Iris (James Horner)

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Novelist Iris Murdoch would have been famous enough just for her literary output, but her lingering decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease added a poignancy to her twilight years as her intellect slowly ebbed away. Her husband, long in her vivacious shadow, penned a memoir of caring for Murdoch at the end of her life and his story was brought to the big screen in 2001 by director Richard Eyre. With an all-star cast including both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Iris herself and both Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent as her husband, Iris received a basket of acting nominations and ultimately earned Broadbent a surprise Oscar.

Director Eyre primarily worked in theater and TV before Iris, but the material’s prestige nevertheless gave him the pull to assemble a top-notch crew for his production. For music, he turned to James Horner who was in the midst of a career renaissance brought on by his massive popular and critical success with Titanic. Despite having two other major awards-caliber films on his plate for 2001, A Beautiful Mind and Enemy at the Gates, Horner committed to Iris and was able to use his clout to secure a choice soloist for the project as well: violinist Joshua Bell. Bell, internationally renowned in both the concert hall and as a player for film scores (notably John Corigliano’s The Red Violin), brought an unmistakable touch of class to the proceeings along with his Stradivarius.

The score’s reception was, at the time, rather chilly. Much like Horner’s work with Bradford Marsalis on Sneakers a decade earlier, critics complained that the relatively simple melodies given Bell were a waste of his talent, parts that could have been played equally well by a studio musician without a two million dollar instrument. Horner’s fans compared it unfavorably to his earlier works, particularly the cult favorite The Spitfire Grill, and it was ultimately overshadowed by A Beautiful Mind in the public consciousness and at awards time.

And yet, for all that, Horner and Bell’s efforts really work. Bell may not be challenged by Horner’s material, but the unique timbre of the violinist’s Stradivarius and his unmistakable technique lend the omnipresent string parts of the album a unique color. Furthermore, Horner rearranged his orchestra and the recording to put Bell front and center as a soloist, leading to a bright and summery sound suffused with subtle longing and tragedy. Much like he would with his later Pas de Deux, the emphasis for Horner was not to give his soloist a showy workout but to take advantage of Bell’s strength to construct a moving piece of music.

Throughout his career, Horner was often dinged for his use, or overuse, of a four-note “danger motif” that served as an instant musical signature. In Iris, though, there is very little danger; the motif is present, but twisted though bright orchestration and Bell’s performance into a ravishing love theme, the fundamental building block of the piece. From its debut in the first track to the last lingering strains of the last, Horner’s love theme for Iris and John, surrounded by a rich bed of fully orchestral music, is a subtle stunner. Also of note is the concluding track, which intercuts Kate Winslet’s voice singing the traditional song “A Lark in the Clear Air” with Horner’s full orchestra and Bell’s Stradivarius performing a sweeping, wistful set of variations on the love theme. It’s perhaps the most counterintuitively creative take on his own favorite musical building block that Horner ever devised.

As befits a score featuring one of the most recognizable instrumentalists in the concert hall, Sony Classical put out an album for Iris in 2001 that featured Bell’s name as prominently as Horner’s (and Branford Marsalis’s for Sneakers). But its more subtle sound wound up attracting none of the awards attention of A Beautiful Mind, with Bell’s solos nowhere near as crowdpleasing as Charlotte Church’s vocals and no one cue powerful enough to compete with “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics.” Iris therefore remains one of Horner’s hidden gems to this day, widely available at an affordable price and due for reappraisal.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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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)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Hans Zimmer)

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The powers-that-be behind The Amazing Spider-Man had a problem. While their remake/reboot had done well overseas, its paltry $200 million gross in the US was by far the lowest of any film featuring the web-slinger to date. With a sequel already greenlit, the producers and director Marc Webb needed to lure back fans who had felt, correctly, that their previous film had been unnecessary even in reboot-happy Hollywood. To that end, they stuffed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills: three villains, multiple subplots, hooks upon hooks upon hooks to tie into projected Sinister Six and Venom films, and an adaptation of a legendarily dark story twist from the comics–all in a package only six minutes longer than The Amazing Spider-Man. If that film had felt like a remake of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, its sequel was a remake of the (relatively) disastrous Spider-Man 3. Once again, international audiences flocked to see their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but the domestic grosses were extremely disappointing (less then the contemporary Captain America 2) and critical reviews were savage.

