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James Horner A Composer’s Special [2/3]

August 28, 2015


Exploring his works from the 1990s.

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. I wish to pay tribute by offering a personal guide to James Horner’s music bysummarising his work by year (in order of the movie’s release date). Be sure to check out Part 1 of this Composer’s Special: The 1980s (from “Battle Beyond the Stars” to “Glory”)

The year kicks off with “I Love You To Death“, a crime drama from director Lawrence Kasdan. Some shimmering sounds during the opening title give the composer’s identity away, but other than that, it sounds very little (if: nothing) like the maestro. There is a quirky steel drum (different from those in earlier scores; in fact it plays a much more typical Jamaican melody), backed by bass and accordion. The score also houses a saxophone melody that sounds like a close cousin to the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” theme. Considering the legal issues surrounding that score, it’s a pretty ballsy move from Horner to write something that still lingers so closely to the “Amarcord” theme. Elsewhere there is a comedic cue written in a baroque style, there are also a few obviously synthesized cues. It’s not a great score, but not a terrible one either. It was never properly released and I think it’d be nice if it did see the light of day.
Unsurprisingly, “Another 48 Hours” [2/5] sounds much like its predecessor. It’s arguably a little tighter (less messy), but it still occasionally descends into cacophony. 80s beats, saxophone, electric piano and bass all play pivotal roles alongside Horner’s classic shakuhachi and brass blasts. The quirky steeldrums are also reprised… and I’ve got to say, I do quite like that steeldrum pattern. Sticking with Walter Hill, the composer also scored “Cutting Cards”, the third episode of season two of “Tales From The Crypt” (which consists mostly of plucked strings, deep chords and four note motifs…all synthesized).

From “Big Band On Ice” you might not immediately suspect James Horner being the composer for “Once Around” [2.5/5], until a certain brass flurry halfway through the cue gives it away. A few songs fill out the album, leaving four cues (and approximately twenty minutes) for Horner. It’s not hugely original (owing a fair bit to “Land Before Time” of all things), but it is really rather lovely.
After the odd, synthesized score for “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” (which sounds like an even more minimalistic variation on “Field of Dreams”, though it also houses a theme that, retrospectively, sounds vaguely like “Beyond Borders”) Horner scored the courtroom-drama “Class Action” [2.5/5]. An arpeggio for electric piano and a melody for saxophone make up the “Main Title”. It sounds as if Horner took a little bit of the 80s with him into the 90s, though the overall sound is much more polished. You could argue that this score marks the transition between his 80s ‘urban’ scores and his 90s thriller ones. The e-piano arpeggio dominates the score to such an extent that, on album, it becomes rather tiresome. Other than that, it’s a perfectly adequate if somewhat forgettable score.
Horner soon returned to his A-game when Joe Johnston asked his to score the nostalgic adventure “The Rocketeer” [5/5]. A wonderful, long-lined piano theme opens the score. The melody is carried over to the strings, with brass and timpani accents during the rests – so typical for the composer, and so brilliantly executed here. This melody gradually builds to become a rousing ‘barnstormer’ of a theme. It then features, in many guises, throughout the score. There are plenty of Hornerism here, some dating back to the days of “Star Trek II”, and all are deployed with such rigour and vigour – it is truly infectious. The composer wrote a wonderfully lush love theme for “Jenny”, but the real star of the show is the quite literally show-stopping “End Title” and that finale. Sure, it’s the finale from “Star Trek II”, but it’s on steroids and then some. The final 38-seconds of “The Rocketeer” make for the most exciting, exhilarating, rousing and simply the most fantastic finale in the whole history of filmmusic… And I’m not even kidding.
Another rare sequel is “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” [5/5], where Horner builds on his material for the first film, and gives it a distinctly more Wild Western sound. The material is so colourful and so playful; and some cues are allowed to carry on for over 7 or 8 minutes. The “Main Title” beautifully reminds us of all the themes from the prequel, and then introduces some new ones. There are still the odd nods to Prokofiev(el) and, more understandably, Copland. Elsewhere, songs like “Way Out West” or “The Girl You Left Behind” are bound to put a smile on anyone’s face. Other highlights include “Building a New Town”, “In Training”, “The Shoot-Out” and “New Land”. The composer also wrote a new song called “Dreams to Dream”, which was performed by Linda Rondstadt. It received a Golden Globe nomination, but otherwise didn’t do so well.

