In Tribute: The Best of James Horner

In honor of James Horner, we list some of his best works.

You could say it’s taken us a little while to post this article because, like many film fans around the world, we at The Movie Sleuth are still getting over the shock of losing one of cinema’s most gifted composers. James Horner may not have been a household name along with the many directors whose films he has elevated with his body of work, but his music is iconic and eternal. He has composed numerous cues so recognizable that you can’t help but pick them out with a knowing smile when one graces a new theatrical trailer, getting us stoked for a film that likely won’t live up to the majesty of the music used to promote it. His death means a significant loss, not just to film, but to music as a whole. Here are some of our favorite scores from the late, great James Horner. Rest in peace, maestro.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation on television, it’s easy to pick out the “Star Trek theme” when it blares. Jerry Goldsmith’s singular cue is one of the best and most recognizable in cinema. But if you ask fans of the “Trek Trilogy,” they think of another piece of music. In 1982, climbing out from the primordial cheese of Roger Corman shlock, James Horner was selected by Nicholas Meyer to create a new kind of Star Trek theme. This marked the first of two occasions when Horner would pick up the baton from Goldsmith in a science fiction franchise. It’s hard to say who did it better, but with two sequential titles in a series brought back from the brink of its own self destruction, Horner found many of the defining coins of his style, and became an integral cog in the ever-winding clock of Star Trek history. The four-note villain motif that would become a trademark of a long and industrious career (most notably present in Enemy at the Gates) took root in Surprise Attack, and would forever be known as “Khan’s Theme” in the minds of Trek fans the world over. You could say it’s i-KHAAAAAAN-ic. His use of string bass, percussion, and a seamless integration of the usually bombastic “Blaster Beam” — an instrument made famous as the “VGer sound” in the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture (played by smashing an artillery shell on what looks like a massive guitar-string panel) — may not be as majestic and hypnotic as Goldsmith’s score, but as one of several themes in this one-two knockout punch, it’s a phenomenal example of how to use music to build and sustain tension. An example that Horner would continue to build on and truly show his gifts in Search for Spock. While recognized as the low point of the “Trek Trilogy,” this was certainly no fault of Horner’s, whose ambition to top himself elevated an otherwise standard Trek offering (he wouldn’t return to score The Voyage Home due to scheduling conflicts with Aliens). Goldsmith’s original score finds its spiritual sibling right from the opening cue, as we re-experience the death of Spock, and descend upon the Genesis planet. With Horner’s beautifully orchestrated brass section and swooping strings, it’s a score that touches something elemental within us, rouses our sense of wonder, and sparks our thirst for adventure.

Brainstorm (1983)
Among the earliest James Horner scores to garner both recognition and the criticism that he often worked preexisting music into his own scores was his work on the ill-fated Douglas Trumbull science fiction feature Brainstorm with Christopher Walken and the late Natalie Wood. Known as one of the last 70mm films to be widely released as well as the troubled final film of Natalie Wood, Brainstorm represents one of the earliest mainstream efforts by the young composer. From its opening cue of a near silent angelic chorus building up into a full blown orchestral assault of strings, cymbals and electronic sounds, Brainstorm achieves a sense of wonder and implacable fear purely from the score alone. Arguably one of Horner’s loveliest compositions which still remains largely unheard in his canon, Michael’s Gift to Karen, presents a kind of love letter of pianos, violins and a heavenly choir suggesting the lost joy in Michael and Karen’s relationship. As with the film’s abrupt tonal shifts from wonder to terror, Horner provides early precursors to his nail biting work in Aliens with tracks like Lillian’s Heart Attack and Race for Time, amplifying the tension and excitement. It’s a little bombastic in parts but gives the film the air of a thriller all the same. Lastly for just a few moments over the end credits, Horner even manages to work in the preamble of medieval English composer Thomas Tallis’ 1570 piece Spem in Alium, a move that works beautifully but would also provide detractors with the ammunition they needed to assail the composer’s work over the years for being “unoriginal”. Whatever your stance on Horner’s mixture of classical preexisting music and his own compositions may be, Horner proved you can meld the two together beautifully and Brainstorm is indicative of an artist just starting to come into his own.

