RIP James Horner: The composer’s best soundtracks
James R | On 23, Jun 2015
One of cinema’s greatest composers, James Horner, has passed away in a plane crash at the age of 61. We look back at his career.
The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a film that you would expect to spring to mind when thinking of the late James Horner. That’s partly because it’s not a film anybody expected him to score: the decision to hire the man who gave us the music to Titanic and The Land Before Time for a 2012 comic book actioner was a surprise. Surely, the job should have gone to Hans Zimmer? Horner, after all, was like a composer from another time.
That, though, was precisely Horner’s strength. In an era where major movies have become awash with electronics and percussion, where Hans Zimmer – who, make no mistake, is an excellent composer in his own right – has dominated the sound of blockbusters, James Horner was a composer who stood out from the modern musical crowd: he was out of date in the best way possible.
The music he delivered for Marc Webb’s web slinger was as unabashedly romantic as you could hope, with its shimmering piano for Peter Parker and Gwen’s relationship. But its main theme, a rising brass number that underscored Peter’s own jumps to save the day, was the perfect reminder of the composer’s ear for a tune: James Horner has always been one of the best melody writers in Hollywood.
He has had many stylistic traits that re-appear across his work: the chromatic shifts in The Mask of Zorro’s main line and the background of his Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan main number, not to mention Spock’s own theme; the Uilleann pipes that lend Titanic and Braveheart their Celtic leanings, a sound that, crucially, stems from character as much as outside influences, such as Enya; the use of percussion to build armrest-gripping atmosphere in James Cameron’s Aliens; the modulations that make scores such as Legends of the Fall so moving; the brass (and choirs) that give films such as Apollo 13 and The Rocketeer their heroic edge.
But it’s his sense of melody, as much as his instrumentation and modulations, that has made him such an acclaimed – and popular – composer. His themes have gone on to live in the public consciousness: fans can whistle their favourite parts of his work without a problem, while entire movies can be elevated by it. Titanic, complete with that Oscar-winning song for Celine Dion (one of two Oscars for the film’s music), is one of the best-selling albums of all time. His action work for Aliens, while not immediately hummable, has been used for countless trailers. Not so long ago, Horner was even hired to produce a new theme for CBS News. (He also, interestingly, turned down an offer to write the score for The Lord of the Rings.)
For The Amazing Spider-Man, that sense of harmony and melody turned a forgettable, generic blockbuster into a surprisingly rousing piece; by building the entire score around a central theme, Sony’s superhero was given a musical spine lacking in many of the movie’s other areas, let alone those of its contemporaries.
“The kind of filmmakers I used to work for, or who look for what I’m looking for in a film, don’t work in cinema anymore,” he told Classic FM in one interview. “It’s a younger group – they aren’t perhaps as steeped in cinematic history as other people.”
“It’s very different dealing with sensibilities that are more interested in the surface.”
It was that talent that made Horner a man out of time in his final years – and will make his work timeless for decades to come.
Playlist: James Horner’s best soundtracks
From loudest action to quietest romance, via chart-topping favourites, we present a selection of James Horner’s best compositions for the screen.
What are your favourite James Horner albums or tracks?