Bopha! (James Horner)

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Given the critical and commercial success of Glory, James Horner was a natural choice to score Morgan Freeman’s 1993 film Bopha!, the venerable actor’s first and so far only outing behind the camera. Based on a stage play of the same name, Bopha! tells the story of a South African family torn apart in the era of apartheid and featured a strong cast led by Danny Glover and Malcolm McDowell. Despite its strengths the film was largely forgotten, due to the misfortune of being an anti-apartheid movie released at the exact moment the system was being swept away in South Africa, and James Horner fans probably represent a significant portion of people who have heard of it.

Despite the Glory connection, there is little of that film’s score in Bopha!, which is largely electronic with several key orchestral elements. One of these is the main theme, “Amandla!,” which opens and closes the album. Performed with refreshing spontaneity by a group of Zulu singers, it’s an upbeat, hopeful piece that promises great things for the remainder of the music. Unfortunately, it and its reprise are the highlights of the album.

The terrific main theme introduced in “Amandla!” returns in the underscore, but not in the same manner: Horner presents the theme as a mournful brass solo, where it serves as counterpoint to rhythmic and electronic textures in the score. The theme is only present in a handful of tracks, but it’s never presented as boldly as in “Amandla!” and disappears completely from the album by its halfway mark. The remaining underscore, which features a good deal of electronic droning, rhythmic percussion, and sakauhachi flute, is among the dullest that Horner has ever penned. Without the main theme or subthemes to anchor it, the music trails off into ambiance and runs together. Such ambient electronic texturing had been a hallmark of a few 1980s Horner scores, like Vibes, and Bopha! proved to be the last gasp of this style, much as the earlier Red Heat was the last expression of the stewing urban style which had been a Horner trademark since 48 Hours.

Of course, Bopha! was one of an incredible ten films scored by James Horner in 1993, his most prolific year, so it makes sense that certain projects would suffer as a result. Bopha!, despite its heavyweight cast and crew, is therefore arguably the worst Horner score of that year. In the end, the album’s value comes down to “Amandla!” If you enjoy the theme, and the choral rendition of it, you may find some redeeming value in Bopha! If not, there’s no real reason to seek the album out unless you’re a Horner completist. Despite being pressed on the now-extinct “Big Screen Records” label, Bopha! remains relatively easy to find on eBay and in CD stores, another indicator of its questionable quality. Seek it out only if the strong main theme and its few performances by a chorus and as a mournful brass solo are enough to overcome one of James Horner’s blandest underscores.

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