June 22, 2015 – a day that film score fans will always remember…
“I have this text from him [James Horner] the night before he died and I had spoken to him earlier and he was in a great place. Then the next morning there was this stream of texts and the phone calls started coming in – I would trade anything not to have this discussion.“
James Horner, undoubtedly one of the most beloved film composers of all time and right up there with masterminds such as John Williams, Ennio Morricone or John Barry, tragically died on June 22, 2015 in a plane crash. As much as this must have been a shock for family members and friends, it has also been an utter shock for film music fans that we would never again be able to hear a new original Horner score in cinemas, at least apart from the already completed “Soutpaw” (directed by Antoine Fuqua – keep this in mind, it’s important!) and Chilean drama “The 33”. Just during that “great depression” – well, that’s how I call it – Fuqua with whom Horner had worked on one of his last films (remember?) revealed in an interview, to everyone’s enormous surprise, that Horner had already started composing the music for his upcoming film, a remake of the classic Western “The Magnificent Seven”, before his tragic death. After the shocking news, Horner’s longtime assistant Simon Franglen with whom he had already worked on the most successful projects of his career such as “Titanic” and “Avatar” and the rest of Horner’s usual preparation team put together the seven sketches the late composer had already written down, arranged it for orchestra and presented the recording made in London to the surprised director who immediately fell in love with what his composer came up with for the movie (Horner even talked Fuqua into doing the film when the director faced various challenges during pre-production).
One must thank Fuqua for believing in Franglen who had never before scored a full movie but who was given the chance to adopt the existing material comprising 15 minutes and converted it together with Simon Rhodes, J.A.C. Redford, Joe Rand and Jim Henriksen into a complete score that pays homage to Horner’s works and his always distinctive musical voice – and in addition, it also features an altered version of the Elmer Bernstein theme from the 1960 movie. And it is Franglen’s credit that the music does not feel like a simple rehash of “Hornerisms” but like an actual Horner score that makes up for a constantly coherent overall listening experience.
The album kicks off with a trumpet triple in “Rose Creek Oppression” that is reminiscent of the opening of “Battle Beyond The Stars” (1980), Horner’s first huge orchestral score that marked his breakout and gave him the opportunity to score two Star Trek movies later on – fun fact: “Battle Beyond The Stars” is actually a remake of “Seven Samurai” (1954) which inspired “The Magnificent Seven”, released in 1960, which isthe original version of the 2016 movie (now this is getting confusing really fast…). That triplet returns several times within the whole score, each time reflecting signs of danger and oppression as well as representing the whole history of the movie. It is then followed by a female voice and the use of mysterious-sounding shakuhachi – a trademark Horner is famous for – accompanied by a multitude of metallic percussion textures setting a mood filled with violence, fear and anger. By now, it is obvious that we are definitely not listening to a classical Western score in the vein of Bruce Broughton or even Elmer Bernstein himself, Horner’s final take on the genre has undoubtedly more in common with Jerry Goldsmith’s grittier style.
This is further explored in the following tracks such as “Seven Angels of Vengeance” that opens with a quite energetic riff for strings but feels somehow generic and even unmemorable, at least until 1:56 where we are finally getting the first glimpse of the main theme Horner had intended for the movie – a heroical outburst that still feels somewhat restrained. Now that we are a few tracks in the album, we have already heard some “Hornerisms”, a trend that is nicely continued in “Lighting the Fuse” which features the composer’s famous four-note danger motif accompanying the melodic line and the rhythmic shakuhachi writing.
Unfortunately, most of the score’s first half is largely dominated by generally uninteresting suspense music that feels rather anonymous. At least, “Volcano Springs” brings up the first presentation of the absolutely beautiful Rose Creek theme that Horner had already written before shootimg on the movie started – it is wonderfully reminiscient of Horner’s beautiful string writing in scores such as “Legends of the Fall” and “The Rocketeer” -, while “Street Slaughter” offers some real emotion by underlining the citizens’ deaths being shot by Bartholomew Bogue and his men at the beginning of the movie. Speaking of the story’s main villain, it is important to note that Franglen presented him his own theme which the composer has described as “the personification of evil” in some interviews: By using an off-balance banjo and some almost rasped-sounding strings, Horner’s former assistant successfully manages to build up an atmosphere of tension and fear which wonderfully supports the visuals on screen but that is quite unenjoyable to listen to on the album.
While “Red Harvest” provides one of the score’s more “human” moments by incorporating a gentle piano theme and ethnic flutes in order to reflect the Native American character, the first huge action piece “Takedown” – which runs for almost six minutes! – is extremely disappointing. Horner was able to perfectly handle the sound of an orchestra and write classical orchestral scores – “classical” in the best way it could be. One of his strengths was to write long-lined, incredibly well-structured pieces that really explain the film’s story to the listener on an emotional level only by hearing his compositions. During “Takedown” which blends Horner’s revenge theme for the movie with the Bernstein rhythm and the earlier trumpet triplet in an interesting way, it is clearly evident that this is not the case on this album; the action material feels under-developed and badly structured with the focus being on the percussive elements and not on the actual melody and the harmonics. As such, it is an example of what is wrong in modern action scoring and it is hugely disappointing to hear such a track on James Horner’s very last film score album.