Danny Elfman, Christopher Young, and James Horner had provided generally outstanding music for the previous Spider-Man films, combining a firm orchestral presence with strong themes and hefty helpings of electronics where appropriate. For The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though, the producers turned directly to the current superhero kings of Hollywood: Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio. Since Batman Begins in 2005, Zimmer had been attached to most of the successful superhero adaptations cranked out by Hollywood, from 2008’s The Dark Knight to 2012’s Man of Steel. His philosophy of acting as a producer for a vast and disparate group of collaborators and his mastery of the media had made his textural scores, largely driven by simple ostinatos and motifs rather than traditional themes, discussed and debated to an extent unrivaled by any other composer in the 2010s.

In addition to being a music production studio, Zimmer’s Remote Control studio is also a PR outfit, and in the months before The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s release, it was in full swing. With essentially a blank check from the filmmakers to produce something hip and popular, Zimmer reached out to the upper ranks of the pop music world for collaborators, and headline after headline followed their announcement: seven-time Grammy-winning R&B artist Pharrell Williams, straight from providing songs for the Despicable Me series; Incubus guitarist and frontman Mike Einziger; English recording artist and The Smiths mastermind Johnny Marr; Dutch electronica whiz Tom Holkenborg AKA Junkie XL; and, from Zimmer’s own stable of co-composers at Remote Control, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro. Dubbed “The Magnificent Six” on album covers and movie posters, those collaborators joined a further five Remote Control co-composers and five Remote Control orchestrators. Even for the collaboration-minded Zimmer, it was an unprecedented number of cooks in the kitchen, with every dollar of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s massive music budget on glittering display.

The part of the score that seems to have elicited the most reaction, positive or negative, is Zimmer’s use of dubstep and vocals for the film’s “main” villain Electro. As heard in “I’m Electro” and expanded upon in “My Enemy,” the Electro material is, like the composer breakdown, a bizarre gumbo of influences that mixes electronics that are far harsher and more contemporary than anything attempted by Elfman or Horner with vocals spelling out the character’s emotions (“He lied to me/He shot at me/He hates on me”) combined with Zimmer’s usual string runs. It’s a bit ironic that at a time when old-fashioned scores are being derided for being manipulative and telling the audience what they should feel, that Zimmer’s Electro theme tells the audience exactly what they should feel in so many words. Your response to the theme will depend on your tolerance for the unhinged and harsh, if creative, soundscape. Putting dubstep and vocals into a film score is an unusual nod to current musical trends, but it seems a little bit like putting disco into film scores in the 1970s: it seems hip and contemporary now, but will only serve to horribly date the movie once the dubstep craze of the 2010s fades. The Electro material is better as a villain theme than James Horner’s non-theme for the Lizard, but it pales in comparison to Danny Elfman’s solid Green Goblin and Doc Ock themes, as well as Christopher Young’s mournful Sandman music from Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man himself does get a theme, his fourth in twelve years, first heard in “I’m Spider-Man.” Commentators have compared it to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” though Zimmer’s music is far obviously more grounded in electronics, which are far more present than even Elfman’s most contemporary music, to the extent that the theme sounds like a nightly-news fanfare, an Olympic torch relay, or Vangelis (often to the point of sounding almost laughably cheesy). There’s also a love theme of sorts as in “Ground Rules,” “You Need Me,” or “I’m Moving to England,” and it’s there that Zimmer’s approach is closest to that of Elfman and Horner, with soft piano colors over ambient electronics and soothing orchestral washes, though the electric guitar is often given by far the most prominent role and the electronics, whether as atmospheric synths or intrusive pulses, are ever-present. The mix is such that even in the cues with a heavy orchestral presence, it’s all but overwhelmed by electronics, guitars, or both.

