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JAMES HORNER FILM MUSIC | April 24, 2017 |

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SOUTHPAW, BETWEEN REMINISCENCE AND RENAISSANCE

SOUTHPAW, BETWEEN REMINISCENCE AND RENAISSANCE
Jean-Christophe Arlon
 "Apart from my family and close ones, the Repertoire is the vastest memory I know and draw from. It represents the legacy of those who have managed to create an art, develop it and pass it on. It would be a tragedy for it to be forgotten or fall by the wayside. It takes strong-willed individuals, careful witnesses, men of action, creative and talented people bent on transmitting the legacy, teachers and students … so that the memory of the brilliant ones who came before us never ever fades"
James Horner
 
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), world champion in light to middleweight boxing, loses his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), savagely killed by a stray bullet. Down-on-his-luck Billy ends up a suicidal and violent drug addict, and to make matters worse, he loses custody of his daughter, which further puts him to the test. He will do anything to win her back.
Antoine Fuqua is known for hard-hitting dramas like Training Day and The Equalizer. His latest, Southpaw, is a story about grief, memory and family ties, themes that appealed particularly to James Horner and were always a central part of his oeuvre. The movie itself is more subtle than one would assume, and its visuals and dialogue take on a whole new dimension now that we are confronted with the sudden and unexpected loss of its composer. All is lost, but we still have a few piano notes allowing us to dream and reminisce…
 
THE SHOCK
 
The synthetic pulse of the music intensifies, vibrates with tentative emotions and reveals a kind of muted violence. The elusive piano plays a stark motif, amidst a soundscape stripped of musical complexity and ornamentation, but announcing an intense and complex set of as yet unfocused and undefined emotions. James Horner sets the tone and gets to the heart of the story in a matter of seconds; in that respect, he was unparalleled. A precious few seconds of feverish expectation driven by an inner voice and strength that does not yet speak its name and is as yet unrevealed, it surreptitiously sets moods and colors that will subsequently be developed at length. James Horner speaks with a voice that is at once crystal-clear and deeply enigmatic.
 The composer of The Chumscrubber, another fully developed electronic score, masters the art of suggestion without revelation, expressing multiple meanings with an amazing economy of means. For all its incredible expressiveness, James Horner holds back where so many others would go all out. Instead of overplaying his hand, Horner keeps his cards close to his vest.
The Preparations plays over the production companies’ logos, recalling the lengthy and beautiful opening of Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001), another project about a man who goes toe-to- toe with his inner demons. Moreover, the first notes of the piano theme are structurally and melodically reminiscent of the one that Horner composed for the mathematician John Nash.
This elusive opening is interrupted by a rap song (a remix of Rob Bailey & The Hustle Standard's Beast) and that’s not exactly good news: are we up for a fragmented, underused Horner score desperately trying to hit its stride between an onslaught of songs?
Fortunately, nearly all of music on the CD is present in the film. Much like the hip hop sound that favors lyrics over melody, Southpaw is a very chatty movie which leaves little breathing space for the underscore. And yet Horner finds plenty of places to express his material with remarkable fluidity.
Two key tracks, A Fatal Tragedy and Hope vs Escobar lose out to the dialogue and sound effects (such is the fate of underscore), but within the framework of the scenes, the music assumes significant relevance. Rather than straightforward mickey-mousing or gratuitous emphasis, the music consistently conveys new meanings, no matter the sacrifices from a strictly musical point of view.
Make no mistake: here, as everywhere in the movie, discretion is not to be confused with restraint. Apart from such second-act cues as House Auction, A Long Road Back and Training, the music might come across as badly mixed or relegated to the background. And this might lead one to infer a lack of boldness on the part of the filmmakers, a lack of faith in this beautiful hypnotic and allegorical score.
This could not be further from the truth. Horner’s trademark textures and colors manage to lay bare the heart of this delicate story. More emphatic music might have sabotaged this set-up, to the extent that Horner goes straight to what’s essential and expresses meanings that are not readily available in the visuals. The music’s presence is all the more gripping for manifesting itself subliminally and magically filling the world in which the characters move and the story unfolds. It drapes a quivering synthetic veil over the onscreen proceedings and slowly but effectively gets under the audience’s skin. In fact, everything leads us to believe that the director and the producers fully understood just how much James Horner’s delicate art could bring to their film. The score is subtle and full of rage – in this case, one does not go without the other.
In fact, the aggressive Beast resonates in Billy Hope's headphones, clearly suggesting his state of mind just before combat. Horner quickly forces The Preparations to become all introspective in order to highlight the lull before the stormy battle. Crystal-clear piano notes accompany the boxer as we see his hands being taped in.
The intricate symbiosis of visuals and music infuses the visuals with a mix of tranquility and tension, darkness and light, subtlety and savagery. It makes for a multi-layered and complex whole, Horner wisely shying away from engaging into a futile boxing match with the dialogue yet managing to exist in conjunction with it, respond to it and complement it.
The synthesizer motif that opens A More Normal Life (0'09-0'22) accompanies Billy Hope as he wakes up and spends a typical morning in his lush villa. The motif returns early on in Empty Showers (0'00-0'35), showing the protagonist assuming the new life of boxer-turned-guard in a sports hall, now the tenant of a 20 square meter apartment. Financial resources aside, Billy’s situation is the same, and the music is quick to establish this parallel.
 
