The news started rippling out across social media last night before authorities had even confirmed the identity of the body: the Oscar-winning film composer James Horner was dead, killed in a plane crash.
I write about celebrity deaths all the time; it’s kind of become the schtick I’m known for, weirdly enough. I write about the ones that produce an emotional response in me, the ones I feel some degree of sorrow about. Some of them affect me more than others, especially if they’re sudden and/or unexpected. I’m positively numb over this one.
I’ve always had a few movie soundtracks in my music collection, going all the way back to the double-LP Empire Strikes Back album, but my interest in the genre really took off when I was working that notorious theater job in my early 20s, when I was immersed in the movie industry and exposed to film music constantly. Horner quickly became a favorite of mine, second only to the master, John Williams. He wasn’t always the most inventive of composers — he had a habit of reusing certain melodies and effects over and over, something I’m sure Kelly will address with more expertise than I can when gets around to writing about this — but he was a solid and prolific craftsman who turned out a lot of work that I love.
There’s not much else I can say right now. I don’t have any anecdotes about James Horner or his work, no personal recollections to speak of, beyond “I like his stuff.” And really, Horner’s music kind of says it all anyhow. So I’m going to take the easy way out and just share some of my favorite pieces with you, my Loyal Readers. I hope you’ll take the time to play the clips below, and that you’ll like what you hear. This music has, in a sense, been the soundtrack to my own life. Or at least a part of that soundtrack.
First up is a pulse-pounding track from Jim Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which accompanies the scene in which the Colonial Marines have made contact with the xenomorphs and are getting their asses handed to them; back aboard the armored personnel carrier, their inexperienced lieutenant is paralyzed with indecision, until Ripley finally takes matters into her own hands and seizes control of the APC and drives to the rescue. It’s some of the most adrenaline-triggering film music ever recorded, in my humble opinion:
If that sounds really familiar to you, it’s probably because it was became the standard “action-movie cue” used in countless trailers for several years during the ’90s. For an interesting exercise, compare it to “Surprise Attack” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). This is the moment when the Enterprise encounters another Federation starship, not realizing it’s under the command of the villainous Khan, who closes to point-blank range before opening fire on our unsuspecting heroes. You’ll hear a lot of similarities to the Aliens piece, including something I’ve never been able to identify but which sounds (to me) like someone rapping on a pipe with a drumstick, a sort of “ting ting” effect. But while Horner is guilty of relying on some of his favorite tricks on this one — the general sound goes back to Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), as far as I’ve been able to determine — he also introduces a nautical feel, suggesting the starships are two giant galleons exchanging broadsides under full sail. And he subtly incorporates a little flourish from the original Star Trek television series and a couple of callbacks to the cosmic weirdness that Jerry Goldsmith created for the previous installment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, making this score, in many respects, the most “Star Trek-y” of them all:
For Glory, Edward Zwick’s 1989 film about the first African-American infantry unit to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, Horner incorporates a vocal chorus and a generally softer tone. I’ve always found this track, from near the movie’s climax, especially moving. Its elegiac tone as the men of the 54th Massachusetts prepare for what they know is likely a suicide mission, followed by the rising pace of the martial drums as they begin their final charge, breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it:
And finally, here’s the main title from what is probably my favorite James Horner score, The Rocketeer (1990). It’s beautiful, upbeat, optimistic, and it perfectly captures the feeling of leaving the ground. A couple weekends ago, Anne and I took her father for a ride on a historic B-17 Flying Fortress, and this was what I heard in my mind as the runaway started to roll past the gunport I was looking through, and then fell away as the big old bird slipped into the crystal-clear sky with more grace than you’d expect…
Although the selections I chose here are all 25 years old (or more, in the case of Khan), Horner was no has-been. He worked steadily from 1978 right up to the present moment, and no doubt had a lot left to do. Three films featuring scores by him are due out this year: Wolf Totem, The 33, and Southpaw. He was only 61.