The less said about the material for the Goblin character the better – it’s essentially warmed-over leftovers from Man of Steel and a half-dozen other Zimmer scores, relying on the usual heavy ostinatos rather than the snarling menace of Danny Elfman’s original theme (or Christopher Young’s variations thereof). The most interesting thing about Zimmer’s themes, though, is that they are not utilized nearly to the extent or with the deep integration of Elfman, Horner, or Young. Whatever your feeling on the overall quality of his Electro, Goblin, Spider-Man, and love themes, Zimmer and his collaborators do not weave them into the musical DNA of the film, and there are none of the titanic hero theme vs. villain theme struggles which characterized Elfman and Young’s work. The balance of the work is electronic and guitar music that is strongly in the Zimmer mold, sometimes highly enjoyable, sometimes not, but with only the veteran overproducer’s sound to tie it all together. And there are many times when he fails to do even that, leaving the music to degenerate into a series of sometimes attractive but often disjointed pieces, each vying with the others to sound the most important.

Ultimately, Hans Zimmer and his sixteen credited collaborators did what they were asked to do: infuse popular names in contemporary pop music into the current dominant superhero soundscape, and market them aggressively as a musical experience alongside the film. As is so often the case, listeners’ feelings about the Zimmer sound will strongly influence their reactions (much as those same fans may have reacted to all the Hornerisms in The Amazing Spider-Man). But even taking that into consideration, Zimmer’s employment of his themes leaves much to be desired independent of the themes’ quality, and the effort often feels disjointed and piecemeal despite the composer’s attempts at using his overbearing style as musical glue. Whatever their flaws, Elfman and Horner produced cohesive scores, and even Christopher Young’s patchwork combination of his own themes and Elfman’s felt more organic. The music produced by Zimmer & co. is serviceable, perhaps even crowdpleasing, but ultimately feels more like a concept album than a fully fleshed-out score. At the time of the film’s release, it was available both as a standard CD and a “deluxe” product with a second disc and flimsier packaging that doesn’t play nice with CD racks. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s middling box office returns the direction for the already-scheduled third and forth movies in the series is murky, but it’s a good bet that, given the amount of media attention he was able to command as part of his scoring process, that Hans Zimmer and his collaborators will unfortunately be the musical voice of the series for some time to come.

Rating: starstar

The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)

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2007’s Spider-Man 3 was an overstuffed disappointment of a feature, cramming 2-3 movies’ worth of material into a single film. Faced with creative burnout on all levels, director Sam Raimi (who had been doing nothing but Spider-Man for seven years) and his crew were unable to come to terms with Columbia for a Spider-Man 4. So, following the “remake, reboot, reimagine” formula, Columbia opted to start an entirely new series of Spider-Man films less than 5 years after the last Raimi picture. While the studio lavished cash on new director Marc Webb and a cast of young stars, it was difficult to overlook the feeling that pervaded what became The Amazing Spider-Man: that it was a soulless and unnecessary corporate product designed solely to keep a merchandising engine chugging, a toxic stew of Raimi leftovers and nearly shot-for-shot remakes of the 2002 Spider-Man with greedy corporate fingerprints all over everything down to Andrew Garfield’s Edward Cullen hairdo. Domestic audiences greeted the film with a bemused shrug and the lowest grosses of the entire franchise in summer 2012, but robust overseas box-office numbers and the ever-present, overriding need for franchise maintenance made 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a foregone conclusion.

To Marc Webb’s credit, he did attempt to assemble the best cast and crew he could under the shadow of the product’s utter crassness. As The Amazing Spider-Man was only his sophomore effort after the delightfully engaging 500 Days of Summer, there was some speculation that 500 composer Mychael Danna might finally get a crack at a superhero film after being rejected from 2003’s Hulk. Instead of Danna, and instead of attempting to lure back Danny Elfman (who was as tired as Raimi of the web-slinger), Webb made the surprising choice of James Horner to score his remake/reboot. Horner needs no introduction to fans of resounding orchestral sci-fi/fantasy pictures, with a proven record of genre success from 1982’s Star Trek II to 2009’s Avatar. He had dabbled in superhero scoring of a sort with 1991’s The Rocketeer, which had produced one of the composer’s most popular scores, but he had never been called upon for a full superhero score before, and certainly not one with a desperate desire to be contemporary and hip. Webb reportedly needed to persuade Horner to accept the assignment, but the veteran composer eventually acquiesced.

