James Horner: An Appreciation

I was deeply saddened to learn that James Horner had died in a plane crash near Santa Barbara, California. The two-time Oscar winner wrote some of the most evocative theme music for movies in the past thirty years. He was a composer whose work not only enhanced films but became an integral part of the complete movie experience. It’s hard to imagine Glory or Braveheart or Field of Dreams without his score flowing beneath the action, and you have to wonder if Titanic would have become the mammoth hit it did without his score.

James Horner

Horner was born in Los Angeles in 1953. He began studying the piano at age 5 and pursued music at the Royal College of Music in London as well as at USC (where he got his bachelor’s in music) and UCLA (where he got his master’s). He taught music theory at UCLA and later completed his doctorate in Composition and Theory.

In the 1970s Horner moved from academia to films. Like Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and others, Horner’s first work was under the auspices of producer Roger Corman. Among other Corman movies he did the score for The Lady in Red, a retelling of the John Dillinger story that was written and directed by a young John Sayles.

Horner’s major break was when he did Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, following Jerry Goldsmith who’d scored the first movie. He would do that one more time when he did Aliens, his first collaboration with James Cameron. His string-heavy theme for Khan built on the original theme while creating a unique sound that was stirring and thrilling. Horner also made his only appeared on-screen in the film as an uncredited Enterprise crewman. To listen to the theme, please click here. For good measure, Horner also scored Search For Spock two years later.

The 1980s were a good decade for Horner where he scored several successful and respected films, two qualities that don’t necessarily describe the same movie. He did the box office successes 48 Hrs., Cocoon, An American Tail. Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and The Land Before Time. For respected, he did Testament, In Country, and The Journey of Natty Gann. But at the end of the decade he did two classics: Field of Dreams and Glory.

The soundtrack for Field of Dreams is quirky and restrained, such as the piano theme when Ray finds himself stepping back in time to meet Doc “Moonlight” Graham. It’s a perfect match for the mysticism of the movie. Yet at the end the story is resolved in the richly romantic strings that accompany Ray’s reconciliation with his father.

Glory brought Horner his first Golden Globe nomination for best score. (He’d been nominated for best song a couple years earlier for “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail.) The theme is definitely martial music but with a strong dose of wistfulness and even melancholy at the tragic bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. For the piece “A Call to Arms” Horner blended choir voices singing the theme to give it a truly ethereal feel at first, then ends it with a counterpoint of chimes and trumpets that communicate the confusion of battle. To listen to “A Call To Arms,” click here.

In the early 1990s Horner worked on a wide variety of films, from the off-beat comedy I Love You To Death to the nostalgic action of The Rocketeer. The theme he created for that film was one of his best; click here and see if you don’t agree. Horner also did high budget action flicks with a literary base, such as Patriot Games and The Pelican Brief, but he could also create the dark yet playful theme for Sneakers.

Beginning in 1994, he scored a string of prestigious and well-loved films, beginning with Legends of the Fall. The next year he did Braveheart, having first worked with Mel Gibson two years earlier on The Man Without A Face. While some were upset that he used Uilleann pipes rather than actual bagpipes, you can’t argue with the result, such as in “A Gift of Thistle.”  In comparison to the script which made Braveheart one of the most historically inaccurate films ever made, the use of the different pipes is minor.

That same year Horner also scored Apollo 13, supporting the action with a heroic score. He followed that with a couple smaller films that are beloved by those who know them such as Jumanji, Courage Under Fire, and a personal favorite, The Spitfire Grill. But it was the next year, 1997, when Horner created the intensely romantic and emotional score for one of the most successful movies ever – Titanic.

Titanic was not supposed to be a success. It had made news for a year with its cost overruns and maniacal filming schedule. One crewmember had died after falling asleep at the wheel while driving after an extended shooting day. Many expected Titanic to join the historic failures that destroyed careers, films like Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate. But then the movie was released and it became a cultural phenomenon. While most movies will spend one week atop the box office, Titanic spent four months. If you want to stump a person with a movie quiz question, ask them which movie finally knocked Titanic out of the top spot. (Answer: Lost In Space).

Like the film, the soundtrack became the highest selling primarily orchestral recording ever, moving over thirty million units worldwide. Horner had been paid in the high six figures for the score, but his royalties from the CDs went into the eight figures. Celine Dion’s recording of “My Heart Will Go On” held a lock on the top spot of the charts, including 10 weeks on the top of the airplay chart. The soundtrack recording was number one on the album charts for 16 weeks, beating releases from Madonna and Shania Twain. There was an inevitable backlash against its success so some now count “Heart” as one of the worse songs ever. But the theme still works, and listening to a piece such as the “Finale” brings back the best elements of the film. 12 years later, Horner reunited with Cameron  for Avatar, another film that broke a billion dollars at the box office.

After Titanic Horner continued to bring his talent to films. He reunited with Apollo 13 director Ron Howard to score How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Missing, and A Beautiful Mind. His score added poignancy to the tragic story of the Andrea Gail in A Perfect Storm. Other movies he composed for include The Mask of Zorro, Enemy at the Gates, Troy, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The House of Sand and Fog. His final score will be heard in November with the release of The 33, the story of the Chilean miners who were trapped by a mine collapse but finally rescued after 69 days.

Horner would have reunited with James Cameron for the planned Avatar sequels, but now someone else will have to pluck our heart strings for those movies. Horner has left a body of work that ensures his position as one of the greatest film composers of all time.

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