As this post is being written, the Oscars have wrapped up. Exciting, right? Of course not. The Oscars are perhaps as ridiculous as the Grammys, and usually don’t have a heck of a lot to offer fans of any music in general. Perhaps this year was a bit of an exception – it was very exciting to see Michael Giacchino score his first Oscar for the excellent score to Up – but for someone raised on ultra-thematic scores such as John Williams’ work for Star Wars, Jaws and others, there’s usually not much of a thrill to be had.
It was interesting, though, to see another nomination for Avatar composer James Horner, a longtime film composer who is only recently getting his due in the catalogue world. Some of the most interesting reissues or expanded titles in the past year have been scores he wrote, and – thanks to one very famous score from another James Cameron movie (the one with a boat in it) – he has become one of the few film composers with something close to household name status.
While he walked out of the Shrine Auditorium empty-handed this year, it’s worth taking a look at some of his most memorable musical works as seen through the catalogue music world. It’s not a complete list by far, but it will give you, the reader, quite the sense of how thematic, pleasing and occasionally complex Horner’s work can get.
Battle Beyond the Stars (Rhino/GNP Crescendo, 1980)
Horner’s first score, to the Roger Corman B-movie, was composed at the relatively young age of 26. Even then, Horner’s style was pretty clear, for better or worse. It’s got riveting action themes and heroic brass movements (a constant praise for the composer), but it also swings dangerously close to the sound of other, better composers, in this case Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). This problem dogs even some of the best Horner works, although this score has more than just historical value; it’s pretty damn good, too. It finally got a CD release (after being an early LP release of Rhino Records) by defunct score label GNP Crescendo in 2001, who paired it with another, less powerful Horner/Corman score from that same year, Humanoids from the Deep.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Atlantic/Retrograde, 1982)
Though Horner may have borrowed more than a few ideas from Goldsmith’s first Trek score on Battle Beyond the Stars, he was asked to score the second installment in the series. Inspired by director Nicholas Meyer’s treatment of the story as a sort of interplanetary Horatio Hornblower, Horner’s music combined distinctly nautical overtones with the original themes by Goldsmith and original Trek composer Alexander Courage. The result was possibly the best received soundtrack to the best-received movie in the series – and its ultimate complete reissue in 2009 from Film Score Monthly was manna from soundtrack heaven.
Something Wicked This Way Comes/The Journey of Natty Gann (Intrada, 1983/1985)
What are the odds that Horner would spend the mid-’80s doing two scores for two Disney fantasy films as hasty replacements for rejected scores by more veteran composers? Pretty good, apparently. These two soundtracks, given premiere LP-style (read: incomplete) releases by Intrada last year, replaced scores by Georges Delerue (who’d won an Oscar in 1979 for the score to A Little Romance) and Elmer Bernstein (the immortal composer of The Magnificent Seven, Airplane! and Ghostbusters). The Horner releases stand their own against the original scores (only the Bernstein one for Natty Gann was ever released, as part of a box set in 2008).
Commando (Varese Sarabande, 1985)
Though it’s far from Horner’s best work, this score – driven by synthesizers, steel drums and saxophones over a pounding rhythm section – is as cheesy and delightful as the Arnold Schwarzenegger film it comes from. And it must have some fans; it did sell out its entire print run some time after being released in 2003.
Aliens (Varese Sarabande, 1986)
Perhaps the most indicative, popular example of Horner’s style, this bold, brassy score underscored the militaristic action of James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster with as much satisfaction as Jerry Goldsmith’s score to the original Alien did. And it’s had a surprising amount of staying power – the track “Bishop’s Countdown” has underscored many an action movie trailer over the years. Originally released on LP and CD in 1987, the score was given a healthy deluxe edition in 2001 with more than twice as many tracks as were on the original album.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Intrada, 1989)
The Disney/Horner lovefest at Intrada had kicked off with this quirky little soundtrack from one of the silliest movies of the past few decades. (It may have also been, years before Snakes on a Plane or Hot Tub Time Machine, the best high-concept movie title ever.) Admittedly, it was a surprise to see this released; as it borrows from so many sources that one could expect a long list of legal documents to come with the liner notes. (Compare the main titles to Raymond Scott’s cartoon classic “Powerhouse.”) Points are also taken off the Intrada LP for omitting Horner’s brief score to Tummy Trouble, the Roger Rabbit cartoon that was attached to prints of the film.
Apollo 13 (MCA, 1995)
After a career based on bold themes, Horner laid off the bombast and made what may have been one of his most touching scores. For studio buffs, it may be one of the best works recorded for a Universal film. That said, the original soundtrack was a dreaded songs-and-score release (although this one also had audio clips from the movie itself – ouch!). Perhaps a reissue label will restore the music to its true glory – but until then, there is an Oscar promo full of more unreleased material circulating out there.
Braveheart (Decca, 1995/1997)
It was back to straightforward action when Horner took on Braveheart, but there was of course the twist bought on by the historic and geographic nature of the story. So traditional Scottish melodies and arrangements abound, enough of a rousing album to merit a More Music From… set a few years later, offering a bit more score but mostly another dialogue-and-atmosphere-driven cash-in.
Titanic (Sony, 1997/1998)
Perhaps you’ve heard of this score? Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” may have been the inescapable tune that turned her from a catchy pop singer to a monstrous diva, but the melody of that song is something beautiful. And in those pre-Napster days, the whole album managed to strike a chord with the public. Not since probably Star Wars has a film score done that, especially to the point where the Back to Titanic album was released to as much fanfare as the original soundtrack.