R.I.P. James Horner

With the sudden death of James Horner on Monday, Hollywood has lost one of its most prolific and successful film composers for blockbuster movies. How will Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman ever pick up all the slack he’s left behind?

With over 150 credits to his name, James Horner scored tons of movies you’ve certainly watched. Among the titles on his résumé were ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Field of Dreams’, ‘Glory’, ‘Braveheart’, ‘Apollo 13’, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, and of course ‘Avatar’. He won two Oscars for his work on ‘Titanic’ (Best Original Score and Best Original Song) and was nominated eight additional times. Whenever a Hollywood studio greenlit a big-budget tentpole movie, Horner’s name was undoubtedly always on the shortlist of go-to composers to score it. At the time of his death, he was working with frequent collaborator James Cameron on the upcoming ‘Avatar’ sequels.

The downside to this prolificacy is that Horner also had a reputation for recycling his own work. Most of his movie scores sound very similar to one another, and he was notorious for outright repeating certain musical cues and themes in just about everything he did. If you go back to rewatch some of his early work, such as his first big breakout job scoring ‘The Wrath of Khan’, you’ll immediately notice that echoes of it have carried through all the way to ‘Avatar’ and beyond. None of this is to imply that he was untalented, of course. Far from it, his scores were almost always extremely effective in the movies they supported, and he could be very creative and inventive when he wanted to. However, the familiarity did grow frustrating. And while most of the blame for it must surely be placed on Celine Dion, it’s kind of difficult to forgive Horner for his part in creating that damned “My Heart Will Go On” song.

I say that last sentence in jest. He was a big talent, and his death is an immense loss to the film community.

James Horner died Monday when the single-engine aircraft he was piloting crashed in a remote area north of Santa Barbara. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined at the time of this writing.

[Source: The Hollywood Reporter]

20 comments

  1. Josh, Mozart recycled a lot of his music as well. There are certain tunes Mozart recycled to “glue” his music together. I can point out very specifics but people in the music school all know this. Also, the late Jerry Goldsmith did a lot of the same thing. You noticed some of the pieces he wrote for movie First Knight sounded remarkably similar to some of the Star Trek tunes.

    My favorite James Horner soundtrack was Willow which every news media I visited failed to mention. That was a great movie accompanied by great soundtrack back in the days when George Lucas knows how to make good movies.

    • Timcharger

      Huh, about Willow?

      FYI, I’m a big fan; I highly enjoy Willow. It’s nostalgic for me.

      But it makes sense why it’s not mentioned. To state that
      it’s a “great movie” when Lucas made great movies, is
      historically wrong. 1) it was Ron Howard and 2) more
      importantly, the film was consistently negatively reviewed.
      The consensus was that it WASN’T great.

      —–

      Great comment about Mozart. It’s really a product of
      being prolific and popular. Some parts must be repetitive.
      The Beatles must suck, the same 3 chords are in half of
      their songs.

      —–

      As for Josh’s negative comments, he does say that it’s in
      jest. And given how he writes, this is a rather overall
      POSITIVE piece.

      Yes, Josh stabs you in the back when he embraces you.
      But it’s still a hug.
      🙂

      • Chris B

        George Lucas was one of the writers on Willow. And just because all the critics hated it when it was released doesn’t mean it isn’t a good movie. Critics shit on It’s A Wonderful Life when it was released, same with Blade Runner etc.

        • timcharger

          There has been no redemptive reevaluation of Willow. No one has a holiday habit of rewatching Willow or consider it some of the best sci-fi, unlike those 2 named compares.

          • Chapz Kilud

            I don’t think Willow is considered a sci-fi movie. Are you sure we’re talking about the same thing? It should be adventure/action/fantasy movie and not anything near sci-fi.

          • Timcharger

            Re-read Chris B’s comment that I was responding to…

            “unlike those 2 named compares”
            It’s a Wonderful Life has annual holiday viewing.
            Blade Runner is considered…

          • Chris B

            He just said Willow is a great movie, he never said critics said it was a great movie or that they’ve re-evaluated it. The criteria for one’s own personal opinion is….that person’s own opinion.

          • Timcharger

            And my comment is only that I understand why Horner’s
            tributes don’t mention Willow. I really like Willow, but I
            get why it’s not listed in his “greatest hits” album.

            I get that we have personal opinion of favorites or hates.
            But to get on the greatest hits list, that eulogies are
            including, consensus opinion should be the norm.

      • Chapz Kilud

        I wasn’t being very specific about George Lucas’ role in Willow. As Chris B pointed out, he was one of the writer. So he played an important role in the movie, even if he didn’t direct it. Considering how he completely screwed up Star Wars 1-3 and the fourth Indiana Jones, I was simply saying his work was much better back then.

