It seems so unfair that randomness has such a huge bearing on life. Such is the manner in which the great film music composer James Horner passed from this world less than twenty-four hours ago. As the initial reports came in and started flashing up on my phone via Google Alerts and the Variety Breaking News alert that a plane registered to Horner had crashed, I hoped against hope that this was another Harrison ford type accident where Horner (if he was one of the occupants) walked away largely unscathed. Sadly, this was not to be... As I was taking off on my own flight (albeit as a passenger on a commercial flight between Melbourne and Sydney), there was still no confirmation that Horner was even in the aircraft when it crashed. Unfortunately, by the time I reached my destination and switched my phone back on, reports about the crash had become much clearer and that James Horner was both the pilot and sole occupant aboard the crashed plane. He did not survive the crash.
Horner's film music was unique. In the 1980s, when he first came to prominence, his scores were big, bombastic even. Horns and trumpets would swirl around the audience, but then he'd sneak in some kind change-up or change-down that went with the film's narrative to accentuate the pacing. Even though he sounded like Goldsmith; in that way he was more like John Williams than any other film music composer during that time. As he matured and his work became more varied, his scores became fuller, more layered and even more inclined to enhance a film's narrative. While the horns and trumpets remained, more stringed instruments featured in his scores as he developed his style and, like Jerry Goldsmith in his later years, Horner was not afraid to incorporate electronic elements into his scores.
Please take the time to listen to some of my favourite pieces of Horner's music and enjoy the talent that we, as movie-lovers, were privileged to hear every time he composed for a film.
Battle Beyond the Stars - A great score for a medicore movie ...
There's nothing like a Roger Corman production to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and so it was with Battle Beyond the Stars - a low budget sci-fi rip-off of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai story. The film starred The Waltons' Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughan, Sybil Danning and John Saxon as the villainous Sador of the Malmori! Made for $2 million, Horner's score went a long way in helping the film's trailer sell it as a rousing action adventure film in much the same way as Star Wars.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the score that brought James Horner to the attention of the broader entertainment industry. The story has it that Jerry Goldsmith was far too expensive to bring back for another feature film score, but the Director Nicholas Meyer and Producer Harve Bennett wanted someone who could emulate that sound for a fraction of the cost. Horner was commissioned and his work on both this film and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock brought him to the attention of Directors like Ron Howard and James Cameron, both of whom would go on to use him throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Polar opposites: Commando and The Name of the Rose
Horner's versatility and ability to work on multiple projects at once made him very popular with Directors and Studios in the second half of the 1980s. If ever you wanted an example of how versatile Horner could be, check out the variation between his work on Commando and The Name of the Rose. It's interesting to note that he was able to incorporate a nationalistic theme into his music that captured the setting of the movie. In Commando, he uses a sound akin to a West Indian/South American steel drum to provide a musical motif that would culminate at the end of the movie, where the finale is played out on an island belonging to the Dictator of the fictional South American country of Val Verde!
Developing the nationalistic approach with Braveheart ...
Many Horner fans cite the Braveheart score as there favourite and there's no doubting that it's a great film score. What's really interesting about Braveheart is how Horner, yet again, created a musical motif for the film that made viewers think of Scotland, regardless of whether or not they had any understanding of Scottish music. It's a unique feat that Horner was able to pull-off time-and-again, where the music was not just background, orchestral noise, but boldly stepped forward into the scene to help accentuate and punctuate the actor's dialogue.
Horner's work on blockbuster projects had scaled back a little since the early 2000s, but one Director he developed a strong working relationship with was James Cameron and he invited the Composer to score his last film, Avatar. The most successful movie in history is no small claim and, once again, Horner's work on the film went a long towards creating a complete movie-going experience for the viewer. This final track I've selected is more low-key than most, but speaks volumes about how much Horner had matured over three decades composing film scores where his focus on creating musical nuance for a film's characters underlined why he was so successful.