Thunderheart” (Michael Apted) [1.5/5] is really quite an unpleasant score, despite serving as a precursor to “Legends of the Fall” – listen to “This Land Is Not For Sale”, for example. Synth strings, pan flute arpeggios and light percussion dominate this score, that is chockfull of Horner’s ethnic winds. It’s quite an atmospheric work, harmonic but not particularly melodic. It focusses on hypnotic rhythms and repetition, in line with Native chanting and drumming. Horner didn’t do sparse minimalism very often, but this was one such occasion. The composer continued working with Michael Apted and contributed music for the director’s TV-show “Crossroads“.
Unfortunately, “Patriot Games” [1.5/5] is not much more pleasant, and is in fact ‘more of the same’. Tense synth pads, clicking percussion and pan flute arpeggios make up the bulk of this thriller score. Whilst it serves the picture, it doesn’t make for an engaging listen on album. Some (and I do only mean ‘some’) of the Native winds have been replaced with Irish ones. A variation on “Gayane’s Ballet” (which worked so well in “Aliens”) makes an appearance. Highlight of the album is “Harry’s Game” by Clannad.
Do things get better with “Unlawful Entry” [2/5]? No, not really (it only just stops shy of being a godawful entry). The “Main Title” houses a simple melody for a synthesized saxophone… or that’s what it vaguely resembles. The composer’s breathy synths pads are presents, as is a piano and a sparingly used bass. Much of the score alternates between crashing pianos, cacophonous percussion and mysteriously twinkling piano. For the most part it’s more ‘musical’ than either “Patriot Games” or “Thunderheart”, but it’s not really any more listenable. The fact that it’s all synthesized makes it even harder to digest. Die-hard fans may appreciate the various Hornerisms.
With “Sneakers” [4/5] Horner is sticking with thrillers, but this score is much lighter, more engaging, more exciting and a million times more interesting. The “Main Title” is a variation on the composer’s ‘genius’ motif, which he also used in “Searching for Bobby Fisher”, “Bicentennial Man” and “A Beautiful Mind”. The chords keep changing, representing the rapid thinking of a genius. Later, Horner would compare his technique to looking through a kaleidoscope, with constantly shifting colours and reflections. A female ‘ahahah’ adds a touch of class to the opening cue and to the next. Horner’s beloved ticking woodblock is present to add tension, whilst piano and flute create forward motion. A main theme for saxophone (which includes that 4-note motif rather a lot), a secondary theme for mallets and rattling hi hats lend the score a jazzy character. Much of “Sneakers” would later be reprised in “Apollo 13” and “Titanic” to mention but two. “Sneakers” is a very tight, super-slick and brilliantly executed score. And there’s a lush surprise during the final cue (something of a trademark in itself to introduce a new idea during the score’s finale).

Feel free to use the comments area to share your thoughts about these scores.

