Freedom Song (James Horner)


A made-for-TV movie depicting the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the 1960’s, Freedom Song managed to attract top talent, including actor Danny Glover, singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and composer James Horner. The film was a success, earning Emmy nominations for Glover and “Song of Freedom” by Carole King, though it was rather quickly forgotten afterwards and has aired rarely in syndication.

Director Phil Alden Robinson had co-written Sneakers; perhaps it was this connection, or the generally high-profile nature of Freedom Song (for a television project, anyhow), that brought James Horner aboard. From the beginning, it was clear that much of the film’s soundtrack would involve the singing of spirituals, and Sweet Honey in the Rock provided the vocals for ten such songs on the album. Their performance of classic and era-specific tunes is strong, though the songs do lose much of their power when removed from the context of the movie.

But what of James Horner and the movie’s score? About eighteen minutes of music from Horner made it onto the album, although about six minutes of this material exists underneath narration and sound effects. Horner employs Sweet Honey in the Rock in the score itself, using their wordless vocals as the primary instruments while relying only on himself and an assistant to provide the instrumental backing. As a result, the score is extraordinarily low-key, at times barely even audible, and exists primarily as an extension of the vocal and blues style found in the songs.

Horner’s approach is therefore loyal to the film’s time period and songs, but not very listenable outside of this context, having little in the way of thematic material. In fact, the score is so anonymous that the dialogue and sound effects that obscure a third of it make little difference–the music is essentially the same as that in the score-only tracks. It is as if, by direction or design, Horner made the classic film scoring mistake of confusing blandness for respectfulness, a problem affecting many films that are weighty or issue-heavy.

As a result, Freedom Song is all but useless as a James Horner album. The album’s sole strengths are in its songs, and all but one of the album’s songs are traditional spirituals, and therefore available elsewhere. While the film was no doubt a fine and worthy endeavor, the album it spawned is of little use to anyone but Sweet Honey in the Rock fans and diehard James Horner completists. In fact, one has to wonder why, other than name recognition, the producers brought Horner on board at all; the film’s minimal score requirements could easily have been filled by a cheaper nobody. Avoid the album unless you specifically enjoyed the TNT movie or song performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and don’t mind that James Horner’s score is underachieving, bland, and partially buried under sound effects and narration.



Bopha! (James Horner)


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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