My job … is to make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart.
James Horner, the consummate film composer known for his heart-tugging scores for Field of Dreams, Braveheart and Titanic, for which he won two Academy Awards, died Monday in a plane crash near Santa Barbara. He was 61.
Horner was piloting the small aircraft when it crashed into a remote area about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara, officials said. An earlier report noted that the plane, which was registered to the composer, had gone down, but the pilot had not been identified.
The extraordinary, chart-topping success of his Titanic score felt like a real game-changer in the industry — an entirely new revenue stream for studio heads and producers to consider. And his work on Braveheart wasn’t far behind. (Both produced follow-up albums, in fact: “Back to Titanic” and “More from Braveheart.”)
He was exceedingly prolific. So prolific that picking a favorite score is almost impossible. If push came to shove, I’d probably have to go with his soundtrack for The Rocketeer, a score that perfectly captures the “old-timey, Golden Age adventure” feel, and is as perfect a match for its film as I’ve ever heard. (My wife’s favorite is his work on Apollo 13, and I can get behind that. “Re-Entry and Splashdown” is spectacular.)
At times, I felt like Horner had actually become a victim of his own success. Once you’ve had a “Top 5 Album of the Decade,” it’s hard for a director (or producer) to move away from the “tried and true.” As a result, his later score felt more formulaic; almost recycled, at times. (The “Danger Motif,” the “Horner Orchestral Hit” in the low strings, and his love of bells were all wonderful, though. If I had something that good, I’d use it over and over again, as well.)
The early years, in particular, produced some wonderfully inventive and moving scores: Willow (the first score I remember like enough to associate with his name), Krull (a film so campy that Horner’s brilliance was even more obvious as a result), and Star Trek II (the only non-Goldsmith Trek score I will acknowledge). And I haven’t even gotten to Sneakers yet. Or Searching for Bobby Fischer. Or his Americana-tinged work on An American Tail and The Journey of Natty Gann. (Oh, and let’s not forget Legends of the Fall.)
My most powerful memory of his work, though, will always be Glory.
It was the first modern war film I’d ever seen, and the intensity and violence was like nothing I’d ever seen experienced. I’ll never forget sitting on my living room couch, stunned, as the film drew to a close. I was drained, and sad; very sad. And then, as the words faded from the screen, I heard this — eulogistic, yes, but a eulogy filled with peace, with pride, and with hope. Mr. Horner had penned something as essential to my ability to digest and respond to the film as were the images themselves.
It was perfect.