R.I.P. Film Composer James Horner, 61.

June 23, 2015 | By

Brainstorm_posterWhile there’s little doubt countless composers were inspired by James Horner’s music to become film composers themselves, one can successfully argue film music journalists were similarly hooked on the art form because of Horner’s skill and timing.

Horner, 61, was identified as both the owner and pilot of a plane that crashed Monday, a tragic event that robbed the film world of a gifted artist who should’ve been writing music into his eighties. That should’ve been his destiny, given Horner was among the wave of new talent who benefitted from the return of large-scale orchestral scoring after John Williams’ Star Wars (1977).

Although his earliest works for producer Roger Corman were sometimes retreads of temp tracks slapped together by music editors and directors (Humanoids from the Deep is a complete Jerry Goldsmith mish-mash), Horner always showed he could deliver eerie orchestral sounds on a tiny budget, and probably knew that if he kept delivering well-crafted work, someone would eventually notice and offer a plum assignment.

That came in the form of the Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), which again riffed Goldsmith (this time Star Trek: The Motion Picture) in a few spots, but its scope was unmistakable, and no doubt led to what are still among his best works: Wolfen (1981), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), and Brainstorm (1983).

Critics would argue these also contain the main themes and motifs the composer would revisit in other works, once his career went into high gear during the early eighties, but they are exquisitely crafted because they also demonstrate Horner’s gift for meshing scope, avant garde sounds, and never being afraid to gnash the audience with shimmering clamor.

Khan was among the first soundtrack LPs I ever bought, and I recall the moment when the film began on the big screen, with Horner’s unbelievable trumpet fanfares, percussion, and rich themes piping through the surround sound theatre. I played that album a great deal, and was similarly moved by his mournful music for the fantasy film Cocoon (1985); in terms of composing an elegy for aging, being left behind, and loss, he pretty much nailed it.

Even if co-star Natalie Wood hadn’t died during the production of Brainstorm, ultimately making that film and its score an elegy for the actress, the impact of his piano theme, his use of chorals, and vicious brass slams with snarling brass wouldn’t have been lessened on affected audience because the score ranks as one of the best works of the early eighties. It captures with incredible orchestral power and intimate moments of longing to escape, to love, to find peace. It’s neither an action nor sci-fi score but a visceral symphony whose structure both soothes, bludgeons, and embraces the listener.

Horner’s avant garde writing also embraced rock and electronic elements, and he was equally skilled at bombast (48HRS, Commando), but a personal favourite is Red Heat (1988), which codified a collection of sounds that became fast clichés when Horner and other composers were forced to re-use the Japanese shakuhachi flute, squealing sax, and echo-plexed bass slams in action films, over-emphasizing slimy villains and ass-kicking to come.

In the documentary that accompanies Aliens (1986) on DVD and Blu-ray, Horner says the film was an experience that demonstrated the wrong way to push a composer – last-minute rewrites and hard, unreasonable demands – and yet that score became his signature action / sci-fi work, including that one cue (which he reportedly wrote in record time) which became the last piece of music used in countless trailers.

Aliens fostered a lengthy collaboration between Horner and director James Cameron that reached its apex with the Oscar-winning Titanic (1997), a dramatic score that was hugely successful in supporting Cameron’s drippy romance, epic tragedy, and haunting aftermath, but that may have been the score that also pushed me back a little. The theme and that song were everywhere, and it wasn’t his best work; populist and affecting for those overwhelmed by the Jack-Rose romance, but grating to those who felt the theme matched Cameron’s own sense of overwrought melodrama.

Musically, Horner gave Cameron what he wanted, and the project proved impossible to cap, hence the pair’s own gradual slowing down. If you make the biggest grossing film and soundtrack of all-time, respectively, what’s next?

Cameron moved to documentaries before returning to cinemas with his 3D tale of blue people, while Horner became more selective, yet still actively scored dramas, more modest epics, thrillers, and dramas, but not unlike Goldsmith, the experimentalism and freshness that dominated his peak years was subjugated by more familiarly structured works for banalities: instead of the quirky comedy and wit of Sneakers (1992) or the quiet sensitivity for the character drama Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), he got The Karate Kid (2010); and in place of the subtle thematic material in Class Action and comic book heroism of The Rocketeer (both 1991), or quiet rumblings of Patriot Games and Thunderheart (both 1992), there was the slick but merely acceptable The Amazing Spider-Man (2010).

Horner wasn’t affected by ‘the Oscar Curse’ and didn’t write duds nor became lazy or mediocre; his writing always reflected the professionalism of a hard-working master who could handle any genre, but he arguably wasn’t getting enough interesting material that challenged his comfort zone.

He could and would’ve written music to the end, and I firmly believe he would’ve gotten a second wind not from Cameron via the Avatar franchise, but younger filmmakers discovering Horner’s work, partly through the resurgence of vinyl, if not the expanded CD releases from labels such as La-La Land, Intrada, and Varese Sarabande, to name a few.

Alongside an interest in 80s and 90s action, suspense, and epic scores, Horner would’ve found his skills being called upon, and among his choices would’ve been some potential career gems.

I said at the beginning that Horner inspired more than a few film music journalists because he was among the first composers whose work was commercially released in tandem with their respective films on LP and later CD, and while not all exceeded the teasing 35-45 minute album length, a new Horner score meant something. It was also something for journalists to cover within the pages of burgeoning magazines and journals devoted to film music.

Horner’s unreleased scores were often bootlegged, themes were grafted from laserdiscs and DVDs to boutique compilation CDs, and works like Wolfen were cherished not because they were rare or denied by the studios and labels, but because they were great.

As a journalist, I can’t discuss the history of film music in film and as a commercial music genre without devoting a chunk to James Horner. The loss to the film community as a whole is huge, but to his colleagues, friends, and family, it’s devastating.

The industry’s lost a creative force whose work was dark, stirring, witty, and playful, romantic, tragic, epic, and achingly intimate, and when the material and inspiration matched his impressive creativity, the results were truly magical.

Rest in Peace, and Thank You for Brainstorm.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

Tags: , , ,


Comments are closed.