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COCOON – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Cocoon was one of the major box-office successes of 1985, a winning combination of science fiction adventure and family drama directed by Ron Howard. The film stars Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn as three old-timers living in a retirement community in Florida; part of their daily routine is to sneak into an unoccupied house next door and swim in its swimming pool. One day they find a number of strange, rock-like objects at the bottom of the water, but after checking them out, decide to swim there anyway; following their swim, the three geezers suddenly find themselves rejuvenated with a vigorous, youthful energy, and they share their discovery with their respective wives and lady friends, played by Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton, and Jessica Tandy. However, much to the shock of the senior citizens, the ‘rocks in the pool’ turn out to be cocoons containing dozens of sick aliens, left behind by friendly extra-terrestrials centuries ago, and which were about to be returned to their home planet by their leader, Brian Dennehy, with the help of a local ship captain, played by Steve Guttenberg – until the pool was drained of its life force by the old folks. As such, the sextet of retirees must work with the aliens to help them find a way home, without revealing the secret of the pool. The film earned two Academy Awards – one for Best Supporting Actor for Don Ameche, and one for Best Visual Effects – and boasted a magnificent score by the then 32-year-old James Horner.

James Horner’s star was firmly in the ascendency at the time he wrote Cocoon, him having recently scored box office successes like 48 HRS, Star Trek II, Uncommon Valor, and Star Trek III. It was also the first of his many collaborations with director Ron Howard, for whom he would later write excellent scores on films such as Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and The Missing. Although several of Horner’s early scores contained emotional, lyrical themes, Cocoon was, in many ways, the first to really crystallize those ideas into a complete score, and in doing so it raised the bar for him, and set the standard for his future career. Cocoon is a lyrical, tender, intimate work which addresses a vast spectrum of emotions and concepts, examining such weighty topics as death and mortality, friendship, and familial relationships, as well as the joy of regained youth. Written for full orchestra, the score varies from small solo piano performances to exciting action sequences, and concludes with some of the most soaring, almost spiritual writing of Horner’s entire career, while being interspersed with several moments of authentic big band-style jazz and swing. It’s also multi-thematic, with different melodic ideas speaking to different aspects of the story, which develop as the score progresses.

The score is built around a core of central themes, all of which share harmonic commonalities and similar orchestrations, but take off in different melodic directions. The themes often play together in complementary fashion, consecutively or in counterpoint, almost to the point that they feel like a single theme, extrapolated and adapted in fragments throughout the score, but the intelligent application of the themes across the different cues reveal their specificities. None of the themes really receive a rich opening statement, but instead emerge gradually as the score unfolds. “Through the Window” introduces the seven-note theme for the Antarean aliens, which speaks to the mystery and wonder of their origin with haunting, magical chimes. It is later revisited in the brilliant “Discovered in the Poolhouse,” a tapestry of orchestral mayhem, subtle comedy, and colorful wonderment. There are also several recurring ideas associated with the aliens, including an echoing 16th-note flutter for woodwinds that adorns several cues, and a fading in-and-out brass motif, augmented by synth textures for effect.

The 1940s-style jazz theme, which represents the old folks themselves, is introduced in the second cue, “Going to the Pool,” and returns later in several cues, notably the more mysterious “Pool is Closed,” the more playful “Seduction/Let’s Go”, and the swaggering “The Boys Are Out”. The piece was orchestrated Glen Miller-style by the legendary big band arranger Billy May, and as such has a massive amount of authenticity, with its muted brasses, stand-up bass and brushed snares.

Elsewhere, Horner engages in some vivid and imaginative dissonance in cues such as “Unveiling,” and the latter half of “The Lovemaking,” all trilling brasses and explosions of noise, accompanying the shocking revelations about the alien origin of the seemingly very human Brian Dennehy and Tahnee Welch. Some of this dissonance recalls moments from scores like Brainstorm, and precedes similar instrumental ideas from scores like The Missing by a good 20 years.

“A Relapse” introduces the sentimental theme which represents the concepts of aging, mortality and death. Often heard on solo guitar with gentle, fluid accompaniment from strings, harp and woodwinds, it appears in several cues thereafter with enormous emotional resonance, notably during “First Tears,” where Brian Dennehy’s alien Walter suffers a death-related loss for the first time; in the terribly moving “Rose’s Death,” a gorgeous piece that captures the sense of grief and helplessness with exquisite clarity; and the simple but powerful “Sad Goodbye,” in which Ben (Brimley) tries to bid farewell to his grandson David (Barret Oliver) as the two of them bond in a river, fly-fishing.

“Returning to Sea” marks the score’s turning point, tonally and conceptually, as both film and score suddenly become less about loss and mortality, and more about life and hope. Having previously been subtly introduced in “First Tears,” where the B-phrase of the melody swells into life just after the 1:06 mark, the main Theme from Cocoon is introduced more fully here, as is the equally buoyant and optimistic Hope theme, which has an A-phrase (beginning at 1:20) and a more sweeping B-phrase (beginning at 1:50). On a technical level, this cue is an absolute masterpiece, mainly because of the way Horner plays several of his themes contrapuntally, including the wonderful simultaneous performance of the Alien theme and the Mortality theme that opens the cue, and the later juxtaposition of the Mortality theme and the Hope theme around 1:30. This meshing of ideas perfectly reflects the choice presented to the old folks by the aliens at this point in the film – alien eternal life vs. earthly terminal death – and the conflicting emotions they feel as a result.