        If I misinterpreted Josh’s sarcasm, then I apologize. It didn’t sound like it to me because he was being very specific. I mentioned Jerry Goldsmith “recycling” his work for Star Trek for something completely unrelated such as First Knight, specifically the King Arthur’s battalion marching into darkness soundtrack which is basically one of those Star Trek soundtrack. For me it took nothing away. It’s still majestic and perfect for the scene. Mozart had very distinctive style. Sometimes when I listen to classic radio, I ran into something I haven’t heard in my life. I’m able to guess if it’s from Mozart with nearly 100% accuracy. I can’t do that with other composers. There are tunes Mozart liked to reused. My sister practiced piano sonata K545 when she was young. When I hear piano concertos I’ve never heard, I can easily identify Mozart as composer when bits and pieces of K545 was mixed in there.

        My problem is when someone passed away, we try to think the positive side of him. One should refrain from dishing out negative opinions. Mind you those things he said were purely his own opinion. James Horner was never convicted with plagiarism. If Pete Rose passed away and someone mentioned about his gambling, that’s fair because he was found guilty of gambling.

        James Horner was one of my favorite movie soundtrack composer. I’ll miss him.

  2. Ian Whitcombe

    With Horner, I think we can look at the progression from BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, WRATH OF KHAN, BRAINSTORM to ALIENS, and find that most (not all) of his themes and ideas gestated then. It’s a short window and very easy too see why audiences would be taken aback by the recycling.

    I’m not sure where I stand on the Mozart comparison. I think repetition in the concert hall is a different beast then repetition in a movie, where it may not be appropriate to reference the Klingons in ALIENS. On the other hand, I understand that finding dramatically suitable music for a picture limits a composer’s options than it does when it’s music for its own sake.

    Horner was shameless, both in his self-quotations and his cribbing of others, but he was sincere when he did so. Moreso than even Williams and Goldsmith, he was very self-serious about his profession and his output. He wasn’t my favorite, but his death is a huge loss in to the current status of the film composer.

    • Chapz Kilud

      Jerry Goldsmith pretty much referenced King Arthur’s troop marching with Star Trek tunes. Those are as unrelated as it could get. But as I said they seemed quite appropriate. As Charles M pointed out below, every composers have their own style. I would even go as far as every composers having their own signature “moves” which is like a template they use for many works. This is how you can identify Mozart pieces you’ve never heard before but you had a feeling it was Mozart because of similarity in style or tunes with previously known work. When I watched some movies, I don’t know the composer. But I had a feeling who might have written it and when I looked it up, I’m usually correct.

  3. Charles M

    I think a couple of reasons he recycled his music is because that’s what the directors or producer usually want. When a composer gets hired, it’s because they want him to make something that sounds similar to the music of his other hit films. Look at Danny Elfman after Batman. He did a lot of comic book movies after that and if you listened to them, a lot of them sounds a lot like the Batman theme.

    Another reason is that composers get rushed and there’s only so much you can can up with and in so short a time. Fact is, many composers are guilty of the same thing. James Newton Howard’s score for Sixth Sense sounds remarkably like the score for The Fugitive. And Elmer Bernstein’s western music all sound like The Magnificent Seven, etc.

    Lastly, composers all have their own style, just like any other artist.

    • Chapz Kilud

      Very good point about other composers. As I said above, Mozart recycled many bits and pieces of his earlier work to the later longer and sophisticated work. If you’ve never heard of it before but you’ve heard of some of his earlier works, you may guess correctly he wrote it. Did that take anything away? Obviously not. I’ve never heard someone saying Mozart’s Horn Concertos were all so similar, or some of his piano sonatas were just variation of others he wrote.

      Some composers have their own “signature” tunes. I think I may be able to identify a few for Jerry Goldsmith. I’m sure James Horner had a few sets which is like a template which he would use to create variations.

  4. Chris M.

    I’ve always had a laugh over the themes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Krull being almost identical.

  5. Bill

    I could always tell a James Horner score by his use of vocals as part of the piece. They added a haunting quality to his uplifting music.

    Now with regard to repeat cues. Nothing unusual or wrong in that. Jerry Goldsmith did the same thing in Air Force One and Star Trek VIII/First Contact. Except for the tempo the two main cues sound much like variations on the same theme. There’s also Malcolm Arnold. His Bridge on the River Kwai, Inn of the Sixth Happiness and the lesser know Heroes of Telemark scores have many of the same cues. It seems almost all composers reuse (with changes) parts from their earlier works. I’m not sure why James would be critiqued for doing so.

  6. Single Engine Planes – wtf guys? How many celebs have been injured in, or even worse, been killed in these death traps?

    Horner – I salute all your years of contributions. My heart will go on sir.

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