Right, best sit down… because summing up 1993 may take a while, with nigh a dozen scores!
A film about Nazi kids who listen to forbidden jazz music, the soundtrack for “Swing Kids” [3/5] combines flamboyant traditional jazz cues with a sombre and beautiful score by James Horner. Most of it consists of soft strings and choir, accompanied by a familiar see-sawing bass line. There isn’t a lot of score here, 7 cues over 24 minutes, but it’s deliciously ominous. “Training for Utopia” stands out for its inclusion of, what surely must be, a classical choral piece. There’s more choir in “Ashes”, which could or could-not be Horner’s own composition. It’s a quiet score, very introvert and not hugely original, but it’s expertly written and entirely performed by live orchestra. If Horner wrote more than the 24 minutes presented so far (which is doubtful), I’d quite like to see an extended release.
With “A Far Off Place” [2.5/5] cinematographer Mikael Solomon made his directorial debut. The family film tells the story of a couple of kids stuck in the desert and having to walk for months to safety. Horner provides a lush, but somewhat understated main theme. It’s a lively score, but somehow misses the panache that usually graces this kind of score. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it; it’s not even particularly heavy on the Hornerisms, but it’s lacking the enthusiasm and the vibrant colours that Horner normally puts into these scores.
The synopsis for “Jack the Bear” [2.5/5] sounds rather bizarre. A professional clown, whose wife dies, is left to take care of his children. He struggles, so leaves it to someone else, whilst he goes crackers and ends up kidnapping someone. I’d like to know what Horner saw in this film to think “Sure… I’m only contracted up to my eyeballs, I can take another project.” The score combines Horner’s familiar colours (strings, flute, harp) with slightly darker ones. About half of it is sampled; particularly the strings. It’s quite odd to think that anno 1993 he would bother with this. Overall, it’s an adequate score, but like “A Far Off Place” it’s just lacking some of the composer’s usual energy. That’s twice now this year that Horner’s panache has gone missing. Where is it?
That panache that went missing earlier… well, he saved it for “Once Upon A Forest” [4.5/5], a wonderfully lush orchestral score for an animated movie. The score kicks off with a lovely song “Once Upon A Time With Me”, sung by Florence Warner Jones and a children’s choir. The main theme is a wonderful, soaring melody that recurs throughout the score. And it’s such a colourful and playful work. “The Forest” is over 9-minutes long, but it moves along so effortlessly it never feels like a nine minute track. A few wonderful cues pass until we get to “The Journey Begins”, which is a particular highlight as Horner introduces a playful march and offsets it against his lush, somewhat old-fashioned (in a good way) main theme. There is powerful action music in “Escaping from the Yellow Dragons” (with the trumpets doing triplets aplenty); whilst “Flying Home to Michelle” and “The Children” offer dramatic string-writing that rivals pretty much anything Horner has ever written.
House of Cards” [3/5] initially seems to stick with ‘jungle’ sounds, as a solemn drumbeat, shakers and various flutes paint a foresty picture. After the lengthy (and not very eventful) “Opening Credits” Horner returns to a soundscape dominated by strings and piano, though the flutes are never far away. The score seems to owe a little to “Where The Rivers Run Black”, but is fully orchestral and feels more developed. “The Dream” surely must have been based on Christopher Young’s “Hellraiser” as it follows a near-identical chord pattern, one that feels alien in Horner’s oeuvre. Overall “House of Cards” is actually quite a pleasant score (and often it’s really very good), yet somehow it doesn’t quite strike home. Perhaps it all sounds a tad too familiar, but the flute performances are wonderful, the strings are lush, the airy synth is here and some cues reference the ‘genius’ motif from “Sneakers”, though thankfully it manages to remain different enough. Easily overlooked, even by me, but actually worth checking out.
The ‘genius’ motif from “Sneakers” gets explored further in “Searching for Bobby Fischer” [4/5] which deals with a child who is a master chess player. Lively piano chords (think “A Beautiful Mind”, especially in a cue like “The Castle” and “Josh and Vinnie”) accompany a long-lined and lush theme for strings. It’s a beautiful, free-flowing melody. This is Horner at his best – memorable themes, warm orchestrations (strings and woodwinds, and piano of course). A cue like “Contempt” is interesting, not quite a highlight though, as it offers a 3-chord motif that Horner often returns to (I think it reminds me of “Field of Dreams” here), as well as a lovely melody with a simply 2-note accompaniment that resembles the later “To Gillian”. Those deep rolling pianos are present as well. I love those! “Bobby Fischer” recently received an extended release on La-La Land Records.
I’ve always struggled a little with “The Man Without A Face” [2.5/5] – and I do mean the score, not the actual man without a face. It’s a very pretty score with Horner doing all the things that Horner does. Or did (…sigh). The trouble is that it’s such an anonymous score. It’s very unoriginal and most of it sounds like filler music from other scores. I’m being harsh, I know I am. On its own this would be a lovely score, but within Horner’s oeuvre, even if I just limit it to this very year, and even bearing in mind Horner’s self-referencing tendencies, “TMWaF” really is a score without a face. That’s not to say, what I’ve said twice already and will say again… it’s beautiful music (just don’t expect to remember which score you’re actually listening to).
That synth bass from “Glory’s” end title is back! “Bopha!” [2.5/5] is for the most part a low-key atmospheric score, with wooden, metallic, synth and a few flute ‘effects’. It does, however, house a really beautiful main theme (one that vaguely reminds me of “Titanic”, but this is tricky to explain). There are a few pretty cues here, “Pride of the S.A.P” and “Naledi Saves Zweli” for example, but the highlight is “Amandla!” which features the main theme, sung by African choir, over wooden percussion, stomps and that synth bass. The various additional vocal shouts are a bit over the top, but the melody is just so infectious.
Changing pace and colours and everything… “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story” [4/5] is Horner’s second score for an animated film this year. Where “Once Upon a Forest” is the prettier and ultimately more focused of the two, “WB: ADS” is bolder and more comedic (arguably more in tune with the later “The Pagemaster”). Horner presents a lovely, quite melancholy theme for strings in “Flying Forward in Time”, which is reprised particularly spectacularly in “The Transformation” – one of Horner’s Great Cues. The latter track alone is worth the purchase of this album. However, there’s quite a bit of zany music here. Stuff that resembles “Honey I Shrunk The Kids” or “Jumanji” (though possibly more focused than either of them). “Grand Slam Demons” could be one of Elfman’s weird marches; whilst “Circus” lives up to its name and features circus music. Plenty of flutter-tongue brass, kazoos and whistles throughout the score. I mean… it’s absolutely stark raving bonkers at times! A bit much for me, but the highlight cues are phenomenal.
Horner’s year concludes with “The Pelican Brief” [3/5], a crime drama by Alan J. Pakula. As is custom with Horner’s thriller scores, this one starts with a ticking woodblock. Mysteriously fluttering vocals (“Sneakers” anyone?), twinkly piano notes and a sparsely used bass are added. Much of the score sounds like it could’ve come from “Sneakers”, though it misses that jazzy touch that made the former score so unique. There isn’t much of a theme through most of the album, though Horner plays skewed fragments of a theme that he unleashes towards the very end of the album. Oddly, “Bourbon Street” and “Chasing Gray” feature synth strings, whilst the rest of the score features live orchestra (including strings). There is some ferocious action music that relies on Horner’s string arpeggios, trumpet triplets and crashing pianos. Finally “Darby’s Theme” is a proper lush melody for strings and trumpet (that really warm, rounded trumpet sound that Horner’s known for). “Airport Goodbye” is the highlight of the album. Halfway through it, all the mystery resolves and makes way for a truly glorious rendition of “Darby’s Theme”. That gorgeous trumpet against rolling strings and deep piano chords. The last 4 minutes are simply magnificent.
Horner could’ve scored “Hocus Pocus” (with a summer release date), but he ended up leaving the project (I’m not sure why) and John Debney took over. However, “Sarah’s Theme”, a lovely, seductive song that Horner wrote for Sarah Jessica Parker’s character remained in the film, as she flies over the town on her broomstick, seducing children to come with her.

