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James Horner A Composer’s Special [1/3]

August 14, 2015

Introduction: “A Living Organism”

JamesHornerRIPJames Horner’s music is like a living organism – it grows and evolves over time, without losing any of its unique characteristics. If it were a real person, we’d be talking about dimples, wrinkles and freckles, the way they smile or rearrange their hair. As it is, we’re talking about a bassline here, a counterpoint horn there, that motif or one of many others. The music is one contineous, almost infinite organism that knows no past, present or future; with each score simply being a part of the larger organism. It has a character all of its own; one that we have seen grow and develop over the last three decades or so. One that has aged and matured, but is still undeniably the same character. And with Horner’s passing, we’re not only left wondering what would’ve become of Horner in another decade or two, but also what of his music?
The famed composer died on June 22 when he crashed in his privately owned S-312 Tucano MK1 single-engine airplane near Ventucopa and the Los Padres National Forest, seemingly whilst practising aerobatic menoeuvres. He left behind a wife and two daughters, as well as a staggering musical legacy enjoyed by millions across the world. Being a shy a very private person, Horner rarely attended public events such as film premieres. It seemed he genuinely had no idea just how popular he and his music were – until someone managed to drag him out to the Hollywood In Vienna concert in 2013,  where he was presented with the “Max Steiner Film Music Achievement Award”.

Suddenly, James Horner was back. Not that he was ever really gone, but he had deliberately taken things slowly; only accepting those jobs he was actually seriously interested in. 2015 saw the release of his scores to “Wolf Totem”, “Southpaw”, “Living in the Age of Airplanes” and “The 33”. His concert work “Pas De Deux” was released on CD, whilst his “Collage : A Concerto for Four Horns & Orchestra” also premiered. He was working on new music for Disney’s “Avatar” theme park, and would probably have started thinking about “Avatar 2” towards the end of the year. Mel Gibson’s return to the director’s chair would probably have led to more new work from the composer. Thanks to we’ve learned that he ‘said yes’ to scoring Harald Zwart’s next film “The 12th Man”; and we also recently learned that Horner had already secretly written music for Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming project “The Magnificent Seven”. With the intention of surprising the director, Horner had written music based on the script. At this time it’s not known how much music he wrote, and how or if it will be used in the film, which is due around September 2016.

Much has been said, by many, about Horner, his music and his untimely passing. And much will continue to be said as people discover, re-discover and continue enjoying his music (and the films they accompany).

There are many things I enjoy about Horner’s music. I described them as unique characteristics earlier. The way he modulates his chords, his counterpoint writing, his lush melodies and exquisite orchestrations, as well as all those familiar little quirks. He was a true ‘classical’ composer. And yes, technically and stylistically he owed a lot to some of the greatest composers. To fully understand Horner’s techniques it’s recommended to listen to Prokofiev, Mahler, Brahms and Schubert.

I wish to pay tribute by offering a personal guide to James Horner’s music. Instead of providing a full review to each and every score (you may resort to MovieWave’s James Horner Review Odyssey for that), I will summarise his work by year (in order of the movie’s release date, knowing that that doesn’t necessarily reflect the order in which the scores were written (that would’ve been even better)) and highlight the various characteristics I enjoy in that work.


Synchrotones’ Guide to the Music of James Horner


Part 1: The 1980s (from “Battle Beyond the Stars” to “Glory”)
Part 2: The 1990s (from “I Love You To Death” to “Bicentennial Man”)
Part 3 The 2000s and beyond (from “Freedom Song” to “Southpaw”)
& Non-Film Works (from CBS News to “Pas de Deux”, includes my concluding thoughts on his music, and a summary of ratings)

The 1980s

You could argue over what is James Horner’s ‘big break’. Was it the first ‘studio’ production “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan” or one of Roger Corman’s corny productions, such as “Battle Beyond the Stars” that paved the way for more ambitious assignments? Prior to these scores, Horner wrote the music for a number of American Film Institute film. Between 1975 and 1980 he contributed to titles such as “The Drought”, “Fantasies”, “Landscapes” and “The Watcher”.

