This reviewer never assumed that he would one day refer to James Horner in past tense or that only a few of his scores remain to be heard. So hard to believe. He was a composer still in his prime and fate took him away way too early. As the tragic news spread across film music community early last week, countless accounts of fans spoke of love for the composer and his music. Ultimately, James managed to touch so many hearts with his music, even those seemingly critical of his work. By the end of the day, he helped to form musical tastes of several generations and will certainly stand tall among such giants as John Williams, John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith.
Southpaw might seem like an unlikely subject matter for the composer. A boxing drama seems hardly suited to his own delicate demeanour and general dramatic tendencies. But then, it also offers quite a rich concept that can be addressed poignantly through music. It is after all a redemption story of a troubled boxer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who tries to reclaim his daughter and career after his wife’s tragic death and subsequent meltdown. Seems like a perfect opportunity for James Horner to apply his impeccable dramatic instincts and create a solid musical arc for such painful story.
Quite unlike most of this composer’s works, this one is not based around long-lined themes. Yes, there are simple, usually piano-led, motifs here and there. But Southpaw is more notable for its textures and overall sound palette, rather than melodic elements. Deep electronic droning opens the album (‘The Preparations’) as distant piano can heard in the background. That idea recurs occasionally in different points in this story (‘Training’) and might just be the loneliest idea James Horner has ever written. It sets the tone for a very small and personal score in his long and rich career.
One of the most distinctive elements of Southpaw are gentle synth textures that are explored in great detail (‘A More Normal Life’, ‘The Funeral, Alone…’). They certainly bring a surprisingly nostalgic 1980’s sound, not quite unlike Mike Oldfield’s music. Horner masterfully applies those while never forgetting to filter his ideas through more contemporary sensibilities of other film composers such as Thomas Newman and Mark Isham. Or even Alexandre Desplat, at his most introspective.
In ‘Suicidal Rampage’, even harsher tones take over. The dense electronic textures are further enhanced by string glissandi provide one of the darker moments in this already low-key story. Some of those colours recall the equally oppressive, eerie and ascetic techniques that Dave Porter explored in his scores to Breaking Bad television series, The mallet percussion instruments, often coupled with harp and electric guiar, create a truly hypnotic soundscape. Horner’s trademark ticking percussion effect, known from such scores like Apollo 13, seems to be marking precious time running out.
The second half of the album offers somewhat of a dramatic turn. ‘Dream Crusher’ allows for a more redemptive writing for string section, even if only for a brief moment. For the most parts, the composer uses them very economically throughout Southpaw, usually extending the sense of isolation with sustained harmonies. ‘A Long Road Back’ brings in a more clear melody, slightly reminiscent of James’ own love theme from The Amazing Spider-Man. While warmer in tone, it is still stained with pain and regret.
‘Hope vs Escobar’ is one of the most unusual pieces of this album. It’s probably more modern than anything else Horner ever tried in film music. The aggressive drum loops drive the final fight, often bringing to mind the thriller action scores of John Powell and James Newton Howard. The strings offer a dramatic counterpoint to this bloody spectacle. Towards the end of this 8-minute track, we finally achieve something of a katharsis where the acoustic elements come to the fore. However, the coda itself is, once again, quite subdued and small (‘A Quiet Moment…’).
It’s so strange that the score album with “in memory of James Horner” memento on its front cover should sound almost nothing like the majority of his work. Or, in fact, any of it. This music is full of repressed emotion and regret, almost entirely devoid of any romanticism or melodrama this composer was mostly known for. While it’s a definite proof that his superb dramatic instincts were as sharp as ever, it is often a harsh, dark and difficult listen. One cannot promise an average film music fan will enjoy a lot of it apart from film but it is nevertheless an interesting study on this 52-minute album from Sony Classical. James Horner still had something worthwhile to say in the field of film music and was willing to experiment with various textures. And we shall miss his voice immensely.
Southpaw will be out from Sony Classical on the 24th of July, 2015