James Horner, 1953-2015: A Tribute

Though there has been no official word yet, multiple unofficial sources have confirmed that film composer James Horner was killed this morning in a plane crash. Mr. Horner was a well-known aviation buff, having written a soaring piece for the Four Horsemen aerobatics team not long ago; truly, save for passing away at his piano or podium, there is no other way Mr. Horner could have died doing something he loved more.

James Horner in 2009 at the premiere of Avatar, standing in front of the film's title wearing his trademark scarf.

James Horner in 2009. Image courtesy of Cinemusica via Wikimedia Commons.

I have no words; James Horner was my favorite composer and musician of all time. I knew his intensely beautiful long-lined melodies as a tot watching Don Bluth films, fell in love with his groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy scores as a teen, and even as an impoverished college student I always scraped together the money to buy each of his albums as they came out. The news is especially devastating given that Mr. Horner was in the midst of renewed vigor, with a full slate of scores after a few lean years when his style seemed to be decidedly out of favor. His new classical CD, Pas De Deux, promised through samples to be a ravishing return to the concert hall after over thirty years.

There can be no doubt: we have lost one of the greats, on par with his peers Williams and Goldsmith and on par with any instrumental voice the 20th century can muster from Prokofiev to Corigliano. Hopefully, we will still be able to experience the few pieces of music that he left completed before his death and those yet to be made available from the past. Hopefully, we will see the continued emergence of talented young composers inspired by melody and passion who refuse to be cogs in a machine but instead uplift other art forms through their music. That’s the best memorial to Mr. Horner that any can hope for.

Friends, do yourself a favor and re-listen to Star Trek II, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Braveheart, Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, Avatar, or any of the other beautiful music from an illustrious career now cut short.

Here is a list of all the James Horner reviews here at Best Original Scores:

Aliens (James Horner)
All the King’s Men (James Horner)
The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)
Bopha! (James Horner)
Casper (James Horner)
Flightplan (James Horner)
Freedom Song (James Horner)
The Land Before Time (James Horner)
Once Upon A Forest (James Horner)
Vibes (James Horner)
Willow (James Horner)

Advertisements

Donnie Darko (Michael Andrews)

Cover

A low-budget but high-concept feature that combined teenage angst with low-key but disturbing sci-fi and horror, Donnie Darko was not a major hit in theaters. But once it came to home video, audiences responded favorably enough to writer-director Richard Kelly’s strange story of tangent universes and quasi-malevolent bunny rabbits that it received both a director’s cut and a terrible cash-in sequel. The Donnie Darko‘s cult success ultimately proved a boon to its cast and the genre of suburban angst in general, and continued to spawn imitators and homages in the decade after its 2001 release.

LA musician Michael Andrews became attached to Donnie Darko after reading Kelly’s script; for his part, Kelly knew Andrews through the latter’s association with a jazz group called The Greyboy Allstars. Through his work with the Allstars, Andrews had some feature scoring experience, having contributed music to Zero Effect and Freaks and Geeks, but such was his enthusiasm for Kelly’s script that he taught himself how to play the piano when the director decided to make that instrument the centerpiece of Donnie Darko‘s score. In their consultations, Kelly and Andrews spoke at length about electronic music from the 1970s and 1980s, naming Isao Tomita and Vangelis as key influences for the atmosphere they hoped to capture with Andrews’ score. Due to an extremely limited music budget, Andrews wound up performing virtually the entire score himself on vocoder, piano, synthesizer, mallet percussion, ukulele, organ; for wordless vocals, he retained singers Sam Shelton and Tori Haberman.

Despite the tone of their conversations, Andrews’ score does not sound anything like Tomita or Vangelis, and especially nothing like their works Snowflakes are Dancing or Blade Runner which Kelly cited in the soundtrack’s liner notes. Instead, Andrews’ score favors a very simple mix favoring piano and the voices of Shelton and Haberman in its most memorable and melodic moments, creating an ambient atmosphere of considerable airy beauty at times while remaining aloof and cold. It’s not a thematic score, but Andrews does provide a recurring motif, explored most thoroughly in “Waltz in the 4th Dimension,” that appears throughout a number of other cues.

There are many other places, including the first couple of album cues, where the piano and voices are absent or minimized in favor of a harsh, desolate soundscape for the film’s most disturbing moments. These cues add little to the album and fulfill only basic sonic wallpaper duties in Donnie Darko as a film. While they do serve to break up the melodic and airy vocal/piano tracks, the kind of industrial ambience found in the weaker tracks is simply not a compelling listen and it makes up a meaty chunk of the brief album and score. It’s particularly modern ambience as well, one that is often at odds with the film’s 1988 period setting.

But it’s not the score that everybody remembers from Donnie Darko but rather the end title song, a cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” arranged for piano and string accompaniment by Andrews and sung by his old friend Gary Jules. This “Mad World” takes the relatively peppy and new wave original from 1983 and twists it into a powerfully sorrowful and bleak paean to suburban malaise, and its impact was such that the original was all but forgotten. The cover charted in the UK and has since become something of an anthem to depressive detachment, widely played and widely known. It’s a shame that rights issues precluded Andrews from using the song’s melody in his underscore, because it easily overshadows his main waltz melody, his wordless vocals, and the grindingly unpleasant ambient portions of the score. A second version of the song ends the album, throwing percussion and synths into the simple piano and string mix and utterly destroying it, a testament to just how finely tuned the original cover by Andrews and Jules is.

