3.0 Bringing you up to speed
Reportedly, James Horner really wanted this assignment, and for good reason, because The Perfect Storm (2000) offered him the kind of canvas he liked to work on: it’s chockful of action sequences big and bold, and yet at the core of it all is a tragic and very human story of ordinary men who brave extraordinary circumstances and end up paying the highest price. Based loosely on Sebastian Junger’s novel, the real-life story centers around the crew of the Andrea Gail, a trawler headed by Billy Tyne (George Clooney), a captain who is down on his luck and in a Hail Mary manoeuver takes the crew out to the farthest reaches of the ocean to catch a mighty shoal of swordfish. All goes well until the cooling equipment breaks down and the crew are forced to head home again, only to discover a behemoth of a storm blocking their path. Against better judgment, they push on and perish in a rogue wave of cataclysmic proportions – Hollywood proportions, that is, which means ever so slightly exaggerated.
3.1 It’s all about structure
Coming Home From The Sea clocks in at an impressive 9:25, and as most of Horner’s lengthy score cues, it is divided into several smaller movements. (Interestingly, his final non-film works, Collage especially, are essentially one single cue running 25 minutes or more, despite futile attempts by the record label to delineate smaller structural units.)
In this case, I am tempted to distinguish between six and eight different movements within the 9-minute cue. Timings refer to the placement of the music in the movie, not on the CD album, especially since the cue underwent two edits in the film, one subtle, the other substantial.
One of the prominent features of the movie’s opening sequence is the consistent use of crossfades. At this point, the story has not kicked in. Rather, the filmmakers sketch the environment and introduce all the main characters, using crossfades to present the disparate shots as one seemingly uninterrupted flow of images. Horner logically reflects this by composing a cue that comes across as a single and lengthy musical overture yet on closer inspection, has as many individual parts as the scene itself. This wondrous dichotomy is one of the many highlights of the cue. Moreover, and during the presentation of the port especially, Horner highlights the crossfades with soft cymbal accents, which represent the rolling waves. It’s all in the details…
Part 1: Opening (00:00 – 1:17)
A beautiful piece of symphonic writing, the opening minute or so allows Horner to present his two themes. One is the character theme, and it plays over a bed of acoustic guitar. (The electric guitar represents the ruggedness of the fishermen, the acoustic guitar perhaps evokes the folksiness of Gloucester, Massachusetts.) On a soft cut to a fishing boat (not the Andrea Gail at this point), Horner presents a second statement of the theme, but now moves it to the string section. In passing, he offers a soft triangle accent, subtly playing the fantasy card for a setting which is otherwise pretty mundane. It’s interesting to see how many times Horner did that in his career, one of the prime examples being the decidedly swirly fantasy music he composed for Whistler’s Rescue from Sneakers (1992), that cue a happy anomaly within the broader fabric of the score, which was all about cold mathematics and spirited yet down-to-earth saxophone solos by Branford Marsalis.
But our topic was the symphonic nature of this first movement. In fact, Horner starts the character theme in the horns and moves it to the strings on the soft cut to the movie’s first visuals. Subsequently, he introduces the sea theme and works his way back, starting with the strings and ending with the horn, which reveals itself to be the bookend of the first movement. This A-B-B-A pattern is called chiastic in literature and enclosed rhyme in poetry. I have always found it incredibly fascinating that widely different art forms such as music and literature still use the same techniques. (Similarly, Horner likened his composing process to a painter mixing colors.) That deep artistic truth in itself is worth a lavish dissertation, but it would lead us too far.
In the symphonic unfolding of the musical narrative, Horner uses the first movement to present the score’s two building stones.
Part 2: Elegy for the fallen (1:17-1:48)
On a soft cut to a wall that displays the names of fishermen lost at sea, Horner introduces a plaintive, elegiac five-note motif. Over the course of a very tentative crescendo and in between piano accents not unlike Rocketeer (1991), Horner plays the motif three times, effectively sticking it in our minds. He will revisit the musical idea later on.