Commando (1985)
Now here’s an unusual offering you wouldn’t expect from James Horner: The over-the-top Arnold Schwarzenegger action thriller Commando. Not just for it being part of Horner’s discography, but in particular how it sounds in relation to the man’s other scores. Opening on a cue of synthesizers, tropical steel drums and a recurring saxophone, Commando is the least likely military-oriented action soundtrack you would expect to hear. In a way, the score actually provides the goofball 80s action classic with a comical backdrop, allowing viewers an arm’s-length distance from the cheesy material. While some elements of Horner’s strings are present in certain scenes, it’s predominantly the aforementioned instruments that make up the strangely incongruent score. Some synthesized pieces intended to evoke dread do evoke an ongoing trademark of Horner’s score that would find itself in both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens: tapping the bow of a violin across the strings, making a percussive plucking sound. While Jerry Goldsmith made frequent use of this technique in Alien, it would become commonplace in James Horner’s work over the years. Commando isn’t necessarily the greatest starting point to examine the composer’s distinguished career but it is certainly unlike anything else he’s written before. For once, the high camp of the film and its soundscape are in perfect union thanks to an 80s action score that, save for a final showdown with atonal strings notifying the viewer they should be scared instead of chuckling, takes the proceedings even less seriously than we do.

Aliens (1986)
The first score by James Horner to earn an Academy Award nomination in 1986, Aliens is both timelessly iconic in the nerve-wracking action thriller genre as well as a drawing inspiration from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Alien and even making room for Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane Ballet Suite used previously in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much like the score itself, it was produced overnight at a frantic pace, writing and editing up to the very last minute just days before the premiere. Much like Alien, Horner’s score was rearranged chronologically in the editing process, including the swapping of some cues with that of Goldsmith’s when those Horner provided weren’t up to director James Cameron’s standards. From the onset, we hear the distant otherworldly hum opening the credits before a subtle chorus and army snare drum beats indicate Aliens as a sort of military science fiction hybrid. As the film progresses from Lt. Ellen Ripley’s journey from medical base to military drop ship, the film maintains its percussive notes leading towards a full blown percussion only drill when the Colonial Marines and dropship prepare to enter the xenomorph’s planetary atmosphere. Near the final showdown between Ripley and an alien queen, an iconic piece of music in Horner’s canon emerged which found itself reused time and time again in theatrical trailers, including Alien 3. It’s a combination of white knuckle tension full of heavy orchestral strings, cymbals and horns achieving a climax of sound that is equal parts exciting and utterly terrifying. Despite the success of both Aliens and Horner’s unforgettable soundtrack, Horner expressed dissatisfaction with the score complaining it was incomplete given the time crunch and the re-editing of his score as written out of sequence with the finished film.  In Horner’s canon, it also has a tendency to be overshadowed by Goldsmith’s influences but there’s just enough of Horner’s own sharp edge in the tense action compositions it manages as a score to set itself apart from the pack.

An American Tail (1986)
Although Horner was mostly garnering attention for his Academy Award nominated score for Aliens, the man also began an ongoing working relationship with ex-Disney animator Don Bluth when he provided the score to what is essentially both Steven Spielberg and Horner’s first foray into animation, An American Tail. The story of a family of Russian mice immigrating to the United States before being split apart on the way by a violent storm, An American Tail established Fievel Mouskewitz as one of the earliest heroes of Don Bluth’s animation as well as the first animated character to come from Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. This was one of the first official musicals in Horner’s canon, providing both an original score and a series of song and dance numbers for the cast of cartoon mice and cats to burst into. Most of all though, it provided Horner with a unique opportunity and even greater exposure than his Aliens score did when he composed the original song Somewhere Out There with Linda Ronstadt. Serving as a precursor to Horner’s eventual work with Celine Dion for James Cameron’s Titanic, the song won a Grammy and became one of the most popular songs written for an animated film in decades, garnering widespread radio play and sales of the soundtrack as well as singles of the song. While sporting Horner’s usual fare of white knuckle excitement and tension, it also provided a new sentimental side to his music not heard before and was among his earliest mainstream successes where people didn’t just listen to his score with the movie. 