Donnie Darko‘s early failure at the box office meant that Andrews’ score waited a year for release in 2002 when the film had risen to cult status. The brief platter offered all 30 minutes of Andrews’ score and the aforementioned dual versions of “Mad World;” a later issue would add a first disc with the 1980s songs used as source. In both cases, it’s worth picking up the disc for “Mad World” alone, and with the lovelier parts of Andrews’ score there are about 15 minutes of solid highlights to be had. While Kelly would experiment with several other composers for his troubled future filmography, Donnie Darko launched Andrews into a profitable sideline in film score composition, producing roughly a score a year for the next decade. While overshadowed by its primary song, his Donnie Darko score still serves as an interesting souvenir from an interesting film.

Rating: starstarstar

Arthur and the Invisibles (Eric Serra)

Cover

French director Luc Besson is nothing if not ambitious, as any quick glance at his filmography will show. But his 2006 feature Arthur and the Invisibles (given the equally off-putting title Arthur and the Minimoys in most foriegn markets) was perhaps his most ambitious yet. Based on a series of children’s books that Besson himself had written, the film was a lavish animated fantasy (about warring factions of tiny fairylike creatures) from a director who had little experience with either animation or fantasy. With a budget of 65 million euros, the most costly French film of all time up to that point, Besson attracted a voice cast glittering with stars in every language dub, from Madonna to Nena and Bavid Bowie to Gackt. Critics, especially those who viewed the film’s US cut, were generally savage to the quality of Arthur’s animation and its seeming resemblence to The Dark Crystal and The Ant Bully, among many others. But the film was a financial success despite this, leading to at least two Besson-helmed sequels thus far.

A Luc Besson film almost inevitably means an Eric Serra score, the two men being longtime friends and collaborators since their early days. With Serra scoring all but a few of Besson’s films, his employment for Arthur and the Invisibles was probably the least surprising feature of the production. Serra himself has often a divisive figure for film score fans, with his background in pop and electronic music often being at odds with what many listeners expect. The controversial score for Goldeneye is of course well-known, but some reviewers also felt that Serra’s lack of orchestral experience hamstrung his attempts to do more traditional scoring in films like The Messenger. On the other hand, Serra’s scores for Nikita, Leon the Professional, and (perhaps the closest film to Arthur in terms of tone) The Fifth Element remain highy regarded.

Interestingly, Serra opted for an almost entirely traditional score for Arthur and the Invisibles, eschewing the sort of jaunty acoustic/electric fusion that had characterized his Fifth Element score. Instead, the composer opted for a traditional orchestral children’s score, complete with the London Session Orchestra and the Metro Voices, both conducted at least in part by Serra himself. While his electronic tools were used, they were strictly relegated to a supporting role in a large-scale acoustic, choral, and thematic whole.

There’s a distinct sense of Danny Elfman’s early fantasy scores about Arthur and the Invisibles,, largely because of the way that Serra (who shares a similar musical background) uses his wordless choir as a potent orchestral color, with cooing children’s voices for the heroes and ominously deep male vocals for the villains. More importantly, Arthur is a very strongly thematic score, with an ebullient theme for the heroic Minimoys in evidence from the very first cue, “The Minimoys Overture.” Presented boldly across a number of cues and in flighty fragments across others, the theme is quite tuneful and attractive, and is integrated into some of the most complex orchestral writing of Serra’s career. The villains of the piece are given a percussive theme of their own, again often with choral accompaniment, and it too is used very robustly across Serra’s score.

In short, the composer is able to provide a surprisingly potent dose of old-fashioned thematic fantasy, with flighty variations on his themes and a near-constant supply or orchestral and choral colors. It’s not innovative by any means, following in the footsteps of past children’s fantasy scores much in the same way that Arthur and the Invisibles itself draws on earlier films. But Serra’s music is presented very robustly and attractively, and his themes are memorable enough, that it’s still a pleasant package regardless. The real difficulty with the score is its structure: 39 tracks for the 68 minutes of Serra’s music on album. With no tracks longer than 5 minutes and many shorter than two minutes, the music winds up feeling rather bitty and stutterstop at times. This is especially true when similar material appears several times in the music, making the lengthy work at times a bit of a slog. There’s no doubt that virtually every note of the score is present on disc; a little judiciousness in combining or rearranging cues might have gone a long way.

Still, it’s hard not to like Serra’s Arthur music. It’s clear that the composer has grown in his orchestral skills since his early career, and he offers a pleasant thematic base for the broad childrens’ fantasy music on display. The commercial album, readily available for a very low price due to the film’s relative obscurity, includes three throwaway songs in addition to Serra’s score. It’s well worth checking out for enthusiasts of fantasy scores, and provides an interesting counterpoint to Serra’s earlier and much more electronic music.

Rating: starstarstarstar