Sunday, June 28, 2015

James Horner Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look at the films of composer James Horner, who died last week in a plane crash. Horner had been scoring movies since the late 1970s and throughout his career he had worked with several notable directors on some of their best films including James Cameron, Edward Zwick, and Mel Gibson. Here are some highlights of Horner’s career.

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
James Horner got his start working on low budget science fiction films and monster movies. The crew of the Roger Corman production Battle Beyond the Stars also included James Cameron, credited as an art director. Horner and Cameron would later work together on several of Cameron’s biggest films.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
James Horner graduated from low budget sci-fi pictures to major Hollywood studio films with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Following 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Wrath of Khan was an attempt to reimagine the series with an action-oriented approach and Horner’s score was instrumental in that shift. Horner would return to the series for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Brainstorm (1983)
One of the lesser known titles of Horner’s filmography but one of his most popular works among score aficionados was 1983’s Brainstorm. Directed by renowned special effects technician Douglas Trumbull, Brainstorm was a science fiction film about scientists who develop a system of recording and playing back other people’s experiences.

An American Tail (1986)
In the 1980s Don Bluth directed several animated films. The output was mixed but several titles were quite successful. James Horner provided the music for a few of Bluth’s animated features including The Land Before Time and An American Tale. For An American Tail Horner partnered with songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and the soundtrack included the song “Somewhere Out There.” The single version of the song, performed by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, became a hit.

Aliens (1986)
James Cameron and James Horner worked together for the first time as director and composer on 1986’s Aliens. The production was very difficult and Horner found the experience frustrating as he had little time to write or footage to work with. As a result Cameron and Horner didn’t speak for many years. However, Horner’s score from Aliens was quite effective and it included the track “Bishop’s Countdown” which has been heard in countless movie trailers.

Willow (1988)
Another of James Horner’s frequent collaborators was Ron Howard. Their first film together was 1985’s Cocoon. Their next collaboration was 1988’s Willow. Based on a story by George Lucas, the film was a fun sword and sorcery fantasy and it featured one of Horner’s most popular scores.

The Rocketeer (1991)
Long before comic book heroes were in vogue, director Joe Johnston helmed 1991’s The Rocketeer, based on the graphic novel by Dave Stevens. Johnson had worked on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films and he gave The Rocketeer a similar look. The movie was not a great success at the time but it has since become a cult favorite. Fans of the film often speak favorably of James Horner’s score but unfortunately it’s not currently available.

Sneakers (1992)
A lot of James Horner’s music was big scale orchestral scores which befit the blockbuster science fiction and action pictures he frequently worked on. One exception in his filmography is 1992’s Sneakers. The film tells a complex story of espionage and cryptography and Horner’s score is very intricate and understated. The score also features saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Nicholas Britell wrote this tribute piece on the music of Sneakers.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Tom Clancy was one of the most popular novelists of the 1980s and 90s. His military thrillers frequently centered on CIA analyst Jack Ryan and several of Clancy’s books were adapted into successful films with Harrison Ford playing Jack Ryan in 1992’s Patriot Games and again in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. Horner provided the music for both of those entries in the series.

Legends of the Fall (1994)
One of James Horner’s regular collaborators was director Edward Zwick. Horner scored several of Zwick’s films including Glory, Legends of the Fall, and Courage Under Fire. Zwick’s movies were frequently about people in the midst of violent historical events and Horner’s scores amplified the heroism of the characters and provided a romantic tone for the historical background.

Braveheart (1995)
James Horner collaborated with Mel Gibson on several films including The Man Without a Face, Apocalypto, and Braveheart. The Braveheart score is arguably Horner’s most popular work and it is frequently used in movie trailers. The CD release achieved such impressive sales that a follow up album, More Music from Braveheart, was issued in 1997, shortly before the release of Titanic, which would also have a follow up CD release, Back to Titanic.  

Titanic (1997)
After several years apart, James Cameron and James Horner mended their relationship and collaborated again on 1997’s Titanic, for which they would both receive Oscars. You can hear a lot of echoes of Horner’s work from Patriot Games and Braveheart in this score. The music of Titanic became one of the bestselling soundtracks of all time, powered by the song “My Heart Will Go On,” which could be heard at virtually every wedding, high school dance, and karaoke bar for the next year.