The year starts late, in August, which is not surprising considering how stupendously packed 1993 was! “Clear And Present Danger” [3.5/5] is the follow-up to “Patriot Games”, once again starring Harrison Ford. Right from the get-go this one is a much bigger, more ambitious score. The “Main Title” presents a rather heroic fanfare, followed by thriller music that will be reprised (much better) in “Apollo 13”.  The action music is ferocious, and the horn theme in “Ambush” again ‘reminds’ of “Apollo 13”. The writing throughout is exciting, proper edge-of-your-seat stuff. Where “Patriot Games” was closely related to Horner’s 80s action scores, “CaPD” is a proper 90s score. The rhythmic pan flutes are present, as is the ticking woodblock, a rising trio of bass notes, the snare drums, crashing pianos, “Gayane”, everything and the kitchen sink. With “Second Hand Copter” Horner returns to his 80s sound (the arpeggios, the trombone accents, the drumkit), but it’s done so slickly it’s actually really cool. The whole score is a hoot – much more than I want it to be. Does that even makes sense? However, with the knowledge of hindsight, it sort-of annoys me just how much this score resembles “Apollo 13”, which makes that the derivative score, even though its still ten times better.
Moving on… “Dream Away” by Babyface is enough the scare anyone away. “Whatever You Imagine” by Horner and performed by Wendy Moten is much better and really quite catchy. It presents the main theme, in song form of course, which is then given the orchestral treatment in “Main Title” (which also borrows the choir from “Willow”). I’m talking about “The Pagemaster” [4.5/5], a glorious, grand, sweeping score in which Horner has the opportunity to explore various genres in a playful manner. Somehow this score feels overlooked, perhaps the film kinda flopped, or seeing Macauley Culkin on the cover is off-putting? Yet, it’s so much fun and so feel-good in a mature way. The main theme, although simple, really sticks in your head. It consists of two parts – first there a little fanfare that covers the word “what ever you imagine”, followed by a typically lush string theme with rolling harp and timpani accents. There are some cracking tracks here. The writing and orchestrations are incredible, especially where the brass section is concerned (stylistically it may owe a little to Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, and it really is about as intense as “Willow”).  “Meeting Adventure & Fantasy” offers a magnificent playful tune, whilst “Pirates” is one of Horner most excited and swashbuckling cues ever.
So how does one top such an exciting work as “The Pagemaster”? One writes the lushest score of one’s career – “Legends of the Fall” [5/5], the second collaboration with director Edward Zwick. I’m not sure this should really count as a 1994 film, seeing as it only received a limited release around Christmas that year, and went on general release in January 1995. Nonetheless, ultimately it’s the music that counts and it is phenomenal (much better than the film it accompanies, if I’m being a bit blunt). As with “Willow”, this score is particularly dear to me and I could write an essay on it alone (don’t worry, I’ll refrain). There are multiple themes here, each as wonderful as the next. There is a long-lined theme for the Ludlow family (initially performed on piano), there is a stoic theme for Tristan, the rebel son, and various other lush melodies. The shakuhachi appears in typical Horner fashion, seeing as there is a ‘Native American’ element to the story. The dramatic writing is sublime. This is one of those score where the music tells the story all on its own. You don’t need to see the film, really. This is James Horner the story-teller, the dramatist, the poet, the painter. Nearly every cue is a highlight… nearly every moment is! From the soft trumpet that opens the album, to the piano and strings of “The Ludlows”, the heart wrenching action of “Samuel’s Death” and the heroism of “Tristan’s Return”. Stylistically the score may remind a little of John Barry’s “Dances with Wolves” or “Out of Arica”, but I dare say that Horner’s work is grander and more ambitious.

