Home > Reviews > WOLF TOTEM – James Horner

WOLF TOTEM – James Horner

wolftotemOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been a long 2½ years, since the summer of 2012 and The Amazing Spider-Man, to wait for a new James Horner score. In the intervening period he has had at least one score rejected (Romeo & Juliet, eventually scored by Abel Korzeniowski), and left at least one other project under unclear circumstances (Ender’s Game, eventually scored by Steve Jablonsky), all the while making dark mutterings about how unhappy and disillusioned he is about the state of the Hollywood film music scene overall. The fact that all this was coming from a man who, for almost 30 years, had been at the forefront of the entire genre, one of the leading public faces of the industry, with literally dozens of scores for mainstream blockbusters under his belt, was troubling; was Horner’s career about to follow that of composers like Bruce Broughton, Trevor Jones, and the late Basil Poledouris, whose bold, emotional, symphonic writing had become passé for Hollywood’s young directors? Thankfully, the answer to this question, at least for now, appears to be a resounding no: he’s back with a full slate of five films scheduled for 2015 and 2016, the first of which – this one – ranks among his very best.

Wolf Totem (or, to give it its original French title, Le Dernier Loup) is the latest film from director Jean-Jacques Annaud, with whom Horner has worked on four previous occasions, going all the way back to The Name of the Rose in 1986. Adapted from the critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel by Chinese writer Jiang Rong, the film tells the story of a student named Chen who, in 1967, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, is sent to live among the nomadic shepherds of Inner Mongolia, as part of a program developed by Mao Zedong to remove potential dissidents from their circle of influence. While in Mongolia, Chen observes and becomes fascinated with the unusual symbiotic relationship that exists between the shepherds and the packs of wolves that prey on the sheep, and draws parallels between his new life there and the political climate in China at that time.

Wolf Totem is a film that revels in the spectacular visual grandeur of the Mongolian landscape, and as one would expect James Horner’s stunning score does much to enhance that natural beauty. This is a quintessential, old-fashioned James Horner score in every sense of the word, filled with the compositional technique and emotional sweep that typified so many of his classic works, and caused so many of us to fall in love with his music in the first place. Recorded in London with a full orchestra, Horner augments his symphony with a number of specialized instruments from the region – shakuhachi flutes, an erhu cello, amongst others – as well as several ethnic vocalists, each attempting to capture the sense of scope and majesty of Annaud’s vision.

The score is built around a sensational new main theme, first heard in the opening cue “Leaving for the Country,” and which anchors the rest of the work thereafter. Throughout the score, as the theme appears in its various guises, the sophistication of Horner’s orchestrations really shines. In the first cue alone, the melody is passed from warm horns to a pipa Chinese lute, to tender woodwinds, changing the emotional impact of the melody as it develops. Later performances of the theme add different depths and dimensions. There is tenderness, and perhaps a little romance in “A Red Ribbon,” which also introduces a Braveheart-esque secondary theme; a sense of spaciousness and grandeur in “Little Wolf”; a sense of heightened emotion in “Suicide Pact”; and warmth and steadfastness at the end of “Hunting the Wolves”.

These beautifully phrased colors have always been a hallmark of Horner’s writing, but in Wolf Totem they seem especially vibrant. Each swell of the theme seems to conjure up mental images of great grass-covered plains, fields of greens and golds stretching to an impossibly distant horizon. Similarly, the way Horner is able to seamlessly move between vastly different emotional intents, hitting key moments of importance, without sacrificing the integrity of his musical architecture, is outstanding. In “An Offering to Tengger/Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup” alone, a knockout 9-minute cue, Horner moves from piano-led intimacy to ferocious action, to sadness and reflection, and weaves in several statements and variations of the main theme, but keeps everything flowing together so that it all feels like a self-contained piece of music, with a beginning, an end, and a dramatic arc within. It’s a perfect testament to his almost unparalleled skill as a musical dramatist.

