This episode takes a look at the six TV movies James Horner scored between 1981 and 1983, and covers the following scores:
Angel Dusted (1981)
A Few Days In Weasel Creek (1981)
PK and The Kid (1982)
A Piano For Mrs. Cimino (1982)
Between Friends (1983)
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1981-1983 – SIX TWO-HOUR TV MOVIES
After the two monster movies he did for Roger Corman (Episode 3) and while composing 1981’s horror trilogy (Episode 4), James Horner decided he was not going to be pigeonholed as a horror guy. Somewhat surprisingly, he turned his attention to television.
“I get worried sometimes, that I'm being locked into being a horror movie composer. I was doing horror movie after horror movie because that's all I was being asked to do. And whenever I'd try to get some other sort of work they'd say 'Yeah, you just did Wolfen and that was terrific, but, you know, this is a sensitive story. We'll geat Dave Grusin'.” 1
“Since Wolfen, I have not been typecast. I've been given a free rein, I really have, on television and in features, and I like to think that will continue. I'm not in the horror mode. I've done about six two-hour TV movies which are not horror.” 2
During the late seventies, however, when he penned his AFI scores (Episode 2), James Horner refused to work for television, which he never watched and didn’t know all that well.
“I made a conscious decision not to do any television when I was first starting out. I didn't relate to television, I've never been a television watcher, so I took the road of being penniless, but working on these low budget horror movies.” 3
Also, James Horner was afraid to get stuck with a career in television, which would have precluded the kind of big-screen commitments he actively pursued.
“When I started out, I was teaching at UCLA, and destitute. There were two venues a composer could take then. One could struggle and try to find a movie job, or one could struggle and try and get TV jobs. And 99% of the composers ended up getting TV jobs, because it was very easy to get a single episode of something, and then a month later get a half-episode of something else. And gradually the episodes would coalesce until you'd get four episodes in a row and a bunch of series and movies-of-the-week. You basically ended up being a mogul, and got to a point where you'd say, "God, I'd love to do a movie." But no one would take two glances at you because you're a TV person.” 4
Despite this initial reluctance, James Horner ended up turning to television for a breath of fresh air, after his multiple forays into the horror genre. He was looking for something closer to his own aspirations.
“I like to do very tender stories that call for dramatic underscoring. (…) In my television scores, I'm given free rein to a much larger extent; they're not horror pictures, they're usually very sensitive, quiet things, and I maybe have guitar and strings or something like that. They're very different.” 2
Apart from the subject matter, James Horner was careful to choose two-hour TV movies instead of series, which would have required a lengthier attachment and the numbing routines that go with it.
He also decided to establish close composer-director relationships, like with Dick Lowry, director of The Drought, the movie that triggered Horner’s love for film music (Episode 2). In quick succession, they would follow up their first collaboration with Angel Dusted (1981), A Few Days in Weasel Creek (1981) and finally with Rascals and Robbers: The Secret Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1983).
Throughout his career, Horner only ever again allowed himself to be steered into the world of television if he had the chance to extend and develop steady composer-director relationships.
And anyway, telefilms tend to be similar in many ways to feature films. The biggest difference is that the scoring deadlines are even more insane.
“The approach is pretty much the same, it's just that you have much less time to record, and you only have two and a half weeks to compose a piece, rather than five to six weeks for a feature.” 2
And of course, not unlike those first gigs in the late seventies, James Horner had to make do with shoestring music budgets:
“The projects I get in television are much more sensitive, but the budgets are tiny, and so it poses different problems. One has to make do with a very small orchestra and make it sound big and make the instruments go a long way. I guess the projects dictate a lot of my approach. One project I did for EMI, A Piano For Mrs. Cimino, a love story that starred Bette Davis and Keenan Wynn, had basically a very small orchestra: strings, piano, sax and clarinet. And in some of my other scores I've used two guitars, harp and harmonica, and that is it.” 2
Called in by the school nurse, parents Jean Stapleton and Arthur Hill are shocked to learn that their perfect son (John Putch) has become violent due to a drug problem.
