Critic's Notebook: In James Horner's Music, Sounds that Stirred the Soul

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Horner, who composed the scores for 'Aliens,' 'Braveheart,' 'Apollo 13' and 'Titanic,' combined a showman's dazzle with a sincere romantic streak.

There’s a scene in Ratatouille (2007) in which Anton Ego, the sneering food critic voiced by Peter O’Toole, is catapulted back to his youth after a bite of Remy the rat’s cooking. For a child of the '80s, hearing a James Horner score is a bit like that, and therefore impossible to be objective about. Casper (1995), Jumanji (1995), The Mask of Zorro (1998) — Horner’s imprimatur was on every other family film at the local cineplex during the '90s. When I was eight I taped The Rocketeer off TV and watched it with a maniac's devotion for years. For a long time I presumed it was a blockbuster as epoch-defining as the Indiana Jones movies, to which Joe Johnston’s 1991 film clearly owed a debt.

The Rocketeer conjured up a Howard Hughes-era Los Angeles that was slinky, glamorous and full of possibility: a Los Angeles long gone and probably never-was. The film’s score was nostalgic but full of youthful wonder for a time when modern aviation and modern movies were coming into being. No accident that it was the work of Horner, whose love of flying was unflagging throughout his career as one of the most successful film composers of the modern era.

The cue that opens The Rocketeer is as grandly romantic as anything by John Williams. Horner, who scored the Spielberg-produced animations The Land Before Time (1988) and An American Tail (1986), was as effective (and occasionally self-repeating) as the Star Wars maestro, whose sessions the young composer sat in on when he was toiling in the Corman salt mines on pictures such as Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). That film led to Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and another indelible opening theme, which reworked Alexander Courage’s original TV fanfare for the big screen. 

Science fiction and fantasy would continue to dominate Horner’s career for the next three decades, and his scores were correspondingly expansive. Camp fantasias like Krull (1983) and Willow (1988) gave way to more tony affairs such as Legends of the Fall (1994) and Braveheart (1995), while Horner moved from Star Trek to Cocoon (1985) and then Aliens (1986), on which he endured a fraught collaboration with James Cameron and scrambled to come up within an entire score in a matter of weeks.

He enjoyed fruitful partnerships throughout his career with directors such as Ron Howard and Mel Gibson. Gibson’s Braveheart features perhaps the most famous, instantly recognizable of Horner’s scores, a perfect marriage of his knack for the lushly romantic and the percussive ramping-up of pure adrenaline. It also provided an outlet for Horner’s fondness for Celt inflections, more immediately organic to Gibson’s opus than to Titanic, two years later, which featured almost as many bagpipes. Horner’s score for Cameron’s film — and collaboration with Celine Dion on "My Heart Will Go On" — took him to the top of the pops. But he was capable of delicacy, too, as in films like Field of Dreams (1989) or House of Sand and Fog (2003), in which he was given the rare chance to map lives that were small and largely domestic.

In the last decade, Horner became the go-to guy for films about the clash of civilizations. On Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), his compositions were interspersed with the director’s usual selection of classical excerpts, in a composite soundtrack now endlessly sampled in commercials. That assignment made him the obvious choice for Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), a kind of souped-up prequel to Malick’s film. Featuring some of Horner’s most interesting work, Apocalypto is an epic whose soundscape, all rumbling bass notes and vocal murmurs, is as spry as its lead character.

Cameron clearly took notice and again hired Horner, now an old hand at frontier stories, for Avatar (2009). Space was the obvious place for a composer whose career was defined by a sense of awe, and by a remarkable ability to stir it in us. What a shame we won’t get to see whatever he and Cameron had cooking next.