On Monday, June 22, film composer James Horner died in a plane crash around Los Padres National Forest in California. He was an advocate for aviation and was one of many who owned personal planes. In a way, it was like the music that he composed for various epics with their soaring, enchanting beauty that took us someplace unexpected. His prolific output made him a household name and his collaborations with director James Cameron meant that he scored the two highest grossing films in history: Titanic and Avatar. What the legendary composer leaves behind is an impressive body of work that redefined how music was used in film and how it could impact our emotional responses.
Horner was born on August 14, 1953 in Los Angeles, CA. His father was a set designer and occasional art director. His brother Christopher is writer and documentarian. At the age of 5, he began to play piano while living in London. Among his impressive schooling, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in music from UCLA. He would also do composition work for the American Film Institute in the 70's before teaching his own class at UCLA on music theory.
He started his professional career as a composer with Roger Corman on The Magnificent Seven-inspired sci-fi film Battle Beyond the Stars. His big break wasn't too far off, as he was assigned to compose the Star Trek sequel The Wrath of Khan in 1982. What was the reasoning? Director Nicholas Meyer couldn't afford original composer Jerry Goldsmith to return. In a strange twist of fate, Meyer would return for the sixth sequel The Undiscovered Country in 1991 and couldn't use Horner, who also worked on The Search for Spock, because he was too expensive.
This is likely because over the course of a decade, Horner's work became prolific. He worked on films ranging from 48 Hrs. and Commando to Field of Dreams and The Land Before Time. It was also in this time that he became an Oscar-nominated composer who was so prolific, he would face off against himself during various years. His first nomination was for the James Cameron film Aliens in 1986. Proving his versatility, he also received a nomination the same year for Best Original Song for Fivel Goes West song "Somewhere Out There."
Aliens formed an odd partnership between Horner and Cameron. As the director became more famous, he moved away from orchestral scores for his films The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. He was more interested in synthesizers. However, when Cameron sought to make Titanic, he returned to his old partner to help create a grand, sweeping score. There were also personal notes that Horner was not to make a song. According to Horner, he tried not to but found that writing a composition for the closing credits was difficult and needed something to hook audiences. He eventually gave in and composed "My Heart Will Go On." It took awhile for Cameron to agree to it, but the Celine Dion song eventually made the cut.
With that, Horner did what he did best. He won his only two Oscars almost back-to-back. With Titanic being a billion dollar juggernaut, it was impossible to escape Horner's work. Not only that, but the Titanic soundtrack became the biggest selling orchestral soundtrack in history. His two awards were presented by Antonio Banderas (Best Original Score) and Madonna (Best Original Song). When announcing the latter, Madonna smirked, as if the winner was obvious. In both cases, Horner gave humble speeches, even insinuating Cameron's reluctance to use the song in the first place.
While Titanic was the only film that he ever won for, he would compose the soundtracks for three Best Picture winners: Braveheart (as well as competitor Apollo 13), Titanic, and A Beautiful Mind. The latter was a whimsical mirage of sounds and harmonies that escaped the familiar orchestration that audiences were used to. It created a dreamlike scenario and one that elevated the material's already psychological text. Even then, he remained very busy with work, even making six scores in 1995 alone. Among his odder collaborations was for CBS Evening News. The music would be the show's theme from 2006-2011 and served to usher in Katie Couric. His final total is somewhere above 100.
His most recent Oscar nomination was for the final Cameron/Horner collaboration with Avatar. While the billion dollar success now meant that Horner had scored the two highest grossing movies in history, it served as a labor of love that made him prolific in a different way. The composer spent two years working on the score and no other project. He has called it the most difficult project of his life, claiming to work from 4 AM to 10 PM regularly during this time. The results are very integral to the film's exotic and sweeping sound and earned him a Best Original Score nomination.
While it wasn't his last, he ended his Oscar nominations on a high note. With an impressive 10 nominations and 2 wins, Horner's impact on film scores is definitely still felt. He went beyond orchestration and infused different styles to make us feel something more majestic, whether it be in space or in a baseball field. There's potential that he may get another nomination with his swan song work on Southpaw, which has already been predicted for some Oscar nominations. Even if that doesn't happen, Horner's legacy is cemented and his prolific work will live on forever in those who want to escape into fantasy through film.