The immense “Legends of the Fall” is immediately followed by, what has to be, Horner’s magnum opus: “Braveheart” [5/5]. There is a timeless beauty about Horner’s score. Well… there is about most of them, but this one in particular. As the camera glides above the Scottish highlands, Horner presents a stunningly beautiful main theme that feels ‘real’, it feels like it really comes from that location. Cleverly he uses Uillean pipes rather than bagpipes, as they sound similar, but haven’t got that droning undertone that many find annoying. Horner continues to introduce us his love theme, which ranks amongst the most poignant melodies in his career (especially as heard in “The Secret Wedding”).  The composer employs at least two further themes, both relating to Scotland’s fight for freedom and the sacrifices that have to be made. Along the course of the album, there are some stunning renditions of these themes to be heard, in “Sons of Scotland”, “For the Love of a Princess”, and “The Legend Spreads”. There is powerful action music complete with Horner’s airy synths (some of it, recalling the ‘revenge’ music from “Legends of the Fall”), thundering drums as well as his lighter clicking percussion. It all leads up to that scene and that cue… “Freedom/The Execution/Bannockburn”, a 7-minute masterpiece, an emotional tour de force that plays out so effortlessly and breaks your heart so readily. It is magnificent – and for that cue alone (not to mention the rest of the score), Horner should have won that year’s Oscar.
I remember “Casper” [3.5/5] coming out (in the cinema…not the closet). I though it was going to be a silly movie with a silly score. It is indeed a silly movie, but the score surpassed (and still does) my expectations. It’s a lively, colourful and at times zany score, but never quite as far-out crazy as “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” or “Jumanji”, which also came out in 1995. Whilst Horner plays to the comedy, he does so in a very tightly controlled manner. What really lifts “Casper” above similar scores, is the composer’s sense of drama. Despite all the ghostly antics, Horner never loses sight of the fact that Casper was a real boy who’s died, and who wishes nothing more but to be alive one more night, and to spend that time with his girlfriend (even though they’re like twelve and it’s only puppy love). It doesn’t matter that they’re “just” kids, the composer never downplays their emotions. This results in a wonderful, wistful main theme for Casper that can be heard in several cues, notably “The Lighthouse”, “Casper’s Lullaby” and “One Last Wish” (in which those deep rumbling pianos play a key role). The 10-minute “Descent to Lazarus” is also a highlight.
And then there’s “Apollo 13” [5/5], a stirring score for a doomed space mission. Though we now know that it owes a fair bit to “Uncommon Valor” and “In Country” it is also miles ahead of both of them. The nobility and patriotism of the astronauts are captured absolutely splendidly here. The score earned Horner a second Oscar-nomination in this year alone (the other being for “Braveheart”) and it’s not hard to hear why – and he would’ve totally deserved if, had he won it. There are a few lengthy pieces here that easily sit amongst the composer’s best cues. The 10-minute “The Launch” for example. Horner spends 6 minutes building tension, before it all explodes. Despite the presence of a full orchestra, it’s actually the choir that really elevates this cue, giving it a magical (much like the choir did in “Willow” and “The Pagemaster”). The way Horner plays with different rhythms and time signatures is particularly impressive here. My personal favorite (both here and in Horner’s entire career) is “Re-entry & Splashdown”, where he has to suspend the general knowledge that these astronauts will be returning safely. Through familiar, but brilliantly executed motifs (including a melody that would return in “Balto” and would later become the main theme in “Enemy at the Gates”) the composer leads us to think that this mission might still fail catastrophically. But then the main theme returns gloriously and we are reassured that everything is going to be okay… and the choir poignantly reminds us that this story is about real heroes, real people, real loved ones.
There are rumours stating that Horner deliberately fluffed “Jade” [1/5], but I find that hard to believe. If there were issues, the composer could have refused to score it or could have walked away. I think he saw a challenge in writing a score that has to work around (and plays second fiddle to) Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Loreena McKennit’s “The Mystic’s Dream”. On album, Horner’s score is not very pleasant. It’s a dark score, with synthesized textures and low rumbling pianos. Of remote interest are the synthesized vocals, something he’d do again (though much better) in “Titanic”.
The composer rejoined Joe Johnston on his popular film “Jumanji” [2/5]. It’s a score full of familiar Hornerism, owing plenty to “Casper”, “The Pagemaster”, “Honey…” and “We’re Back”, but the result is a  cacophony of sounds and styles. Don’t get me wrong, it is well written (with familiar sounding string arpeggios, snare drums and shakers). It is as dense and complex as anything he’s ever composed, and there are moments that are quite excellent. The album as a whole though feels chaotic and disjointed. Listen out for a little descending motif for piano and chimes (for example at the very start of the stand-out cue “Jumanji”). It sounds like something out of a game show, and he’s go on to use it a few more times, including in “The Amazing Spider-man”. The 2-note trumpet motif played a big role in later scores, particularly “Titanic”.
Horner’s last-ever contribution to an animation film is “Balto” [4.5/5]. I’ve always loved this score. It’s grand, colourful and full of conviction. There is a simple, but adequate main theme that also forms the basis for the song “Reach for the Light” (a rather sub par song, to be honest). Horner’s orchestral variations on the theme are superb. And there is a long-lined secondary theme, which is really quite pretty. Horner does not hold back where the action is concerned! It’s as exciting and bold as anything. There is very little here to suggest that this is music for a ‘cartoon’. “Grizzly Bear” is particularly raucous, and shows a slight influence from orchestrator Don Davis. I love the staccato flute in “Jenna Telegraphing the News”, whilst “Heritage of the Wolf” is a classic all on its own. That longing motif from “Apollo 13” (that would later become “Tanya’s Theme”) adds nobility and urgency to this cue. The score’s key themes get a work out during the second half of the cue. The way Horner builds the suspension, then drops it and moves towards a heroic finale is sheer brilliance. The score concludes with the lush “Balto Brings the Medicine”.

