before the rock stylistics again take over. But there's no sense of heroism here – only desperate 'Dark Knight'-esque strings and 'Inception'-esque percussion as Lauda is compelled against his wishes to confront the dangerous racecourse in heavy rain. The eerie, desolate nature of "Inferno" speaks volumes about what happened next. The main theme gradually emerges in anguished fashion as the horribly injured Lauda is pulled from the wreckage.
But just as Lauda was able to pull himself back from the dreadful incident, so too does the score enter its most hopeful and optimistic phase. The contemplative and compelling "Mount Fuji" sees the return of Martin Tillman's electric cello. Unheard since the score's opening, it lends a moving human dimension to the film's end-game, as Lauda returns to racing to face Hunt on the Japanese circuit. "For Love" continues in an emotionally naked vein, high strings lending a beautiful sheen to the music. But it's the album's final tracks that really ramp up the emotional stakes, offering Zimmer an opportunity to demonstrate his flair with more sensitive material. After another Batman-styled action-piece in "Reign", where the main theme and a choir rise in defiant counterpoint to the percussion, the score reaches its conclusion.
"Lost but Won" and "My Best Enemy" showcase some of the most stirring and powerful music Zimmer has written for a while, with the cello theme reminding us that this is a drama of human beings skirting the void of death. At the same time, Zimmer allows the theme to rise to grandiose heights, celebrating the bravery of the racers as well as their flawed natures. Just as Howard's film elevates the Hunt/Lauda rivalry to near mythical levels, so too does Zimmer's soaring music go all out in depicting the two men as warring titans. At the same time, the cathartic tone of the final track reminds us that in spite of their differences, these two very different men ultimately learned to respect each other, a Backdraft-style electronic choir carrying the score to a rousing end.
Rush is a score that ultimately proves how great Zimmer is at composing character-driven movies. For all the attention he gets for Pirates of the Caribbean, Man of Steel and the like, it's obvious that genuine humanity and emotion are what really power Zimmer's musical engine. It's not an especially ground-breaking score – although to be fair the movie itself isn't especially profound either – but it attains a sense of purpose and direction that makes it a more hypnotic listen than many of Zimmer's more recent scores. The music undeniably draws on the composer's familiar bag of tricks and the overtones of his blockbuster works are an occasional distraction. But there is a real sense that Zimmer is attempting to get under the skin of the movie, to draw out the fascinating essence not only of the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda but also the sheer danger of Formula One racing itself. When it comes to scoring movies about human beings, Zimmer is on pole. The album is available in CD format or for download at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.