Many thanks to Joe Kara and Rocco Carrozza, for giving us the opportunity to write this article.
“The first thing that I try and find is the emotional content of the film and the tone of the film, and what instruments, what sounds, are going to paint for me the emotions that I feel.”
James Horner
Upon his first viewing of Patricia Ruggen’s film, The 33, James Horner was awash in many different emotions. We’re informed by the director’s revelation shortly after the composer’s disappearance that he had been very moved by the film’s story:
“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.”
It would logically follow, then, that the score exposes listeners to a variety of instrumental colors that depict a variety of emotions. Our first listens made obvious several easily identifiable main ideas present in the score.
The first dominant idea running through the score is the presentation of South American folk colors that revolve around two themes, with solos by guitarist George Doering and especially the flutes of Tony Hinnigan playing an essential role:
The introductory track “The Atacama Desert”, which presents the main theme, begins very tensely, with chuffing panpipe rhythms before giving way to a folk-like melody on guitars, suggesting a more familial and warm atmosphere. The tension of the panpipes return, marking a nice contrast and setup of the humanity of the miners and the stoically indifferent environment in which they make their livelihood.
There’s a regular appearance of a simple two-hit, dull drum pattern that James Horner had already used in films taking place in South America (Where the River Runs Black, House of Cards.)
A second folk theme dominates the three tracks “Drilling, The Sweetest Sound!”, “Camp Hope” and most significantly in “We Are All Well in the Refuge, The 33”. It’s a playful melody that gives a sense of hope and positivity for the trapped miners and their families. Aside from the two Zorro scores and For Greater Glory, such an immersion in the Latin American color palette had not been heard since 1988’s Vibes (e.g., “Andes Arrival”)
“We Are All Well in the Refuge, The 33” begins with a soft, distant rendition of this folk melody, assisted with strings before increasing the tempo to return the melody to its more celebratory feel. This theme is expanded in a secondary melody with handclaps, various shakers and rattles, and a lone guitar develops into two playing off of each other. Quite lovely.
This secondary melody explodes in the beautiful “Celebrations” when tension and despair has finally concluded. Warmth and love are embodied in a lovely melodic performance of this secondary folk melody on strings and woodwind. Percussion joins in along with guitar and finally a chanting chorus, as the Celebrations begin in full. It's a wonderful and loving moment of music, full of a gentle sense of joy and hopefulness.
Another central idea in the album is the successful marriage between acoustic and synthetic instruments, exemplified first in a contemplative tone, and secondarily by a musical brightness.
In “Empanadas for Darío” the George Doering guitar smoothly plays the melody presented in “The Atacama Desert” and features a nice interplay with a layer of synthesizers. This musical idea is reflected in the conclusion of the album with “Family is all we have”, clearly a moment of reflection and humility, an artifact of having survived in the most inhuman of environments while never losing that humanity and strength. Guitar returns to offer a contemplative and quiet sense of peace.
As necessitated by the struggles present in the story, some darker tracks describe the isolation and despair, always with this marriage between the synthetic and the acoustic:
“Buried Alive” suggests a struggle to breathe via labored panpipe and woodwind effects. Even at a slower tempo, sense of tension remains strong. About two minutes into the track in, the music rather viscerally relates the realization of the enormity and direness of the situation. “The Drill Misses (and dreams fade…)” suggests over its five minutes that hope is lost. Harp, soft strings and a resigned sense of despair hang heavily on the atmosphere. Guitar and woodwind seem to fight that sense of hopelessness and bring some respite, but it is a tough battle given the circumstances.
Lastly, there is a smattering of deviations from these two principle ideas, offered in other pieces that set themselves apart by their uniqueness from the rest of the score:
“To the Heart of the Mountain” showcases a great string ostinato, supported by anvil and some tense and slightly unnerving guitar string effects, as though the frets and strings were being scratched with a violin bow. There's a strong ominous feel to this music, a kind of peering into the unknown.
“The Collapse” is pure tension, with racing strings, supported with elaborate, rhythmic percussion and panpipes. It's a very modern piece, building anxiety but never losing its sense of warmth among the urgency. It all comes to a crashing, pounding halt as the mine caves in.
“Aiming to Miss” is the only notable appearance of piano in the score, and is quite a mystical and somewhat unusual sound combined with harp and high synthesized strings, unlike anything heard in the score. The familiar sound of the guitar returns for some mild comfort.
“Fenix” is quietly dramatic, with low rhythmic strings and harp playing with the soundscape and presenting an almost alternate take on the folk melody, evoking its feel but not emulating its structure. Rising strings and woodwind bring a sudden sense of hope back to the proceedings.
“First Ascent” begins with a restrained sense of hope, suggesting that expectations must be tempered to avoid further despair. The strings quietly rise and give way to a solo woodwind performance of the folk melody before the strings return in quiet intensity, leading to a very mystical, almost magical moment of tinkling elements and harp. Urgency takes over as the moment all have been waiting for has finally arrived. The tension builds to a climax before resolving through the deeply moving track, “Celebrations”.
The album concludes with a flourish arrangement of the two folk main melodies:
“The 33” is tempered with woodwind, guitar, and percussion with soft string support underneath.
“Hope is Love” is wonderful musical poem. We can’t help but feel that James Horner was saying goodbye, farewell through his music. May he forever rest in peace, while his presence endures—always missed, always celebrated—in our hearts, our memories, our ears.
Photo credit: © Alcon Entertainment – Warner Brothers
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