Friday, June 26, 2015

Nostalgia Nugget: Movie Music of James Horner

In the 1980s you had three masters of film music. John Williams gave us Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jerry Goldsmith was on hand for Gremlins, First Blood and Poltergeist. And then you had James Horner, the youngest of the three.  Man, did he have a run of hits in the 80s: Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, Cocoon, Aliens, An American Tail, Willow and Glory. That was just the start of a career that would hit dizzying heights with Titanic and Avatar.

Horner has a signature sound - immediately recognizable. He was firmly rooted in classical style, often working with lush sweeping melodies and bombastic action music. But his style made him a divisive figure among film score fans. He often borrowed (or was heavily inspired if you prefer) by classical composers particularly the more romantic Russian ones. But this is hardly a unique fault. All film composers who work in a primarily orchestral style often gain inspiration from classical pieces.

I think the bigger issue for most film score fans was Horner’s tendency to borrow heavily from himself. The main theme from Glory (which is familiar to fans of a certain Russian composer) turns up again in Avatar with almost no changes. Khan’s wild theme turns up again as evil queen Bavmorda’s theme in Willow and that gets abbreviated down to what film score fans call Horner’s danger motif. And that sucker appears in nearly all of Horner’s film scores at some point. Some listeners find this annoying. Others find it like listening to one giant symphony filled with familiar traits and moments.

One thing no once can accuse James Horner of being is emotionally cold in his music. Of the big three 80s composers Horner was the most unabashed when letting the music just swell and take over. His romantic moments were passionate. His sad moments were devastating. His horror moments were terrifying. And while he could work subtly, most of us film score fans loved his ability and skill of going for broke and touching the listener and the viewer with his music.

One of my favorite scores by Horner, Glory shows off this skill so well. He runs the gamut of emotions in that score and nails each and every one of them. It’s a powerful score, one of my favorites from the 1980s.

And for me, that is where Horner’s best music resides, in the 1980s. The stretch form Battle Beyond the Stars to The Rocketeer (technically 1991, but has his 80s trademarks all over it) is filled with nostalgic memories.

When it came to the early 80s, I lost two of my favorite fictional characters. Han Solo was frozen in 1980 (and I was pretty convinced he was dead), and then Spock died in 1982. Horner’s score for the moving death scene and finale to Star Trek II make those moments resonate. As a kid I didn’t’ have a chance and was pretty shook up over the death of Spock.

The main themes to Krull and Battle Beyond the Stars were both lodged in my brain after viewing them over and over in my youth. But Horner’s gift of melody kept them there for nearly a decade long after I had forgotten all about the films. So when I revisited these two movies in the 90s, a huge wave of nostalgia kicked in based on the title music alone.

My sister was a huge fan of An American Tail and The Land Before Time. Those films had regular play on the VCR. Horner did some fine work for these animated films and hearing those scores takes me back to memories of watching these with my sister and plush versions of the main characters.

The soundtrack to Glory was one of the very first CDs my family owned (along with the Prince song compilation for Batman). We all noticed the music during the film and hearing it on CD was a real treat.

But it was Willow that had the biggest impact for me. In 1988, I had just started collecting soundtracks on cassette tape. I had two Star Wars scores, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Conan the Barbarian. After seeing Willow in the theater, I wanted that score. Hell, I thought John Williams composed it. I searched and searched for that score and I could never find it.

As the years passed, I would pick up the search off and on again. Even making it a regular goal when I hit the music section at Borders in the 1990s. I actually saw the CD, once in a Music Plus store, but I didn’t have any money on me (and this was before I had a credit card). I rushed to the ATM to pick up some cash and by the time I returned, Willow had vacated the premises. It became a holy grail of scores for me. And it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally added that score to my collection!

James Horner’s sudden death has shocked all us film score fans. His music,, so powerful and emotional, really touched people. Many folks are saying that it was Horner’s music that got them into film score collecting, or writing music, or inspiring them in other ways. It is a testament to his skill and the power of the medium that his music has such an impact.

Horner was a unique voice in the film music world. No one else’s music sounded like his did. Few approached films with such naked emotions. And in the current mindset of Hollywood studios, Horner’s approach was frowned on. His output had slowed over the years. But it made each new score a real treat when it did come along. For me, I will always enjoy his work, and enjoy the nostalgic memories those themes bring back.

Four of my favorite James Horner cues:

Genesis Countdown – Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan

Escape from the Tavern – Willow

Closing Credits – Glory

Rocketeer to the Rescue/End Titles – the Rocketeer


  1. There are times to play it cool (the ball at the palace) and there are times to let it all hang out (the rave at the warehouse). Horner knew when to do each and wasn't embarrassed by either.

    1. Very true. I know Horner got criticized a bit for his score to "The Amazing Spiderman", but it was pretty much a full blown Horner adventure score. You knew just what you were getting when you hired him. But I remember the response being a bit harsh on the music (saying that it overpowered the visuals or made everything melodramatic). When the sequel came out, they went with Hans Zimmer instead.

      What is interesting is that I've seen that complaint (that the music is too over the top, or too emotional) leveled at not just Horner, but also at John Williams. I find this odd, since movie music, by it's nature, should help tell the story. And as I pointed out, that often ties it to the emotional side. Seems like a strange thing to complain about.

      But I think that many viewers are getting used to more subtle film scores, or sound design film scores. There is a place for those types of scores - but for a superhero movie? Come on, that is when you want the bombast!

  2. You have a good gift for writing about scores. I don't have that subtle of an ear or at least, cannnot write about them. But I love music, and pay closer attention to the score now days due to your postings. Aliens and Glory are on my top Horner scores. I know that the right score can really enhance a film. I once saw a comparison of a film without sound design or score and then with the added music and such, and it a lot: tension, action, etc.

    You hardly ever hear much about Willow these days after Jackson's Lord of the Rings. But it along with Legend, and Princess Bride were big deals back in the days, Krull too. After reading your post I see how Horner was tied to many of these famous films.

    1. Thanks for the compliment. I enjoy writing about movie music and sharing my appreciation with others. I know not many folks notice the music while they are watching a film, and a good score blends well into the film as a whole. But some scores really deserve attention outside the film.

      Horner's style was very listenable outside the film. He certainly had a gift, and we have plenty of music of his to enjoy. Just kinda sad we won't hear any new pieces from him.

      Yeah the LOTR movies kinda spoiled us fantasy fans. Some of those 80s and 90s efforts look a bit silly now. But they were amazing back in the day. I'm planning on tackling an anime series that suffered in the same way. It did an amazing job of bringing western style fantasy to life with huge battles, great costume and world design and a real adventuring spirit. It was a great way for us classic Tolkien fantasy fans to get our fix. But with LOTR coming out, this anime series seems to be all but forgotten. But I didn't forget "Record of Lodoss War", and I'll be posting a blog about it near the end of the year or beginning of next year.