Feel free to use the comments area to share your thoughts about these scores.

Horner provided a replacement score for “The Spitfire Grill” [5/5]. I can’t find who originally scored the film, let alone what that sounded like, but Horner certainly delivered one his most beautiful and eloquent works. Set in small-town America and the surrounding woods, Horner relies heavily on woodwinds – and whilst there are similarities to his previous forest-based scores, it all sounds much more mature and dramatic here. Over the years, many have noted similarities to Thomas Newman’s style, but I’ve never really made that connection. It’s a Horner score through and through, though somehow he manages to present a reasonably unique colour, using woodwinds, light strings, horn and piano. Listening to a cue like “The Trees” you can just imagine the light shimmering and sparkling between the leafs. Even without synesthesia you can feel the colours. Horner often compared composing to painting, and it’s a score like “The Spitfire Grill” where you can really hear what he meant. Some of those shimmering sounds would be reprised in “Titanic” (probably representing the glittering of light on the water). The composer also penned a few lovely, folksy Americana tunes, but the highlights for me are the magical “An Uncertain Future”, the dramatic “A Desperate Decision” and the lengthy “Care of the Spitfire Grill”.
Horner, Edward Zwick and Denzel Washington got back together (after “Glory”) for “Courage Under Fire” [3/5], a critically acclaimed film dealing wit the war in Iraq. Of the three scores Horner has written for Zwick, this is the weakest by far, though it still makes for a pleasant listen. Its highlight is the slow and noble “Hymn”. It’s nothing special, really, but Horner’s ‘nothing specials’ are often still miles ahead of other people’s best efforts. Another stand-out cue is “Al Bathra/Main Title”, which sees the sounds of a helicopter morphing into Horner’s synths and string arpeggios. It is followed by ferocious action writing complete with electric guitars (which would all be copied verbatim into “Titanic” shortly after). It’s a pretty score, easy to enjoy, but it lacks a character of its own. The hymn isn’t quite strong enough, and the underscore sounds too much like everything else. Oddly though, considering the subject matter and given Horner’s method of applying similar melodies to similar storylines, you would expect this score to sound much more like “Uncommon Valor” or “In Country”… but it doesn’t. I think It’s actually closer to his 90s thrillers like “The Pelican Brief” and “Clear and Present Danger”.
Another somewhat anonymous but otherwise perfectly lovely score is “To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday” [3/5]. The album opens with a French horn playing the main theme, in oh so typical Horner fashion. Strings take over, and familiar chords and sounds follow suit. It’s a small and heartfelt score for a story about a man struggling to come to terms with the loss of his wife. Melodic influences seem to range from “Spitfire Grill” to “Legends of the Fall” to “Dad”. Horner’s usual synths are present, as is his typical high-register piano fluttering. I’ve never heard or read much about the making of this score, but I could easily imagine most of it being improvised. It’s mostly piano accompanied by little woodwinds, strings and synths.
Ron Howard returned to Horner for the score to “Ransom” [2/5], a revenge thriller starring Mel Gibson. Crashing pianos, breathy synths, ticking woodblocks and bass, thunderous toms, and a couple of references to previous thriller scores, like “Sneakers”, are all present. The main theme, if there is one, is not at all memorable (though I think I once identified a resemblance to the much later “Amazing Spider-man”, but of course I can’t find it any more). “Ransom” is not meant to be a pleasant score, and so it isn’t. Horner makes it as agressive as he can, in his 90s style, whilst the slower string parts prevent the lot from becoming unlistenable.

