23 June 2015 5351 Views


by James Murphy


arriving at the Los Angeles Premiere of Avatar


The film world was shocked by the news that the great composer, James Horner, had died in a plane crash. He was 63. His greatest works included Titanic, Braveheart, Avatar, Apollo 13, The Amazing Spider Man, Star Trek 2 and Aliens.

Cinema ran in the man’s blood: his father was a production designer. James Horner studied music in stages of advancement, encompassing both London and Californian seats of learning. So, he had an academic approach to film composition from the start of his career.

It was his panoramic, encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding that enabled Horner to respectfully splice together hints from the classical canon and his own compositions. It’s a subtle signature; never obvious or intrusive and a respectful, original fusion of old motifs to new inspiration.

Blink and you’ll miss it but he paid tribute to Prokofiev, Wagner and Orff. He had every right to do so; his own work is just as distinctive in a cinematic context. It does any composer a disservice to try summarising their style in a soundbite.

But there are two main strands of sound that are quintessentially Horner; same way rousing drum-beats = Hans Zimmer or gothic chants = Danny Elfman and big orchestral flourishes for childlike wonder = John Williams. James Horner had epic, sweeping scores and then he had quitter, contemplative sounds, sometimes unified in an action/adventure thriller. A Celtic flavour was added, too. When you hear a Horner tune, you know it’s him.



It’s not quite sing in the shower stuff. You cannot hum along to his music. But you KNOW it’s HIM. He has a style. John Barry (another composer for film that was great at capturing epic, sweeping adventure landscapes in music) was once asked at a talk I attended ‘Doesn’t your stuff always sound the same?’ Barry replied: ‘Some people call that STYLE’. It was a calm, clear and clever response. James Horner could easily have faced the same accusation and batted it away with equal validity.

Listen to Braveheart, Titanic and Bicentennial Man back to back. You will note common patterns in Horner’s crafting of themes and the emotions they capture. But once again: that’s a massive compliment. Imagine being so distinct in your style of work that a listener can pinpoint your composition and authorship? It’s high praise rather than the petulant criticism one might read at first sight.




That’s not to say Horner shied from direct repetition. If a back catalogue piece could work better than a new composition, he used it. And why not? It works and partly because of the eerily familiar and haunting echo in tone. Watch Patriot Games (1992).

Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) sits in a (then) state of the art, satellite operations room. He watches, at once powerful and powerless, as an elite unit of military personnel take on a terror camp on another continent. The character is in awe of the new battlefield and its technology; assured by the action taken yet also revolted by its God-like judgement and ruthlessly clinical attitude to killing.

That’s partly in Ford’s face. But it’s a LOT to do with Horner’s score in the background, capturing a cold uncertainty and ruthless advancement. The excerpt of music was first used in the opening to Aliens (1986): capturing the murky cold and isolation of space.



IE: Horner ‘got’ how music could create mood, instantly. He was not simply bringing music to fill in the movie’s background; the music was PART of the movie’s very ethos. And he took a principled stand where that would not work, too. Because he understood film full stop, rather than just ‘film music’.

Take Amazing Spider-Man. His score for 2012’s reboot captures the sense of buoyant promise that defined that film as the closing credits roll. The track is even called ‘Promises’. I loved it and placed the said track on a compilation CD for some lovely muse at the time (attempt at Pavlovian programming via soundtracks, don’t you know).

Come 2014 and Horner was conspicuously absent from the sequel film (imaginatively titled Amazing Spider Man 2). Hans Zimmer took over: a rare example of a Zimmer score that simply does not ‘work’. Horner’s music had helped define the charm of the first Amazing Spider Man.






Yes, I said that: charm. I like the first film for all its rushed reboot – let’s retell an origin story again -limitations. Horner’s score captures the playful sense of discovery to the comic book universe of possibilities, alongside the innocence to the web slinging hero’s romantic aspirations with Gwen Stacey (lovely Emma Stone).


And I’d go so far as arguing that Horner’s absence hurt Amazing Spider Man 2: its box office and critical reception were disappointing. Because the film lacked joy: a quality that Horner’s score somehow captured and arguably even created in the previous film. Another reboot (starring Tom Holland) is on the way but they could do worse than retain the Horner themes.


Epic film-making and historical or futuristic landscapes frequently lead to the Academy awards. Horner was like a talisman of good luck in that respect. A Director hiring Horner was as good as saying ‘Dear Oscars: please pick me!’.  Mel Gibson and James Cameron clearly understood that well. Braveheart, Titanic, Avatar: all big Oscar nominees and winners and all set to the music of James Horner (he won for Titanic).


A great talent has gone. But his musical legacy will live on.  RIP.





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