I sensed early on with “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” that James Horner was going to become the finest film composer of his generation. He boldly seized the Jerry Goldsmith mantle head on and made it his own. Now, after his tragic plane crash near Santa Barbara Monday morning, I can proclaim it online: His scores were epic, intimate and emotionally and spiritually transcendent. And he was prolific, scoring more than 100 movies since the late ’70s, highlighted by “Titanic” (for which he received two Oscars for score and the blockbuster hit song with Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On,” co-written by Will Jennings), “Avatar,” Braveheart,” “Apollo 13,” “Aliens, “A Beautiful Mind,” “Field of Dreams,” “Glory,” “Brainstorm” and “Cocoon.”
But there were also such gems as “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Dresser,” “Gorky Park,” “The Journey of Natty Gann,” “Where the River Runs Black,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Legends of the Fall” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”
I interviewed the LA native early in my career at THR when he was a rising star in the mid-’80s. He graciously invited me to his Calabasas home/studio and talked about his formative years at the Royal College of Music in London and USC and UCLA. His father was production designer Harry Horner (“The Hustler” and “The Heiress”), and Horner always had a passion for music and movies. But he was eager to embrace many styles and genres, to push beyond what the masters had achieved. He even admitted that if he caught himself subconsciously borrowing a classic melody, he would immediately remove it. He hated digital in the early years and impatiently waited for it to attain the warmth of analogue.
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I suggested that “Brainstorm” (one of his early favorites) was a contrapuntal masterpiece that was eerie and elegant, cramming so much into one score with sci-fi, adventure, romance, loss and regret. It boasting many of his signature trademarks that would serve him well, including the use of choral and electronic elements and a melancholy series of descending piano chords. It’s still my favorite.
What also became apparent early on was that Horner was most inspired by movies about exploration and imagination. In this regard, he wildly succeeded in pushing musical boundaries for himself and for his craft. No wonder he bonded so creatively with Ron Howard and James Cameron (they both worked together on Roger Corman’s “Battle Beyond the Stars” in 1980).
It’s not surprising that Horner also had a passion for flying, but what went horribly wrong yesterday in his single-engine S312 Tucano? Done too soon. And it’s hard to conceive of the upcoming trio of “Avatar” sequels without him. Time for the Horner mantle to be passed on to the next generation of film composers.