Arguably his first motion picture in the horror film “Up From the Depths”, though he received no credit for it, followed within a month by Lewis Teague’s “Lady in Red”. This brings us to 1980 where the fun really begins…

And before we begin… Please feel free to use the comments area to add your thoughts on these widely diverse scores.

The 80s kick off in February of that year with “Battle Beyond the Stars” [4/5], a flamboyant orchestral score for an otherwise poorly made film – this is Roger Corman after all. Horner was keen to impresss and, with lavish orchestral scores back in fashion thanks to “Star Wars” and to a lesser degree “Star Trek”, he was allowed to do so… albeit with a minimal budget. Listening to this score anno 2015, the recording sounds dated and the orchestra (particularly the brass section) struggles to keep up with Horner’s racing composition. It is a minor gripe though, as the score is unmistakably Horner, even at the tender age of twenty-seven, full of would-be Horner-isms. It is clearly a precursor to “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan” (there are moments where you’d almost expect that main theme to appear) and “Aliens” (well, James Cameron and Horner did meet on this film). A simple-almost-childish but rousing main theme dominates the score, which houses influences ranging from Sergey Prokofiev and Elmer Bernstein to Jerry Goldsmith. The ‘blaster beam’ appears inspired by “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, whilst the tape-delay effects (particularly on the brass) seem inspired by “Patton” – both classic Jerry Goldsmith scores. In one of his last-ever interviews Horner named “Patton” as one of his favorite soundtracks.
Those delay effects continue in the horror film (if you can call it that) “Humanoids From the Deep” [2/5], which is an altogether far more atmosphere-driven score. It’s an effective thriller score and certainly an interesting entry in Horner’s career, though on album it doesn’t make for a great listen. That said, where the score is allowed to be melodic (“Jerry & Peggy”) it shows off his typically lush style, with his beloved solo trumpet leading the way.
Roger Corman was so fond of the “Battle Beyond the Stars” score that he would re-use it several times in other films such as “The Sorceress” (1983), “Space Raiders” (1983) and “Barbarian Queen” (1985).

What slightly ‘amused’ me about the recent news articles about James Horner is how they mention that the composer has worked with big-name directors such as Oliver Stone. What those articles don’t mention is that their collaboration was limited to 1981’s “The Hand” [2/5], about a severed hand that goes off to kill people. Yeah… Similar to “HFtD” Horner delivered an atmospheric score with little melodic content. The delay effects are still present, though more percussion-based this time, whilst the horns faintly introduce a dissonant 3-note motif that would be explored further in “Wolfen”.
Slapped strings and dark brass open the score to “Wolfen” [2.5/5], though Horner soon introduces a 9-note brass motif that would later evolve to becomes Khan’s motif in “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan”. Descending string figures and short brass notes paint a moody picture. Growling brass clusters, glissandi effects and rhythms made from slapping the strings are a clear precusor to “Aliens”. Horner introduces some melodic material, but it plays second fiddle to the action, which is relentlessly brutal and unnerving.
Sticking with horror films (or: stuck with horror films) Horner worked with Wes Craven on “Deadly Blessing” [3/5], where he presents a lush main theme over chords that rise and fall like waves, so typical for the composer. Where possible, Horner is as romantic as he can be, painting an ydillic picture through the use of strings and woodwinds. However, when horror takes over Horner relies heavily on unusual bowing techniques (e.g. sul ponticello, glissandi, screeching) to extract some scary sounds from the string section. Much more remarkable is the choir that chants various Latin phrases, strongly resembling Jerry Goldsmith’s work on “The Omen” (1976). It is pretty cool though and in some ways it’s a shame he’s never further explored this ‘gothic’ side of horror.
The folksy guitars of “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper” [3/5] seem to resemble “Duelling Banjos” from 1972’s “Deliverance”. The lively guitars, violin and country rhythms sit at the opposite end of the musical spectrum to the dark tones of “The Hand” and “Wolfen”. Horner would apply country- and folk instrumentation several times throughout his career, but you’d have to be a seasoned fan to recognise Horner’s hand in this particular composition. It’s great fun though,

