Imagine that the tragic June 22, 2015 tragedy never took place. Would the response to Southpaw and The 33 by critics, listeners and fans have been different?
Southpaw is about a man’s difficult road to redemption after the death of a loved one. Although Horner often tackled death scenes throughout his long and distinguished career, it was usually just that: one or two scenes. One recent example is Ben’s Death from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), especially from 2:30 to 3:40, as the music comments on Peter’s mourning of his deceased uncle. Movies that specifically deal with death are rarer in the composer’s oeuvre, and they include The Stone Boy (1984), House of Cards (1991), To Gillian (1996), Bicentennial Man (1999) and Southpaw (2015), each one of those scores showing Horner as a composer of great sensibility adept at laying bare the deepest stirrings of the soul.
Southpaw’s protagonist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, cannot cope with the loss of his wife. The guitar riffs vividly express the pangs of his wounded soul as he is brought down by anger, incomprehension and despair, only to take the road to redemption and acceptance. Cues such as Dream Crusher show his trainer Tick (Forrest Whitaker) help him back on his feet, sharing thoughts about the sense of such a tragedy and about our inability to control the blind and destructive nature of destiny. This music arrived mere days after James Horner’s passing and gave the Southpaw score something intangible and impenetrable, linked as it is to the loss and incomprehension we have been feeling for the past year. Cues such as Dream Crusher help us cope with our own loss.
Since June 22, 2015, we haven’t listened to Horner’s scores quite the same way. It’s a bittersweet experience, and I for one think of the Maestro whenever I see a plane streaking through the sky.
Like For Greater Glory (2012), the movie did not enjoy a massive international roll-out. Is it a dud? Why did Horner choose this project? Director Patricia Riggen explains:
"He just wanted to make movies that he really cared about, and he wanted to make "The 33" because it moved him profoundly, he told me. I discovered that was true because we would sit together in the recording room every day, and I would see him cry when we reached certain moments in the movie. It was something that really touched him."
Watching the movie, it ’s easy to understand why Horner was touched by the story. There are two particularly emotional moments: the news that the miners are still alive (We Are All Well in the Refuge, The 33) and their return to the surface (Celebrations). Both are beautiful expressions of joy. Others scenes, such as the arrival of the drills and the construction of the camp of hope, are also hopeful, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree. The 33 was composed before Southpaw, but we only came to hear it six months after the composer’s passing. Yes, we loved Celebrations, with its Morricone-style energy and vibrancy, and the equally uplifting Hope Is Love, which plays like a farewell from James Horner, but it was difficult to really invest ourselves into the score and open ourselves up to the joy that runs though it.
However, with time, the upbeat nature of the main theme have kind of stuck with us and refused to go away. Even though it’s present in nearly every cue, the theme is never performed the same way twice, thanks to the talents of Tony Hinnigan and James Horner. Careful listening will reveal nuances in timbre, tempo and rhythm, which make every musical phrase sound different and fresh.
Just like the film, which crosscuts between events taking place at 700 metres below the surface and the rescue attempts undertaken under the scorching Chilean sun, the score moves between dark and light, a bit like life itself, which is made up of highs and lows, separating us and reuniting us, and which ends up bringing us joy.
But the score speaks to other emotions as well :
– With its subtle mix of piano, harp, synthesizer, guitar and strings, Aiming To Miss accompanies the engineers’ realization that they’ve made a mistake but now find the right way leading them to the miners. As in A Beautiful Mind (2001), the piano symbolizes human intelligence.
– The beautiful, refreshing and hypnotic cue Fénix leads us to the story’s happy ending, and builds into a stirring passage for the quena, an instrument which captures the brotherhood experienced by the miners. In the vibrant introduction to Always Brothers, Tony Hinnigan’s flute marks the reconciliation of the men after a conflict. They come together as one, an image that brings back memories of Jake’s joining the Na’vi, which James Horner had also scored with the help of his instrumentalist friend. In this sense, the very colorful First Ascent is a cue that wouldn’t sit uncomfrotably in Avatar (2009). It’s easy to imagine it being the prologue to James Cameron’s sequels, the music for which we’ll never hear.
– The two-note percussion motif that runs through the entire score sounds like the beating of the heart. In the opening seconds of Atacama Desert, it is accompanied by the pan flute, which symbolizes breath. The heart and breath are the engines of life. To The Heart Of The Mountain plays as the workers descend into the heart of the mine, and the motif sheds its organic performance to become metallic, not unlike the pickaxes used on-screen. Towards the end of Aiming To Miss, the motif returns in a very slow arrangement; at this point, the miners are running out of air and their hearts beat ever more slowly.
– Empenadas for Dario and Family Is All We Have open and close the score and are ethereal bookends based on George Doering’s guitar. The instrument underlines the affection felt by a sister for her brother and their reconciliation after the ordeal is over. When they meet again, the synthesizers of Family Is All We Have (0:50-1:02) recall a phrase heard in Deep Impact (1998), when Téa Leoni’s character finds her father and reconciles with him (Drawing Straws, 8:06 – 8:36). Compassion defined in just a few notes.
Drawing Straws – Deep Impact – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
© 1998 Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks SKG, under license to Sony Classical B000006O6R
Family is All We Have – The 33– Original Soundtrack by James Horner
© 2015 Warner Bros, under license to WaterTower Music B017OKMUZQ
The previous paragraphs only hint at the many emotions and the great humanity that characterize Horner’s score for The 33.
James Horner has left behind a particularly rich legacy, and we should count our blessings. I for one think that the world is a better place because of the music James Horner has endowed it with. On this 22 June 2016, let us listen to this music and let us realize what it brings us here and now. I think it will bring us joy.
One year …