Although he has always been a superb action composer, the action music in Wolf Totem is especially striking. The bold, cascading rhythmic ideas in cues like “Wolves Stalking Gazelles,” “The Frozen Lake,” and “Scaling the Walls” are outstanding, especially when various layers of tribal percussion and metallic textures give depth to the pieces. Most notably, in the show-stopping “Wolves Attack the Horses,” Horner revisits some of the action stylistics that typified his writing in the 1980s and early 1990s, with echoes of everything from Apollo 13 to Aliens to Star Trek II, and even Brainstorm present in one brilliant, wonderfully nostalgic throwback. Later, in “Hunting the Wolves,” there is a sequence beginning around the 1:50 mark that pits a galloping, romping string ostinato against a vibrant, uptempo performance of the main theme that is just sublime. Avatar notwithstanding, Horner hasn’t written action music of this complexity and ferocity for quite some time, and it’s wonderful to experience it here; I for one have missed those classic pounding pianos.

Horner tempers these moments of intensity with some unexpectedly playful writing towards the end of “Discovering Hidden Dangers,” in “Little Wolf,” and towards the end of “Scaling the Walls”. In these cues the bright, elegant oboe writing counterpoints with more overtly Chinese-sounding orchestrations, lightly prancing string and flute ideas, and even some lighthearted comedy percussion.

Of course, with Horner being Horner, there are echoes of earlier scores dotted throughout the album. A few moments featuring Troy-esque ‘wailing women’ in the opening cue, and later in “Death of A’ba,” can be overlooked by those who don’t care for them. He gives his audience a nod and a wink with a little interpolation of his four-note ‘danger motif’ towards the end of “The Frozen Lake”. Many of the chord progressions and instrumental combinations will be familiar to anyone who knows Horner’s canon well, but at this point in his career, pointing these things out is pretty much moot, and barely worth mentioning. I personally find these echoes of the past to be a comforting reminder of all the things that was so appealing about his writing in the first place.

Everything comes to a rousing conclusion in the epic 10-minute finale, “Return to the Wild,” which continues the trend Horner started in the 1990s whereby he through-composes the film’s conclusive sequence in its entirety, allowing his music to crescendo just as the credits roll. These different statements and variations of the main theme, which grow in intensity and scope as the cue progresses, reach their climax at the 4:25 mark, accompanied by a shimmering cymbal ring and a cascade of strings that raise goosebumps on my arms and send a shiver down my spine every single time.

You can say what you want about James Horner. You can criticize his penchant for self-referencing, call his shameless emotional manipulation of his audience syrupy, and laugh at his increasingly stubborn refusal to change his way of working to suit contemporary Hollywood’s needs. This is the type of film music I love, the type of film music that made me love film music in the first place, and I refuse to apologize for that. For someone like me, who loves music like this, listening to Wolf Totem took me back to those days in the mid 1990s when I first started on my journey of film music discovery, and reminded me just how good film music can be when it’s done by someone as talented, intelligent, and with as much emotional power as James Horner. It’s only March, but this is one of the scores of the year.

Buy the Wolf Totem soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Leaving for the Country (2:17)
  • Wolves Stalking Gazelles (4:19)
  • An Offering to Tengger/Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup (9:22)
  • Wolves Attack the Horses (4:49)
  • A Red Ribbon (3:20)
  • The Frozen Lake (4:42)
  • Discovering Hidden Dangers (2:46)
  • Little Wolf (3:27)
  • Scaling the Walls (4:07)
  • Suicide Pact (2:17)
  • Hunting the Wolves (6:04)
  • Death of A’ba (1:35)
  • Return to the Wild (9:52)

Running Time: 59 minutes 02 seconds

Milan 399698-2 (2015)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner, JAC Redford, Simon Rhodes and Steven Baker. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson and Dick Bernstein. Album produced by James Horner, Simon Franglen and Simon Rhodes.

  1. Brendon Kelly
    March 12, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Brilliant review. Agree with every word. Horner has been my favourite composer for thirty years so very glad the Maestro is back! Looking forward to seeing him conduct Titanic in six weeks!!

  2. AmerZahid
    May 31, 2015 at 1:55 am

    Great Review! It sums up the essence of the score in words so well. Awesome score indeed.

  3. twebb2
    July 4, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Jon, I totally agree with you on this review. I’ve had Wolf Totem for 2 years now and listen to it often. Incredible!

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