So, the year opens with the thriller “The Devil’s Own” [3/5], in which Horner gets to play with his beloved Irish influences. It’s an okay score, but rather unremarkable. The “Main Title” offers a melody sung in Irish, alongside flute, Uillean pipes (bordering on “Braveheart”), bodhran, rumbling pianos and rhythmic pan flutes. The theme is reprised satisfyingly in “The Mortal Blow” and “Going Home”. Elsewhere, “Launching the Boat” is a lovely cue for flute, pipes, guitar and stick percussion. But then, “Rooftop Escape” feels oddly synthesized, not least due to its use of “Titanic”-esque synth vocals.
Speaking of “Titanic” [4.5/5]… yeah, that one happened this year. Everyone, and I mean every-one, fell in love with that film, that song and its score – and for good reason. It’s a fantastic film with a grand, sweeping score. Yet, it’s a different kind of sweep. It’s not “Legends…” or “Braveheart”. It’s more modern, and perhaps more subtle (though perhaps not). There are a number of themes scattered throughout the score and they’re all equally lovely and memorable, though you can’t escape the thought that he can knock out half a dozen of these melodies between breakfast and lunch. And in a way, Horner has admitted as such, by saying a melody only takes a moment to write (it’s all about what you then do with it). There was outcry over the ‘fake’ choir sounds, but I look back at them favourably and they do blend in surprisingly well with the orchestra. I find the blatant copying of “Courage Under Fire” in “Hard to Starboard” much less forgivable. It’s already a quintessential Horner score as it is, even without any blatant copy-and-paste jobs. At the time, the double Oscar-win was unsurprising, but felt undeserved. This, but not “Braveheart” or “Apollo” or “Legends” or “Glory”…? Fans felt disappointed, because they could hear things (recognise things) that the general public could not. And that general public bought nearly 30 million copies of the album, making it the best-selling score of all time, making Horner very rich and sending him into semi-retirement (he did fewer and fewer films in the years following). All that said… and seventeen years on, I think “Titanic” has stood the test of time, both the film and the score. I listen to those wistful melodies with a heavy heart, knowing that its composer is no longer with us. There is love and enthusiasm here. Sure, it’s not Horner’s most original work and it’s not his best, but it’s a heartfelt work. You can feel he means every note. The French horn doubled with Sissel’s vocals do not fail to sent a few shivers down my spine. And when you hear the live version (search for the video from the “Hollywood in Vienna” performance) I challenge you to keep a dry eye! As for the song… it’s not a bad song, but it’s got bad lyrics.

