This third episode of Fond Memories discusses the four scores James Horner wrote for Roger Corman. If you have any information that could supplement this episode, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Soundtracks covered in this episode:
The Lady in Red (1979)
Up From The Depths (1979)
1978-1980 – THE ROGER CORMAN MOVIES
“When I look at the low-budget films I did, I say "God", but you have to remember they were structurally important to me, I learned my craft with them. I knew nothing about scoring movies until I started working on student films and low-budget films. So while I wouldn't necessarily want anybody to see them, I learned a great deal from them and I met people through them.” 1
In 1979, Horner started to work for New World Pictures, a studio founded in 1970 by the legendary Roger Corman, one of the most important independent film producers in movie history, who churned out 400 movies in a career spanning 60 years. Roger Corman had a simple movie-making philosophy: rock-bottom budgets, poverty wages, lots of action material and a considerable amount of artistic freedom. The music budget was so low, in fact, that James Horner sometimes found himself signing his musicians’ checks.
“Roger said, “Here’s $4,000. I want a 90-minute score.” You have to solve that riddle. You have to be as inventive and resourceful as you can be. You are acting as a composer, conductor and most importantly a producer. I’d been a composer, I’d been a conductor. The hardest part was: how do you get what Roger wants for his movie for $4,000? That was the best skill I learned.” 2
Moreover, Roger Corman was not very involved in the film music department:
“He's not particularly a film music person. He doesn't really understand scores and what they can do. They are the lowest priority on his agenda. They are a necessary evil, so to speak. I didn't really see that much of Roger. He just runs the company, and I would do the film, and we'd preview it and that was about the only time I'd see him. He'd never come to the scoring sessions, he'd never come to the spotting session. He had no participation in the music, except to say that he liked the music when he saw it in the preview. But he gave me my first big break in films, and I owe him a debt for that.” 3
Horner’s first Roger Corman score was for a gangster movie called The Lady in Red (1979). The film tells the life story of Polly, from a childhood spent in the company of an abusive father, followed by an episode of prostitution, right up to when she elopes with Jimmy Dillinger, the famous Depression-era gangster.
Written by John Sayles and directed by Lewis Teague, The Lady In Red was definitely one of the best of the New World catalogue. However, Horner’s musical contribution is limited to a strict minimum. Only a few sequences ended up being scored, other cues are adaptations.
Among the latter is a brief cue which plays over the opening credits and a short snippet for bank robbers involved in a car chase. These are all adaptations of New Orleans blues pieces. There’s an oriental-sounding cabaret cue and some synthesizer stuff for a scene of violence, but nothing personal.
Around the one-hour mark, however, in a brief musical moment which finds Robert Conrad teaching Pamela Sue Martin how to play baseball, one suddenly recognizes James Horner’s luminous style. The sequence looks ahead somewhat to Testament’s Bike Talk – 1983: it’s a theme for guitar, piano, harp and flute, reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s intimate dramas or John Williams’s The Missouri Breaks, and it serves as the primary identity of the female protagonist and her relationship to Dillinger. The most elaborate score cue plays under Dillinger’s death: a sustained bass line for suspense, brass punctuation, a dreamlike piano and brass clusters.
It’s exciting to hear how from the earliest stages, even very short sequences showcase the composer’s burgeoning style, waiting to grow and develop.
The songs listed in the credits are classics of the late twenties and early thirties: Ain’t she sweet, Baby Face, 42nd street, If I Could Be With You, We’re in The Money. Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful is sung here by Michael Feinstein.
“I fell in with people making monster movies. That’s how I learned my craft.” 4
James Horner goes on to tackle the underwater sequences of Up From The Depths (1979), a horror film about a series of mysterious underwater attacks by an unknown species of giant sharks feeding on tourists, fishermen and researchers…
The score features some harp arpeggios, vibraphone, piano clusters, prepared piano … At age 26, Horner was learning the ropes by scoring the underwater suspense of this rather embarrassing Jaws (1975) rip-off. Only a few minutes of recognizable underscore survive in the final mix. Padding the soundtrack is temp music of the Hammer library variety, awkwardly added to scenes of dubious quality.
Only a short fanfare-like moment right at the end of the movie reveals the composer’s knack for melodies and the budding contours of his style. There’s already a high-sounding horn…
“You didn't work for Roger Corman to make a living, you worked for him for the experience of film making and learning your craft. A lot of film makers started off with Roger Corman because he was making so many movies, but most of them were grisly horror movies and of not very high quality, however it was a great place to start.” 5
Scientific experiments gone awry spawn a creature half-man, half-salmon terrorizing a small fishing community by killing men and raping women.
A remarkably inspired and well-exectued score, Humanoids From The Deep was James Horner’s first serious foray into sound research and contemporary composing techniques, providing a template for the upcoming Wolfen. The score revolves around an eery theme, perhaps echoing Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question (1908). This idea would go on to take greater significance in Wolfen and sort of got its moment in the sun at the time if one recalls the original theme Jerry Goldsmith composed for Alien (1979) – which Ridley Scott did not end up using – as well as Laurence Rosenthal’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) or the majestic thematic development in Goldsmith’s Outland (1981). The music of Hollywood movies in the late eighties was largely dominated by John Williams (Star Wars – 1977) and Jerry Goldsmith (Alien – 1979). At the time, it was the kind of music all movie producers were after and James Horner was expected to write in the same vein. The composer could not afford to bite the hand that fed him, and yet he tried to slip in his own style and ideas. Indeed, Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien was temp-tracked in most of the movies Horner was involved with. Humanoids From The Deep was heavily temped with John Williams' Jaws (1975), which left its stamp on some quiet moments as Jerry and Peggy and Trip Upriver.
