June 23, 2015

  • James Horner: In Memoriam

    The news of James Horner’s tragic death in a plane accident yesterday was an unfortunate loss to the film music world.  We offer our condolences to his immediate family and friends.  His music has touched many lives throughout the past 35+ years of his career.

    When I first began reviewing film music in the 1990s though, James Horner was sort of the lightning rod for film music critics, soon supplanted by Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures crews.  Part of the reason for the invective, and again this was mostly from film music fans, was that quite often he seemed to reuse material.  This is a bit of a problem for someone steeped in the more traditional orchestral style of grand thematic ideas.  Today of course, with many non-theme scores in abundance, one could lay this claim at any number of artists.  But for Horner, this seemed to be a common complaint among fans.

    That said, there is still no denying that he wrote some truly wonderful film music.  For children of the 1980s and early 1990s he was certainly a composer whose work touched their lives through films like An American Tale (1986), Willow (1988), and The Land Before Time (1988).  Most of these young fans would then come to truly appreciate the work he would do with James Cameron, especially that for Titanic (1997)—a film that he could have ended a great career on.  More recently, it was Avatar (2009) that raised his name up again in blockbuster capacity.

    I tend to be one of those reviewers who had their share of frustration with Horner’s music over the past 30 years.  I can recall hearing the score for Willow and admittedly thinking this was just a knock-off of John Williams’ style.  That was a bit too dismissive, and also somewhat uninformed for the time.  That said, this is one of the first really big scores that I noticed—having missed two much grander endeavors.

    The first of these, a score I do thoroughly enjoy, is Aliens (1986).  While this took a lot of the edges of Goldsmith’s score for Ridley Scott’s film, the action sequences here were really pulse-pounding and helped create the sort of perfect match for the screen.  Gaining a better appreciation for Star Trek as an older adult, I also then discovered Horner’s “breakout” score, 1982’s The Wrath of Khan.  This is a sort of touchstone score in a couple of ways.  First it has some fabulous memorable themes.  However, it also incorporates a lot of music that certainly bears resemblance to a score that first got Hollywood’s attention: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).  Of course, who would ever have thought that earlier score would have seen the light of day on CD anyway?

    What film made me rethink Horner’s work and check out these earlier pieces?  It was his fascinating score for Glory (1989).  There is something about this film with this music that really resonated for me at the time.  The Americana touches, things that would be expanded in Horner’s other Americana styled films (like the superb Field of Dreams), were given further impact by some beautiful choral writing.  This remains one of my favorite scores of the period.  It seems to have incorporated some of Horner’s wonderful text-setting skill, with excellent matching to film with the score.  It was likely a great experience that prepared him for an equally wonderful piece for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  One need listen to the more recent Apocalypto (2006) though to really see how far his art had come.

    The 1990s were fruitful for Horner with interesting scores, many for critically acclaimed Ron Howard films.  This is another of those great matchings of director and composer, one of several Horner had throughout his career.  The early 21st Century found him luxuriating in good projects.  Many of the films he scored tended to do well at the box office with a few noticeable disappointments (The New World and even Apocalypto could fall into that category).  Even then, there was no denying Horner’s ability to find an emotional core for a film.

    Among these later scores, his music for Iris (2001) was striking.  Continuing a thread of minimalist-like writing that appeared also that year in A Beautiful Mind, Horner’s music melded so well with this film and is an equally fascinating listen.  Ironically, these two works have their roots in another less seen film, Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993).  Or, perhaps these three films represent Horner’s particular approach to scoring music dealing with the inner life of our thoughts and brain patterns?  Perhaps here is where we see that all those earlier complaints of self-plagiarism were perhaps simply examples of a composer re-using similar approaches for similar narrative themes.

    As the film music community today mourns the loss of this popular and sometimes controversial composer, perhaps we will now be able to fully reflect on this vast body of work.  It will be time to start seeing how specific themes and musical approaches were common departures for what is still some wonderful music that stands on its own time and again.  For all of the many film music fans who understand this, they can help us see how one man did his job so well again and again.  The music will live on.