Several weeks ago, the world lost a great composer in the form of James Horner at the age of 61. He worked on compositions for more than 150 films, beginning in 1979 with The Lady in Red and concluding much too soon with Southpaw and The 33, both due to come out in 2015.
I’ve been listening to his work long before I was even old enough to really know what composing was and how important music could be to a movie, and so I’d like to highlight some of Horner’s great works in his memory.
The Land Before Time (1988)
When I say I’ve been listening to James Horner since forever, The Land Before Time is exactly what I mean. I can’t even remember when I started watching these movies, but I can definitely remember how the music in them made me feel, and how it still makes me feel (I recently bought the soundtrack so I could bask in the memories).
While not a blockbuster with a big, sweeping score like some of Horner’s other projects, you really FEEL the music in the film with the rest of the characters. There’s this air of mystery and mystique that is extremely appropriate, considering the feeling of awe that dinosaurs inspire in almost all of us, and listening to the chase sequences is enough to get your heart pumping, as a child or as an adult.
The best song by far on this score is Whispering Winds, the song that plays while the main character talks to his mother for the last time. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, you know just how emotional and powerful this scene is- for a child watching it, it’s one of the most powerful and touching moments that is the first real introduction (other than The Lion King) to the end of life and the sadness and reality of it. But even for those who haven’t seen The Land Before Time, just listen: it will speak to you.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
This award-winning film is amazing in many ways, but Horner’s score is particularly impressive in its subtlety, as compared to many of his other films which use a big, sweeping, dramatic score. The score of this film almost seems to evolve with the character- it begins very light and cheerful, following John Nash (Russel Crowe) as he tries to find his “original idea” so that he will matter. As he spirals into his schizophrenic fantasies, the music slowly shifts to something deeper and darker, heightening the sense of foreboding in the audience.
However, the gap between these two very different tones is minimal- the music is still played gently and lightly, with very little pouring and loud music to indicate the changes, and that is where the real genius of it lies. It connects the audience further to John Nash in seeing how blurry the line is for his real life and his visions, how they can be so close and yet so different all at once.
Horner said in an interview from 2009 that his primary job as a composer was to “keep track of what the heart is supposed to be feeling”, to “make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart”. This score definitely does that for me.
Other than the animation of this film, I believe the score is the best part (because let’s face it, at best, this is Pocahontas with aliens). Horner said that this score was probably the biggest challenge of his career, where he would work on the music from 4 AM to 10 PM for a year and a half, and I think it really shows in the details that go into it.
The language of the native tribe in this film, Na’vi, was created entirely from scratch for this movie specifically for something that was easy for actors to pronounce but nothing like any single human language (over 1000 words were created), and Horner, who liked to implement vocals into his pieces, used the Na’vi language to created pieces tied specifically to the moments when they played.
In the battle sequence at the end of the film this is especially apparent- War makes particular use of the Na’vi’s deity Eywa, making the beginning of the song almost like a prayer for victory to the deity of the Na’vi people. That coupled with the intensity of the battle sequence makes it definitely one of the top songs on the soundtrack.
The intensity is balanced out by some softer, more reverent music to emphasize the beauty of the Na’vi world and the pureness of it, versus the extreme power and energy of most of the soundtrack.
The story may not be new, but the music behind it definitely is worth the listen.
Now, I can only watch this movie every once in awhile for two reasons: One, I am not a huge fan of over-the-top romance and every time I watch the first half of this movie I feel a little like Ultron (“I can’t physically throw up in my mouth…). Two, I always feel extremely guilty watching this movie because when you get to the second half, you remember that this actually happened to real people, people actually died when an actual ship broke in half and sunk. I think that Horner’s score is definitely a large part of this feeling of guilt and sadness- his ability to make the audience “feel with their heart” reminds us of the tragedy forever.
Horner based the score of this film off of Enya, who James Cameron originally wanted to use for the film, and so he falls back on his trademark of using a wordless, female voice humming a melody or vocalizing without actually saying anything. This sounds very mystical and classic, which works for the time period in which the movie is set and also adds a certain beauty to a tragic situation. He also uses a very distinct, almost Irish sound in this film, which coincides with many of the passengers about the Titanic and the atmosphere of the movie.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Horner couldn’t match the intensity in the ship’s final moments- if anything his extreme intensity in those pieces are what make me feel the worst about potentially enjoying the movie, which I think is a mark of just how good at his job Horner really was.
Obviously, there are many movies that have amazing soundtracks by James Horner that I have not discussed here; Troy, Balto, An American Tale, Apollo 13, Deep Impact, Aliens, Braveheart, just to name a few. Music from the films Glory and Enemy at the Gate have been credited in trailers for other movies because they were so well done.
The real magic of any film is to touch the heart of its viewer, to leave them with a feeling that will last long after they walk out of the theatre. A composer’s job is to do the same, but in a way that you could purchase the music of the movie and feel the exact same way without the dialogue, actors and trappings of a movie. James Horner definitely did that for me- Some of my relatives ask me why I care so much about the soundtrack of a film, and this is exactly why: so I don’t need to watch Titanic to feel the sadness of the accident, I don’t need to watch Avatar to experience the intensity of going to battle. I can listen to the soundtrack and remember the beauty of the story, the majesty of the moment, without having the DVD running in front of me.
The music transported me there all on its own, and I am grateful for James Horner providing me that experience. Rest in peace, and we will miss your work.