In “Town Exodus – Knife Training”, we are finally getting some fabulous string work Horner has been famous for, the Rose Creek theme beautifully arranged by Franglen in an almost heartbreaking statement that opens the track and then turs into some suspense material. “So Far So Good” finally presents the score’s main theme, now more present than ever before although it does still feel strangely incomplete. Despite its rather simplistic nature, it is hugely memorable and gives the score an epic scope as well as a feeling of heroism and grandeur.
In “Army Invades Town”, we are musically introduced to the film’s 30-minute showdown with the heavy brass and the snare drums announcing the impending battle between Rose Creek’s remaining citizens, led by the Magnificent Seven, and Bogue and his supporters. The action scoring is very modern, almost RCP-like, with a lot of recurring ostinatos and percussion thrown in the mix to achieve an overly bombastic atmosphere – but Franglen still manages to keep most of it enjoyable. The heroic “Faraday’s Ride” presents the main theme in a glorious way that is only surpassed by the score’s main action highlight, “The Darkest Hour”, in which the music really gets going and escapes from its former restrained existence by transforming into some vivid string and brass writing.
Later on, Bogue’s theme opens “House of Judgement” and when the fate of the immensely destroyed city is finally decided and freed from the hands of the story’s main antagonist, a solo female voice accompanied by string harmonies suddenly emerges, singing Horner’s main theme in a haunting, almost heartbreaking way – an arrangement which would have made Ennio Morricone really proud…
The conclusive “Seven Riders” opens with the strings playing the Elmer Bernstein rhythm and then blends with Horner’s own theme in a magnificent way (hehe, see what I did there…?). It is definitely a wonderful and bittersweet send-off for every Horner enthusiast – after all, these three minutes are the last notes we will ever hear by the composer in a newly released movie. On the digital download version, Bernstein’s original theme for the 1960 movie is also included, newly arranged by Franglen in a more modern way.
Like I said before, you have to consider that Horner’s take on the famous Magnificent Seven is not a classical Western score that you can easily compare to the ones written by Alfred Newman or Bruce Broughton, it evidently is a contemporary action score that perfectly fits in the typical scheme of film music nowadays – each of the troubles that come with it included. The pieces are not as well-structured as most of Horner’s past works and a surprisingly big amount of the score lacks real emotional depth and sometimes feels kind of undeveloped given its rather simplistic nature. Nevertheless, the themes and several standout moments make for a decent though still disappointing farewell to one of the most beloved film composers. The album’s biggest problem is perhaps ist enormous length that also includes a lot of filler material and suspense scoring that could have been cut off; otherwise, the CD would offer a very pleasant 40-minute listening experience.
I would like to end this review on a personal note: Writing this text and even listening to the music was a quite challenging work given my love for Horner’s oeuvre. Alongside Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Howard Shore, he was the composer who made me step into the film music scene and who opened my eyes for the sheer beauty of big thematic orchestral writing in connection to the visuals of a movie; I will probably never forget the moment I gave his “Legends of the Fall” score the first listen: It was as if a whole new world of whom I had never known before directly opened next to me – or maybe even in my own. Over many years, he impressed me again and again with his sophisticated musical storytelling by providing a wonderful narrative worked out in detail each time.
“The Magnificent Seven” is no exception. Sure, it has a lot of flaws that prevent it from getting a higher rating and it is nowhere nearly a good as his masterpieces such as “Star Trek”, “Braveheart” or even “Legends of the Fall” and “Titanic”. It is a send-off that could not live up to fans’ expectations. But it pays homage to his musical canon in a nice way and gives us the opportunity to listen to some wonderful original new Horner material one last time. And at the latest when the first bars of the concluding “Seven Riders” are running, you start to forgive the album most of its weaknesses, begin to remember all the wonderful music with which the composer has presented us all the years, and you will ride with James Horner into the sunset. One last time.
Music composed by James Horner and Simon Franglen. Conducted by J.A.C. Redford and Carl Johnson. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford. Album produced by Simon Franglen and Simon Rhodes.
1. Rose Creek Oppression
2. Seven Angels of Vengeance
3. Lighting the Fuse
4. Volcano Springs
5. Street Slaughter
6. Devil in the Church
7. Chisolm Enrolled
8. Magic Trick
9. Robicheaux Reunion
10. A Bear in Peoples Clothes
11. Red Harvest
13. Town Exodus – Knife Training
14. 7 Days, that’s all You Got
15. So Far So Good
16. Sheriff Demoted
17. Pacing the Town
18. The Deserter
19. Bell Hangers
20. Army Invades Town
21. Faraday’s Ride
22. Horne Sacrifice
23. The Darkest Hour
24. House of Judgment
25. Seven Riders
Album available on Sony Classical.
Check out these great articles if you would like to learn more about the process of scoring the movie:
Pictures of the recording sessions: scoringsessions.com