Glory (1989)
James Horner’s achingly beautiful and heartfelt score for the 1989 Civil War drama Glory was both the first Horner soundtrack I had heard in a film and the first work of his I owned a personal copy of.  Aided by a choral requiem supplanted by the Boys Choir of Harlem, Horner’s score informs the profoundly moving historical drama of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, the first Union Army during the Civil War comprised entirely of African American men. Based off the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) and featuring an Academy Award-winning performance by Denzel Washington, Glory may well be the definitive Civil War film. Under two hours, it captures the essence of what the divide between the North and South was about more directly and succinctly than far denser and expansive procedurals such as Gettysburg or Gods and Generals. From the onset, Horner’s score achieves a rare emotional power over a viewer’s heartstrings, particularly over the opening theme to its Carl Orff inspired grand finale Charging Fort Wagner. As with his prior works, Horner’s stood accused of plagiarizing by working samples of preexisting works into his own compositions and with Glory the man pretty clearly lifted from Orff’s Carmina Burana in the last act. That said, Horner follows it up over the closing credits with undoubtedly my favorite composition of his to date. Working the film’s recurring theme into a crescendo of mournful vocals, battalion snare drums and thundering bell chimes, this is one of those rare pieces of music with the power to make listeners cry. So strong was the track it found itself repurposed into trailers for films such as Ron Howard’s Backdraft. With the release of Glory in theaters, the film was a critical and commercial success and represented Horner’s first mainstream success on home media with sales of the soundtrack through the roof. Years later in the short lived battle between DVD-Audio and Sony’s Super Audio CD format, the score was reissued in remastered 5.1 surround sound, a testament to the soundtrack’s lasting commercial viability and emotional resonance within listeners. In Horner’s canon, this was his first masterpiece.

Apollo 13 (1995)
Ron Howard’s biopic of NASA’s ill-fated Apollo 13 mission is one of the great space exploration thrillers of our generation. A nerve-wracking tale of survival and milestone in cinema history for being among the very first Hollywood films to shoot actual zero gravity sequences thanks to a specialized airplane the film captures the awesome scope, terror and beauty of deep space in one fell swoop. From the nail biting terror of survival against unthinkable odds to the powerful emotional perspective of loved ones fearing for the lives of the men on the doomed lunar mission, Apollo 13 pays incredible attention to historical detail and still manages to make all the complexity of the mission understandable to audiences. No doubt aiding to the mixture of wonderment and white knuckle tension is James Horner’s score for the film, one which garnered him another Academy Award nomination as well as commercial success on home media sales. Beginning on an awesome yet foreboding note of heavy bass, snare drums and a patriotic trumpet by Tim Morrison, Apollo 13 captures the national glory of the Apollo 11 mission with Neil Armstrong and a certain yearning from its hero Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), the man who would commandeer the Apollo 13 mission. True to form, Horner’s ability to strike stark terror in the hearts of listeners is played to full effect here, notably in a terrifying nightmare sequence where Lovell’s wife (played by Kathleen Quinlan) imagines the worst case scenario. Aiding to the terror are atonal strings, synthesizers and sharp piano keys during fight or flight moments of sheer adrenaline. As with Glory, the choir provides an awesome scope to the proceedings, particularly during the launch sequence which manages to achieve a sense of tear-jerking awe not felt since the early days of Steven Spielberg. The final closing track with vocalist Annie Lennox singing the main theme song against thundering percussion leaves viewers with a sense of anticipation and excitement, gratified it’s over but still shaken by how scary the ride was.    

