Thursday, 2 April 2009

Fighting Horner's Corner

I sometimes think James Horner is one of the great misunderstood. His enduring presence on the scoring stage over the last thirty years – yes, thirty – has seen him go from classical wannabe and B-Movie composer to one of the most recognisable voices, and names, in film music. To some he’s just ‘that guy who scored Titanic’, to others he’s a master of emotional nuance with a well honed perception of the human condition. He may sometimes come across as ever so slightly aloof, shy perhaps, and it’s no secret that he often finds the Hollywood machine faintly tiresome, but there’s no denying his skill and the identity he has crafted for himself. Has he passed the pinnacle of his career? Perhaps. There’s no doubt in my mind that Titanic was the crest of a steadily rising wave – built from the likes of Cocoon, Willow, Jumanji, Braveheart and Apollo 13. That said, his post-Oscar filmography is littered with box office and critical successes. His triumphs with his two Star Trek entries (The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock) meant his star was on the rise early and echoes of those scores can still be heard in his work today. But is that something to deride him for? Are we to berate an artist for creating a palette and re-using the same colours, nuances and brush strokes throughout their career? It seems so. Innumerable devices, motifs and rhythmic patterns have followed Horner throughout his career; most notably perhaps is the four-note ‘danger/threat’ motif, heard way back in 1983’s Brainstorm (‘Lilian’s Heart Attack’), through to Willow, The Mask of Zorro, The Perfect Storm and even The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That latter example – his most recent score – is a fine case in point as even though it is reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind and the aforementioned Brainstorm in places, it remains a really rather captivating work and a perfect supporting tone for the film.

Re-using musical ideas, I think, simply cements a stronger presence and is a well conceived move. Today so much film music is merely wallpaper with little or no identity and I can barely think of a composer who is working in the very connective way that Horner still does. Plenty of legendary composers of the past did similar things; in fact it was the done thing in the early days of film music. With the conveyor belt system of production in the Golden Age, composers would often return to past scores and re-use bits and pieces, themes and motifs. Max Steiner – the man who started it all – is a fine case in point; for example Casablanca features music from The Lost Squadron, while his glorious theme for Now, Voyager is re-used for Bette Davis’ turn three years later as Mildred Pierce. Bernard Herrmann was fond of a three-note motif; made famous in Psycho as the ‘Madness’ motif, it was itself taken from his own ‘Sinfonietta for Strings’ (1935), used two years later in his ‘Moby Dick’ cantata and went on to feature in his score for Taxi Driver, amongst others. John Williams famously quoted the motif in Star Wars, which he was finishing up in the year following Herrmann’s death.

When he’s not re-using his own ideas, he’s often borrowing from other people – so the naysayers like to spout. Hands up, it is true to say that the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Saint-Saens and Khachaturian have each had some bearing on Horner’s work over the years, but what about the presence of Holst in both Zimmer and Williams, not to mention the effect the likes of Herrmann and Nino Rota had on Danny Elfman’s early work. Aaron Zigman does a very fine Thomas Newman every other score, while Newman himself has, on occasion, been inspired by his late father’s work. To come full circle, and to mention a recently released Horner gem, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids sees the composer take Elfman’s lead and looks to Rota for his main theme, Copland for his ‘Rodeo’ style pieces while the appearance of Grusin’s The Goonies in ‘Ant Rodeo’ can surely be put down to temp-love. Speaking of which, anyone ever noticed Williams’ ‘Banning Back Home’ from Hook is strangely similar to Grusin’s ‘Mountain Dance’ from Falling in Love?

So Horner can be forgiven for simply continuing a trend which has been, and always will be, apparent in film music. While he’s scored some stinkers in his time and doesn’t always come up trumps – Windtalkers anyone? – he remains one of the strongest and most recognised voices in film music. The Spiderwick Chronicles showed he’s still got it and indeed all ears will be on James Cameron’s ambitious 3D epic Avatar when it finally graces the screen later this year. With the passing of Maurice Jarre just this week, we are reminded of the longevity of film music royalty. Williams, Morricone and Barry represent the higher echelons, while James Horner is the head of the next generation, so be nice.

Honey, I Shrunk The Kids is available now on limited edition CD from Intrada Records (ISC Vol 94) – – while The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is available as a digital download from Walt Disney Records at the usual places, or you can hear it for free by downloading Spotify here in the UK –


  1. Excellent post.

  2. Thanks for posting about Horner, Michael. I have feeling that he's sometimes left behind and his recent work on The Boy in the Stripped Pyjama is definitely a testament to his greatness.
    About re-using, I think his music has such a defined flavour that sometimes it is easier to spot the similiraties in his works than in some other composers. Most of his work on Clear and Present Danger has definitely been re-used on Titanic and I could probably go on forever with examples, but the truth of the matter is James Horner is one of the few composers to bridge over the new generation of film composers and is still able to maintain that link to the past traditions that many today have lost.

  3. Speaking of "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids", Horner used Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" theme without giving any credit to Scott. Isn't this the type of stuff people don't like about Horner? Not simply that he "reuses" soundscapes from past efforts or from everyone else, but to take someone else's theme and pretend it's your own?

  4. Thanks for your post, Michael. I think we should not confuse autorship with absolute originality, neither in classical nor in film music. Why cannot an original work of a composer be judged by his use of harmony, orchestration or a particular syncing to picture? Handel has 'stolen' many of his and others' motives and arias in a similar working environment as film composers have to face today.

  5. Great post. Sometimes people are so enamored with beating on the guy they lose any sense of what the arguement is. (George Santayana called them "fanatics" - and you can't spell that without the word "fan").

    Prowl: While the title theme to Honey... does sound like Powerhouse (and its meant to, duh), it *isn't* Powerhouse. If it was, there would be a credit or a lawsuit or something to show that it isn't Horner's. So logic says that it *is* Horner's. The fact that you can hear anyone in someone else's music - Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring is all over Trevor Jones' Dark City note for note but no one EVER brings that up - does not denote stealing outright.

  6. Great post...Re: Mildred Pierce, I think you mean Joan Crawford.

  7. Lehah -- in fact, Disney WAS sued for the lack of attribution in Horner's "Power Play" rip-off in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" from Scott's "Powerhouse Theme", and it was settled out of court. That would seem to seal the deal regarding "authorship."