Part 3: Nightmare (1:48-2:42)
Christina Cotter (Diane Lane) has a nightmare about a tidal wave hitting the shores of Gloucester. This bit obviously foreshadows the trouble ahead, and Horner dutifully scores the nightmare with growling brass and churning strings. Except, of course, he does a little bit more than that. In fact, he starts this dark movement not on the cut to the nightmare’s nighttime setting, but just before, on the shot of a fisherman statue by day. Horner effectively conveys the message that the drama ahead will not just be the figment of one woman’s imagination. This is a wonderful example of imaginative spotting, as the music adds a subtle narrative dimension that was not in the visuals. It’s another example of how an accomplished film composer can chart his own narrative course and add a layer of meaning all his own. It is the first time in this cue, but it will not be the last.
Please note the subtle music that follows Christina waking up. In a brilliant piece of psychological scoring, Horner uses a trailing piano ostinato and a hazy electronic effect, expertly transforming into music the feeling you get when you’re awake but don’t fully realize it yet. The nightmare goes on for a little while, just as the soft piano ostinato, and the hazy electronics show Christina in a place between waking and sleeping.
Christina gets up and looks out the window, only to find the bay at peace. At this point, the disturbing music trails off and Horner returns to his main theme, now scored for a very warm oboe. He again joins a statement of the sea theme to it and uses the first of the three typical transitions (now in strings, not in the horn) leading up to the boats coming in. However, these 66 seconds (heard between 2:43 and 3:49 on the album) were excised from the film. This was probably a decision made in the editing room, the filmmakers wanting to get to the start of the story a little faster. The result is a somewhat jarring post-production edit that nonetheless leads to one of the cue’s most spectacular movements.
Part 4: Coming home (2:44-5:07)
After a claustrophobic bit in Christina’s bedroom, the film opens up considerably as it shows Linda Greenlaw’s and Billy Tyne’s fishing boats coming home from the sea. Horner pulls out all the stops here and delivers a tour de force for orchestra and electric guitar that in the movie plays like a hero’s welcome. So challenging is the writing for frantic percussion and triumphant, forward-thrusting brass, in fact, that it took the orchestra quite a while to get it right, as evidenced by the recording sessions that leaked more than a decade after the movie’s release. Horner really pushes the musicians to their limits, and that’s just the virtuoso part of the music! In fact, playing over all this frantic activity is a heart-felt and upbeat version of the character theme, Horner combining careful elegance and boundless energy into one overwhelming package.
© 2000 Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Christina finishes her make-up and rushes out to lose herself in Bobby’s embrace. Diane Lane’s character does not have a theme of her own (a separate love theme for Bobby and her would have shifted the score’s focus away from the camaraderie of the fisherman), but director Petersen’s staging of the moment allowed Horner to top his spectacular hero’s welcome with a mighty crash of the cymbals and a no-holds-barred romantic version of the character theme. In just two cleverly staged shots, Petersen introduces all of the Andrea Gail’s crew, telling their stories with or without dialogue: Bobby is welcomed by Christina and his mother, Alfred is seen kissing his girlfriend, but Bugsy has nobody waiting for him and Murph quickly realizes that his son and estranged wife have not turned up for the occasion. Faced with these conflicting images, Horner decided to focus only on the lucky ones, probably because it keeps him from having to break up the tone of the piece – a score that tries to represent every little tonal shift ends up being terribly piecemeal or worse, of the mickey-mousing variety (which is fine for animation but would have hurt this scene beyond repair).
It makes sense to consider these embraces as a self-contained section in and of itself, since it is separated from the previous music by a second transition, this time for three lines of brass instruments building up to the statement of theme. On the other hand, this section is only 45 seconds long and in a way, it plays as the climax of the fishermen’s return home.
Part 5: Old Ben Pulley (5:08-6:02)
The Zihuatanejo scene from The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is all talk and runs for nearly seven minutes. On paper, this virtually promised to kill the scene. However, director and screenwriter Frank Darabont solved this particular conundrum by inserting no fewer than three tonal shifts into the scene and using Thomas Newman’s score for just one of them. I realized then and there that tonal shifts are an excellent means of creating momentum within a story. They can occur within one single scene or in the succession of scenes, as Shawshank also attests. The deep truth is that tonal shifts are a far better way of creating rhythm than blatant action scenes, a storytelling technique that far too many directors and producers regrettably don’t seem to know about.