Horner essentially adopts a fusion of his typical style and the contemporary electronic approach that Danny Elfman took with the original Spider-Man which the film essentially remakes. He debuts his main theme in “Main Title – Young Peter” and it’s a classic Horner melody that’s both soaring and innocent and often (as in “Main Title”) enhanced by surprisingly Elfman-like flourishes and occasional choral flourishes. You’d never confuse the two, though: while Elfman’s theme was designed to be easily deconstructed and referenced, Horner’s music is long-lined and almost always at the forefront when it appears rather than being quickly alluded to. In its most triumphant outings, as in “Saving New York” and “Spider-Man End Titles,” Horner’s new theme stands alongside the best of his fantasy-adventure work from the 1980s that won him much of his current fanbase. The composer also exhibits an uncharacteristic playfulness with the theme in “Playing Basketball” and “Becoming Spider-Man,” adapting it in a style not unlike “Foraging for Food” in The Land Before Time.

Again like Elfman, Horner also created a tender love theme, though Horner’s is primarily piano-diven and often performed with the composer himself at the keyboard. From its first appearance in “Rooftop Kiss” to its lengthy airing in “I Can’t See You Anymore,” and “Promises,” the theme is vintage romantic Horner. It’s neither more or less effective than Elfman’s more fully orchestral construct, but very soft and moving in its support of the romance angle (which reviewers agreed was the film’s strongest aspect). Its airtime is limited in comparison to Horner’s main Spider-Man theme, but it was effective enough for Hans Zimmer to adopt a similar piano-centric approach (albeit with added electric guitars) in the sequel. With the combination of his love theme and his rousing main theme, the best parts of The Amazing Spider-Man are like modernized and updated versions of Horner’s lush sci-fi/fantasy sound of the 1980s.

The score is not perfect, though. There is a complete lack of a thematic identity for the villainous Lizard, or at least one that is so subtle as to be almost beneath notice. This is a major omission; while Horner creates some attractive stand-alone Lizard material in “Metamorphosis” and the action-packed “Lizard at School!” the lack of a consistent theme for the villain prevents the kind of thrilling thematic duels present in the best parts of Elfman’s scores. The inclusion of vocalist Dhafer Youssef in some cues, who worked on Black Gold with Horner earlier in 2012, is mystifying. His wailing doesn’t seem to serve any purpose for the film or its setting, save to serve as an example of a film scoring trend from the 2000s best forgotten today. And, of course, as with any James Horner score, the issue of self-referencing and musical recycling rears its head: parts of “Becoming Spider-Man” strongly resemble Horner’s magnum opus Star Trek II, and influences from the aforementioned The Land Before Time and particularly The Rocketeer are there for keen listeners. The music is less guilty of this than much of Horner’s recent output, though, and his distinctive but derided four-note danger motif thankfully makes no appearance.

The middling domestic success of The Amazing Spider-Man sent the producers scrambling to up the ante for the sequel they had already greenlit, and in addition to packing the subsequent The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills with big names on the marquee, they dumped Horner in favor of the superhero flavor du jour of the 2010s, Hans Zimmer. The Amazing Spider-Man would also be the beginning of a particularly dark period for Horner: in addition to his replacement by Zimmer, his music was rejected from Romeo and Juliet and Ender’s Game in 2013. Increasingly frustrated with the current Hollywood scoring climate, and the domination of Zimmer’s methodology within it, Horner was left without any scoring assignments of any sort during 2013 and 2014. Even so, The Amazing Spider-Man score is the one part of an otherwise wretched film to emerge unscathed, and as James Horner’s first true superhero score and last major blockbuster assignment before his tragic 2015 death, it has a wealth of beautiful music to offer in the spirit of his scoring achievements in the 1980s. As long as one is prepared for the Hornerisms which inevitably accompany the composer’s work and strong echoes of Danny Elfman’s approach to the web-slinger, listeners will find much to enjoy.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Vibes (James Horner)

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One has to wonder what the producers of Vibes were thinking: a tale of two psychics, compete with a disembodied spirit guide, searching the Andes for a mystical pyramid that is the “source of all psychic energy” in the world? It sounds like Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark were combined in a boardroom kitchen blender, and the results were about as palatable; even an affable cast headlined by Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk couldn’t help. Ignored by 1988 moviegoers and trashed by 1988 critics, Vibes is notable today for only two reasons: it was the first of only a few scattered starring roles for 80s pop sensation Cyndi Lauper, and it featured an original score by rising Hollywood composer James Horner.

