Remembering the films and the music of James Horner

Some say that if done right you shouldn’t notice the music in a movie. Of course that’s one ideal and it’s a much more self-effacing idea of how a composer should approach the task of composing a score for the cinema. You definitely notice when the movie doesn’t work.

Music can be the difference, the crucial element that makes a film intelligible. Sometimes the music is a Greek chorus to tell us what the characters can’t say. Or it might be a matter of subtle atmosphere, even something ironic and distancing.

James Horner died in a plane crash yesterday, a relatively young man as composers go. Ennio Morricone is 86. John Williams is 83. Even Danny Elfman—who I still think of as a relative newcomer—is a few months older, just having passed his 62nd birthday. But Horner is –or I should really say “was”—prolific. Go to the IMDB entry and see just how many films he worked on, including the many for which he didn’t get the full credit.

  • 125 entries under “music department”
  • 156 more as “composer”

At times, classical composers of the last century have seemed paralyzed like deer caught in the headlights. Beauty for its own sake? Rare. But thank goodness that in the cinema melodic composition wasn’t frowned upon. The requirement to be popular vetoes conservatory prejudices against tunefulness. Horner is a classically trained composer who found a natural voice in cinema, where he could freely use his melodic gift, his knack for capturing a mood, and his fluency with the many possibilities available in a large orchestra.

I am simply aiming to offer a few reminders of what Horner has meant in my life and likely in many other lives too.

“Somewhere out there” is a song you may have heard on the radio, sung by Linda Ronstadt & James Ingram.

Nominated for both a Golden Globe (it lost) and an Academy Award (it lost), it did win two Grammies, which is probably a bigger honour when you consider who is voting in each case.

If you were raising children in the 1980s chances are you recognize this song. Here’s what it sounded like in its original incarnation in the middle of An American Tail 

Horner is a composer who impresses me with his pragmatic approach to film-making. You might not connect these films from the sound of their music.  He scored a number of films of war. Glory, Enemy at the Gates  Braveheart, and more recently Troy  

I wonder if he felt any pressure to produce when he scored expensive pictures with enormous budgets and millions invested, such as Jumanji,  Avatar and Titanic (the latter two for James Cameron).  They were hugely successful of course.

Yet he could score films on an intimate scale. A long time ago I encountered The Dresser. More recently Horner helped make A Beautiful Mind a big hit.  And I suppose intimate is a good word to describe Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but not for the usual reasons.  Some of Horner’s films have cult followings, such as Willow and I Love You to Death. Others are totally mainstream, thinking of science fiction films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Apollo 13.

I’ll finish by citing my two favourites. In both cases the music is a necessary part of the film-makers’ magic toolkit.

I was mightily impressed by Horner’s work on a film that never quite caught on, perhaps a bit ahead of its time.  If you watch the trailer it’s immediately clear why it didn’t do well: because the trailer for *batteries not included makes no sense.   I passed it up on the big screen but then by good fortune watched it on home video: where i was hooked.   There are a pair of wonderful performances from Jessica Tandy & Hume Cronyn. This was before I knew about Alzheimers or dementia. Horner’s score creates powerful juxtapositions between present time and recollections from long ago. The poignancy of that confusion is stunningly beautiful, even if you’ve never encountered a person living through those ambiguities. Music can create an instantaneous sense of a reality, the present even when it is from another time. This clip gives you an idea of what complexity is at work.   As in Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Horner playfully quotes from popular cultural elements, including contemporary music and cartoons.  And come to think of it, here’s that magical opening sequence:


In Field of Dreams we are watching a story unfold that can’t rely simply on visuals and good acting. The clincher for many of the key moments are music cues. At times it’s very new-agey, meditative, via a melodic Americana, folksy with a few jarring moments to suggest different spheres of the world brought into collision.  The music is a necessary part of the dramaturgy that makes us embrace the reality of this movie.    

I have no idea how many times I have seen this film, but it continues to cast its spell on me.  I will give Horner the last word.

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4 Responses to Remembering the films and the music of James Horner

  1. quistian says:

    My favourite will remain: “Freedom” from Braveheart. Truly a moving and emotion ending piece.

  2. Randy McCall says:

    Thanks for your commentary not only of acknowledgement of Horner’s death, but also the significance of movie score composers/producers in general. Its an underappreciated role.

    • barczablog says:

      It’s an obsession of mine (film music). I totally agree, under appreciated, taken for granted: but at least the best practitioners make lots of money! The industry at least recognizes how important the film composer’s work is.

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