Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Growing Up James Horner (1953 - 2015)

It has been forty-eight hours since I heard the news across my brother's Facebook feed, and I'm still reeling with thoughts of the James Horner's influence upon my life. Ever since I grew to appreciate, and eventually love film scores, his work leapt out at me with a fierceness that could only happen to a quiet obsessive at the sponge-like adolescent stage. Film music to me has long been an irreplaceable part of the film watching experience. It is an essential part of the engine that allows for us to feel beyond the more literal fabric of a story. A carefully considered heartbeat. And Horner, no matter the veterans that his field was still very much dominated by, was able to carve an indelible place for himself in the pantheon of late twentieth century cinema, most notably genre works. As an important voice in the 1980s deluge of pure fantasy cinema, his sound became an unmistakable mark which assured viewers that what they were witnessing together in that darkened room was something closer to an operatic, and at times internal experience writ large. He never failed to make the corners of a film that much larger. So large that they often extended far beyond the confines of an auditorium.

They were among the first soundtracks I absolutely had to own, and wear down from overplaying.

And even if his motifs were re-used and remixed over the years, it felt less like the work of someone short on ideas, but rather new nuances to a larger story an artist was attempting to tell. Even though I may not have followed his work nearly as much as the 1990s wore on, his early works continue to inform and influence me when I write or think of stories with a certain largeness to them. Alongside masters like Goldsmith, and Williams, they help define the last bastion of classical cinema music. And now with Horner gone, it's as if a truly prolific component of the moviegoing experience has shuttered its doors for good. It's certainly one hell of a legacy, and something many filmmakers would do well to keep close.

And now, some standout favorites from those heady days of being starstruck by swelling strings, leitmotifs, and heroic themes..

Battle Beyond The Stars

Just plunking down some thoughts in memoriam of one of the last of a dying breed. Composer James Horner became a fixture in my own growing vernacular of storytelling when I was but six years old when I saw Battle Beyond The Stars for the first time. It's a rollicking, campy space western made in the mold of Star Wars, but with more emphasis on the western. Seven space faring warriors are gathered together by a young pilot as his planet is being bullied by a galactic conqueror. It's a fun little film, made all the more grand and fun by way of the young Horner's more than ample chops. (Fun Fact: Young James Cameron worked on this film in the props and art department, eager to move up in the world. - AND HUNGRY.)

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

Flash forward to 1982, when he was tasked with taking the already in danger Star Trek franchise into bold new territory. With a whole new look, attitude, and a flare for the hyperdramatic, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan has grown to be the most imitated and beloved Trek film. Leaping from Jerry Goldsmith's already iconic score, Horner's implies submarine battles in deep space, and a deep romantic feel that harkens to a more old world sea tale. This score moved me to tears as a kid. Still does from time to time. One of the greats, period.


Few scores later, Horner was reunited with now powerful indie genre maverick, James Cameron as he was ready to take the reins to the follow-up to the now horror classic, ALIEN. With ALIENS, the emphasis was less on horror, and more on action and gut-tightening suspense. Written and recorded in under a week, ALIENS is now famous for multiple reasons, not the least of which is its powerful, utterly exhausting score which became the most often used and imitated trailer music of all time. This sucker remains an all timer for me, and perhaps is most responsible for my heart problems. It's an unrelenting beast that still overwhelms today. As nerve-ripping as the film itself.

An American Tail

That same summer, Horner was assigned to animate former Disney darling, Don Bluth's second animated film, An American Tail. Say what one will about the final film, the score can wrench the waterworks from even the most cynical viewer.


1988, Horner was now poised to take on the big dogs when George Lucas and Ron Howard took on the hopeful fantasy Willow. With extended amounts of prep time, and the largest orchestra he had had experienced to date, Willow's score remains a woefully underappreciated gem. Grand, grand stuff. Possibly his richest score.


1989, Horner reaches for dramatic iconography with Edward Zwick's Glory. And the end theme still echoes on as a score lover's favorite. An incredible ode to heroes long thought forgotten. Stirs deeply even now.

The Rocketeer

And now, we jump forward to what is perhaps my all-time favorite Horner work, his grand, nostalgic, innocent and thrill-packed score for Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer(1991). I cannot express just how much this score means to me, and how much it makes me long for when orchestras ruled the cinema, and when music was an indispensable part of the filmic whole. The culmination of his work in the 1980s congeals into a heroic melange that is sorely missing in today's superhero congested climate. It's a reminder of not only simpler times, but of the innate humanity within our heroes and those who they struggle for. It's a romantic dance between the humble and grand, which makes Johnston's future as the man who brought dignity to Captain America, all the more potent. Sincere and soaring, much like the film itself. Just flat out Hollywoodland magic.

Patriot Games

Lastly tonight, we have the opening to one of his more understated, but no less stirring works, Patriot Games. The second film to be based upon the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy, this was a revenge tale regarding a renegade IRA terrorist out to pay back former CIA analyst for accidentally killing his brother while on a trip to London. The Gaelic themes and moody electronics are a startling change of pace, but is perfect for this tale of late 20th century cloak and dagger. Doesn't hurt to have CLANNAD's Mary Boyle here for vocal support.

And there we have it. Just a peek into growing up with this man's sounds. And even though he later grew to legend status as the man responsible for the music to Titanic, Braveheart, and A Beautiful Mind, I was much more enamored with his earlier, more fiery works. It's such a sad loss for not only film music lovers, but of classical lovers as well. While it had been a long time since I last truly found myself enraptured by a full blown orchestral score, the yearning for that kind of analog accompaniment never ceases to be strong within me. And with James Horner, it was never hard to feel a film, even when the final product didn't seem to run parallel. Even so, any work that shared his musical spirit was a welcome reminder that somewhere in that piece, we were in great hands. May his works continue to encourage future storytellers to think large, and dream grand. My brothers and I are still reminiscing where we were, and what these scores meant to us. And as long as these songs endure, may the discussion of the legends they embrace continue to as well.

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