Earlier this week the news broke that we had lost one of the great film composers of our time. James Horner, the man who created the music that will be forever wed to some of our fondest movie memories died in a plane crash on Monday June 22nd. He was 61.
Music is an incredible medium. A skilled composer needs nothing more than music to create the stirrings of emotion in the listener, needing not even lyrics in some cases. But when you find a composer who can do that and you add something else in to the mix on top of the music, you can create powerful magic. James Horner was one of those composers, and his music when wed to the images of great filmmakers made for some incredible magic.
My first exposures to Horner’s work were in fact in the form of his earliest official works. Being a horror kid first and foremost even then, I was a big fan of anything on cable that might scare the daylights out of me. One of those things was Humanoids from the Deep. The visuals were horrific enough at times, but the score was appropriately creepy. It created tension in moments where the visuals were lacking, and it intensified the scenes where the visuals were already firing on all cylinders. Not that I fully noticed the importance of the music at the time. It was at moments a very understated score. But the next film I saw that had a James Horner’s work in it made me notice it immediately and had me humming and whistling the score for years.
Battle Beyond the Stars was a low budget science fiction retelling of the Magnificent Seven, complete with Robert Vaughn playing essentially the same role he had played before. It was a decent film in its own right, but the score really made every scene far more powerful than they otherwise might have been with a lesser artist’s score; especially the battle scenes.
I was only ten or eleven at the time, and his score for Battle Beyond the Stars was one of the few movie scores I’d heard up to that point in time that stuck in my head as much as the movie itself. It was stirring and heroic, carrying a feeling of derring-do and action with it. It was perfect music for a geek who had been growing up on as much heroic fiction and science fiction as I had. Plus, hey, it was a really awesome score.
The score did feel like a not entirely proper fit at times though, as if it were written for a different film. There was a (supposed) reason for this. While much of the composition was uniquely Horner’s, some of the cues did feel like they would have worked better in a Star Trek film. The reason for this, at least according to the liner notes in my CD, was that Horner wanted this score to be his audition tape for working on the Trek films. Whether this was true at the time or not, it ended up working out that way. While his immediate output after that was still on smaller horror films and comedies, the score for Battle Beyond the Stars helped to land him his highest profile gig to date and the one that would send his career into overdrive- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the perfect blending of Nicholas Meyer’s visuals and Horner’s music, and the results were epic. Damned near every note was wed perfectly to the images on the screen, and they played off of and enhanced each other perfectly. It did one of the things a score should do and it did it flawlessly. There are scenes in various films with lesser quality scores where people can remember the scenes, the dialogue, the actor’s performance, etc. while not remembering the accompanying music that was playing during those moments in the film that they remember so well. For many film fans, that’s not the case here. Horner’s music is so powerfully intertwined with the emotion of the scenes in that film that few geeks I know can picture those scenes in their heads without Horner’s score. From minor scenes to the discovery of Genesis to the death of Spock, Horner’s score is locked into people’s memories as an equally important piece of the performances they remember. To this day I know adult male geeks who will well up with tears when they hear the score that played as Spock died.
Horner would follow that up with both genre and non-genre work in the next year, including scoring the hit buddy comedy/actioner 48 Hours. But it was one particular score that came after Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that cemented my love for his work, and that was for the movie Krull.
For me, Krull was Horner’s best work, and I would learn in later years that communities of Horner fans out there on the web had Krull’'s score high up on their lists as well; and rightfully so. The score was beautiful, powerful, sweeping, and epic. It masterfully conveyed the emotion of the scenes involving romance, tragedy, tenderness, and wonder while shifting into the perfect accompaniment for the adventure and action scenes found in the science fiction/fantasy story. It added additional magic and mystery to the world they were building on the screen.
Throughout the 1980s, his body of work and his reputation would grow. He scored Gorky Park, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Cocoon, The Volunteers, Commando, and a number of other films, but the score of his that next really stood out for me and a number of others was Aliens. It had the Horner flavor, but it packed a nice punch that gave it a little something extra and made the action in the film feel all the more dynamic.
I could go on and on just sticking with genre, but he did a lot more work than just genre. After all, for a lot of the general public today, his most famous work is likely from Titanic, a score for which he won the Academy Awards for best score and for best original song. As a matter of fact, his list of accolades was quite impressive by the later phase of his career. He was nominated for and won Saturn Awards, BAFTA Awards, Golden Globe awards, and other equally prestigious awards.
Horner wasn’t without his critics, but then who is? But his greatest critics can’t detract from the fact that Horner was one of the best composers in film for 35 years of film history. His scores accompanied the visuals of some of the most memorable films of their generation, and, in the minds of those fans who love them they have become inseparable parts of the films they were a part of and the emotions that those films invoked.
It’s been said over the years that movies are magic. But the simple truth is that not all magicians are created equal. James Horner was one of the great magicians of his time, and he created powerful magic for a generation of film fans. His magic will be greatly missed at the movies
Jerry Chandler is a soundtrack geek. Well, and a horror geek. And a sci-fi geek. And a fantasy geek. Okay, Jerry Chandler is just a geek in general. And he writes stuff. When not writing stuff he volunteers at conventions like Dragon Con, listens to podcasts, and complains bitterly about the how hot it is. Hey, GoT fans, when the hell is winter coming again?