Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The late James Horner was the master of suspenseful '90s hacking scene music during Sneakers and Clear and Present Danger

James Horner's arpeggios are swirling in the heavens tonight.

"There were so many Horners," said Matt Zoller Seitz to fellow journalist S.I. Rosenbaum during a conversation about the work of legendary film composer James Horner, who died at 61 in a single-engine plane crash earlier this week. "There was the shoot 'em up, macho, urban Horner of 48 HRS and Commando and Red Heat, the grand adventure Horner of the Trek films and Aliens and Titanic and Avatar, the caper Horner of Sneakers... He really did have range."

Anyone who's a film music fan has a favorite Horner. Film music heads who are into Horner deep cuts--and are of the opinion that Horner tended to repeat himself, especially in the middle part of his career--will likely say the Horner of Battle Beyond the Stars is their favorite, while more casual film music heads will likely pick the Horner who made teenage girls cry with his score to Titanic. For me, it's either the Horner who made nerds cry with his scores to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock or the Horner who gave the third best performance, right below Denzel Washington and Andre Braugher, in Glory and crafted, with the help of the Boys Choir of Harlem, a powerful and operatic score for that 1989 white-savior-movie-that's-somehow-better-than-the-average-white-savior-movie.

The eerily prescient Sneakers is one of many movies I just never got around to seeing until more than 20 years after its release. On New Year's Eve 2014, it was one of several titles Netflix streaming was getting rid of from its library after that night, so I couldn't pass up the chance to stream before its expiration this caper movie I--a fan of caper movies--bizarrely overlooked for too long. I instantly fell in love with the score Horner wrote for Sneakers. It's now one of my favorite Horner scores. Like Gimme the Loot composer Nicholas Britell said about the Sneakers score, it's music you wouldn't expect to hear in a hacker movie. "It features unlikely elements--choirs, folk themes, minimalist piano, the saxophone of Branford Marsalis--that lend the film an unusual emotional richness and depth," wrote Britell.

Dig the score cue Horner created for the scene where Robert Redford's crew discovers the codebreaker to end all codebreakers, and Redford and Sidney Poitier both realize it's too much power for anyone to have. I'm not a musicologist--I'd be unable to tell you the difference between an arpeggio and an ostinato--so I have no idea what Horner was doing with the piano during this scene. It sounds like he grabbed a cat that was wandering around the recording studio and let it walk all over the keys. It turned out to be an inventive and effective way to build tension for that scene.

So now I have a new favorite Horner: the Horner who, through his music, could take something as mundane-looking and boring on the screen as typing things into a PC and make it exciting. Horner's work in Sneakers reminds me of Clear and Present Danger, where Horner also worked his magic on a similar moment of computer-related tension. The nerve-wracking Bogota ambush sequence is what everyone remembers about Clear and Present Danger, but an equally memorable sequence--and one that's handled with a bit more humor, especially when Harrison Ford discovers there's no paper in his printer--is Ford's attempt to salvage all evidence of the government conspiracy Henry Czerny helped orchestrate right when Czerny deletes it from what we now call "the cloud." It's the second best action sequence in the movie, even though nobody fires a gun or a missile and nobody dies. Horner had a lot to do with that.

There's an old featurette TCM used to frequently air between movies about how crucial Elmer Bernstein's score was in enhancing The Magnificent Seven. The featurette took a clip where Bernstein's rousing main theme accompanied shots of Yul Brynner and his crew riding on horseback rather lethargically and posited that without Bernstein's theme, the scene was dead. Without Horner's "Deleting the Evidence" cue, which is part of the playlist for the AFOS espionage genre music block "AFOS Incognito," the computer showdown sequence would have been dead too.

Throughout Clear and Present Danger, Horner made use of a shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, to heighten tension. It's kind of an unconventional choice, just like the clumsy kitty cat stepping on the piano keys during Sneakers, because it makes you think, "Did one of those Peruvian pan flute bands that invaded South Park also invade the orchestra?," but it works for the hacking sequence. Horner would get pilloried a lot by film music critics for recycling his own previous motifs when he was alive, but that's not the case here: his score to Clear and Present Danger, a blockbuster that came out two years after Sneakers, sounds much different from his score to Redford's movie, and it echoes the differences in tone between the serious-minded Clear and Present Danger and the much more light-hearted Sneakers.

Today, hacking scenes are such a cliché that I can't watch another hacking scene without thinking of Scandal star Guillermo Diaz making fun of the ways actors pretend to type on laptops by basically channeling the piano-playing sight gags in Tom and Jerry's "The Cat Concerto" and Bugs Bunny's "Rhapsody Rabbit" while he was typing--and doing so with such a straight face--during Jimmy Kimmel Live's transformation of Scandal into a telenovela. But back when these scenes hadn't yet crossed the line into unintentional silliness and very '90s Fisher Stevens entrances, Horner was the master of scoring these scenes, and his skills with those scenes were honed while working on the franchise that made his career: Star Trek. Again, it all goes back to Star Trek. Hell, everything goes back to Star Trek. What David Strathairn and Harrison Ford are doing at their terminals is basically what Kirk and Spock did to trick Khan into lowering his starship's shields in Star Trek II and what Kirk and Scotty similarly pulled off to steal back the Enterprise from Starfleet in Star Trek III. Horner's brilliance with musical texture and enlivening action that has the potential to look as dull as office work was also key to why those moments of starship bridge console trickery are such highlights of those Trek films.

I haven't been interested in a Horner score in ages, but now that his score to the upcoming Chilean miner survival drama The 33 has ended up being one of the last things he composed before his death, I'm curious about his work in The 33 (and in this summer's Antoine Fuqua-directed boxing drama Southpaw). I wouldn't be surprised if Horner was able to take another potentially static-looking scenario like a bunch of miners trapped for more than two weeks under a collapsed mine and help make that compelling as well. Which Horner are we getting for his last couple of scores?

Selections from Horner's scores to Star Trek II and The Rocketeer can be heard during both "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS, while selections from his score to Clear and Present Danger (and hopefully someday, selections from his score to Sneakers) can be heard during "AFOS Incognito."

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