A More Normal Life (0'10-0'25) – Southpaw
© 2015 The Weinstein Company, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment – USSM11504886
 
A Fatal Tragedy begins when Billy finds his wife bleeding after being hit by a stray bullet during a brawl that he could have avoided. The woodblocks from "Four More Amps" (Apollo 13 – 1995) add just the right amount of tension, while the agitated piano creates a sense of urgency. Seemingly hovering, the cue exudes a constant pressure, the piano effectively but not over-emphatically expressing the relentless absurdity of the drama.
 
 
In similar circumstances, The Car Chase from A Beautiful Mind (2001) added more intensity. Here, the music still plays second fiddle to the dialogue, and there’s a whole reasoning beyond the filmmakers’ conscious choice. Horner holds back at this point and only lets go at the end of the first act, when he scores Billy’s cries of desperation with the final two notes of the theme, which by then sound all the more heartbreaking. It’s an appealing alternative to the four-note death motif that stabs and envelops the listener in equal measure. Death, rebirth, redemption, legacy … James Horner still had so much to say.
 
THE FALL
 
Only the first half of The Funeral, Alone … (0'00 to 2'35) appears in the finished film. Supported by a web of strings, the repetitive awakening motif reappears as if to confirm the initial fears, as if to signify that even in the company of others, Billy was already a lone wolf. Aided by two meaningful silences, the piece is constructed so as to reveal Billy’s dual environment, halfway between dream and reality, as if he was not fully aware of his loss.
James Horner manages the not inconsiderable feat of expressing both the lacerations of pain and the protagonist’s denial. In doing so, the music strikes a delicate balance between aloofness and emotional involvement. An electronic celesta (2'04) accompanies the tentative back-and-forth between Billy and his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) while the electric guitar illustrates the deep pain experienced by a father and a daughter who ought to be close yet find themselves so divided, profoundly unable to offer each other consolation.
 
The Funeral Alone … Southpaw
© 2015 The Weinstein Company, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment – USSM11504886

As distressing as the scene is, the music is subtle and understated – and all the more effective for it. The third minute, which goes unused in the film, features percussion that announces the rage which is set to explode in the next track, Suicidal Rampage, and more importantly the melancholy theme that speaks to Leila’s alienation (House Auction), an idea which makes its first appearance here in tentative piano strains.
It is hard to grasp the full meaning of this cue without repeated listening and especially the knowledge of what lies ahead. For James Horner, the notion of memory was not just a state of mind, it was part and parcel of a typically intricate score architecture.
Grief often leads to anger. Suicidal Rampage contrasts sharply with the beginning of the album. It is heavy with anguish and overwhelmingly dense, the perfect embodiment of Billy’s rage. This lengthy, choked piece of music, whose deceptive lack of tempo does not keep it from being occasionally brutal, is reminiscent, as much in detail as in spirit, of the electronic rumblings of Braveheart’s Revenge cue (0'42), which twenty years on assumes a kind of visceral abstraction. But unlike William Wallace, whose raging attack had suicidal overtones, Billy Hope's feelings of vengeance are exclusively directed at himself.
At 2'04, the motif that introduced A More Normal Life reappears and quickly leads to a raucous volley of electronic percussion, a musical metaphor for daily life stripped of its normalcy and descending into nocturnal wanderings fueled by a blind thirst for revenge.
 