For Horner “Deep Impact” [3.5/5] was that difficult first-score-after-winning-an-Oscar. The film is about a comet that’s about the destroy our world. Yeah, like “Armageddon”, but where that was an all-out action film, “Deep Impact” is much more down-to-earth and dramatic, much more suited to James Horner. He wrote a lovely score, one that has aged well and sounds much better now than it did back then. In 1998 it suffered a little from sounding too familiar, but anno 2015 it benefits from the nostalgia factor. Stylistically and sonically it’s a typical 90s Horner score, with “Apollo 13” and “Courage Under Fire” arguably being its closest relatives, though it’s not quite as majestic as the former and not as underwhelming as the latter. There’s a decent main theme and plenty of beautiful and dramatic Horner chords throughout the score. There’s some interesting, if brief, avant-garde action writing at the start of “The Comet’s Sunrise”; and a beautiful statement of the main theme in “The Wedding”. Horner saves the best for last, as “Drawing Straws” and “Goodbye and Godspeed” make for an engaging 22-minute finale, with a particularly pleasant choral performance in the latter cue.
Strumming guitars, hand claps, stomping feet, rhythmic flutes… Horner pulled everything out of the bag for “The Mask of Zorro” [4/5], a rousing Latin-flavoured score for the famous caped crusader (no, not Batman… the other one, with the sword and the Z). Horner offers a swashbuckling theme for trumpets for Mr Zorro, and a lovely woodwind-driven love theme elsewhere (which eventually forms the basis of the rather mediocre song “I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You”… is that you Will Jennings? Sigh.) Anyway, the score is phenomenal, in fact it’s quite insane at times. It’s such a wild, fast-paced ride! Strings, winds, brass, percussion… everything is fast, no time to breathe. And that’s perhaps its only downside – it’s 74 minutes of excitement, which is just a little too much to take in (at least for me). Still, the main theme is amongst Horner’s best and there’s a very satisfying complexity and depth to the writing. The 13-minute “Leave No Witnesses” is a particular highlight.
Horner returned to the jungle with “Mighty Joe Young” [4.5/5]. The album opens with that choir from “Willow” and “The Pagemaster”, but this time it sounds different. It’s not a full choir, probably a few overdubbed voices, giving it a whole new colour. Various percussion instruments, with a distinctly wooden sound, rattle in the background. The tension keeps building and is suddenly released. In its wake emerges a wonderful main theme for flute. In “Poachers” Horner goes one better and offers a magnificent melody called “Windsong”. It’s sung by an African-sounding choir, but only after the gentlest and most heart-breaking of performances by a small girl. What follows is a score that is bold, colourful, lively, melodic, at times emotional and at times aggressive. The main theme and the wooden percussion that accompanies it is a joy to listen to. The action becomes rather relentless during the last few cues, with “The Carnival” and “The Burning Ferris Wheel” being two particularly outstanding cues. What makes the action music so engaging is that Horner never leaves his melodies behind. Remember “Star Trek II” where all the action material is based around the characters’ themes? It’s something Horner did so well, time and time again. There are a couple of overly familiar moments in “MJY”; for example the moment when “The Burning Ferris Wheel” climaxes and releases all its tension (with the flutter tongue shakuhachi). You might be forgiven for thinking you’ve tuned into “Samuel’s Death” from “Legends of the Fall”, but hey… that’s was one stunning musical moment worth revisiting. The album closes with a 9-minute cue going through variations on the “Windsong”.  I love it, so I’ll leave you with this…

Imba wimbo, Wa upepo, Wakati unajiwa na.
Imba wimbo wa upepo, Wakati ndoto tamu.
Lala mpaka usiku uisheni, Upepo wa usiku, Wimbo wanko na.
Wimbo wangu inaendelea milele.

The 90s, the millennium and Horner’s second decade in Hollywood ends with “Bicentennial Man” [3/5]. It’s a beautiful score, but it relies a little too heavily on familiar Hornerisms. “The Machine Age” features piano going through shifting chords as it did in “Bobby Fischer” and “Sneakers” (and later in “A Beautiful Mind”). This time there is no female vocal cooing along, but woodwinds instead. Wooden percussion is ticking along. Brass comes in with triplets, quadruplets. The whole thing starts to speed up and starts to follow the chord pattern from the “STII / Rocketeer” finale. It’s actually an incredibly exciting piece, regardless of the fact that Horner keeps going back to this ‘kaleidoscope’ motif. It sounds quite different here than it does in the aforementioned scores. What follows is a lovely, very gentle score, but one that is just a tad underwhelming. Horner is at the height of his career here, and he has perfected his style. He doesn’t do anything wrong. There isn’t a note or sound out of place. Does “Bicentennial Man” need a 76-minute album release? No, probably not. Can I list any inferior tracks that should come off? No, I can’t. Yet, it does all feel incredibly familiar. It’s like a more developed version of “House of Cards”, “The Man Without A Face”, “Dad” and those types of score.”The Gift of Mortality” even owes a bit to “Braveheart”. The album’s biggest flaw is the song “Then You Look At Me”. Not sure if they were trying to do another “My Heart Will Go On”, but the only thing that matches that chart-topper is the banality of the lyrics. Personally, I don’t think the score’s main theme really lends itself well to a song, but again it’s the lyrics that really kill it dead. Anyway, the score is perfectly lovely, just a little anonymous.

Feel free to use the comments area to share your thoughts about these scores.

Stay tuned for part 3 where I’ll be exploring Horner’s output in the 2000s and beyond…

James Horner A Composer’s Special – Introduction
The 1980s
(from “Battle Beyond the Stars” to “Glory”)
The 1990s (from “I Love You To Death” to “Bicentennial Man”)
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)

Article by Peter Simons


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