A number of scary Horner-isms return in “48 Hours” [1/5], predominantly the cresendoing brass clusers, the slapped strings and a menacing 8-note brass motif. This time they are combined with bass lines and drumkit rhythms (thankfully acoustic kits that seem to fuse pop and jazz) and… steel drums! Why not, I hear you ask. Although the choice of instruments is plain bonkers, I’ve always been fond of Horner’s steel drum motif. Elsewhere you can hear that accelerando effect on, what sounds like, a metal plate that Horner has come to use numerous times later on in his career. Synthesized arpeggios and saxophone enter the fray; and from that point onwards the score turns to a cacophonous wall of sound.
The real star of this year is of course “Star Trek II – The Wrath of Kahn” [5/5], which Horner has described as his first ‘studio’ film and thus his real launch to Hollywood stardom. A new lush, sea-faring main theme opens the score, backed by the constantly rising notes of Horner’s spread chords. He only sporadically references the first part of Alexander Courages theme (he found the rest too dated, he revealed in later interviews) and he avoids Goldsmith’s theme altogether. Khan’s theme and the action cues owe an awful lot to “Battle Beyond the Stars”, but given the scope and importance of “Star Trek” you can’t blame Horner for expanding on what he knows rather than taking a risk. Combined with a stellar orchestral performance, Horner’s score sounds confident, ambitious and powerful. Horner has always maintained he wanted to emphasise the relationship between Kirk and Spock, which explains why the score works to well on an emotional level, yet is so exciting on a visceral level, as all the action music is centered around the various characters’ main themes. The writing is exquisite with rich harmonies and complex counterpoint, at times owing to Prokofiev (as is custom throughout Horner’s body of work). It’s a powerhouse score that means business! “Enterprise Clears Mooring” is not only the best cue on the album, it also turned out to become a career highlight all of its own. And then there is that finale, which he reprised and varied upon several times later, most notably “The Rocketeer” and all the way to his non-film works “Write Your Soul” and “Pas de Deux”.

Replacing Georges Delerue, ’83 kicked off with the grand and devilishly delicious “Something Wicked This Way Comes” [3.5/5], which beautifully captures a sense of childhood adventure coupled with some near-gothic writing when a demonic circus comes to town. The main theme is an innocent tune, in waltz time, for woodwinds and strings. Through whimsical flutes and strings Horner paints an ydillic picture of smalltown America (similar but different to the slightly better know “Journey of Natt Gann”). Then the circus arrives; and so does a sinister little meldoy that reminds me of a children’s teasing rhym (“na na-na na nah, you can’t catch me”) which would be quite appropriate if it is deliberate. The music becomes more suspenseful featuring some crazy-busy strings, terror effects that harken back to “Wolfen”, and some dark brass clusters. The score is at its best when its melodies come to the fore, which are richly orchestrated, showing off Horner’s classical training (and inspiration).
We all love bad movies with great scores – and few come worse and greater than “Krull” [5/5], a truly atrocious sci-fi fantasy film that tries to rip-off “Star Wars” (I guess), but is so badly made that even Ed Wood would’ve walked away from it. Still, I love it! Somehow though it inspired Horner to not only write a decent score… he wrote one of the best of his entire career! Stylistically it owes a lot to “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “Star Trek”, and in turn “Krull” proved to be a precursor to later scores; yet somehow “Krull” is even more outrageously adventurous than any of those. A host of Hornerisms come together magnificently in this score. A lush love theme, ferocious action material (at times reminiscent of Holst’s “The Planets”) and one heck of a long-lined, swahbuckling main theme that doubles as the theme for the firemares (“Ride of the Firemares” is one of the most exciting cues Horner has ever written). The Ambrosian singers add a spooky vocal texture to the score.
The ferocity that Horner display in “SWTWC” and “Krull” is exploited even further in the agressive score for effects maestro Douglas Trumvbull’s “Brainstorm” [4/5]. Horner uses choir to add mysterious beauty, offers an elegant Mozart-like piano melody for one of the key characters, and unleashes hell where approriate. The brass and metal stabs in “Lillian’s Heart Attack” are powerful and remind of  Chris Young’s later “Hellraiser” score. The dark action material owes a bit to “Star Trek II”, but is developed further to become the precursor to many later scores (all the way to “Apollo 13” and beyond). “Race for Time” is a particularly impressive action cue, despite its many similarities to earlier and later scores. Also featuring prominently here, arguably for the first time, is that now overly familiar 4-note danger motif.
After the musical storm that is “Brainstorm”, “Testament” [3/5] is a much more restraint, if slightly underwhelming, effort. Horner paints another ydillic picture of family life using strings and horn. Harp and woodwinds feature in typical Horner-fashion. There is also some spellbinding use of choir (which may come across as a much cleaner and tidier variation on the “Brainstorm” material). The reliance on solo horn does tend to get a little tiring after a while.
Although released after “Brainstorm”, it would be interesting to know if “Gorky Park” [2/5] was also written later, or earlier? Where Horner composed an original, but classical sounding melody for “Brainstorm” which was then surrounded by much harsher compositions, during “Gorky Park’s” main title Horner uses actual classical source music and mixes his own thriller sounds into those recordings. A lot of the action- and thriller material of “Gorky Park” reminds of earlier scores. The percussive tape-delay effects are back, as is the frantic jazzy percussion from “48 Hrs”. The steel-drum motif from that score also appears, though orchestrated differently. I’ve always struggled with this score. It’s too chaotic and cacophonous most of the time. That said, there is some complex writing on display, along with interesting harmonies and interesting colours (including synthesizers), and the score does house a number of themes (or motifs if you prefer) that recur throughout the score.
A now familiar snare drum opens the score to “Uncommon Valor” [2.5/5], along with a suspenseful bass line (which is equally familiar). Noble horns and trumpet come in, at which point this score is clearly foreshadowing “Apollo 13” (which would follow twelve years later). When the action material kicks in it vaguely reminds of “Wolfen” (as well as “Aliens”), again, though the instrumentation is rather bare and bizarre. Some of the more heroic moments, come across as an early incarnation of “Bishop’s Countdown”. All in all it’s a very lively, very Horner score for this Vietnam-related drama, with its noble patriotism offering an early glimpse of the type of composer Horner would become in the 90s when all the crazy adventures of the 80s are done with.

