Incredibly sad news coming in late Monday night: prolific and award-winning film composer James Horner has died in a plane crash. He was 61 years old.
Horner scored over 150 film and TV projects in his nearly 40-year career, and did much of his most memorable work in the science fiction and fantasy genre, giving memorable themes to films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Willow, The Land Before Time, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Glory, The Rocketeer, and dozens more.
He was nominated for ten Oscars and won two in 1998 for the score and original song for James Cameron massive hit, Titanic. He’d worked with Cameron several times over the years, also contributing the scores to 1986’s Aliens and 2009’s Avatar. He was rumored to have been working on the two Avatar sequels in production at the time of his passing.
The sheer importance Mr. Horner had on films and film music cannot be overstated. He was responsible for themes that have become part of the very fabric of cinema and is one of a very small number of composers whose work can be listened to out of context and still be as moving and empowering.
I’m going to list only a few of my favorites below, and feel free to share your own favorites in the comments.
Very early on in his career, like so many up-and-comers in Hollywood, Horner worked for Roger Corman and contributed one of his first, and I think still best, scores for the 1980 space opera Battle Beyond the Stars, which was the most expensive Corman-produced film to date and was his attempt to compete with Star Wars. The film’s main theme is truly wonderful.
You can hear a lot these same general motifs used for 1982’s Star Trek II main theme, in the use of trills and fanfare perfect for a space adventure.
Staying in space, but going much more creepy and atmospheric, we have the main theme to 1986’s Aliens, which allowed Horner to get a lot more industrial with the opening cacophony.
The music to Ron Howard’s 1988 film Willow is much more lyrical and less marching, but still contains the kinds of instrumentation Horner was clearly a big fan of, as well as including more Celtic instruments like bagpipes and pan flutes.
His score for 1991’s The Rocketeer has always reminded me of hopeful, halcyon times, perfect for a movie about the love of 1930s Hollywood. This score has been used for many commercials, attractions, and other Disney purposes.
Listening to his score for 1995’s Braveheart, you can really hear his appreciation for Celtic music, obviously given the film’s subject matter, but this also led directly into a lot of the music he composed for Titanic.
Horner even went full superhero with 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, which offered a mixture of his traditional instruments and electronic, driving beats.
These are literally but a few of the amazing and brilliant scores James Horner gave to cinema. He was very young and could have given us many more indelible sounds. Film music truly won’t be the same without him.
IMAGE: CHRIS POLK/FILMMAGIC