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BICENTENNIAL MAN – James Horner

December 17, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

bicentennialmanOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the past, under pain of death and despite the protestations of many film music aficionados, I have always fervently defended the musical style of James Horner. “A modicum of self-referencing is unavoidable as a composer develops a musical style,” I would say. “He doesn’t do it any more or any less than the other composers.” “It’s the effect on the audience that counts. The genuine emotion in Horner’s music is what’s important.” And, for the majority of his considerable output, I still believe this to be true. However, the amount of self-referencing that goes on in Bicentennial Man is simply beyond a joke.

Bicentennial Man is a film adapted from the celebrated story “The Positronic Man” by famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, and is directed by Chris Columbus. Set in the future, it stars Sam Neill and Embeth Davidtz as a husband and wife who purchase the ultimate labor saving device – a mechanical man named Andrew who obeys every command given to him by his owners. However, as time passes, Andrew (Robin Williams, unrecognizable in heavy robotic make-up) begins to develop traits which do not conform to his programming – emotions. As Andrew grows more and more fascinated with what it means to be a human being, he embarks upon a two hundred year quest to become one himself. Throughout Bicentennial Man there are shades of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Mr. Data from Star Trek, The Day The Earth Stood Still and many other classic stories about the nature of humanity, a subject matter which obviously calls for a musical accompaniment of sensitivity and great beauty.

James Horner, who has taken a short sabbatical from the world of film music, was called upon by the people at Touchstone Pictures to write a replacement score for the film after John Williams abruptly dropped out with a clash of schedules. This was a good move by the executives because, if nothing else, Horner is always dependable, and can be trusted to push all the right buttons and elicit all the right emotions from an audience. His work here is of the lush-but-low-key variety, and is typified by the longing main theme, heard for the first time on a lively oboe during ‘A Gift for Little Miss’. Thereafter, the theme is performed mainly by a wash of strings, and receives superb recapitulations in many cues, notably ‘The Wedding’ and the conclusive ‘The Gift of Mortality’.

Theme writing is Horner’s one true gift. His ability, film after film, to be able to knock out some of the most attractive and affecting melodies in the cinema is truly staggering, and although the theme from Bicentennial Man never comes close to emulating the likes of Cocoon or Legends of the Fall, it still outclasses the work of the vast majority of other composers in terms of orchestral beauty. Other cues of note include the powerfully amusing opening ‘The Machine Age’, in which he mixes a staccato piano rhythm with various bits of ticking brass and percussion. In addition, Horner makes great use of some lovely dreamy textures for harp, woodwind and chorus in ‘Special Delivery’ and ‘Magic Spirit’, engages in a bit of sneaky comedy scoring at the beginning of ‘A Gift for Little Miss’ and during ‘A New Nervous System’, and builds up to spellbinding emotional crescendos in several cues, notably ‘The Wedding’, ‘The Passage of Time, A Changing of Seasons’ and the slightly more downbeat ‘Petition Denied’.

The final track is a new song based on the main theme entitled ‘When You Look At Me’, which is once again performed by Celine Dion. In many ways, this is one of the better Horner songs, with an attractive melody and surprisingly intelligent lyrics by the usually bland Will Jennings. Although it is by no means popular to admit this, I like Dion’s voice immensely, and the power of her performance is show stopping, but I very much doubt whether this – or indeed any song – will reach the same heights as did “My Heart Will Go On”.

However, more than any other Horner score in recent memory, Bicentennial Man has really fanned the flames of the old “self copying” issue, almost to the point where it has become an inferno – and rightly so. Within the first few tracks I had already spotted blatant, totally undisguised musical motifs from at least six earlier scores. The score’s main sub-theme (heard for the first time in ‘The Wedding’) is quite obviously modeled the Princess’s Theme from Braveheart, with a couple of notes altered somewhere in the middle. Then there’s the main title theme from The Spitfire Grill, the piano accelerando from Searching for Bobby Fischer, a generous section of “Dreams to Dream” from American Tail: Fievel Goes West, both the short piano rhapsody and the end credits theme from Deep Impact, the rumbling bass from the end of Titanic… all reused and restated seemingly without a care in the world.

Now, I’m not going to get into a big argument about the pros and cons of self-plagiarism in this review, but I will say this, and make of it what you will: the familiarity of Bicentennial Man caused me to enjoy it far less than I anticipated. I admit I did have high expectations of this score, and I thought that following his Oscar winning efforts on Titanic and the success of The Mask of Zorro last year, Horner might have changed his ways. More fool me. To put things in perspective, let me also say that Bicentennial Man is by no means a bad score, in that it achieves its aims in terms of the film itself, and casts a beautifully romantic spell. The orchestrations, as usual, are superb, and as I mentioned the new main theme is quite lovely. It’s just that, for the entire hour, there is a continual feeling of deja vu.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • The Machine Age (3:32)
  • Special Delivery (2:59)
  • The Magic Spirit (3:01)
  • A Gift for Little Miss (5:28)
  • Mechanical Love (2:02)
  • Wearing Clothes for the First Time (2:10)
  • The Wedding (6:49)
  • The Passage of Time, a Changing of Seasons (8:32)
  • The Search for Another (3:15)
  • Transformed (2:25)
  • Emotions (3:56)
  • A New Nervous System (3:51)
  • A Truer Love (2:36)
  • Petition Denied (1:56)
  • Growing Old (3:12)
  • The Gift of Mortality (6:13)
  • Then You Look at Me (written by James Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Celine Dion) (4:22)

Running Time: 66 minutes 29 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89038 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford and James Horner. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson, Joe E. Rand and Barbara McDermott. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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