THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN – James Horner
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Following his breakout year in 1982, when he wrote music for the box-office smashes Star Trek II and 48 HRS., James Horner spent the next several years solidly entrenched as one of the newest, most exciting young members of the Hollywood studio system, scoring several successful and popular features. After he proved his reliability when asked to replace Georges Delerue on Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1983, the executives at Walt Disney turned to Horner again in the fall of 1985, when they asked him to write a last-minute replacement for Elmer Bernstein’ score for the film The Journey of Natty Gann. Directed by Jeremy Kagan from an original screenplay by Jeanne Rosenberg, and set during the darkest days of the Great Depression in 1935, the film starred 12-year old Meredith Salenger as the eponymous Natty, a tomboy who sets off on a cross-country trek to find her father Sol (Ray Wise) after he leaves their Pacific Northwest home for Chicago in a desperate attempt to find work. En route she is befriended by a wolf, who travels with and protects her for much of her voyage, and even has a brief, innocent romance with another young traveler named Harry, played by a young John Cusack.
Considering the quick turnaround period required to meet the release date deadline, Horner’s score is remarkably accomplished. Many people feel that this is his most emotional Americana-flavored score; he clearly took inspiration from the classic work of Aaron Copland in terms of the orchestration and some of the melodic starting points, but saturated it in his own personal style. Interestingly, this score introduced several of the well-known musical phrases and touchstones that Horner would revisit throughout the remainder of his career, which cements its position as one of the landmark works in his long filmography.
I have long had a theory that Horner saw himself as writing one, big, 30 year symphony, where each score is a new movement, and themes and motives and textures are developed over the course of several years and several scores, not just within one 2 hour slot. Horner had a very specific way of reacting, musically, to different visual and conceptual stimuli, which resulted in his revisiting particular motifs or gestures numerous times for films with recurring plot elements. Everyone knows about the four-note ‘Danger motif’, and many are beginning to notice his ‘Genius motif’, an accelerando which can be heard in scores ranging from Sneakers and Searching for Bobby Fischer to Bicentennial Man and A Beautiful Mind, all films which deal with geniuses or some sort of enormously advanced technology. However, these are just two in a career which, literally, had dozens of these musical tics. The Journey of Natty Gann is built around another such idea – the concept of an ‘epic journey’ – a long-lined theme that would later be used in another film about an epic journey: The Land Before Time.
The “Main Title” introduces this theme, a delightful array of lilting flutes, pianos, guitars, and a solo harmonica, which eventually give way to the first performance of the melody for a swath of strings. The main ‘Journey’ theme is present in some form or another throughout the score, following Natty on her adventures as she crosses paths with everything from cattle rustlers to mysterious mountain men, as she desperately searches for her family. The A-phrase anchors the emotional “Leaving” on warm horns and tender woodwinds, is changed into a hesitant romance theme led again by the woodwinds and strings in “First Love,” rises with a sense of joy and breathless expectation in “Getting There,” and embraces a sense of trepidation and struggle in “Farewell,” before concluding with the magical and heartwarming orchestral beauty of the “Reunion and End Title”.
The instrumental textures that surround the melodic ideas are indicative of homespun charm: George Doering’s expressive guitars are sublime, especially the ones in the second half of the aforementioned “First Love”. The harmonica solos, the fiddle interludes, and the occasional use of a dulcimer, are all just perfect, drenching the score in a time and place that is evocative and appropriate.
There isn’t much action music in the score, but what there is impresses. “Freight Train” is a wonderfully thrilling chase sequence, during which Horner gradually increases the tempo of the piece, adding in layer upon layer of plucked strings and staccato brass, to mimic the movement of the train and capture the excitement of Natty racing to board it as it pulls away from the station, before culminating in a joyful rendition of the main theme’s B-phrase on harmonica. The second half of “Rustling” also contains some vivid moments, with dashing string runs and imposing percussion hits that recall some of his more strident action material of the era, from scores like Gorky Park or Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Elsewhere, Horner introduces another one of his recurring career-long ideas for ‘nature’ in “The Forest,” a gorgeous pastoral cue for fluttering, expressive woodwinds and delicate pianos, indicative of a breeze through the treetops, or the gentle rustling of leaves. Those familiar with Horner’s career will recognize this style of writing from scores like The Spitfire Grill and The New World but, other than some brief allusions in the score for the 1982 TV movie Rascals and Robbers: The Secret Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, this appears to be where it originates.
Interestingly, some echoes of Elmer Bernstein’s original score may linger in Horner’s work: the woodwind and string phrase beginning at 2:14 in “Leaving” is clearly inspired by the main theme from To Kill a Mockingbird, while parts of “Freight Train” have some clear allusions to The Magnificent Seven. The nods to Aaron Copland come by way of quotations from his classic cowboy ballet Rodeo in the playful “Into Town” and the buoyant “Rustling,” a pair of rousing dances for staccato fiddles and bouncing pianos which explode into a full-on hoedown towards the end of the second cue. Horner would explore these same references later in his score for An American Tail: Fievel Goes West in 1991.
After many years of being one of Horner’s most-requested titles – it was never released commercially at the time of the film’s release – the score finally saw the light of day in 2009, when it was released as part of the Intrada Records Special Collection series. Horner personally assembled the CD just as he would have for a major label in 1985, and his long-time engineer Simon Rhodes mastered the CD at Abbey Road using Horner’s own personal tape, the only surviving first-generation copy of the score known to exist. Although the score is technically sold out from the Intrada website, and is fetching prices up to $50 on Amazon and eBay these days, I nevertheless recommend it to everyone with any sort of interest in Horner’s career. This is a score filled with great emotion, beautiful theme writing, gorgeous orchestral arrangements, and a rich vein of Americana that is easy to fall in love with.
Buy the Journey of Natty Gann soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title (1:57)
- Leaving (3:21)
- Freight Train (2:45)
- First Love (3:31)
- Into Town (2:32)
- Goodbye (2:22)
- Rustling (3:07)
- The Forest (2:01)
- Early Morning (1:45)
- Getting There (1:14)
- Farewell (3:23)
- Reunion – End Title (5:10)
- Locked Up (3:12) [BONUS]
- Hotel Escape (1:54) [BONUS]
- Riding The Rails (1:29) [BONUS]
- To Seattle (3:18) [BONUS]
Running Time: 43 minutes 12 seconds
Intrada ISC-103 (1985/2009)
Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Else Blangsted. Album produced byJames Horner, Simon Rhodes and Douglass Fake.