By 1988, James Horner was fast becoming an A-list composer in Hollywood, with an impressive succession of hits to his name. Following his breakout score to Star Trek II in 1982, he had successfully branched out across multiple genres, from cult drama hits like The Journey of Natty Gann to animations like An American Tail, with a strong foothold in science fiction in pictures like Aliens (nominated, along with Tail, for an Oscar in 1986). 1988 would prove to be one of his most fruitful years yet, with the animated Land Before Time, the fantasy adventure Willow, the sci-fi sequel Cocoon: The Return, and the gritty urban Red Heat. Almost lost among this impressive filmography is Vibes, which Horner was assigned largely on the strength of his existing relationship with Ron Howard, co-owner of the production company behind the ill-fated film.

Horner chose to tackle Vibes with a synthesizer score composed to picture, a Vangelis-like approach that he had adopted for a few films in the 1980s and one which he completely abandoned after Another 48 Hrs. in 1990. As a result, there are no grand themes or soaring melodies as in the best of the composer’s 1980s work; instead, his music is all about ambient New Age atmosphere. In some cases, as in “Andes Arrival” and “The Journey Begins,” Horner’s music is affable and lively, led by Andean panpipes in such a way that it’s almost indistinguishable from dozens of mood music CDs released around the same time for the same instrument.

To service the darker and more sinister aspects of Vibes, in “Opening the Pyramid” and “Sylvia’s Vision,” Horner creates a chaotic but even less melodic sound. It sounds like nothing Horner has written before or since, though it is perhaps closest to the kettle-drum parts of 48 Hrs. or Commando. One can argue about how effective it is in the film (provided you can find a copy!), but on album it is a dour experience, like a darkly inverted version of a New Age CD or perhaps one of Vangelis’s most troubled score cues.

Given the pervasive ambient atmosphere of the score, and the fact that its best parts are almost indistinguishable from cheap New Age panpipe albums, it’s hard to imagine that, for most of the 2000s, Vibes was the “holy grail” for collectors of James Horner’s music. This is wholly attributable to its scarcity on album: the movie’s dismal failure meant that no commercial album was forthcoming, so Varèse Sarabande issued it as part of their CD Club’s first iteration. Only 1000 copies were pressed, and only people who followed the invitation to write to the label included in some Varèse CD booklets even knew of the product’s existence; Cyndi Lauper fans were left out entirely, though her song contribution to the film was available as a single. So while Vibes was technically available for some time, only the most diehard collectors of the late 1980s and early 1990s even knew of the album’s existence.

None of the James Horner fans attracted by his later scores like Braveheart or Titanic had a chance to buy Vibes before it fell out of print, leaving a gaping hole in their collections. As a result, for some time, used copies of the score sold for astronomical prices as high as $500 and bootlegs of varying quality proliferated to help fill the gap. Varèse Sarabande eventually reissued the original 1988 album in 2013 as part of their “Varèse Encore” series, making an additional 2000 copies available and, at least temporarily, putting the album back in the $20 price range.

One should only seek out Vibes if building a complete James Horner collection or to hear a sound strikingly different from most of the composer’s other output–his best impression of cheap New Age panpipe CDs and Vangelis. To anyone else, the score is a curiosity, and a rare one at that–with only 3000 copies in existence, it is almost certainly cheaper to buy a genuine New Age panpipe CD and a Vangelis album.

Rating: starstar

The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat)

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Terrence Malick is one of the most respected and most divisive directors working in film today, and his works have aroused strong feelings, pro or con, in everyone who has viewed them. His 2011 film The Tree of Life was no less so, earning nominations in several Academy Award categories while simultaneously being savaged by many viewers and critics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation, Malick had attracted a variety of top-flight musical talent to score his projects, from Ennio Morricone on Days of Heaven to Hans Zimmer and co. on The Thin Red Line to James Horner on The New World.

For The Tree of Life, Malick recruited French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was in the midst of an extremely busy year. 2011 saw seven movies scored in whole or in part by Desplat, including his Oscar-nominated score for Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and a score for Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Desplat is often strongest in his contemplative mode, featured in scores such as Birth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, than his disappointing attempts at epic fantasy writing as in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Tree of Life represents in some ways the ultimate evolution of the former style, with his usual waltzes and melody supplemented by Philip Glass influenced minimalism.

