12 Years a Slave is the original soundtrack album to the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Lupita Nyong'o. The record contains twenty-one tracks from the original film score written and composed by Hans Zimmer. The score was widely admired and thought of as a contender for the Academy Award for Original Music Score at the 86th Academy Awards.
Critical acclaim has been given to the score itself, with high praise and widespread acclaim across the film industry being bestowed upon it, despite its limited release. The score was nominated for the 2013 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, and won the 2013 Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association award for Best Score.
Having been interested in each other's work for some time, director Steve McQueen approached composer Hans Zimmer to write the score to 12 Years a Slave after filming had completed, explaining, "We had a mysterious conversation a couple of years back where [McQueen] told me he was working on something and asked me if I was even remotely interested in working with him,” says Zimmer. "And I just adore him, so of course I was much more than remotely interested!" Zimmer, however, expressed reluctance to accept the offer feeling he wasn't the right person for the job. Zimmer explained, "I felt I wasn't the guy, in a way. It was such an important, heavy, incredible subject. [...] It took a bit of persuading from [McQueen] to give me the confidence to do it". On April 30, 2013, it was officially announced that Zimmer was scoring the film.
Much of the movie is scored with the same four-note theme, which Zimmer adapts accordingly, depending on the mood and emotion of the scene at that. Zimmer explains, "Music can actually make you cry. I don’t mean that like a horrible, manipulative thing, but music can get at parts of your psyche that other things can’t get at ... I try to do something that resonates very quickly and takes you on a journey. If you happen to be courageous enough to watch [12 Years a Slave] twice, in a way, your emotional dominoes are already starting to fall when you hear those first few notes."
For the score of 12 Years a Slave, Zimmer conceded, "It's basically a cello and violin score. It felt appropriate to keep it as small and as specific as possible. We have a lot of period source music, and one of the things I wanted to do was to be anachronistic, but not in an overt way. I wanted to be the secret little bridge that would take the story from the past and move it into the present."
Although cellist Tristan Schulze and violinist Ann Marie Calhoun performed on the score at hand, there were more strings and occasional percussion involved throughout. "It was not just getting inside the characters," Zimmer said, "it was getting outside the characters and finding a bridge to the audience." Much of the 38-minute score "creates a stillness, or a tension through the stillness, using very minimal means," he added, although the riverboat ride offers a briefly avant-garde musical contrast, including woodwinds and an unusual use of piano.
Director Steve McQueen liked Zimmer’s moody music for The Thin Red Line, which itself became a starting point for discussion and development regarding the sound and mood for 12 Years a Slave. He [McQueen] explained, "He was my refuge when I was in L.A. The first two meetings were about five hours each. Then I think we had three two-hour conversations on the phone. And not a musical note was played. After that, he said, ‘I think I’ve got something.’ Somehow, through the talking, he captured the atmosphere of the film."
The original score was released by Fox Searchlight as part of the For Your Consideration campaign aimed towards members of awards voting groups such as that of the Academy Awards, the Hollywood Foreign Press of the Golden Globes and so on and so forth. It is currently unknown whether or not Zimmer will be releasing this score publicly.
All tracks written by Hans Zimmer.
Christopher Orr of The Atlantic praised the score most highly stating, "the score by Hans Zimmer represents his best work in years, an eerie, discomforting soundscape that buzzes like angry locusts and drums like approaching thunder."
Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine praised the score and said "The film's immaculate score, by Hans Zimmer, and sound design, so thick with thunder, wind, the chirping of crickets, hammers beating nails into wood, whips tearing black bodies to shreds, work in tandem to strongly convey the bucolic, sinister atmosphere of the antebellum South." Tony Macklin of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society wrote positively of the score, stating "[Zimmer] creates the hyperactive music. It emphasizes and reemphasizes. It shoves and pounds. It steers and announces. Even the rattle of chains has music behind it." Emma Dibdin of Total Film spoke of the score "a score that’s far more resonant than Hans Zimmer’s oddly conventional effort."
Gregory Ellwood of HitFix called it "one of Hans Zimmer’s more moving scores in some time" Brad Brevet of Rope of Silicon also praised the score in stating, "The best score in a movie I have heard this year has been Hans Zimmer's for 12 Years a Slave." and further stating "It's lovely and threatening at the same time." A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club wrote of Zimmer's score, "pounds and roars with dread — the appropriate soundtrack for the madness of history." Mark Hughes of Forbes hails the piece as "some of [Zimmer's] best work to date, which says quite a lot" and further expands by expressing "I love the way he uses nontraditional effects and sounds, sometimes going bare-bones and simple with a single instrument, so often understated to perfection."
Susan Wloszczyna of RogerEbert.com stated "Underscoring the cruelty is the aptly unsettling and sometimes discordant soundtrack by Hans Zimmer" but noting similarities with Zimmer's predeceasing score for Inception whilst acknowledging differentiation in "reminiscent of his own strong work on "Inception" but to much different effect". Glenn Kay of CinemaStance wrote positively by stating, "the score by Hans Zimmer is sparse and repetitive, but incredibly effective at invoking an emotional response when it’s used." Drew McWeeny of HitFix highly praised the score and said, "The score by Hans Zimmer is just as heart-breaking as the script or the performances."
Nicholas Mennuti of Mulholland Books highly praised the score, calling it one of the best film scores of 2013, stating, "His [Zimmer] work on 12 Years A Slave comes as such a pleasant surprise" and then adding, "Zimmer does what Zimmer does best – he finds the sonic heart of Solomon Northrop ... Try not to be moved by it." Josh Hall of Soton Tab professed of the score, "Another impressive element of 12 Years a Slave is Hans Zimmer’s haunting score; it closely accompanies the distressing tragedies on the screen." and added to it further by signifying the importance of music, "Music is a key element of the film; it is ironic that it is Solomon’s musical talents that get him captured in the first place." Richard Lawson of The Wire praised the mood of Zimmer's piece by saying, "Hans Zimmer's lush score is at first eerie and foreboding, but by the movie's end has become something approaching a hymn."
Mark Kermode of The Observer highlights the significance of music in the piece writing, "More significant still is the role of music (composer Hans Zimmer earned one of the film's 10 Bafta nominations this week), with McQueen building upon the experiments of Shame to explore further the dramatic depths of song"