Little James Horner sat in a cornerHe can be rather defensive about this, to the point that for a time Film Score Monthly teased him with the "Ludicrous James Horner Quote of the Month." (One quote was "I didn't even know who Jerry Goldsmith was when I scored The Hand ," with a note that Horner had dated Goldsmith's daughter some years before scoring that film.) But generally, his music, often with musical ideas and signatures from earlier scores juggled around, works. And most directors aren't too concerned with their films' music being all that groundbreaking or original. Certain directors can get Horner to stretch -- I immediately think of Ron Howard and Phil Alden Robinson (1989's Field of Dreams and 1992's Sneakers, where his theme for Ben Kingsley's character may be the most sincere and heartfelt musical theme he's ever written) -- but a lot of us wished Horner would stretch more.
Just as his deadline drew nigh
He paused and said "Um,"
Then Prokofiev he hummed,
And said "What a composer am I!"
Horner and James Cameron have a long history. They both worked for almost no money for Roger Corman on Battle Beyond the Stars (Cameron was a designer, Horner the composer**). Later, when they both were established in Hollywood, Horner worked on Cameron's Aliens (1986), a bruising assignment. Horner had to write 100 minutes of music in less than two weeks without even being able to look at the whole film (Cameron and his editors were late delivering it). He scored many scenes blind, eventually having the enormous London Symphony Orchestra record musical effects -- low violin-and-bass rumbling for one session, snarling brass clusters for another -- to be edited into musical cues later. Far from an ideal working situation -- that the result was actually a decent score that got an Oscar nomination is a small miracle -- and it put Horner off working with Cameron for years. They patched things up as Cameron prepared for Titanic, and Horner got an extended schedule. And the one-two punch of Horner's two huge soundtrack hits, the CDs to Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995) and Cameron's Titanic (1997) -- he earned a bit of money from every Titanic CD sold -- meant he no longer had to do so many scores, so he calmed down and slowed down. I'm glad he went to the slower pace; it's probably easier on him. He seems to make more interesting choices now, alternating between big-budget work like Flightplan and Apocalypto and smaller independent films like The Chumscrubber. And he seems to be calmer, too.
With Avatar, Horner remains Horner, but with some of the worst habits toned down. And he does stretch to at times make his score sound more like something John Williams would've created, at least John Williams in Star Wars prequel mode. (Michael Giacchino had similar moments in his Star Trek score, by the way; I'm thinking the fight on top of the drilling platform.) Horner does still repeat himself: I heard long quotes and bare rewrites of phrases from Glory (1989) and that admittedly neat brass snarl he used a lot in his Willow (1988) score; and sometimes he's close-to-quoting his career-changing Titanic music. But Horner's music has room to breathe, stemming from the year-and-a-half he took to compose it, and it gets to be prominent. I wish he'd been subtler from the end credits, though (no end-credits song! Please! I left early because of it!), but his score works.
Still, ultimately, Avatar is a reminder that as talented as he is, James Horner is never going to be at that John Williams level of creativity and musical rigor; both Avatar and the original Star Wars have pretty emotionally direct scores, so as not to confuse the audience that is getting swamped with alien environments and creatures, but there's intricacy to Williams's work, and a true personal style that Williams earned, that Horner's work just can't match.
But at a certain level, Horner's work remains comforting to me -- again, hearing so much of it early in my film-appreciating life, pondering his work, and being able to write about it. Not my favorite composer, and Avatar is not my favorite score by him, but I'd rather have Horner around, issues and all, than not.
* FSM's soundtrack CD division has since released the definitive version of Horner's Wrath of Khan, so the magazine didn't nuke its relationship with Horner with that Nineties coverage...
** A good example of Horner's M.O., especially back then: there are several nods to Sergei Prokofiev in the Battle Beyond the Stars score, and later some of those same licks appeared in The Wrath of Khan. Exciting, muscular, fun work, but at times a little too close to earlier work.