Please feel free to use the comments area to add your thoughts about these early Horner scores.

An unusually quiet year for Horner (though I suspect he may have been writing stuff that came out the next year), 1984 saw little else but the release of the summer blockbuster “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” [2.5/5]. The drama “The Stone Boy” came out a few months before “Star Trek III” but unfortunately there is no release of its music. The large orchestral score for “Star Trek III” naturally reprises many themes and ideas from its prequel, yet it feels very different. A lot of focus is on Spock and his spiritual journey, which is reflected in the music through calmer compositions and cleaner orchestrations. In other words: the score is not as action-packed as it predecessor, and the few action cues that are presents are less intense than those from “Wrath of Khan”. It’s a much more thoughtful score, and whilst it makes for a nice introvert counterpoint to “Wrath of Khan” the latter is likely to remain the fan favorite, due to it enthusiastic unbridled energy.

Irish music dominates the score for “Heaven Help Us“, a film set in 1960s Brooklyn (the Irish music influenced by immigrants, I assume). There’s been some talk online about a difficult scoring process and even some comments about Horner haven written three different scores for this film. There are questions surrounding the Irish tunes, as to whether they are traditional songs or original compositions by Horner; and it appears that very little score ended up being used. Unsurprisingly then, the score was never officially released.
Horner continued his working relationship with “Star Trek II”-director Nicholas Meyer and scored his film “Volunteers” as well as his “Fairy Tale Theater”-episode “The Pied Piper of Hamelin“. He also wrote a score for the short film “Let’s Go” by “Brainstorm”-director Douglas Trumbull.
The big one this year was the sci-fi/drama “Cocoon” [4.5/5] for director Ron Howard, the first of seven collaborations. Horner combines smooth yet playful jazz tunes with his trademark lush orchestral writing. The score has sprouted several ‘classic’ Horner cues, such as “The Ascension” and “Theme from Cocoon”; both are at once majestic, romantic and heartfelt, showcasing Horner’s wonderful long-lined melodies and rich harmonies. The underscore meanders a little, but always maintains a sense of magic and Horner keeps the music melodic at all times. The soundtrack received an extended release on Intrada, which is worth seeking out even if the original release does contain the score’s highlights.
Late that year (and in some countries: early in ’86) saw the release of the family adventure “The Journey of Natty Gann” [3.5/5]. There were quite a few these sort of films around, where kids and their pets embark on amazing journeys. Horner wrote a lyrical and rather elegant score (the main theme knocks it out of the park), replacing a more boisterous (Western-influenced) one by Elmer Bernstein. On the odd occasion when Horner applies Western-techniques they (retrospectively) feel like a precursor to “An American Tail”, which followed only a few months later. There are also s few moments where mysterious and somewhat magical flute-play remind of the much more polished “The Spitfire Grill”.
A melody as lush as any Horner has ever written appears in the action flick “Commando” [1.5/5] – unfortunately, it appears only briefly and the rest of the score is made up from 80s beats, synth arpeggios, brass and flute blasts and steeldrums. This is Horner doing “48Hrs”, but doing it a little bigger and louder. It’s all rather cacophonous, though somewhere in the madness one can recognise a few old Hornerisms (the steeldrums, a saxophone motif, and some typical brass-led action writing).