Suicidal Rampage (1'50-2'35) Southpaw
© 2015 The Weinstein Company, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment – USSM11504886
 
This is immediately preceded by a crystalline 4-note motif (1'50) that hints at the boxer’s downfall and the collapse of his past life. Some kind of death, even though it is not definitive, befalls Billy Hope as he gives in to the pain, unaware of the parental responsibilities he still has.
 

During this set-piece that will determine the events to come, hovering between despair and madness, Billy Hope is seen completely derailed. James Horner expressed this with admirable economy of means and, again, refrained from overstressing the point.
After this descent into the abyss, and carefully integrating all that came before, the score takes a new turn. Billy Hope does not emerge unscathed from the confrontation with his inner demons and his is a very long road to redemption.
Empty Showers opens with the repetitive motif first heard in A More Normal Life on a bed of piercing strings. This is somewhat reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, who shares with James Horner a penchant for electronic pulses, like in The Thing (2'11). This hint of a building stone first heard in A More Normal Life not only points to Billy Hope’s distress, his inability to bounce back from adversity, the way he shrinks from his responsibilities as a father and ultimately the profound loneliness that seems to enshroud him, but also, and pointedly, reminds us that his instability was already very much an issue before the tragedy – in fact, Billy Hope was a ticking time bomb. Only the nurturing cocoon of his family and the protective love of his wife managed to keep Billy’s rage in check.
 
Empty Showers (1'56-2'37) – Southpaw
© 2015 The Weinstein Company, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment – USSM11504886
 
The alternative four-note motif reappears at 1'01 when the grief-stricken boxer returns to the ring to repay his debts and allow his opponent to have a go at him. In this context, the motif symbolizes the disintegration of the champion’s honor and reputation. He is booed by the audience, he hits the referee and his career is over. Back in the showers, he finds himself floored and alone. As his wife predicted, cockroaches scatter when fortune forsakes him. As the camera moves away from him, we hear the main theme in fragmented piano, its slowly meandering melancholy denoting loneliness and abandonment.
 
A Cry for Help opens with a particularly dark statement of the main theme (0'00 – 0'18), reminiscent of the dark hues of The Name of The Rose or Enemy at The Gates, going all the way back to Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. The strings are tense and internalized, endowing the purely electronic sound palette with a striking instrumental force. The piano marks the transition to higher strings and on to delicate interplay with the various sections of the ensemble, mirroring the protagonist who resists calling out for help and finally decides to think better of it. The fallen boxer begins to realize that if he’s going to get through it all, he will need help. At 1'15, the tension from A Fatal Tragedy returns as Billy tries to commit suicide. The musical approach is simple but effective, James Horner draping Billy's piano theme over a brief and disturbing crescendo. But any listener who digs deeper will discover the full complexity and significance of this cue, which judiciously uses percussion and counterpoint material. The crystalline motif returns quite appropriately at 3'00 when Billy collapses on a hospital bed after being pumped with sedatives. He is precipitously close to the brink and the music in no way tries to pull him back. At this point in the story, Billy’s redemption is still a very uncertain affair.
 
 
The judge removes Leila from Billy’s custody rights. House Auction starts with a dialogue between keyboard and strings and at 0'43 segues into piano strains as Billy spends one last night in his huge villa that is now up for sale. The melancholy piano melody speaks to the rift between father and daughter. This is an extension of the emotional theme introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man, which was already tinged with sadness the first time, when it evoked Peter Parker’s mourning after uncle Ben’s death. It’s not even a fully-fledged theme, and yet its bare constructs are enough to make a strong impression. It takes time to develop, carefully probing the depths of confusion and turmoil in search of hints of the love that binds a father and his daughter. With disarming simplicity, the music speaks to the power of family ties, even as these two human beings have moved very far away from each other.
The house is empty, without life or joy. James Horner sympathizes with the champion who has now fallen from grace. Horner quietly reminds us of events in our own lives, as the path Billy Hope follows is ultimately recognizable and has universal appeal. The morose tone of House of Sand and Fog is never far away.
 