Starring Patrick Cassidy, a young Helen Hunt and Jean Stapleton’s real-life son as John Putch, this TV movie about drug addiction aired on February 11, 1981. Its score is interesting because it allowed James Horner to compose a beautiful and very melodic main title cue for a small instrumental ensemble.
In contrast, the first scene on the effects drugs have on the protagonist offers very atonal music built around string glissandi (foreshadowing the glissandi in 1986’s Aliens), as well as atonal outbursts that foreshadow Wolfen (1981), which Horner would compose only a few months later.
Subsequently, Horner uses a few bright melodic lines for winds, harp, strings and vibraphone for the bonds of family (mother, brother), after Putch is locked away in a psych ward.
The two-note motif that would burst forth five years later in Aliens, here speaks to the danger that drugs represent. The dark side of the music returns in full force in another particularly aggressive sequence, when the young drug addict refuses to return to the hospital and tries to run away.
This modulated motif (mostly heard in major) is finally allowed to shine during the movie’s conclusion, which is all about reconciliation. The film ends with several minutes of bliss, scored first for winds, leading to a typical Horner melisma (different sounds sharing the same note) and transitioning to the orchestral ensemble right up to the thirty-second end title.
All told, the score is very short, as per the wishes of the composer and/or the director: only roughly 15 out of the 96 minutes are scored. Yet the music, coupled with a longer score, would make for a deserving album.
A FEW DAYS IN WEASEL CREEK
Premiering on 21 October 1981, A Few Days In Weasel Creek was a road movie about a young girl (Mare Winningham) and her boyfriend on their way to California.
This little-known TV movie by Dick Lowry on two youngsters adrift in rural America has so far never been released. The very short score James recorded was in a remarkably tender Americana vein, the kind of music he had never had the chance to compose before.
The opening credits feature harmonica and guitar, before a small orchestra and guitar develop the main theme, a beautiful melody embellished with harmonica, jaw harp, bass, strings and harp. Along with the beautiful main and end credits of Angel Dusted, this is James Horner’s version of small-town America.
Other scenes rely mainly on the guitar over a string orchestra, light, intimate and beautiful. This emphasis on the classical guitar will later inform the many soft cues of Cocoon (1985). It is fascinating to see how James Horner had a penchant for sensitive writing as early as 1981.
Suffused with beautiful melodies and folk rhythms à la The Spitfire Grill (1996), this music succeeds in conveying the soul of the American heartland and the angst of the young protagonists who travel through it.
Dating back to James Dean, the topic of teen angst was a wellspring of inspiration all through the 80s, when teenagers became Hollywood’s prime target audience.
PK and the Kid aired in 1982 and was released on VHS in 1987. It joined Angel Dusted in exploring broken families. The focus this time around is not drugs but dysfunctional stepfamilies. The female lead must cope with an abusive father and an indifferent mother with an alcohol problem. She manages to escape this stifling family unit and on her quest to freedom, she meets the Kid, a loner who has his mind set on California’s middleweight arm-wrestling championship.
The opening credits are unusual, with its country and folk slant (drums and guitar) and yet strangely familiar, since it also recalls James Horner’s taste for piano-and-string themes with an additional harmonica thrown in here as an extra color. The harmonica was often featured in Horner’s Americana scores at the time and takes center stage in this score as well.
The film feels like a road movie and the main theme is everywhere, often appearing in well-written variations. It is an upbeat and playful line that becomes a hymn to freedom. The rhythmic piano would later turn up in such scores as Searching for Bobby Fisher (1993).
But there’s also dissonance, especially whenever PK crosses paths with the stepfather she hates so much. These tense moments allow the composer to combine the harmonica with low strings, something which Horner did fairly routinely at the time (Rascals & Robbers, 48 HRS). Towards the end comes a more clearly developed piece as PK manages to break free from her father and drive away in his car. The writing is rhythmic and intense, nicely offsetting an otherwise soft and light score.