Whilst the year started with “Off Beat“, a further collaboration with Michael Dinner, the real star of the year was the much troubled “Aliens” [5/5] by James Cameron. The story is now the stuff of filmmusic folklore – Horner went to London to score the film, which was far from ready. Time was running out, arguments were had, and ultimately Horner has to write the score in a matter of days. Not surprising then, that he relied heavily on sounds and techniques he developed through “Star Trek II” and “Wolfen”, though it is surprising just how brilliantly his score comes together. For the romantic soul that Horner is, he wrote a monumentally agressive score, though he manages to infuse some genuine drama and elegance, similar to how Goldsmith added a touch of class to “Alien”. The climactic “Bishop’s Countdown” was practically written overnight and became an instant classic. It featured it many a move trailer for many years.
Despite its title “Where The Rivers Runs Black” [2/5] is a much more playful affair. Light percussion, guitar and panflute feature heavily in this film about a boy who was raised in the Amazon. Synthesizers are also presents, sometimes to add a shimmering sense of wonder and sometimes to add dark, pulsing sounds. Horner loves World music and he’s used Latin influences on several occasions, this arguably being the first (certainly to this extent). Despite some playful motifs, it’s mostly an atmopsheric score; and as such it’s much more effective within the film than outside it.
Things got even more atmospheric with “The Name of the Rose” [2/5], the first of several films Horner scored for Jean-Jacques Annaud. A very dark, minimalistic and synthesized (and sampled) affair. There’s not a great deal going on that’s of any interest to anyone but die-hard Horner fans. That said, I love the chimes. And there’s a synthesized, tremolo string sound that proves to be a rather unique colour that really sets the tone of the film. Horner’s famous breathy synth sound makes an appearance. Horner offers a lush theme during “Epilogue” and “End Titles”, but it must have hurt him to have had to synthesize it all, even if the sampling was quite cutting edge at the time.
Leaving the dark and minimalistic soundscapes behind, Horner next scored “An American Tail” [4/5] for Don Bluth. It was Horner’s first animation film and he proved to have a real knack at scoring them. He also proved quite adapt at writing songs, as “Somewhere Out There” became of the year’s biggest hits, winning two Grammys and garnering Golden Globe- and Oscar nominations. Seeing as the story tells the tale of Russian mice moving to America, Horner merrily allowed himself to be influenced by Aaron Copland and Sergey Prokofiev – not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time. One particular melody would return soon after in “The Land Before Time”. In all it’s a fun, wonderful and colourful score.

