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A BEAUTIFUL MIND – James Horner

December 21, 2001 Leave a comment Go to comments

abeautifulmindOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard, has become one of the most critically successful movies of 2001. Telling the true-life story of Nobel Prize winning genius John Forbes Nash Jr. and his battle with schizophrenia, A Beautiful Mind has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards in 2002 and looks set to go-head with The Lord of the Rings for top honors on Oscar night. Russell Crowe stars as Nash, a brilliant mathematician and innovative thinker, whose groundbreaking work at Princeton and MIT in the 1940s and 1950s made him the cause celebre of the academic world. Before long, Nash is approached by the military to work on a top secret code-breaking operation run by the mysterious and sinister William Parcher (Ed Harris), and his success in the field indirectly leads to him meeting and marrying the love of his life, the beautiful and equally talented Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). However, as time passes, Nash’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, it becomes apparent that Nash is suffering from increased paranoia and a persecution complex than can mean only one thing – that his beautiful mind is being attacked by schizophrenia.

James Horner, working with Ron Howard for the fifth time (his previous collaborations include Cocoon, Willow and Apollo 13), has received his first Oscar nomination since Titanic for this score, and it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see him get swept along on a Beautiful Mind tide and win the award. Many critics are up in arms about it, though, because yet again Horner’s been doing the copying thing again. I had a great deal of trouble trying to think of an original way to start this review because, despite my own better judgment, the first thing I thought upon hearing the first cue was: “Oh, God, he’s stealing from himself again”.

The opening track, ‘A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics’ is an extended restatement of the undulating motif that first appeared in Sneakers and which has since cropped up in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Apollo 13 and Bicentennial Man. However, if you can get the fact that you’ve heard it before out of your head, it turns out that this accelerando is actually becoming Horner’s technique for musically defining genius and technology. From the hi-tech thieves in Sneakers to the chess prodigy in Bobby Fischer and the Apollo 13 space race, Horner continually uses this dynamic theme as an illustration of the turbulent nature of science and discovery: and it works. Orchestrated for full orchestra, five pianos and wordless vocals, the motif appears whenever Nash does anything brilliant (as illustrated in ‘Creating Governing Dynamics’ and the superbly lyrical ‘Cracking the Russian Codes’), and it often heard in subtle counterpoint under other cues, reminding the listener that despite what might be happening to Nash at the time, he still has this tremendous potential for supreme intelligence locked away inside him.

The wordless vocals which appear throughout the score are provided by the teenage Welsh singing sensation Charlotte Church, whose appearance on the A Beautiful Mind soundtrack adds a great deal of depth and emotional resonance. Horner has been quoted as saying that he wanted Church because “her voice is neither child nor adult, not a child soprano, but not an opera diva”.

The score’s love theme, which illustrates the developing relationship between John and Alicia, sees Horner at his most tender. As usual, the music here is fully orchestral and led by strings and, half way through ‘First Drop-Off, First Kiss’, swells into its first, fully-fledged performance. Further performances towards the end of the album, notably in ‘Of One Heart, Of One Mind’, the simply gorgeous ‘Saying Goodbye to Those You So Love’, and the cathartic ‘The Prize of One’s Life… The Prize of One’s Mind’ hammer home the fact that any obstacle can be overcome through the love of a good woman, and further confirm Horner’s reputation as Hollywood’s foremost emotionalist. This theme also forms the core of the latest James Horner/Will Jennings ballad, ‘All Love Can Be’, which as usual is musically marvelous, is beautifully sung, but features some of the most banal lyrics imaginable. Quite why Horner continually asks Jennings to write for him when there are so many more talented lyricists is quite beyond me. Maybe Will once saved James’s dog from drowning, and this is his way of saying thanks.

In addition to the “Genius” theme and the love theme for John and Alicia, there is a wonderfully dark, brooding piece in ‘Nash Descends into Parcher’s World’ which perfectly captures the subversive nature of the shadow government agent through a series of low cello chords, piano clusters and the almost subliminal use of drums and gongs in the percussion section. It is restated in ‘The Car Chase’, possibly the most leisurely action cue ever written, with great power ‘Real or Imagined’, and is complemented by the melodramatic in ‘Alicia Discovers Nash’s Dark World’, an 8-minute opus which combines the orchestra and five pianos with a startling set of snares to increase the tension, and then heads off down the icily detached Aliens route with a restatement of Horner’s familiar homage to Aram Khachaturian.

At its best, A Beautiful Mind is a superbly effective dramatic score with more than its fair share of poignancy and several moments of great musical magnitude. At its worst, it sees Horner being his usual lazy self, recycling an existing theme into a new score and moulding it to fit his new circumstances despite the preconceptions followers of his work would bring to the score. I personally have come to the conclusion that its better to accept the former opinion, lest I be driven insane by Horner’s highly idiosyncratic, yet highly successful, musical style. As an album, as a listening experience, and a dramatic work to accompany the film, A Beautiful Mind is quite excellent.

As a side note, the enhanced features on Decca’s CD are interesting but a little irritating: they feature interview extracts with both Horner and Howard, as well as a short video clip of Horner talking about his colorful compositional style (and sporting a beer belly and a wispy beard!). However, if you happen to be listening to the CD and browsing the web at the time, it launches a promotional website for you, whether you want it to or not! Highly annoying…

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics (4:55)
  • Playing a Game of “Go!” (3:34)
  • Looking for the Next Great Idea (3:02)
  • Creating Governing Dynamics (2:33)
  • Cracking the Russian Codes (3:22)
  • Nash Descends into Parcher’s World (4:39)
  • First Drop-Off, First Kiss (5:15)
  • The Car Chase (2:24)
  • Alicia Discovers Nash’s Dark World (8:29)
  • Real or Imagined? (5:47)
  • Of One Heart, Of One Mind (6:21)
  • Saying Goodbye to Those You So Love (6:43)
  • Teaching Mathematics Again (3:16)
  • The Prize of One’s Life… The Prize of One’s Mind (3:02)
  • All Love Can Be (written by James Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Charlotte Church) (3:17)
  • Closing Credits (4:50)

Running Time: 71 minutes 29 seconds

Decca 440-016-191-2 (2001)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner and Randy Kerber. Special vocal performances by Charlotte Church. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Mastered by Chris Landen. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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