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Gene Seymour: James Horne made controlling viewers' emotions through film scores look easy. It's not

He says the measure of a film composer's success is how indelibly the music is linked to the movie, as in Horner's "Titanic"

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

The death of James Horner, the Oscar-winning film composer, is a reminder of how important the people who put the music behind the moving pictures are. In most Hollywood “product,” the music is there to move your senses forward, to keep your emotional radar alert to shock, awe or even movement itself.

It sounds easy and Horner was one of those polished craftspeople who know how to make it look easy. But it isn’t. And when the music is too obtrusive, derivative or inappropriate, the whole movie can look the same way.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Horner never made those mistakes. At times, he could borrow from many sources, including himself. Strains from one of his first big scores, “Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980) could be heard in many similar science-fiction epics bearing his credit. But it’s the nature of film scores to spin off of previous works, especially in the classical repertoire. One example: Bill Conti’s rousing, Oscar-winning score for 1983’s “The Right Stuff” rents out motifs from Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto.” Doesn’t matter what the source might be; what matters is that you remember the movie.

Ask James Cameron. He knows how lucky he was to have Horner in his quiver of weapons for “Aliens” (1986), “Titanic” (1997) and “Avatar” (2009). The one in the middle of this trio is, of course, the one everybody remembers, especially for its love theme, “My Heart Will Go On,” which gave Horner the Oscar “two-fer” for best original score and best song. “Titanic’s” music is so indelibly linked to the movie that even a strain of that flute cushioned by soaring strings puts us all back on the prow of that unsinkable liner, feeling the wind in our faces along with Leo and Kate.

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The secret behind 'My Heart Will Go On'

Still, if there were one Horner score that I would pick as emblematic of his compositional resources, dramatic sense and fluidity with theme, it would be the music from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982). For starters, Horner showed respect for fans of the venerated science-fiction franchise by taking Alexander Courage’s theme from the original series and pumping it up into something grand enough to make the most earnest and finicky Trekkers believe their abiding love of the starship Enterprise and its crew was worthy of a bigger screen.

And when you think (if you can bear to) of the scene in which Ricardo Montalban’s eponymous villain inserts squiggly mind worms into the ear canals of two Starfleet good guys, Horner’s soundtrack shifted into something tinny and icky enough to make you feel those parasites were making their way into your own ears via your backbone.

Everything in Khan’s score is so well aligned with the action that it seems part of the set design: The countdown to the deployment of the Genesis Bomb (Ask somebody who’s seen the movie; they aren’t hard to find) is propelled by music that feels like a countdown without coming across too emphatically. Horner’s music knew what its audience was supposed to be feeling at each plot turn and triumphant climax and never used (or needed) thick treads or heavy covering to sell the scene.

That’s how you help a movie work – and, not coincidentally, it’s how one gets more work in the movies.

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