In “Project X” [2.5/5] (about a bunch of monkeys learning how to fly a plane) Horner merges his 80s ‘urban’ action music with his typical ‘forest music’. So we get synth beats and arpeggios off-set against flutes and an array of world-music type instruments. Horner has a particular way of using the flute in these animal- and forest-driven movies that’s never really changed, from “Natty Gann” to this to “Mighty Joe Young” and beyond you’ll recognise the wavering flute – he uses it rather a lot here. There is a lovely, but ever-so typical main theme; and the magic of “Learning to Fly” and “Chain Reaction” almost matches that of “Cocoon”. Then in “Bluebeard’s Flight” Horner re-uses the ballet-like theme from “Aliens” and throws in the 4-note and some shakuhachi blasts for good measure. The score is an odd mix of three of Horner’s styles and, on album, makes for a uneven (and ultimately somewhat tiring) experience, despite two or three fantastic highlights.
Similar to “Cocoon”, “*Batteries Not Included” [3.5/5] combines smooth jazz tunes with lush orchestral melodies. I’m not jazz’s greatest fan, but there’s something very endearing (and old-fashioned) about Horner’s jazz writing. The film tells the story of an eclectic bunch of people who are being forced out of their apartment block, because it’s due to be demolished. They refuse to leave and even get some help from tiny little UFO’s. Whilst the residents are musically reprisented by the smooth jazz, the aliens are accompanied by a sweet, playful and child-like melody which works really well in all of its variations. The play between strings and horn, with twinkly sounds in the backgroud, is all quintessentially Horner, and it’s executed just perfectly here.

From the magical setting of “*BNI” it’s not that big a step, initially, to the magical world of “Willow” [5/5]. Softly cooing choir beckons us, like sirens, into this world; and after a subdued introduction that reminds me of Mozart’s “Requiem” combined with a handful of ‘danger motifs’, Horner unleashes one of the single most magnificent themes he’s ever written – Willow’s theme for lush strings and pan flutes. This is pretty much the sound of my childhood and plays a large role in me becoming a filmmusic enthusiast. With nearly thirty years of hindsight, it may be tempting to point out the abundance of the 4-note motif, or the similarities to Prokofiev and Schubert or any other Hornerism – but this is one of those scores where it all comes together and where it really works. This is where the musical experiments in scores like “Project X” come to fruition and pay off in a big, ambitious and totally epic way. “Willow” is umashamedly bold, adventurous, beautiful and agressive. The depth of themes and colours is just astonishing. Horner brought his A-game and didn’t hold back. In terms of scope and ambition it easily matches, and probably surpasses “Krull”. It deserves an essay all of its own, but in a nutshell it’s one of the greatest symphonic scores of our lifetime.
The best thing about “Red Heat” [2/5] is Horner’s adaptation of Prokofiev’s “The Philosophers” from his “Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution”. The rest of the score is filled with rapid string arpeggios, rattling hi-hats, saxophones, cheesy drums, shakuhachi, pitch-bending synths… really the only thing missing from this typical 80s action score are the steel drums that graced “48 Hrs” and “Commando”.
With “Vibes” [3/5] the composer seems to return to the jungle. The film is largely set in Equador, so the composer relies heavily on his beloved ethnic flutes, alongside various chimes and bells. A cue like “Mountain Trek” feels quite magical, whilst “Andes Arrival” and “The Journey Begins” possess that Latin feel-good factor. A few cues are of a dark, almost scary, nature. It’s a pleasant, if somewhat forgettable score.
There is nothing forgettable about “The Land Before Time” [5/5] one of Horner’s greatest work – and to think it came out in the same year as “Willow”! Horner’s love for Prokofiev is still clearly evident through the orchestrations, but more so through various snippets from that aforementioned “Cantata…”, particularly the movements “Victory” and “Symphony”. That does not take away from the fact that “TLBT” is a monumental orchestral achievement. Given the freedom to write from the heart, Horner treats us to long-lined melodies and lush orchestrations; not to mention cues that go on for more than 7, 9, 10 and even 12 minutes! Hightlights within this 58-minutes career-highlight are the tentalising build-up during the opening of “The Great Migration” (followed by rolling strings and noble brass) and the cooing main theme that dominates “Sharptooth” and “Whispering Winds”.  There’s also the hit-song “If We Hold On Together”, performed by Diana Ross, which spend 12 weeks at no. 1… in Japan.
It’s rare for Horner to return to film ‘series’ to score a sequel. “Cocoon – The Return” [3.5/5] is one of few occasions. I guess he wanted to go back and play with this wonderful set of melodies again. As an album, compared to the original, it does feel like ‘more of the same’, for better or worse. It doesn’t add a great deal of new material, and it misses the true grandeur of the original, but it reprises some of the composer’s loveliest themes.