REBIRTH
 
A Long Road Back and Training play back-to-back in the film, as Billy Hope rebuilds himself with some help from his new coach, Titus 'Tick' Wills (Forrest Whitaker, who makes the most of the all too rare appearances of his character). The melancholy theme flourishes in A Long Road Back when Billy confides in Tick and talks about the estrangement from his daughter. When Leila’s theme is heard, the music sounds slightly more upbeat, expanding its set of timbres and hues.
The music becomes rhapsodic in nature as James Horner comments both on Leila's decision to test her father (and her own capacity as a child to deal with feelings of loss) and on Billy reaching out to his daughter. The music is no longer about raw feelings but about the delicate nuances of emotional colors.The scoring is elegant and all the more powerful when you realize that James Horner is pouring his heart into it. Given that Southpaw is the Maestro’s swansong, it’s hard not to be moved by this thought.
 
 
The boxer is slowly regaining a sure footing in life and manages to silence the anger that used to consume him. The main theme can therefore reassert itself in Training when Tick teaches his pupil a couple of new tricks.

Then comes Dream Crusher, an emotional gem featured twice in the film, early on during the first scene between Billy and Leila, and especially when Tick tells Billy about the brutal death of Hoppy, one of the kids in their sports hall that he had sworn to protect. The music accompanies Tick’s speech, who desperately tries to make sense of such a tragic event, all the while realizing his own powerlessness in the face of destiny.
This again brings us back to that fateful June 22, 2015. The spirit of James Horner, his sensitivity, his enlightened ideas about movie music and especially his profound generosity are all deeply felt in these wonderful notes, which are as overwhelming as they are subtle.

 
Dream Crusher (1'11-1'45) – Southpaw
© 2015 The Weinstein Company, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment – USSM11504886

The impact of Dream Crusher goes way beyond the film and reminds us of the Maestro’s fateful morning between heaven and earth. His oeuvre was growing and developing organically and was showing no sign of letting up. We were lucky witnesses. Listening to Dream Crusher is painful but in some ways also comforting. James Horner was a composer who chose to create music that flowed from his own convictions and ambitions, even when his technique and craftsmanship were beginning to be frowned upon by an industry that no longer cared for it.
 
Only the first part of How Much They Miss Her is used in the finished film, playing over the scene where Billy and Leila join in mourning at Maureen’s tomb. Musically, it acts as an extension of Dream Crusher, which follows Empty Showers on the album for reasons of musical flow. It’s the only instance where the album sequence of the cues differs from the movie sequence. This may sound like an insignificant detail, but it makes two important points. One: the sequence of similar colors may be relevant in the film but less so on the album. Two: James Horner's narrative arc is so carefully constructed that very few adjustments need to be made in order for the music to work successfully when separated from the visuals.
On the album, which is tight but never rushed, the last statement of the melancholy theme plays as Billy and Leila reconcile.
There is no need to develop this theme any further. Rather, Horner returns it to the status of motif and through scenes of reconciliation and mutual comfort scales it down to its original form: the soft voice of love between father and daughter. The conclusion of the track (1'27) reminds us of a theme from the little-known movie House of Cards (1993), another story about a protagonist who recovers from a devastating loss. Horner looks back, extends ideas and develops them. His is an enduring legacy.
 
 
The climactic battle, Hope vs. Escobar, is dominated by sound effects and comments by sports journalists. Unlike the more intimate scenes, it leaves little room for the underscore, even though the lengthy cue is a worthy extension of recent action material heard in, say, The Amazing Spider-Man’s Oscorp Tower and Saving New York.
In some ways, this memorable cue goes beyond everything James Horner may have perceived as "action music" during his career because it may sound familiar, but the material is new. Of course the cue brings to mind the devilishly innovative savagery of Revenge, a highlight of Horner’s oeuvre, introduced in Legends of The Fall and developed in Braveheart.
This whirlwind of sounds is constructed with mind-boggling complexity, and yet it never shows. The sparkle of the colors is dazzling but never blinding. The score is ripe with emotion but it never obscures the vision of the filmmakers. The music appears, progresses and blossoms in a grand mêlée of blood and sweat, pain and sorrow, love and rage. In more ways than one, this is an exercise in musical hypnosis.
Billy Hope returns to the ring. He makes a fresh start after taking a deep look into his own soul, finally finding closure and serenity and bringing his own inner quest to completion. The film does not go on beyond the final combat and the music follows suit.
Hope vs Escobar reveals new insights at every listening, establishes new connections between each of its successive, complementary and ultimately intertwined parts. But this much is constant: James Horner’s creative drive and our listening pleasure. Only Horner could stir the mind as much as the heart with such inspirational force.
The emotion that blossoms during the eerily light sixth minute, cleverly set up by the pulsating music that came before, and which segues into a powerful and forceful crescendo that utterly overwhelms the listener, is nothing short of admirable, for reasons that go well beyond the film or the disc.
 