Fans of Glass will probably enjoy what they find here, especially in “Circles,” the album’s longest and most impressive track. Cellular composition, repeated motifs, and a cyclical and evolving feel make the 11-minute centerpiece cue a true tour-de-force without losing Desplat’s distinctive voice. Echoes of Benjamin Button and Birth are to be had elsewhere, often in the most melodic and piano-led cues like the desolate “Childhood” and warm “Awakening,” although it’s by and large a score of textures more than melody or theme. Those expecting the empty bombast of Desplat’s Compass or Potter will be disappointed, though the composer does include his signature waltzes in the pair of “Motherhood” and “Fatherhood.”

Desplat also blesses the score with an air of impressionistic darkness in many cues. The aforementioned “Awakening,” for instance, includes a sinister full string section under its gentle piano melody, skillfully intermixing optimism and unease in a similar way to the deep electronic pulses from Birth, before building to an unnerving crescendo at the end. He uses other innovative techniques, like a solo and vaguely out-of-tune leading string in “Good and Evil” or discordant, Elliot Goldenthal style shrieking strings in “Temptation” (perhaps the score’s darkest cue).

From the minimalistic opening piano of “Childhood” to the inviting cyclic minimalism of “Circles” through the darkness of “Awakening” and “Temptation,” to the final innocent and childlike “Skies,” Desplat’s album truly feels like a musical journey. With only his signature musical voice to bind the score together, the composer nevertheless manages to create a cohesive musical narrative that can stand well on its own. This was perhaps the wisest decision Desplat made, given Malick’s history of tinkering with his films’ soundtracks: creating an album that can exist completely independently of its film, a contemplative masterpiece perfect for engaged listening or as a backdrop to writing or other creative endeavors.

There is one downside to the album: anyone looking for the classical pieces that were inserted into the film to replace the majority of Desplat’s original music will be disappointed. Malick, despite working with the very best original composers that Hollywood has to offer, often uses very little of the score they prepare, with what is used often chopped up and redistributed. This led to many angry viewers upset with the album from Lakeshore records, which includes only Desplat’s original score instead of the many classical pieces by John Tavener, Arsenije Jovanovic, and many others. This led to many reviews roundly trashing Desplat’s album for what it is not, rather than what it is.

Still, as long as listeners know exactly what they are getting into (and the available sound samples represent an excellent cross-section of Desplat’s music) they won’t be disappointed. It may be closer to a quasi-rejected score, or an instrumental “music inspired by” album, but The Tree of Life is still a musical journey well worth taking by one of Hollywood’s strongest musical voices. Lakeshore Records’ score album has become rather scarce the film’s release, commanding slightly inflated prices, but it is still readily available in digital form.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Willow (James Horner)

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Clearly, the powers that be were hoping for Willow to be a fantasy Star Wars. The film was produced by Lucasfilm, with a story by Lucas himself, Ron Howard behind the camera, and a slew of high-budget special effects (including some of the first digital movie effects of the sort Lucas would later fall hopelessly in love with). The movie failed to find its audience and had to settle for later cult success; plans for a trilogy were scrapped, and it would be over a decade until big-budget cinema fantasy came into its own with the back-to-back successes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. James Horner had collaborated with director Ron Howard once before, on 1985’s Cocoon, but Willow was an altogether different undertaking, with over 90 minutes of music needed to accompany dozens of exotic locales and characters. It was a situation not unlike that which would later confront Howard Shore; like Shore Horner endeavored to present a multitude of strong themes to bring the fantasy milieu to life.

Willow opens with an extended prologue, not unlike that of the concurrent The Land Before Time, which introduces many of the key themes and motifs of the score: an eerie three note choral theme, a sakauhachi-led theme that appears over the main titles, and an ominous, dissonant theme for Nockmaar Castle and its denizens which heavily incorporates Horner’s tried and true four-note danger motif. The next track, “Escape from the Tavern,” offers up the score’s centerpiece, a heroic brass anthem performed in rousing, swashbuckling fashion. There are several other minor motifs as well–indeed, Willow rivals The Land Before Time as the most thematically rich of Horner’s works to date.

