Going back in time a few years now and to a score that I liked straight away on first hearing it back in 1991, in fact I was so impatient to hear the score that I went to tower records in London and paid way over the top for the import which came in one of those presentation boxes. The score was The Rocketeer by James Horner, and it has always been in my top ten soundtracks ever since. In 2020 the remastered and expanded version of the score was released, which I thought was brilliant, it had the same impact that I felt all those years ago and cemented even more the pulsating and themeatic music in my mind. Since the sad passing of James Horner, I have started to appreciate even more his cinematic works.
There is just something about a Horner melody, a theme or an action track that is difficult to resist, his ingenious music was and still is superbly magnificent and wonderfully entertaining.
His scores not only supported and enhanced the storylines and the characters and locations on screen, but also had the ability to work as an entertainment medium away from the images and stand alone as a rewarding and enriching listening experience. I think The Rocketeer ticked all the boxes musically, adventurous themes, action led cues and lilting and melancholy sounding themes d’ amore. The music relayed an apprehensive air as well as conveying levels of comedic moods.
Anthem like heroic themes are scattered throughout the work, driving and classy compositions filling the score, that are on a par with Star Wars and Superman. Proud and haunting themes are the order of the day here, themes that have to them a longevity and are still as effective now as they were back in the early 1990’s.
Horner was incredibly busy during this period and had already become an A list composer in Hollywood via his music for films such as Cocoon, An American Tail, Star Trek ll The Wrath of Khan, Willow, Krull, Aliens, Glory and so many more.
I first discovered James Horner when I picked up an LP of the score for Battle Beyond the Stars, a low budget movie with a big sounding score, I was struck straight away by the style and sound that the composer employed, the sound having to it a Jerry Goldsmith air, fully symphonic with scatterings of electronic support provided by Alan Howarth, it remains one of the composers most outstanding and rousing soundtracks. And it was this that opened the doors for the composer leading to him writing the epic score for Star Trek ll-The Wrath of Khan. In the score we can hear various quirks of orchestration, small nuances and passages of sounds that would manifest themselves in later scores and become what was essentially the James Horner sound, a unique and affecting musical fingerprint that would in later years become synonymous with Horner, the composers approach in his early career to score small budget projects with grand sounding soundtracks paid off and it was not long before the composer started to work on major movies.
In the same year as Battle Beyond the Stars Horner also scored Humanoids from The Deep, which was another example of Horner scoring big for a relatively small movie. Like composers such as Richard Band and Christopher Young, Horner at times would fund his scores so that he could employ more symphonic elements when the film’s budget would not stretch to it.
One of Horner’s first scoring assignment is said to be for the 1979 picture Up From the Depths, which was a Jaws (1975) meets Piranha (1978)like storyline in which a series of mysterious aquatic attacks indicate the presence of some huge, previously unknown giant species of shark that has risen to the surface and is preying on tourists, fishermen, researchers, etc. A local beachcomber and scam artist, Sullivan, will have to put out to sea to defeat it. The film I felt had shades of those 1950 B monster movies that were so popular with audiences during that decade. Horner was not credited for his work on the film, but it was a sound that we would probably not associate with the James Horner we know and love, but again it was orchestral, brass and a handful of strings performing what sounds like a sea or pirate orientated piece, the score was never released and probably will never see the light of day, although the movie is now available on DVD.
Horner worked on an independent movie entitled The Watcher previous to this, but had scored the film The Lady in Red before this even though the latter was released a year later in 1979. I think at times we forget his work on movies such as The Lady in Red, and also his scores for lesser known films such as The Hand, Deadly Blessings, Angel Dusted and to a degree Wolfen, because at the time of these films being released in cinemas or shown on TV no soundtrack album was available and this is true of some of these titles still. But as his popularity grew so did the demand from collectors and fans for his soundtracks to be released, I recall buying two Horner scores in the same day when That’s Entertainment records (TER) in the UK released them, Brainstorm and Gorky Park are truly brilliant works and both very different indeed. This displayed the versatility of the composer and announced him as a movie music Maestro who was here to stay.
Horner replaced composer Georges Delerue on Something Wicked this Way Comes, in 1983 and Elmer Bernstein on The Journey of Natty Gaan, in 1985. Re-scoring both projects with very little time being given to do so. I think it was the 1980’s when Horner was most productive, working on over sixty projects as in movies, TV scores and songs from 1980 through to 1989. Which included titles such as An American Tale, 48hrs, Star Trek lll-The Search for Spock, Uncommon Valour, Commando, The Name of the Rose, Aliens, Where the River Runs Black, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Red Heat, Field of Dreams, and many more.
I think the biggest surprise for me was when Gabriel Yared had his score rejected for the movie Troy (2004) and Horner was named as composer. I had heard Yared’s score, and it was, still is an epic affair, but the film’s director Wolfgang Petersen and the producers commenting that the composer’s music was too ancient sounding? Now this is something I have never understood, I suppose that is what they call Hollywood logic, not sure? How can the music for a tale of ancient Greece sound too ancient?
Enter then James Horner, who penned a great score for the production, but I felt at the time this is not that different from the Yared soundtrack. Horner following a very similar style and thematic line. But such is the logical or illogical workings of the cinematic community, and who are we to question this. In later years Gabriel Yared’s score was quite rightly also acclaimed with some even openly stating that they preferred it to Horner’s soundtrack.
I have heard collectors commenting that Horner’s music sounds very similar from project to project, well yes this is true, but is this a case of the composer borrowing from himself, and re-working certain motifs and pieces or is it a case of this is the style of James Horner? What ever your opinion maybe there is no doubt whatsoever that James Horner made an enormous contribution to the art of film music, he was a rare talent, and one that we will miss forever.