The variations of the main theme allow Horner to deepen the bond between PK and the Kid as their journey unfolds. This leads to beautiful cues for flute and strings, and also the contours of a theme that denotes friendship rather than love. The melodic shape of the theme is interesting in that it does not automatically sound like a conventional love theme. It conveys the ambiguity of their relationship: she is 15, he is twice as old. Their relationship never turns physical, but there is definitely some chemistry.
The final arm-wrestling contest, which takes up the final half hour, is left unscored, Horner choosing to focus only on the relationship between the two characters. Only during the movie’s final five minutes does the score return, with some beautiful writing for flute and strings. James Horner develops the theme of friendship, which takes on a new meaning – the characters have never been closer. The main “freedom” theme is reprised in full and ends the movie with an optimistic coda.
This is another "small" score that deserves a CD release, as it is another gem in the crown of Horner’s early assignments.
A PIANO FOR MRS. CIMINO (1982)
Airing on 3 February 1982, George Schaefer’s A Piano for Mrs. Cimino is one of the first fictional movies dealing with Alzheimer's disease. It starts with the retirement of music teacher Esther Cimino, who realizes that her mental faculties are diminishing. At the behest of her children, she relocates to a specialized institution, where she ends up alone. Joining her in a losing battle against mental degeneration is her granddaughter Karen, who urges her to keep up the piano …
The movie was a late-career vehicle for Bette Davis and after Angel Dusted (1981) and Between Friends (1983), Mrs. Cimino marked the third time Horner explored the theme of psychological discomfort. With medicine-related problems and the emotional turmoil of the idle bourgeoisie, this humanistic opus focuses on Mrs. Cimino’s dementia compounded by the traumatic death of her husband. Her family ends up putting her into a nursing home for treatment.
Right from the get-go, James Horner takes the perspective of the protagonist. The most surprising color here is the jazz melody for saxophone and clarinet, which seems to be an original "big band" style melody to which James Horner adds impressionistic orchestral material. The musical line symbolizes the spirit of Mrs. Cimino, who is a prisoner of the past and is represented by the music she once performed on the piano, accompanied by her husband’s saxophone.
Occasionally, snippets of underscore showcase the sweetness of the composer’s writing for a chamber orchestra, spotlighting clarinet, oboe and strings. There’s also a beautiful and short cue performed by atonal strings when Mrs. Cimino tries to leave the rest home.
A scene in the second part of the film allows Horner to bring in a beautiful saxophone solo with winds in counterpoint. It leads to the reveal of the famous piano, which jogs Mrs. Cimino’s memory. The scene ends with a simple piano cadence with winds as Mrs. Cimino turns to look at the piano she does not yet dare to play.
The saxophone also underpins a poignant cue when Mrs. Cimino leaves the rest home, returns to real life and fights to recover the goods a judge had taken away from her. The music soars when a sympathetic court is willing to take her request into consideration – harp and strings play a big part in this victory cue.
Two delicate cues accompany her “fling” with Barney, a childhood friend who used to play the clarinet in her husband’s orchestra. The film ends with a beautiful duet for clarinet and piano played by the protagonists. This unidentified standard was not composed by James Horner.
A Piano for Mrs. Cimino addresses the problems of old age and leans heavily on 40s big band jazz. It allowed James Horner to compose a score that subtly looks ahead to the 1985 masterpiece Cocoon.
Horner’s fourth and final collaboration with director Dick Lowry, Rascal & Robbers aired on 27 February 1982 and focused on the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on the Mississippi River in Missouri.
Speaking to the joy of childhood, Horner contributed bright and cheerful music that conveys a sense of wonder, spontaneity and high adventure, steeped as it is in rural Americana thanks to the guitar and the harmonica, which interestingly is used in a low register throughout the score, like 48 HRS.
This score also marked the start of James Horner’s collaboration with the legendary Thomas J. Tedesco, listed in the Guitar Player magazine as the most recorded guitarist ever. This musician contributed a unique color to such scores as The Journey of Natty Gann (1985) and the as yet unreleased The Stone Boy (1984).
