James Horner – 1953-2015: : Bringing Humanity to Films
James Horner, one of the greatest film composers of our time, reportedly died after a single plane crash in California. Just how great was “one of the greatest?” We begin with waht’s quantifiable: he was nominated for twelve Oscars, and brought home two statues. The soundtrack for Titanic – even without the pop song “My Heart Will Go On” (for which he brought home one of his two Oscars – both of which were associated with that film) – made as much of an impact on popular culture in the late 90’s as the film did. The score wasn’t just a multi-platinum achievement: even today, it stands as the top-selling soundtrack of all time, topping out at about 27 million units. More recently, he gave the film Avatar a sense of spirituality with a few subtle tones that recur throughout the film.
Reflecting on those titles, however, hardly scratch the surface of all he has contributed to the cinema. To cite a list of his finest scores it is to list some of the very best films in the last thirty years. In composing scores for a variety of genres, and the films he has chosen over the course of his career have been those very films that can be enjoyed by everyone, not just fans of the respected genres. These films often incorporated the best talent in film-making of the time, and Horner’s scores for those projects were not only memorable in ad of themselves, but they also tied together all of those themes. He’d often start his scores with something simple – something that worked on a primal level. Apollo 13 was introduced with a single horn that spoke a lot as to the heroism of the astronauts who brave enough to take a rocket to the moon. Both Titanic and Braveheart incorporated bagpipes into their motifs. Director Ron Howard began his film A Beautiful Mind with a gentle theme that had a piano at it’s core – and he allowed it to build during the opening logos. (this practice was an unusual choice at the time but is more common now).
Honestly, I am probably not qualified to write about this man’s career as a musician. I’m not a musician myself so I don’t quite speak that language, but I can say that, in looking over the list of films on his resume, each one of them was an important film for me to say, and they all had notable soundtracks that elevated the material – and that is difficult to do when you are a composer who has a penchant for working on films that are fantastic to begin with.
Being comicbooked’s resident Star Trek fan, I couldn’t let this review pass without a special mention of my favorite James Horner score: Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. The film itself is a rollicking space adventure with characters who have a lot of depth as well as personal connections with each other. While Star Wars – with it’s massive fleets and super-fast flybys – were impressive to the eye, Khan approached the concept of a “space battle” a bit differently: these are massive vessels, like the great sailing ships of old, or even lumbering submarines, so they aren’t going to weave around space making minute turns like a fly; they must tack slowly in order to make course corrections. Rather than putting the audience to sleep as these vessels plodded through a giant nebula, the excitement was actually quite palpable, due in no small part to Horners exciting score. The music during the action scenes is equaled by the many moments the characters have to reflect on what has occurred, and the impact of Spock’s sacrifice to save the crew is made so powerful by a few simple, yet poignant notes, that Horner used to accompany his death and the scenes afterwards. While the film concludes with a sense of hope, the score reminds us that the death of a friend is an open wound that will always humble us.
Along with John Williams and, now, Hans Zimmer, Horner helped create the landscape of traditionally composed film scores – those that use full orchestras and the tried and true techniques that are always effective at capturing the hearts of it’s audience. There have been other composers who have made huge strides by using unusual instruments and thinking unconventionally, but it is to composers like Horner and Williams that we all look to, largely without cynicism, for being the standard-bearers. I look at the list of the great films that Horner has been involved with and I realize that his music matters in profound ways that are difficult to articulate yet impossible to ignore. The films, and by extension, the soundtracks, have each reminded why movies matter so much. They have reminded me that each of us share the same hopes, reams and emotions, and it is through great music that these abstract notions are given form. Thank you, Mr. Horner. You have have given us so many memories that we true film fans – will cherish for a long time to come.