Braveheart (1995)
How did James Horner not win the Oscar for Best Original Score for Braveheart? Could it be because he was nominated against himself for scoring Apollo 13? Maybe. He lost to Luis Bacalov, who scored Il Postino (The Postman). Now, if you ask anyone to tell you what the score sounded like to The Postman, they’ll probably think you’re talking about the Kevin Costner piece of shit, and everything about that movie needs to perish in a car fire. The point is: Hindsight is 20-20, it is 20 years later, and Horner should’ve had this one in the bag. If Steven Soderbergh can win Best Director nominated against himself for directing one great film and a mediocre one, surely James Horner could’ve won for scoring two great films that have great music. Both Apollo 13 and Braveheart have become part of the bedrock of American cinema culture. Both have lines that are part of daily vernacular. However, despite his terrific work on Apollo 13, it’s James Horner’s score to Braveheart that has transcended the last two decades. His flute softly caresses the air of the film’s main theme with an underscore of strings so elegant and emotional, it’s arguably more iconic than Mel Gibson’s monolithic war cry. And that right there shows you how great all of the work here is: I don’t even have to tell you which one it is, but I will say this to the stupid airplane that ended Horner’s time on this earth. You can take his life, but you’ll never take his music. Braveheart remains one of the singular achievements of film composition in the 1990s.

Titanic (1997)
This score needs no introduction. It’s one of the most grandiose and sprawling scores ever composed, and for one of the most grandiose and sprawling films ever made. Yet it’s probably due to the film’s immense size, popularity, and subsequent bashing, that it does seem to require defending. Everything as popular as Titanic eventually develops an undercurrent of hatred that fights its way to the surface, whereby it inevitably becomes fashionable to poke fun at it. Something that makes this much money must be pandering to an audience, therefore we must nitpick, and Titanic as a film (along with most every screenplay by James Cameron) certainly does not stand up to much nitpicking. Is Titanic the greatest film ever made? Of course not, but as far as films made for teenage girls, would you rather watch this or Twilight? Game, set, match. All Celine Dion nonsense aside, James Horner’s sorrow and action-filled score for Titanic marked his reunion with Cameron after the postproduction nightmare of Aliens made them part on bad terms. It was after seeing Braveheart that Cameron decided he needed to bury the hatchet with Horner so that he could recruit the maestro for his $200 million epic tragedy. This was the smartest move Cameron could have made. Not only did Horner win two Oscars for his work, but his music all but defines the word “epic.” All of Horner’s ambition, his love affair with bagpipes that began in Wrath of Khan, and his trademark percussion style come to full fruition in Titanic. He perfectly integrates synthesizers with his orchestra for Southampton (the true theme of Titanic, the boat), creating a score that has more than withstood the test of time, even if all of us got more than a little sick of My Heart Will Go On playing on the radio every six minutes. But listen to the cue A Building Panic and try to think for a moment that it isn’t the work of a master. I dare you.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)
The real test of a talent is succeeding outside of one’s comfort zone. When James Horner decided to assist Martin Campbell in resurrecting the long-dead Zorro franchise, he wasn’t just going outside of his comfort zone: He was strapping himself to a rocket aimed deep in foreign territory. We can say a lot of things about Horner’s music; we can call it “beautiful” or “grand” or even “Corman-tastic.” One thing we couldn’t call it was “Mexican.” Anyone who has casually listened to Mexican music or even showed a passing interest in the film scores of Robert Rodriguez will notice a decisive reliance on instrumentation that James Horner simply doesn’t use on the regular: Human hands, feet, and guitars. From the opening sequence in the Plaza of Execution, Horner says “bring it on.” If your idea of a wet dream for the ears is a street-side mariachi band meets Stomp, this is the soundtrack for you. Consider the “Fencing Lesson” scene with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, where Horner primarily orchestrates using clapping, tap dancing, and mariachi guitars. Not only is this one of the best music cues in The Mask of Zorro, but it’s one of the best extended foreplay sequences ever filmed. While we still get the faithful standbys of strings and brass, Horner’s usually expansive compositions go for a more human touch, and in a late ‘90s summer blockbuster that struck a terrific balance between epic and intimate. The one misfire was his attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle with I Want To Spend My Lifetime Loving You. While the melody of this song is terrific within Horner’s main score, the decision to put lyrics to it and pass it off to Marc Anthony and Tiny Arena was a clear stab at trying to win another Celine Dion-type hit. It didn’t work, but it’s just about the only thing here that doesn’t.

-Andrew Kotwicki
-Blake O. Kleiner