James Horner On Key

I’ve been listening to a lot of James Horner in the last couple of weeks. And I know I’m not the only one. The great film composers – the Herrmanns and Goldsmiths and Williamses and Bernsteins and Barrys – have that gift, that talent for finding the heart of a scene. And so they have that gift for finding your heart too.

That was James Horner. As Matt Zoller Seitz (one of the more thoughtful critics writing today – and his conversation with SI Rosenbaum pays far better tribute to Horner than I could) said, “The films [he] scored were often sentimental, but his music was always emotional, and he understood the difference.” And I think that’s why his death hit so hard for so many fans, like me.

I knew I’d have to write something. And I thought long and hard about how I would pay tribute to the man.¬†Would I draw on the themes and motifs he carried with him throughout his career? Would I choose a favorite score or cue and focus on that? Could I even choose one?

It turns out that I could.

There are six James Horner soundtracks I always return to, without fail. For me, these are his masterpieces. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Aliens. Field of Dreams. The Rocketeer. Apollo 13. And the one I’m writing about today, the one that always gets me.

One of these days I’ll write an essay about Sneakers. It’s a gem of a caper movie, both daft and deft. It has thrills and menace and a weird goofy charm. Much of that is from the script and direction. Even more of it is from its all-star cast. And for me, the most of it comes from its score, a character in its own right.

James Horner built his music for the film on four key elements. Branford Marsalis’s sax insinuates itself into every cue. Percussion drives the action. The choir sings like it’s in on the joke. And the piano…

I don’t really know how to explain what the piano does in this film. On some cues, it’s evasive and mischievous. On others, it’s foreboding and almost evil. On others, it’s laughing with the choir.

And in one standout cue, “Too Many Secrets,” it’s doing all of that at once.

From the curious, uneasy opening, as the characters stumble upon a truth no one had prepared them for, the piano carries the track, setting the lead for Marsalis and the choir and the percussion. And as our heroes learn the full truth of what they’ve found, the piano carries their terror, as they – and we – begin to realize that they might not actually make it out alive. More than anything else in the film, it’s the music – especially here – that sets and raises the stakes.

Everything that makes Sneakers one of Horner’s great scores is in that piano. And so you could say that everything that made him a great composer is in that score.

If you’re still working on your James Horner playlist – and even if you never had one – you need to include Sneakers. I can’t think of a better way to remember him.

And that’s my tribute, or my best attempt at one. Thank you for listening.

Until next time…

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