As both a musician and a long-time film score aficionado, it grieves me that my first post as an official contributor for AwardsDaily will be an obituary for James Horner. The prolific, longtime film composer died in a plane crash near Santa Barbara on Monday. Horner was only 61 years old, and leaves behind a wife and two daughters.
Although Horner was already an accomplished classically-trained musician and composer before his cinematic career, Horner started in Hollywood the same way that Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and (future collaborators) Ron Howard and James Cameron did: working for Roger Corman on B movies. And like the others, it did not take long for Horner’s work to garner attention in Hollywood. Horner’s breakthrough into the mainstream came in 1982 with his score on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; not long after, Horner would receive his first Academy Award nomination for his work on Aliens.
Speaking of Aliens, one particular thing from Horner that furthered my already deep appreciation for the art (and challenges) of film composing was his frank assessment on his first partnership with James Cameron. Given that Horner’s work on the sci-fi classic was Oscar-nominated and has achieved an iconic status (especially the climactic cue, “Bishop’s Countdown”) one might never believe that the score was, in fact, only around “80% complete,” and created under extremely difficult circumstances. Horner recounts the experience here: Interview with James Horner about “Aliens”
Cameron and Horner parted ways after that troubled collaboration. Fortunately, both would made amends and eventually reunited to great success on Titanic and Avatar. Horner was reportedly also set to return to scoring duties on the Avatar sequels.
Musically, I define Horner by his preternatural ability to compose a heart-tugging melody, by his innate talent at creating soaring cadences. I have long considered Horner to be on par with John Williams in invoking awe and wonder with his cues, with evoking emotional pathos from audiences. As he stated in a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “My job… is to make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart. When we lose a character, when somebody wins, when somebody loses, when someone disappears — at all times I’m keeping track, constantly, of what the heart is supposed to be feeling. That is my primary role.”
I know some of my fellow film score nerds have given Horner grief over the years for referencing and repurposing older cues/motifs in his later works, but personally I never really had a major issue with it. Horner is certainly not the first artist, musical or otherwise, to be self-referential to some extent.
Before his untimely end, Horner’s career would come to include scoring over 100 films (including 3 Best Picture winners), two Oscars (both for Titanic) and eight additional Oscar nominations. His was an accomplished career by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m sure he was an inspiration to many aspiring film composers.
I end this tribute with five of my favorite compositions from Horner’s repertoire. Note that this is a very small sample from a very productive composer, and I definitely left out quite a few others, so please feel free to share your favorites as well in the comments.
“Charging Fort Wagner” from Glory (1989, dir. Edward Zwick):
“One Last Wish” from Casper (1995, dir. Brad Silberling):
“All Systems Go – The Launch” from Apollo 13 (1995, dir. Ron Howard):
“If We Hold On Together” from The Land Before Time (1988, dir. Don Bluth):
“Becoming One of the People, Becoming One with Neytiri” from Avatar (2009, dir. James Cameron):