The heroic theme is one of the strongest that Horner has ever penned, and is given lengthy and varied performances in virtually every track on the disc, with the aforementioned “Escape from the Tavern” as a highlight. Listeners have often claimed that this theme is lifted almost wholly from Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3; it’s certainly easy to see where Horner was inspired by the latter, but the swashbuckling Erich Wolfgang Korngold feel of Horner’s song is quite different from the much more stately chamber atmosphere of Schumann. Compared to other alleged Horner borrowings in Battle Beyond the Stars or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Schumann influence is more on par with that of Verdi on John Williams in Star Wars.

Horner’s sakauhachi flute theme, representing the more tender side of the fim, is impressive as well; the instrument lends the music an otherworldly yet melodic feel that perfectly captures the feel of a vast and ancient world. The composer would fall in love with the instrument after its major appearances in Willow, and sakauhachi solos would become a calling card for the composer in the future, appearing in scores as diverse as Braveheart, Clear and Present Danger, and Avatar.

Not all of Horner’s material in Willow is as strong, though. In particular, the Nockmaar Castle theme associated with the evil Bavmorda (and her almost parodically Vader-like henchman Kael, named after the movie critic Pauline Kael) is very difficult to enjoy. Assaulting the listener with repeated performances of Horner’s favorite four-note danger motif over a bed of seemingly random, shrill sakauhachi blasts. The danger motif, a musical signature appearing in most of Horner’s scores since its introduction in Star Trek II, is distracting enough on its own, but as it’s the lone tonal piece of an otherwise atonal and abrasive sound, its prominence is increased tenfold. The Nockmaar material is prominently placed as well, breaking up several of the lengthier performances of the other themes with its shrill dissonance. Compared to compelling villain themes from Star Trek II‘s Khan theme to Avatar‘s militaristic human theme, Willow‘s musical representation of its villains simply falls flat.

The album’s presentation merits discussion as well: despite being a robust 77 minutes long, Willow has only eight cues, including three that top the ten-minute mark. Many of the most rousing and enjoyable parts of the album, like the latter halves of “Canyon of Mazes” and “Bavmorda’s Spell is Cast” are buried by comparatively dull material or statements of the weak Nockmaar theme beforehand. This can lead to a frustratingly inconsistent listen, as the music veers from the heroic heights of Horner’s best thematic material to the meandering doldrums of comparatively uninteresting motifs. It’s not clear if the music was written that way of if tracks were combined for the album release, but in either case breaking them up into shorter cues (if gapless ones) would have aided the album as a listening experience.

Despite these weaknesses, the thematic complexity of Willow, as well as the powerful nature of the heroic and sakauhachi themes, make it highly recommended. If you’ve ever wondered how a Horner Lord of the Rings would have sounded, or are curious to see the composer’s take on John William’s Ewok celebration music (near the middle of “Willow the Sorcerer” and the clearest Star Wars influence on the music), Willow is your opportunity to do just that. If you’re seeking some of James Horner’s strongest thematic material and are undaunted by the duller and more dissonant parts of the album or by frequent use of the composer’s four-note motif, the comparatively rare album can find a place among the grand fantasy genre scores in any collection.

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Passport to the Universe (Stephen Endelman)

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Film composers often find themselves creating scores for attractions and theme park rides; their experience with matching music to images makes this an ideal choice. This has led to attraction scores from Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future: The Ride), John Debney (The Phantom Manor), Basil Poledouris (Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular), and even James Horner (Captain EO). Stephen Endelman, while nowhere near as well known as many of the professionals in his field, built himself a solid resume with projects like The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Evelyn, and overachieving music for the risible reboot Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. When the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History began work on a new show, Endelman was commissioned to write an original score to accompany it, a score that, unlike many of the aforementioned ones, received a full CD release..

Passport to the Universe consisted entirely of deep-space images and narration by Tom Hanks, allowing Endelman almost unlimited freedom to compose as he saw fit. As the composer writes in the liner notes, this seemed the perfect opportunity to “create a piece of music that would fuse both acoustic instrumentation and ambient soundscapes,” an idea that he had toyed with for some time. Due to this decision, the show’s sound effects are included directly into the score, at times given equal prominence with the orchestra, despite the oft-repeated fact that there is no sound in outer space for lack of a medium to travel through.

