SOUTHPAW: FIRST LISTEN
The very day James Horner partook of his final flight, we at James Horner Film Music were working to secure an advanced review copy of what we now know to be his final composition for film: the score to the film, Southpaw. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a champion boxer whose wife is killed, and his high life begins to disintegrate in a spiral towards rock bottom, even losing custody (and the trust) of his daughter. Enter a brutally unforgiving amateur trainer in the form of Forrest Whitaker, and… Redemption ensues.
With a soundtrack produced by Eminem and featuring a grittier-than-grit song, Phenomenal, in all the film’s trailers (and presumably over the credits), the dramatic underscore provided by James Horner had a lot of angry and gravelly sound to compete with. Which might explain why many reviewers are referring to this as one of Horner’s grittiest works. And while there are definitely tracks where Horner must lay the rough aggression on very thick in industrial chops we’ve never before heard from the composer, the word I’d choose to describe this singular effort is “intimate”, and profoundly so.
Most of Horner’s score is synthesized or comprised of real instruments whose sound is highly processed with a sustained reverb. The main recurring element in the score is a solitary, simple, and slowly stated melody consisting to two nearly identical 8-note phrases played on piano with no harmonic support from any other instruments, but nonetheless accompanied by very wistful and airy atmospherics. The majority of the score relies heavily on this melody and its statements recall a lonely personal resolve. Usually, the second iteration of the eight-note phrase features an ascension between the third and fourth notes (where the first phrase descends), lending a hint of hope.
The score is deeply moody and pensive, and listening to it made me feel more than I think I heard directly: specifically, listening gave me the physical sensation of standing on a windy hilltop at night overlooking city lights, the wind brisk but not biting, imbuing the moment with an intimate familiarity that lends the perception of warmth, but only in the two inches immediately near your skin. I know that’s rather specific, but this score was quite evocative for me.
Beyond the synthesized/processed instruments, Horner’s orchestration choices are quite unusual, bringing to the table a sense of Tubular Bells, with an intricate pattern of tinkling tones skittering over the underlying music like a time-lapsed churning of cloud cover. One track in particular, A Long Road Back features an expansion of the solitary piano lines into some gorgeously effusive piano harmonies and a cascade of tinkling notes providing a sense of propulsion not sensed previously in the score.
In our conversation with him in Liverpool, James mentioned that a composer “can do so much with just two lines that cross each other, you don’t even need an orchestra.” He asserted that many films are afforded massive scores with huge orchestras, positing that “it’s crazy, you don’t need anything like that… but it’s a different aesthetic” being pursued by not only the composers, but by the directors themselves. However, he pointed to Reznor and Ross’s work for The Social Network as an example of an alternative approach and aesthetic that is appropriate for some of the worthiest films. It is vividly clear that this different aesthetic was in the fore of his process for addressing this film. In fact, when one compares Hand Covers Bruise from The Social Network and Training from Southpaw, Horner’s exposure to Reznor’s and Ross’s work is evident. It’s possible that director Antoine Fuqua requested Horner to paint in similar colors: both cues contain a throbbing humming as a continual under-bedding below more introspective instrumentation ruminating above.
Further to Horner’s pint about accomplishing much with minimal musical resources, elsewhere in the score, Horner works with extremely subtle movements in small-interval harmonies. In House Auction, where the composer establishes some deep emotional turmoil, there’s an interplay between strings and an interchange between two two-note piano harmonies. A Cry for Help brightens a little with some moments where something happens in the very upper registers that can barely be made out against the rest of the electronic experimentation. It’s almost subliminal modulation that suggests notes that should be played there. It’s some of the most introspective and nuanced composing I’ve heard from James Horner.
The keynote track in the score, Hope vs. Escobar begins with a growling industrial aggressiveness we’ve never heard from Horner before. In fact, it feels like it shares its DNA with the dungeon source music written by Billy Corgan and endured by the kidnapped son in Ransom. With assertive rhythms and intricate electronica elements weaving throughout the pounding matrix of distorted noise, this is absolutely the edgiest Horner’s music has ever been. Breaking the eight-minute mark, this track is epic in nature, while maintaining a dirty, earthy sense throughout its first half while eventually breaking a foothold above its rougher dimensions with long, sustained brass chords struggling to overcome its baser origins. The percussion insistently drives forward with an almost disquieting sense of inevitability, like John Powell’s climactic cue to United 93 (recently reused in Paul Greengrass’s Captain Philips). In a final moment of release, the track finds its conclusion in quite reflection of the score’s simpler piano lines.
The score concludes with a very short reprise of the simple piano theme in a track appropriately titled, A Quiet Moment. And then, that’s it. There are no end titles, where the film likely rolls its credits to Eminem.
It is known that the recording sessions for Southpaw took place after those for The 33, leaving this final film score from the Maestro an utterly curious departure from everything Horner’s ever done before. This is James Horner at his most experimental, which may leave his fans disappointed to not have a final swan song of Hornerian glory, but which, for me, left me vaguely saddened to not know how he might have used this deviation from his standard norm in his future works. Anyone familiar with Horner’s career can tell you about how he reweaved threads from previous works into new contexts, revisiting his more successful musical ideas to expand on them, explore them in different landscapes. His ideas gained maturity over time as he reworked them. There is a newness in the score to Southpaw that may feel like a massive diversion from what we loved most about his music, but which likely would have forged the foundation for a whole branch of Horner’s musical palate that might compliment his usual musical stylings in fresh and invigorating ways.
And yet, we’ll never know.