I’m usually negatively vocal about the works of James Horner—in person and in print. I’ve criticized his uncredited borrowing from Prokofiev, as well as his over-reliance on certain motifs. Rumors to the contrary, I do not hate Horner’s music. Horner has a distinctive voice, but his flaws as a composer need to be taken into account in any discussion of his music, at least from my end. And while I will be the first to jump down his throat for any overused, annoying “Hornerisms,” Horner is a superb dramatist whose music illuminates—and often surpasses—the films he scores.
Horner certainly knows his way around a melody and his harmonic language is solidly based in tonality, making his music popular among film score fans and the general public. (TITANIC anyone?) But Horner’s overuse of those certain motifs—in particular a 7-note snare drum riff and an ever-present minor-key triplet “danger” motif in the brass—while immediately identifying the music as his, ultimately rob many of the scores of their spark and originality.
I prefer my Horner on the gentler side, in scores where he doesn’t seem to be straining so hard. For me, the music is more relaxed and personal, as opposed to the forced bombast of many of the bigger blockbuster scores, which, while often exciting, can come across as pale imitations other composers, as well as of each other.
When I first revisited Horner’s music in preparation for this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I thought I’d be hard pressed to come up with nine selections, especially considering how angry I get at him sometimes. But it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable few weeks of tonal film music, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had to whittle down a sizable chunk of solidly crafted film music.
9. ALIENS (1986)
Every bit as effective, in its own way, as Jerry Goldsmith’s original ALIEN score, Horner’s music for the sequel was equally butchered and caused a rift in his relationship with director James Cameron. Yet even in its compromised state, the string chords and echoing brass capture the lonely vastness of space, while the top-notch action cues have been used in countless trailers ever since.
8. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (2003)
This dark film stars Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley as a recovering addict and the bullish head of an immigrant Iranian family battling over the ownership of a house. The music ebbs and flows as if in a dream, floating and drifting throughout the film, giving the story a harmonic haze that offsets some of the more unpleasant aspects of the story. A surprising Oscar nominee.
7. ALL THE KING’S MEN (2006)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of Southern political corruption had already been made into a 1949 Oscar-winning Best Picture. And with Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins on board, the remake had all the earmarks of further Oscar bait. But critics left the film hanging from the magnolia trees, and Horner’s dramatic score along with it. As with all tales of political corruption, the story is dark and so is Horner’s music. Anchored by a heartbreaking main theme that telegraphs Willy Stark’s downfall, Horner keeps his Hornerisms to a minimum and delivers an undiscovered gem of raw, dramatic power.
6. WILLOW (1989)
Based on a story by George Lucas, Ron Howard directed (and I use that term loosely) this wretched sword-and-sorcery fantasy film. This is one of those films I hated on sight and, because of that, have trashed Horner’s score ever since. I now publicly eat crow in my praise of the music, which I may have continued trashing if it weren’t for this post. The faux Renaissance trappings of the music don’t work particularly well, but the score has energy; a rousing, heroic main theme; and crackerjack action cues.
5. TESTAMENT (1983)
Nuclear holocaust is usually portrayed on film as the horror it is. In this understated gem of a film, Jane Alexander tries to keep what’s left of her family together as her world slowly succumbs to the effects of radiation. The film focuses on human relationships rather than makeup effects, and contains images that still stick with me nearly 30 years later. In this sparse score, chimes toll the coming devastation and a French horn melody cries in pain. But it’s the childlike flute theme that underscores lost innocence and a safe world that is no more. Sad, tender and heartbreaking, the music moves you without yanking on the heartstrings.
4. APOLLO 13 (1995)
The disastrous journey of Apollo 13 makes for prime drama and slick Hollywood filmmaking in the hands of director Ron Howard. The score soars in the main trumpet theme, while Horner captures the haunting loneliness of outer space and dashed dreams in the quiet moments. All those annoying Hornerisms are on full display, yet work wonderfully, in the action cues. Horner once again borrows from himself, using exact quotes from 1993’s THE PELICAN BRIEF, yet he ratchets up the emotional stakes to create a truly memorable, if not entirely original score.
3. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)
I know I said I liked the quieter aspects of Horner’s music, but sometimes you just want to hear some gutsy, balls-to-the-wall film music…and this score is nothing if not ballsy. Where Jerry Goldsmith created an ethereal (yet still exciting) space symphony with his original STAR TREK score, Horner instead focuses almost strictly on the action…and by God, it works! The score is a wild orchestral ride from start to finish, filled with music that is bold and brash, as if Horner knew the score was a make-it-or-break-it moment in his career.
2. IRIS (2001)
The frustrations of Alzheimer’s are sensitively and movingly portrayed by Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the older and younger versions of novelist Iris Murdoch and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville as her caretaker husband, fellow writer John Bayley. Horner scores the film with equally sensitive music, featuring violin solos by Joshua Bell. The music never strains for sentimentality, instead relying on lovely circling motifs that weave throughout the tender themes. In a strong year for film music, Horner’s lovely score was unjustly overlooked.
1. SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (1993)
It’s hard to make chess exciting, yet this film does. Horner’s score captures every bit of excitement inherent in the clash of young intellects, while plumbing the emotion inherent in the complicated relationships between Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen and their young chess prodigy son. The score is tender, emotional, exciting, and one of my favorites of any composer. Nothing was going to beat John Williams’ SCHINDLER’S LIST score, but this should have easily been an Oscar nominee.