Home > Reviews > THE PERFECT STORM – James Horner


perfectstormOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

James Horner, of late, seems to have developed an affinity for disasters of one sort or another. Space disasters (Apollo 13), meteorite disasters (Deep Impact), disasters at sea (Titanic)… nowadays, it seems that if Horner is scoring the movie you can virtually guarantee that something awful is about to happen to a lot of people. The Perfect Storm, 2000’s big disaster movie, continues the trend, right down to the fact that it again concerns the sinking of a ship. But, whereas Titanic combined a terrible tragedy with wish-fulfilling romantic fantasy, The Perfect Storm is a serious, harrowing, and all-too true story. The film, which is directed by Wolfgang Petersen and stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, takes place in 1994 in the small port of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Hearing news that a potentially fruitful shoal of fish has been spotted off the New England coast, the crew of the trawler Andrea Gail head off into the North Atlantic to take advantage. But what none of the crew ever imagined was that, far out to sea, a freak of nature was generating a weather phenomenon that had never before been encountered in recorded history: a perfect storm, which would envelop everything in its path.

The main new idiom in The Perfect Storm is a superb electric guitar sound that kicks in half way through the first track, ‘Coming Home From the Sea’, and features every time Horner wants to characterize the working-class ruggedness of the trawlermen. Electric guitars are new additions to the Horner canon: he used a single electric guitar chord half way through Titanic, effectively marking the change from love story to full blown action movie with a single note, but has never employed them so frequently before. It’s almost as though Horner intentionally contrived the entire motif from that one musical instant, marking the passage of time with increased usage, but somehow leaving a subliminal echo of the past on the soul of the score. Combined with a series of powerful, forward-thrusting trumpet performances and superb accompaniment from the percussion section, the electric guitars effectively convey the notion that, unlike the well-bred passengers on board the Titanic, the men of the Andrea Gail were hard-working family men whose ordinary lives just happened to be touched by one extraordinarily tragic event.

Two recurring themes weave in and out of the entire score: the first (which opens the first cue) is a longing string theme that instantly captures everything inherent in the story: the nobility and bravery of the fishermen, the comparative peace and tranquility of life in Gloucester, but with subtle hints of the tragedy to come. The second is an undulating six-note motif that seems to represent the sea – deep, powerful and mysterious, especially when performed by the deeper parts of the brass section. There is a wonderful moment towards the end of the first cue when the two themes play in perfect counterpoint to each other, marking the long-standing but terribly fragile relationship between humanity and nature.

It is especially worth pointing out some of Horner and JAC Redford’s touches in the orchestration, especially during the opening four cues. Horner’s writing for oboes has always been good, but several times during the course of this score the instrument simply shines. There is some wonderful, oscillating interplay between strings and woodwinds five minutes into ‘Let’s Go Boys’ that sounds more like something Thomas Newman would write in his more experimental moments than anything previously heard by Horner. And then there are the little cymbal rings and chimes that Horner uses to usher in performances of his themes, lending the music a magical, nostalgic, slightly romantic aspect.

But just as all the camaraderie and romantic ocean-going starts getting familiar, ‘The Decision to Turn Around’ changes the mood. It begins with some typical rising and falling string motifs, cleverly illustrating the ocean’s swell, but all of a sudden goes all dissonant on us, initiating a sequence which hardly lets up for the rest of the album. And as good as the main theme is, this dissonance is where The Perfect Storm’s brilliance lies: Horner has not been this confrontational with his film music since the days of Aliens and Brainstorm. Several moments within ‘The Decision to Turn Around’, ‘Small Victories’ and ‘Coast Guard Rescue’ stand out greatly for their unapologetic harshness, making wonderful use of percussion, electronics, and some truly innovative orchestral effects.

However, one cue stands above all the rest as one of the most emotionally shattering pieces Horner has written in a long, long time. The opening segment of ‘Rogue Wave’ is a master class in how to generate feelings of awe and terror and in one fell swoop: from a relatively calm and sedate string passage, it gradually gathers momentum and, though the use of eddying violins, incessant rumbling percussion and a harrowing three-note brass motif, it eventually becomes a searing, hopeless, thoroughly frightening musical experience, with stark piano chords, tumbling strings and harp waves seemingly screaming out in horror before falling eerily silent.

The warmth of the main theme returns during the second half of the cue, offering a solemnly beautiful token of remembrance to those who perished, and receives a further recapitulation in the conclusive ‘There’s No Goodbye… Only Love’, this time featuring an attractive clarinet solo, superb guitar accompaniment both electric and acoustic, and a soft rock rhythm. The end credits song ‘Yours Forever’, performed by John “Cougar” Mellencamp, is nice enough, and would seem to be appropriate given Mellencamp’s predilection for “good causes”, but his earthy vocal style is slightly more abrasive than one is used to hearing on a Horner song. Still, at least Will Jennings didn’t write any more banal lyrics this time.

There are moments within The Perfect Storm which vaguely recall other works – in parts, it is indistinctly reminiscent of Searching for Bobby Fischer, Titanic, Mighty Joe Young, Deep Impact, Apollo 13, The Pagemaster, Cocoon, and even Willow. But unlike the unashamed blatancy of Bicentennial Man, the familiarities here are mere “Hornerisms”, compositional approaches and techniques which simply identify Horner’s individual style and color. If the bashers come down hard on this one, my faith in the film music world’s open-mindedness and ability to retain a degree of impartiality will be shattered forever.

Standing proudly alongside Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, The Spitfire Grill and The Mask of Zorro, this score is easily one of Horner’s greatest works of the last ten years – but not for its beauty, or passion, because all Horner scores have those. Rather, The Perfect Storm proves beyond doubt that James Horner is a superbly intellectual, extremely creative composer when he really, really puts his mind to it.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Coming Home from the Sea (9:27)
  • The Fog’s Just Lifting (4:12)
  • Let’s Go Boys (8:54)
  • To the Flemish Cap (7:18)
  • The Decision to Turn Around (9:21)
  • Small Victories (8:31)
  • Coast Guard Rescue (9:48)
  • Rogue Wave (10:04)
  • There’s No Goodbye… Only Love (7:33)
  • Yours Forever (written by James Horner, John Mellencamp and George Green, performed by John Mellencamp) (4:02)

Running Time: 79 minutes 03 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89282 (2000)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner, JAC Redford, Joseph Alfuso, Steven R. Bernstein, Carl Johnson and J. Eric Schmidt. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson and Joe E. Rand. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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