Hope vs Escobar (6’19-6'58) – Southpaw
© 2015 The Weinstein Company, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment – USSM11504886
 
The choice of colors and the musical timbres, the instruments that fire off of each other or sing in unison, the sampling of sounds, the framework of the musical architecture that unspools in front of our very eyes; in the end it all serves a simple yet grand objective: the redemption of Billy Hope. 
The main theme returns one last time when the tormented but redeemed champion takes a moment to talk to his lost wife. This time, the music plays front and center, endowing the movie with one of those magical moments that show us how meaningfully and effectively film music can be used. It is here that we hear and see the tender gestures of two human beings who love each other and will never leave each other again, the composer all the while maintaining a flow of conflicting and contradictory emotions.
 

 
A Quiet Moment does not play in the film. Yet Horner seemed to have composed it for the movie’s last shot, the camera moving away from Billy and Leila hugging in the locker room with journalists pressing at the door. It’s a delicate and intimate moment that extends and enhances the consistency of the album but is not necessarily required by the visuals.
 
TRANSMITTING A LEGACY

James Horner was really into this film, which featured an impressive performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, surely one of the finest actors of his generation. Antoine Fuqua’s statements speak volumes about the esteem in which the composer held his profession. In fact, Maestro Horner wrote for his film a highly abstract score that is brilliantly spiritual and visceral.
This, in fact, is the central paradox of a score which at first may come across as cold and distant yet after repeated listening proves to be heaving with emotion. The score will not appeal to those who refuse to plunge headfirst into its radically different sound and give up any preconceived notions of what they want their Horner scores to be. It is their loss, because once you pick the lock – and it really doesn’t take a burglar’s talents – the score offers a phenomenally enjoyable listening experience, not to mention a wealth of emotional and spiritual nuances.
Because of its length and its subdued power, its constructive complexity at the service of expressive simplicity, Hope vs Escobar is an absolute gem, a genuine tour de force, further proof that the composer was not finished exploring, in this case "humanizing" the electronic sound palette after earlier experiments in such varied projects as Beyond BordersThe Forgotten, and The Chumscrubber.

Such bravura music is a genuine thrill. If you sit through it and scratch its first layer, you’ll discover another layer, and then many more. If you had to put it into words, the rest of Southpaw plays like a lengthy, eerie and captivating musical phrase a bit like House of Sand and Fog was a 70-minute sonata for piano, electronics and orchestra. Disturbing, haunting, Horner music to the core. Once again, James Horner offers his own deeply personal interpretation of an often-told movie story. In fact, he turns it into a completely fresh one. His musical interpretation of redemption set in the boxing community is not just discrete, it blends in with it and forms a seamless whole with it.
It does not emphasize emotion, it transcends it. It is not discreet because in these times of so-called "discretion", it shamelessly puts forward musical meaning and emotional expressiveness, it dissects the protagonist’s passion and fury with intelligent nuances, it recognizes that people, if anything, are deeply conflicted, and it does so with infinite delicacy and robust touches.
Coldness, really? The music gets under your skin and grabs you in ways you’ve rarely experienced in an electronic score. A precious few piano notes can work miracles where sweeping themes would have killed the point. James Horner admirably marries style and substance.
He knew how to do all that. He worked miracles. Today he is gone and there is no one to take his place. We have some mourning of our own to do, after which we had better get down to sharing the genius of his music and transmitting it to generations to come.

"A special thanks to both Antoine Fuqua and John Houlihan for working with me so closely, giving me the freedom to try out some pretty modern textures of music working with film, that other filmmakers might not have let me try…"
James Horner
 
 
Photo credit : © Hope Films, Inc / The Weinstein Company
Audio clips: Southpaw (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) © 2015 The Weinstein Company, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment – USSM11504886

This post is also available in: French

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