The first decade of James Horner in filmmusic is coming to a close, but not before half a dozen more scores. “Field of Dreams” [3/5] is somewhat of a fan favorite, though it’s one that’s never really ‘done it’ for me. It’s a deliberately small-scale score, much of it improvised on the spot. There is a great making-of video on YouTube in which Horner recalls how the producers wanted a big symphonic score, but that he and the director were never going to do that. “It’s the last thing this film needed”, he muses. Piano and breathy synth pads dominate much of the score. Guitar adds a solitary, personal touch. When brass and strings do come forward they add nobility and scope. The main theme is unsurprisingly beautiful, and vaguely ‘hints’ at the future theme for “Braveheart”.
Described by Horner as his first real comedy and also as not really his thing, “Honey I Shrunk The Kids” [2.5/5] marks Joe Johnston’s directorial debut and is the first of four collaborations between the director and the composer. There is no getting away from the fact that Horner was often criticised for re-using his own and other’s material. In the case of “Honey…” Disney was allegedly sued by both Nino Rota (“Amarcord”) and Raymond Scott (“Powerhouse”) as the score bears similarities to their compositions. It’s unclear how this situation was resolved, as much as it’s unclear how it arose in the first place. Did Horner rely too much on his musical influences? Did Johnston fall in love with a temp track? A bit of “Fievel” also makes an appearance. Overall, it feels like a frantic score, despite plenty of lovely orchestral cues. Horner plays to the comedy through lively jazz compositions that, away from the film, are a little too lively for my liking.
With “In Country” [3.5/5], a film dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam war, Horner found himself back in his comfort zone, with soft strings, noble brass and militaristic snares Perhaps he found himself a little too comfortable, as he reprises the noble theme of “Uncommon Valor”, though focusing on its dramatic content, where “Uncommon Valor” features a lot of downright militaristic music. It is a beautiful score, and one that has more in common with Horner’s 90s scores than with his 80s work; not that there is a clear dividing line, but if there was one, “In Country” could possibly be it.
Piano and strings dominate the heartfelt and heartwarming score to “Dad” [3/5], which deals with the loss of a mother and taking care of an aging father. Stylistically it’s not too dissimilar to “Field of Dreams”, though “Dad” is marginally more orchestra-driven. It’s one of those scores where I don’t really know what to say about it. It is a very melodic, engaging score, with Horner doing what we love so much about him. Yet, it is so quintesentially Horner that you can’t help but wonder where you’ve heard it before (with “Land Before Time” possibly also being part of the answer).
Horner closes the 90s with “Glory” [5/5] his first of three collaborations with director Edward Zwick. The composer combines military marches with haunting vocals (courtesy of the Harlem Boys Choir) and lush orchestral writing that still portrays his love for the Russian masters, without quoting them directly. One of the themes resembles Ennio Morricone’s “The Mission”, one of Horner’s favorite scores, so he mentioned in one of his last interviews. The film itself is nothing short of magnificent. Matthew Broderick is (dare I say: surprisingly) engaging as Col. Robert Gould Shaw – considering this is the guy who is, just is, Ferris Bueller. The film moves from one poignant scene to the next. From burning the town of Darien to the whipping of private Trip (Denzel Washington). The one scene that has always stayed with me is near the end, when the regiment is preparing to charge fort Wagner. Knowing it’s going to be a one-way trip, Col. Shaw stares towards the endless sea, and sets his horse free so it doesn’t have to go into battle. Horner’s score throughout the movie adds drama, motivation and subtle heroism. I challenge any one to listen to “Year of the Jubilee” and not feel an overwhelming sense of pride, determination and patriotism. An interesting tidbit is that Horner orignally penned a different version of “Charging Fort Wagner”, which is available on one the compilations albums. This alternative version feels a little darker, and in a way more old-fashioned than the final version, which feels more upbeat and jubilant. And I must say… I have always loved, if never understood, the electronic bassline and that ‘boom-diggity’ chanting during the end credits. A truly great score, for a truly great film that doesn’t quite seem to receive the recognition and attention it deserves.

Please feel free to use the comments area to add your thoughts on James Horner’s 1980s scores.

To Be Continued…

Article by Peter Simons

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