Main Title – HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
While the young composer did not enjoy the resources available to A-listers such as Williams, he still gave the musicians of his small orchestra plenty to do: even though the scale can hardly be called symphonic and even though the music budget precluded a decent brass section, the writing is effective and the instrumental colors are beautiful, reminiscent of the underwater scenes from Up From the Depths (harp, xylophone, prepared piano). Also, the composer incorporates into his orchestral palette such strange sounds as the blaster beam and the rubrods. The score relies primarily on strings and percussion (including the "Cowbell", tubular bells). Furthermore, there are subtle references to Shostakovich’s 11th symphony in Search for Clues and to the 5th symphony in The Grotto.
This enjoyable dud of a score does display the unmistakably accomplished writing of a young composer fresh from the concert hall. Even so, the ideas Horner touched upon did not come to fruition until such later scores as Wolfen (1981) or Krull (1983), despite the crushing deadlines imposed by those projects.
In order to slice himself a piece of the Star Wars (1977) cake, Roger Corman obtained two million dollars to make himself a space opera: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). With James Horner on board, this was the fourth and final film of his Roger Corman cycle.
A ruthless tyrant has established a cruel dictatorship on the planet Akir. Its peaceful inhabitants do not rebel for fear of terrible reprisals. One day, the council of elders decides to send Shad into space to build a base for the revolution…
Aged 26 and despite another shoe-string music budget, James Horner managed to put together a 62-piece orchestra and tried to make it sound like the London Symphony Orchestra. Even so, the orchestra players were strictly non-union.
“Major studios have a contract with the AFM, the American Federation of Musicians, which allows them to use Union personnel of which all the top composers and musicians are members. However, it also requires them to pay Union fees. When I was working with Roger Corman, he was not a signatory with the musician's Union, so I could hire orchestras… Instead of paying them $360 for a three-hour session, I was paying them like $80 or $100 for the entire day, and of course, I was taking no fee at all.” 5
The performance of the Battle Beyond The Stars score has its share of imperfections, most notably in the brass section, but maybe this was to be expected given the absurdly rushed recording sessions. That being said, it is not hard to be impressed by this kind of symphonic music coming out of Corman’s world of B-movies. Horner’s music was impressive in scale, it had true symphonic panache and its dynamics were great. Acknowledging the work of the ones who came before him, Horner emulated the symphonic sound of Star Wars and Star Trek as per the producers’ request. But there’s more. James Horner’s imitation of the style and even individual cues of the aforementioned classics does not keep his score from displaying a symphonic style all his own and a remarkable mastery of composition and orchestration. The echoes of Williams and Goldsmith are undoubtedly there, but so is the composer who would go on to write Star Trek II, Krull and Cocoon… The score is not lazy and certainly not devoid of ideas. For all the nods to Star Wars, Star Trek, Prokofiev and Mahler, it is clear that an exciting new voice is beginning to be heard… We’ve long wondered what Spectral Shimmers sounds like, but Battle Beyond The Stars bears testament to a highly talented musician who innately understands and brings out the musical meaning of movie drama. The themes are sweeping and well-rounded, the horn is given ample emphasis, the orchestrations are crystal-clear. Horner uses modern writing techniques that take the post-Mahler mold and build on it. As a whole, his score is so much better than the Corman dud ever needed or deserved…
Main Title – Batte Beyond The Stars – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
The score’s main theme was used in several trailers later on and Roger Corman tracked the music into such subsequent productions as Sorceress (1983), Space Raiders (1983) and even Raptor (2001). However, it is unlikely that Horner ever saw any footage of these movies at all. Working on the artistic direction and special effects teams of Battle Beyond the Stars was a certain James Cameron, the future director of Titanic (1997), who remembered James Horner’s name when he was working on Aliens (1986). “I met James Horner on Battle Beyond the Stars, which was my first film getting a paycheck. I entered as a junior model builder and ended up three months later as production designer, which could only happen on a Roger Corman production. The score was absolutely the best thing about the film. It was a full-on orchestral score, not some rinky-dink synth score. After that I ran into him a few times and Gale Anne Hurd [producer of Aliens] and I, being Corman alumni, watched him skyrocket.” 6 Battle Beyond The Stars marked the end of James Horner’s two-year tenure at the Corman studios, and despite the poor quality of the movies he worked on, they proved to be an essential step for the young composer, allowing him to hone his film musical skills. Roger Corman was like a godfather to James Horner. "The title "Godfather" suits him very well when you think he was able to enlist the talent of Francis Ford Coppola (laughs). The budget was laughable but Roger gave me a great deal of creative freedom. Hollywood producers often ask you to mimic a previous film’s success. That does not make it easy to do your own thing. I am eternally grateful to Roger and I do not disavow my first movies – Lady in Red by Lewis Teague (1979), Battle Beyond The Stars by Jimmy T. Murakami (1980) and all the other horror and sci-fi movies. They were part of the learning curve.” 7
“What working for Roger did for me, was it helped my procedural skills. How to produce music for literally nothing and how to write the best music for the films that they were.” 8
Note: David Newman, composer of a hundred film scores of which include the animated films Anastasia (1997) and Ice Age (2002) had conducted the music of Humanoids From The Deep and Battle Beyond The Stars, before being consultant in Wolfen (1981). As if early in his career James Horner was hesitant to conduct the orchestra himself. After Battle Beyond The Stars, he conducted every subsequent film score.
After two years at New World Pictures, James Horner was experienced enough to move on to bigger studio fare.
But before that, the Orion and Polygram studios called on him in 1981.
Article by David Hocquet and Jean-Baptiste Martin
Translation by Kjell Neckebroeck
Banner by Javier Burgos
Special thanks to Javier Burgos, Byron Brassel, Nick Martin and Olivier Soudé.
This post is also available in: French