If you have not yet seen the first installment of Denis Villeneuve’s reimagining of Dune, you will find no spoilers here, though if you’ve read Frank Herbert’s cult classic novel and/or seen David Lynch’s film adaptation (or even the forgettable TV miniseries from 20 years ago), you are familiar with the story. You can, however, hear Hans Zimmer’s complete soundtrack above. If you love it, and if film critic Mick LaSalle is right, you’re in for a treat: “If you like the music here, you’ll probably like the movie,” LaSalle writes in a San Francisco Chronicle review. “If you hate it, you can’t possibly enjoy Dune.”
The film’s music is relentless and creates a “sense of something strange and unfamiliar,” making sure “we never forget we’re watching an entirely alien universe.” Veteran blockbuster composer Hans Zimmer created this sonic atmosphere with studio effects and nontraditional instrumentation, though one familiar element remains, as he tells Indiewire:
I kept thinking, wherever you are in the future, the instruments will change due to technology, and we could be far more experimental, but the one thing that remains is the human voice, which there is a lot of.
Those voices include that of singer Lisa Gerrard, formerly of Dead Can Dance, who “came up with this language that is all her own. It could be from the future, it could be from a different world.”
Zimmer’s approach almost mirrors that of his first big break, the score for 1988’s Rain Man, of which he said in 2008, “The Raymond character doesn’t actually know where he is. The world is so different to him. He might as well be on Mars. So, why don’t we just invent our own world music for a world that doesn’t really exist?” Villeneuve’s Dune gives us an entire interplanetary civilization for which to invent music that didn’t exist before. “I felt like there was a freedom to get away from a Western Orchestra,” Zimmer told The New York Times, in a major understatement.
One piece of music, played as the Atreides family arrives on Arrakis, involved 30 bagpipers, recorded together in Edinburgh while socially distanced. “Along with synthesizers,” writes The New York Times’ Darryn King, “you can hear scraping metal, Indian bamboo flutes, Irish whistles, a juddering drum phrase that Zimmer calls an ‘anti-groove,’ seismic rumbles of distorted guitar” and “a war for that is actually a cello.” The result “might be one of Zimmer’s most unorthodox and most provocative” pieces of work, and a far cry from the music that accompanied David Lynch’s beautiful failure of a film in 1984.
Zimmer claims never to have seen Lynch’s film nor heard the soundtrack by soft-rock superstars Toto, unwilling to compromise the Dune he’d been imagining since he first read the book. “I’ve been thinking about Dune for nearly 50 years,” he says. Lynch has been trying to forget his film for almost as long. The dense, complicated mess of an adaptation so confused film execs and test audiences that the studio added introductory exposition, above, and handed out glossaries to audiences at the first screenings (though not, presumably, flashlights).
The choice of superstars Toto, of “Africa” fame, brought audiences of Lynch’s film a “luxuriant and peculiar soundtrack,” supplemented by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and a composition by Brian Eno. But it also integrated familiar 80’s rock touches (as in “Desert Theme,” above), giving the alien world Lynch imagined both a familiar sonic texture and a dated sound. Thirty-seven years later, science fiction films need no such comforting apparatus to make them palatable. As both Villeneuve and Zimmer realized in their work on Dune, a film about a totally unfamiliar future civilization — even one filled with humans who look like us — can look and sound as strange as technology and imagination will allow.