Fortunately, The Perfect Storm scripter Bill Wittliff uses the technique to great effect. He cleverly transports us from a nightmare to a triumphant homecoming to a warm embrace and now to a moment of restrained mourning. Linda brings back lots of fish but also a dead fisherman, old Ben Pulley. The buoyant and extraverted nature of the music slows down to a wispy figure for high strings, which Horner appropriately repeats in a descending movement. There’s another element of failure in this scene, as ship owner Bob Brown walks up and gives Billy a hard time about not bringing in enough fish. When Billy tries to talk himself out of it by reminding Brown that a fisherman has actually died, Horner introduces a hesitant new theme. It plays twice but is superseded by another horn transition at 6:02, leading up to the second spectacular highlight of the lengthy cue.
Part 6: Unloading the fish (6:10 – 7:48)
At its heart, The Perfect Storm is a story about the uneasy symbiosis of nature and humanity. This is an intellectually stimulating comment, which Horner conveys with fantastic musicality in this section. He mobilizes the entire orchestral platoon for a brilliant statement of the two themes playing in counterpoint.
© 2000 Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The relationship between humanity and nature is pretty harmonious at this point, but then again, this is the first act: the story hasn’t really kicked in yet and nothing has actually gone wrong, in spite of subtle omens such as Christina’s nightmare and old Ben’s death. Horner throws in everything but the kitchen sink, laying the themes over each other and using triangle accents, horns doubled by strings, continued use of the electric guitar, you name it.
And then there’s the brilliant moment that sees Billy and Linda weighing their catch. To Billy’s irritation, Linda has brought in far bigger fish and the filmmakers stress the dry comedy of the moment. There’s levity in the music, too, as heard in the string flourishes. But more importantly, Horner revisits the elegiac five-note dedication motif from part 2, balancing the wit of the moment with a whiff of death. From a dramatic and storytelling point of view, it is the single finest moment of the entire cue, as Horner combines conflicting emotions (without the result being the least bit jarring) and because he again adds a narrative shade of his own: sure, it’s a funny moment, but one of these two characters is not going to make it to the end of the story. Horner had stated the elegiac motif three times between 1:17 and 1:48, and he states it three more times here. The message is clear: it won’t be long before Billy Tyne’s name appears on that wall of remembrance. (This part of the cue could also be viewed as a separate section.)
© 2000 Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
There’s a final flourish from the strings, and at 8:01 into the film (after a minor edit), Horner brings back the lone horn for a fragment of the main theme, allowing the lengthy cue to come full circle in the most graceful of ways, with a concluding horn note that ends the musical sentence with a full stop. These nine minutes of music are their own narrative journey, and the mind-boggling fact is that Coming Home From The Sea is just the start of James Horner’s story…
3.3 The narrative arc
The uniqueness of James Horner’s score is in the tone: even when he unleashes the full might of the symphony orchestra or conjures up atonality that is as deafening as it is multi-layered, the tone of the score is remarkably consistent: Horner homes in on the fate of the fishermen and lends to the score the kind of beautiful sadness that characterizes so much of his best work. Finding beauty in sadness, Horner effortlessly rises above the genre’s clichés and weaves a musical tapestry of now subtle, then violent emotions, proving once again that the diegetic asset of film music is essentially its ability to manipulate an audience’s emotional response to the material at hand.
The Perfect Storm exhibits a number of Hornerisms. One is his tendency to announce the statement of a theme with a rising horn transition, a somewhat grandiloquent but nonetheless effective technique that he pioneered in Legends of the Fall (1994) and uses three times in this score’s overture alone. The sadness that pervades even an action score is another Horner staple, and by the turn of the century, the electric guitar was shaping up to become a new recurring element in the Maestro’s oeuvre. Horner had first used it in Courage Under Fire (1996), where it spoke to the perils of war, and famously used a blast of it in Titanic (1997) to mark the narrative shift from the sunny first part to the nightmarish sinking sequences. In The Perfect Storm, the electric guitar represents the working-class ruggedness of the fishermen, and it is heard every time the movie shows them at work. (In To The Flemish Cap, Horner even uses the electric guitar to mimic a seagull call!)
The Perfect Storm has interesting motifs here and there and loads of action riffs, but by and large, Horner draws his 100+-minute score from two themes: one for the men and one for the sea. The former is yearning, especially when performed by warm horns or soothing strings, the latter is both proud and daunting. Both melodies, however, have a rising and falling movement, representing the changing fortunes of the fishermen and the rolling movement of the waves, respectively. This structural similarity nicely ties the themes together, Horner’s way of pointing to the long-standing but fragile relationship between nature and humanity.
For all the reasons listed above, I would confidently call Coming Home From The Sea a standout set piece.