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James Horner

It is no exaggeration to say that James Horner was one of the greatest film composers of all time.

Such measures are seldom objective, but Horner was the rare composer who could match critical and commercial success across a wide range of genre and material. Understandably, coverage around his death has focused on the biggest hits in his extensive filmography. He won two Oscars out of ten nominations. He occupied two of the five nomination slots in 1996 for his soundtracks to Apollo 13 and Braveheart. It is quite something to compete against yourself for an Oscar.


Titanic tends to headline such discussions of Horner’s work, as one might expect given that it was “the biggest selling primarily orchestral film score in history.” More than that, Horner wrote The Heart Will Go On, the love theme that sold more than 15 million copies to become one of the biggest selling singles of all time and the biggest selling single of 1998. The Heart Will Go On is credited with revitalising the “spin-off hit” in the late nineties, prompting lots of movie-launched love ballads like Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing or There You’ll Be.

Horner enjoyed no shortage of commercial success. He provided the soundtracks to two movies that could claim to be the biggest movies of all time upon their release. Titanic was the first such example, becoming the most successful movie of all time upon its release in 1998. Horner also provided the soundtrack to Avatar, the movie that would claim the title in 2009. However, the most impressive aspect of Horner’s extensive filmography is the sheer scope of his work.


Although his more successful scores tend to dominate discussion of his legacy, Horner worked on an incredible variety of films over his life. He began working with Roger Corman, providing effective and atmospheric soundtracks for rather pulpy and trashy films. He received his big break when he was hired to score Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As with a lot of the people working on the second Star Trek film, Horner was a new arrival who had not been involved in the direct predecessor.

The studio had been rather unimpressed with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Although it had been a financial success, it had been incredible expensive and opened to what might charitably be described as a “lukewarm” response from audiences and critics. As a result, the budget for the sequel was cut dramatically. Composer Jerry Goldsmith became too expensive for the production team, and so James Horner was drafted in. His score was hugely iconic and influential, a massive part of the film’s success and enduring appeal.


Horner scored the film in accordance with the wishes of director Nicholas Meyer, playing up the idea of The Wrath of Khan as “Horatio Hornblower in space!” Horner described Meyer’s vision of the film as “very literary, very sea-faring in his mind”, and so the film played into that. More than that, Horner made a decision to focus on the internal character dynamics. “What really I wanted to focus on was the relationship between Kirk and Spock. That hadn’t really been done before.”

The result is one of the great science-fiction soundtracks. One of the best-kept secrets about The Wrath of Khan, for all the affection that people harbour for it and all the acclaim it generates, is that the film is an astonishingly trashy b-movie. It is literary and clever, thematically rich and beautifully made, but it is also unashamedly pulp. Kirk and Khan never actually share a scene in the same location, with William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban taunting each other over radio or video.


What elevates the film is the sheer skill and craft in every aspect of its production. Shatner realises that he is in a b-movie, and so goes for broke with it. Nicholas Meyer can amp up the tension like nobody’s business. Ricardo Montalban makes ambiguous literary references sound profound and threatening. And James Horner’s soundtrack makes it all feel epic. After all, the scope of The Wrath of Khan is tiny by the standards of Star Trek films. Earth and/or galactic peace are never threatened, even in an abstract manner. Horner’s score helps to give it scale.

Horner returned to write the music for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, perhaps the most underrated Star Trek film. (It is probably the best odd-numbered film.) Reflecting the tone of the material, Horner’s score for The Search for Spock is more upbeat than his soundtrack to The Wrath of Khan. In particular, Stealing the Enterprise remains one of the franchise’s most enduring heroic themes. It is an eight-minute ode to the resurrection of the Enterprise before the resurrection of its first officer.


Horner is much fonder of his score for The Search for Spock than he is of his soundtrack to The Wrath of Khan. “That was two years ago for me,” he explained. “I was twenty-seven and a half when I wrote Star Trek II and now I’m thirty. So a lot of musical time has gone by for me and I just think that the score for Star Trek III is just so much vastly better than Star Trek II. It’s just a much more interesting score and, for me, a much more beautiful and emotional score than Star Trek II.”

Horner worked consistently, scoring films as diverse as 48 Hrs, Gorky Park, Cocoon and Commando. However, his biggest break arguably came when he was hired to score James Cameron’s Aliens. In what would become a recurring trend for the franchise, Aliens had a particularly troubled production history. Horner was given very little time to score the film – and was essentially asked to score it blind. “It was very difficult, again because of the time,” Horner explained of his collaboration with James Cameron, “and because we’re both perfectionists.”


The relationship between Cameron and Horner was tumultuous, something of which Cameron was aware when he sought to collaborate with Horner on Titanic. “And I said, notwithstanding whatever happened to us 10 years before, that he was the guy,” Cameron recalls of their partnership. “So I was falling all over myself to find a way to make the working relationship better for him than the last time.” It was an approach that worked out quite well for everybody, with both Cameron and Horner taking home Oscars.

Nevertheless, there was some hint of friction between the two on the film, with Horner writing The Heart Will Go On in secret so as not to provoke Cameron. According to Horner, Cameron “did not want it to be a Hollywood movie that had violins soaring away around it and a song pasted in at the end.” It seems just as well that Horner did not heed Cameron’s advices, given that the song became such a run away hit and it won Horner a second Oscar for his work on the film.


As with Aliens, Horner did not score Titanic to the film itself. Instead, he composed the various themes immediately after seeing the film. “I saw the movie and I had an immediate emotional reaction to it,” he recalls. “I went home and wrote five themes and they are the same five themes that are in the movie. Nothing changed.” Appropriately enough, the themes had a similar impact on Cameron, “And he sat down and played a solo piano theme and I cried. I sat there and cried. He played three themes for me that day and I was in tears after every one.”

The collaboration was fruitful, and Cameron and Horner would collaborate on Avatar. Although Cameron’s filmography has been rather minimalist since the success of Titanic, James Horner remained very prolific. His work remained as diverse as ever, providing music for prestigious Oscar fare like A Beautiful Mind, summer blockbusters like The Amazing Spider-Man and indie fare like The Chumscrubber. Horner was a prolific composer with an incredible range, one who will be sorely missed.

6 Responses

  1. RIP James Horner.

    >The Heart Will Go On is credited with revitalising the “spin-off hit” in the late nineties

    Was there truly a serious lull? Considering the decade opened with Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do” in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to the extent I’ve given any thought to 90s soundtrack ballads, I assumed Titanic was simply another notable hit from that trend.

    • Agreed — and Whitney Houston’s turgidly overdone cover of “I Will Always Love You” in “The Bodyguard”, which came out in … what, ’92? … is the kind of power ballad that left fingerprints all over “My Heart Will Go On”. Still, that doesn’t detract from Horner’s success with the latter song.

      • I am actually quite fond of Houston’s “My Heart Will Go On.” But I freely admit I have terrible taste in music. (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is still the best Whitney song, though.)

    • Actually, that’s a good point. To say nothing of All For Love as well.

      But Everything I Do was 1991, All For Love was 1993, I Will Always Love You was 1992. So there was a gap, I’d argue. Four years might not be a particularly long time. I probably could have worded it better.

  2. A sad loss, Star Trek II & III, Commando, Aliens and The Amazing Spider-Man are particular faves but overrall he leaves a vast legacy of great film music.

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