The Missing (2003)
Ron Howard and James Horner worked together on a number of films including Apollo 13, Ransom, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Beautiful Mind. One of their most unusual collaborations was 2003’s The Missing. A mix of westerns, noir, and a touch of horror, the score mixes action cues with dark, brooding music and some Native American influences.

Avatar (2009)
James Horner re-teamed with James Cameron on Avatar. Like Cameron’s other work, Avatar was big and ambitious and it required more than a year of work from Horner. The alien Na’vi culture of the film had its own language which Horner incorporated into the music.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Christopher Lee Retrospective

Sunday’s episode of Sounds of Cinema spent some time taking a look at the filmography of Christopher Lee, who passed away last week at the age of 93. Lee’s career spanned more than six decades and included literally hundreds of credits. Here are a few highlights.

Horror of Dracula (1958)
Dir. Terence Fisher

Christopher Lee terrified the baby boomer generation in the role of Count Dracula, starting with 1958’s Horror of Dracula. He would play the role nine times and Lee is widely considered to be among the definitive screen Draculas. However, Lee grew weary of the part and was dissatisfied with some of the later films.

The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Dir. Terence Fisher

Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out features Christopher Lee in the role of a good guy attempting to protect a young man from being drafted into the service of Satan. The Devil Rides Out was among the better films to come out of the Hammer studio.

The Wicker Man (1973)
Dir. Robin Hardy

Among the films Christopher Lee was most proud of was 1973’s The Wicker Man in which he played Lord Summerisle. The film is an unusual but highly regarded British horror film. In 1973 The Wicker Man was edited and abused by its distributor with the original elements inadvertently destroyed. A longer version of the film was discovered recently and released under the title The Wicker Man: The Final Cut.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Dir. Guy Hamilton

Post-Hammer, Christopher Lee continued to be cast in villainous roles and in 1974 he played Bond villain Scarmanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Lee was related to Bond creator Ian Fleming and during World War II Lee worked as an intelligence officer and was assigned to track down Nazi war criminals.

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985)
Dir. Philippe Mora

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Christopher Lee’s career took a downturn and he worked in some forgettable movies. Among the strangest was the part of a werewolf hunter in 1985’s Howling II, a sequel to Joe Dante’s groundbreaking horror picture. The sequel is so bad that it’s highly entertaining and can regularly be seen on late night cable. Years later, Christopher Lee had a supporting role in Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2 and he supposedly apologized to the director for being in the Howling sequel.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Dir. Joe Dante

Among Christopher Lee’s underappreciated qualities was his sense of humor. In 1978 he hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live and in 1990 he played a mad scientist in Gremlins 2. The sequel was a comic send up of the first movie and Lee did the same for his public image as a villain.

Jinnah (1998)
Dir. Jamil Dehlavi

One of Christopher Lee’s least known works also contains his favorite role. In Jinnah, Lee played Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Unlike many of Lee’s other roles, this character was both a lead and a hero and Lee was able to redirect the authority and charisma he had so often used in villainous roles to portray a dignified political leader dealing with a complex situation.

The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)
Dir. Peter Jackson

In the late period of his life, Christopher Lee enjoyed a career renaissance due to his casting as Saruman in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Count Dooku in the second and third Star Wars prequels. Lee also formed a relationship with director Tim Burton and had roles in Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride and Alice in Wonderland. Of these, his performance in Jackson’s Middle Earth films stand out—in part because they are easily the better titles—but also for the gravitas he brought to the part and to the movies.

Actors are lucky if they get one role for which they will be remembered. In very rare cases, actors sometimes get two such roles like Harrison Ford playing both Indiana Jones and Han Solo or Clint Eastwood as both The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry. Christopher Lee had Dracula, Saruman, Lord Summerisle, Scarmanga, and Count Dooku. Although many of his films were disregarded at the time, Lee’s body of work is nevertheless impressive and he created memorable characters that captured the imaginations of at least three generations of moviegoers.