James Horner wrote for a small orchestra but made it sound like a much larger one. Rather unusually for the composer, the score draws from a tarantella rhythm and gleefully accompanies the imaginary adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. There's even some ironic court music with a Prokofiev twist in Huck Shows Off. Also of note is a pastiche of Arabic music with the use of high-register winds, not unlike the ritual dance in Wolfen (at the start of Shape Shifting), in King Gasparbeltazar.
Main Titles – Rascals and Robbers – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
Recorded on 7 and 8 January 1982, the score is often cut from the same cloth as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the space adventure that James Horner embarked upon right after Rascals and Robbers (Episode 6), and is also somewhat reminiscent of Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss, especially during the more adventurous cues, and the orchestral suspense writing in Scree Comes to Beeton's Landing. Material from In the Cave returns during the meeting with Khan on Ceti Alpha V and the fast-paced pursuit material in Reba's Escape is heard all the way through the second part of Nicholas Meyer’s movie.
Airing on September 11, 1983, Between Friends unites Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett. They play two women who have nothing in common but whose chance meeting is the start of a strong friendship, even though both are confronted with crises in their own lives.
James Horner’s score is all nostalgic and melancholy, centered around a simple piano motif that suggests a world of emotions. The score was performed by a small group of instrumentalists.
The theme is all over the main title cue and returns when the two women become friends over a few glasses of good wine during a late-night chat. The conversation is tinged with nostalgia and the realization that time has passed too quickly. The composer often leaves silences between the notes and allows the instruments to resonate, which goes a long way in bringing out the emotional content of the piece. This fairly lengthy scene sees the two women discussing all of the big issues of their respective lives. The piano and vibraphone give way to a small ensemble of harp, flute and strings. It marks the start of their friendship.
Later on, the women engage in a more serious conversation on the prickly issue of love. The accompanying music starts with a cello that leads to variations of the piano theme and a soft cue for flute and small orchestra, all scoring a key scene which cements the protagonists’ friendship.
Midway through the movie, a beautiful cue for strings accompanies a love scene, something of a rarity within the vast body of James Horner’s work.
Elizabeth Taylor’s decision to get married is accompanied by an elegy for strings and a reprise of the piano motif. Later on, the character falls prey to alcoholism and tries to commit suicide. The strings are tense before gradually shifting to the theme and some beautiful string writing that evokes one of the finest moments of Brainstorm (1983), composed around the same time.
Towards the end of the film, in a scene between one of the women and her daughter, Horner introduces an idea that will become the main theme of House of Cards (1992), ten years later.
For the short end credits cue, the composer develops the main theme into one of its most upbeat and satisfying statements.
James Horner wasted no time demonstrating his dramatic chops. The nature of television taught him to focus on the key moments and stick to them, resulting in short but very efficient scores. This relaxing work must have pleased the composer immensely after such monumental scores as Peter Yates’s Krull (1983), which were so demanding that they tested the young composer’s stamina to the point of physical exhaustion.
The scores for these six TV movies, composed between 1981 and 1983, were a refreshing change of pace after the many horror and monster movies that launched Horner’s career and basically earned him a living. Freed from the constraints of the horror genre, James Horner managed to develop his unique sense of drama in Angel Dusted (1981), A Piano For Mrs. Cimino (1982) and Between Friends (1983). His penchant for soft-spoken Americana became evident in A Few Days In Weasel Creek (1981), PK and the Kid (1982) and especially Rascals And Robbers: The Secret Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1983).
It is in these decidedly more human stories that James Horner’s characteristically sensitive writing was allowed to mature. They are arguably the foundation of his unique emotionalism, which reached new heights with Testament (1983) and dropped more than a few jaws with Cocoon (1985).
Article by David Hocquet et Jean-Baptiste Martin
Special Thanks to Petr Kocanda, Javier Burgos, John Andrews, Olivier Soudé and Kjell Neckebroeck