Two prototypical Horner action sequences feature in “David Runs to the Boat” and “The Chase,” which are filled with many of Horner’s best 1980s mannerisms and gestures. The rapid snare tattoos, heroic brass triplets, and exciting rhythmic ideas which shift around between piano and woodwinds, at times recall Star Trek II, Krull, and even things like Wolfen, but are expertly framed around Cocoon’s thematic identities.

Everything comes to a head in the score’s 12 minute finale, “The Ascension” and “Theme from Cocoon,” in which Horner brings together each of his themes – the Alien theme and its associated textures, the Mortality theme, the Hope theme, and the overarching Main Theme – and performs them with undiluted, unashamed orchestral grandeur. As the pieces build over the course of their duration, Horner raises the stakes with each passing moment, building the tension, and eventually releasing it in a cascade of overwhelming emotional power and thematic beauty. Crescendo after crescendo, thematic statement after thematic statement, cymbal crash after cymbal crash, Horner allows his listeners to immerse themselves in the multiple levels of awe and wonder: the spectacular Antarean spaceship being revealed, the boat containing the old folks being gently lifted into the sky, and the realization of the central characters’ hopes and dreams of immortality. These 12 minutes stand the test of time and, for me, without a trace of hyperbole, represent one of the greatest musical moments in the history of cinema.

For many years, the score for Cocoon was a rarity. Originally released by Polydor on LP and CD at the time of the film’s release, it quickly went out of print, commanding enormous prices on the secondary market until it was re-pressed and re-released with identical content by Polydor’s subsidiary PEG Records in the year 2000. However, this release too went out of print very quickly; eventually, Intrada stepped in and in 2013 producers Nick Redman and Douglass Fake released an expanded edition as part of the label’s Special Collection series, with improved sound and half a dozen additional cues.

You wouldn’t be able to write a film score like Cocoon in 2015. The emotional connection Horner creates with his audience through his music, the way he controls those emotions as he develops his themes through the film, and the way he intensifies them to unimaginably powerful levels during the film’s finale, would be considered too overwhelming for modern audiences, syrupy and manipulative. Personally, this is the type of film music I grew up loving, and will love until the day I die. I want to feel the rich and varied emotions the characters in the film feel, and I want the film’s music to guide me on that journey. Anyone who wants the same should add Cocoon to their collection immediately. It’s a masterpiece.

Note: I am publishing this review three days after James Horner’s shocking death in a plane crash; the timing of this is purely coincidental as Cocoon opened exactly 30 years ago this week, on 21 June 1985, and I had set my Throwback Thirty schedule months ago. However, it’s also serendipitous as it allows me to use this review as a small tribute to my all-time favorite composer, and the man who initiated my love of film music as a child. Cocoon was one of the scores that captured my imagination all those years ago, and so I’m thankful that I’m able to write this review, and celebrate this score, at this time.

Buy the Cocoon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Through the Window (2:54)
  • The Lovemaking (4:21)
  • The Chase (4:27)
  • Rose’s Death (2:10)
  • The Boys Are Out (2:35)
  • Returning to Sea (4:13)
  • Gravity (written and performed by Michael Sembello) (4:52)
  • Discovered in the Poolhouse (2:45)
  • First Tears (1:49)
  • Sad Goodbyes (2:22)
  • The Ascension (5:55)
  • Theme From Cocoon (6:03)
  • Through the Window (2:58)
  • Going to the Pool (1:55)
  • Pool is Closed (2:10)
  • Mysterious Dive (1:54)
  • Seduction/Let’s Go (2:10)
  • Unveiling (1:05)
  • Discovered in the Poolhouse (2:47)
  • A Relapse (1:27)
  • The Lovemaking (4:24)
  • First Tears (1:51)
  • Rose’s Death (2:14)
  • Returning to Sea (4:16)
  • Sad Goodbye (2:15)
  • Sneaking Away (3:15)
  • David Runs to the Boat (1:53)
  • The Chase (4:30)
  • The Ascension (6:01)
  • Theme From Cocoon (6:05)
  • The Boys Are Out (2:37) [BONUS]
  • I Feel Great (1:05) [BONUS]
  • Rock Source (1:13) [BONUS]
  • Gravity (written and performed by Michael Sembello) (4:00) [BONUS]

Running Time: 44 minutes 26 seconds (Original Polydor Release)
Running Time: 62 minutes 05 seconds (Intrada Release)

Polydor 827-04101 (1985)
Intrada Special Collection Vol. 260 (1985/2013)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Grieg McRitchie, Don Nemitz, Herbert W. Spencer, Al Woodbury and Billy May. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Score produced by James Horner. Album produced by Nick Redman and Douglass Fake.

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