Endelman’s work skews strongly toward the ambient soundscape end of the musical spectrum he describes in the notes–while there is an orchestra, it is used as a sound effect in the show’s overall audio design. Aside from brief outbursts, most notably in “Cosmic Address,” the score is largely atonal, shying away from melody in favor of dense layers of background noise. At times, such as in “Black Hole Plunge,” the combination of orchestra and sound effects becomes so brutal and atonal that the music is difficult to listen to–seemingly random brass outbursts, church bell peals, and a low choir compete with wind sound effects to overwhelm the listener with noise.

Many of the other tracks, while admittedly less intense, suffer from a similar problem: since there is little melodic material, the lengthy passages of sound effects and low-key music are dull and plodding. One has to imagine that Endelman embraced the commission as an opportunity to write non-melodic music and experiment with aleatoric, atonal, musique concrète. As exciting a possibility as that may have been in the abstract, it results in something that only fans of John Cage or Krzysztof Penderecki at their most atonal could enjoy. Appreciate, perhaps, given the proper academic background and vocabulary, but not enjoy.

Therefore, as a piece of sound design and accompaniment to the planetarium show, Passport to the Universe is a success. But as a listenable piece of music, especially when divorced from the powerful on-screen images that accompanied the planetarium show, it fails utterly. One can’t help but feel that an approach that divided the sound design and music, isolating the effects from the score, would have been better. The album represents a wasted opportunity–rather than providing a powerful accompaniment to the cosmos, Endelman’s Passport underwhelms. A missed opportunity, recommendable only if forty minutes of minimalistic, ambient music complimented by sound effects is a listening experience you could appreciate.

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Once Upon A Forest (James Horner)

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James Horner has worked on some truly dreadful films during his career, and Once Upon A Forest is near the bottom. The 1993 film was a poorly-animated, preachy, and dull environmentalist treatise that was ignored at the box office; unlike the similarly preachy FernGully the year before, it doesn’t even have the consolation of a cult following (likely due to the lack of any performances with the gusto of Robin Williams or Tim Curry). Even to the devoted animation or children’s film enthusiast, Once Upon A Forest has little to recommend it aside from James Horner’s fine music.

As with many of his animated endeavours, stretching all the way back to An American Tail in 1986, Horner was asked to pen songs for the film. However, his contributions were not limited to a mere end credit ballad: Once Upon A Forest was a semi-musical with three songs. This allowed Horner to work with such noted vocalists as Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera fame) and Ben Vereen, and the results were generally good. Crawford’s song, based on the film’s secondary theme, is underdeveloped but features a wonderful performance by the singer. Florence Warner Jones and the New London Children’s Choir bring a warm glow to “Once Upon A Time With Me” that makes the song compelling despite its nonsensical lyrics (oddly, identical versions of the song both open and close the album). “He’s Back,” a gospel song, has no relation to the rest of the score, but is performed with gusto and passes quickly.

Horner’s score uses the melody from “Once Upon A Time With Me” as its main theme, while weaving in aspects of “Please Wake Up” as circumstances demand. The opening tracks harken back to the composer’s work on The Land Before Time with long, flowing suites of music, most notably in “The Forest,” the album’s highlight. There’s some sprightly music in “The Journey Begins” as well–Horner takes a tiny motif from Willow, hardly developed at all in the former score, and works it into a rousing march. The composer’s infamous four-note danger motif makes an appearance during the album’s latter half, where it’s mostly used as counterpoint. Those are most egregious cases of Horner borrowing from himself in the score, though anyone who is enough of a fan of the composer to actually seek the obscure album out has likely made their peace with his continued Hornerisms.

Despite being chained to such a banal film, Once Upon A Forest is an engaging listen on album, full of melody and heart. The disc has become something of a rarity, thanks to the demise of Fox Records and the obscurity of the many Fox animated pictures of the 1990s; it commands a healthy price on the secondary market, but is well worth seeking out. For those interested, it offers one of James Horner’s above-average animation scores, as well as a return to writing songs for an animated musical of sorts, so long as you are not deterred by the scarcity of the album or the banality of the film.

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Freedom Song (James Horner)

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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.

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