Home > Reviews > WHERE THE RIVER RUNS BLACK – James Horner


wheretheriverrunsblackTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 1986, despite having achieved a great deal of popularity and success for his large scale orchestral scores, James Horner entered what many call his ‘experimental synth’ phase, such was the film music zeitgeist at the time. It lasted several years, in parallel with many of his more traditional symphonic works, and encompassed such scores as The Name of the Rose, Red Heat, Vibes, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and Thunderheart, but appears to have begun in earnest with this one: a little-known drama called Where the River Runs Black. The film was directed by Christopher Cain (father of TV Superman Dean Cain), and tells the story of a young orphan boy named Lazaro, who grows up feral in the Amazon jungle, but is eventually found and sent to live at a Catholic mission with a kind priest, Father O’Reilly, played by Charles Durning. O’Reilly cares for the boy, and teaches him to speak, and for a while it seems as though Lazaro’s life is settled; however, through a set of coincidental circumstances, Lazaro meets a local businessman and recognizes him as the man who murdered his mother when he was just six years old.

The film is largely forgotten today by most people, and would likely have remained so by film music fans were it not for the fact that James Horner wrote the score. Even after 30 years, Where the River Runs Black remains one of his most unusual works. It is largely synthesized, with just a few live instruments, ranging from light percussion items to pan-pipes, and generally embraces a tone of ‘world music’, a sort of fusion between chillout/easy listening/pure moods electronica, and traditional ethnic sounds from the Amazon. It’s highly rhythmic, ethereal, and sort of hypnotic, creating an overarching mood that suggests you are listening to nature itself, albeit processed through rather primitive-sounding 1980s keyboards. If this sounds strange to you, you could be right – it’s certainly a million miles away from scores like Cocoon, or Aliens, or An American Tail, which he wrote around the same time – but it’s also quite fascinating to hear another side to his musical personality.

The score maintains a generally consistent tone throughout its length, but several cues stand out as being especially noteworthy. The impressionistic pan flutes, faraway voices, and dreamy synth tones of the opening cue, “Where the River Runs Black,” create a tranquil homage to the sounds of nature. These are counterbalanced by the warmer, more solemn tone of the solo horn that occasionally cuts through the haze and humanizes the sound, a clever conceit which speaks to the nature of Lazaro’s parentage, that being a missionary and an Amazonian tribal mystic who – and here comes the really strange part – can shape-shift into a dolphin!

“Underwater Ballet” is lively and expressive, with sparkling synths and sun-kissed, lightly-tapped percussion that gives way to a dance-like pan flute element. Later, “The Dolphins” is playful and similarly upbeat, with florid rhythmic ideas and animated pan flute lines that will remind some of the Nelwyn village fete music Horner would write for Willow in 1988; these ideas continue on into the sprightly “Magic Kitchen” and the extended “End Title” sequence, one of the longest cues on the album.

Elsewhere, “Serra Pelada” is darker and much more aggressive, with insistent, throbbing synth lines, clanging metallic interjections, and rattle-like percussion effects to create a palpable sense of danger. Similarly, both “Discovered at the Mine” and “The Assassin” are nervous-sounding and agitated, with pan flute phrasings that seem to revisit some of the fusion-jazz ideas Horner created for scores like 48 HRS and Commando. However, possibly my favorite cues is “The Orphanage,” a true lyrical delight, a more upbeat and innocent piece with exceptionally pretty performances by both acoustic guitars and pan flutes, and which has graced several of my personal Horner compilation CDs over the years.

The soundtrack album for Where the River Runs Black had long been one of Horner’s rarest collectibles, having been released on LP and CD by Varèse Sarabande during the earliest years of the label’s existence. Until very recently the physical product went for hefty prices on the secondary market, but the score was rescued from oblivion in October 2015 when it was re-released as part of the Varèse Encore series, albeit limited to 2,000 copies.

Truthfully, I fear that most film music fans will find Where the River Runs Black to be a disappointment: it’s too unlike the rest of James Horner’s canon to be an essential purchase for his fans, and it’s just too strange to really connect with film music fans used to larger, more powerful expressions of orchestral bravado. As is often the case with scores from this era, the synths are extremely dated by modern standards, and may come across as irritating, or even laughable, to those not used to their sound. As such, I guess the best way to approach it is as an interesting curio; a little-known, largely unheralded look at the genesis of his synth writing exploits, which you may appreciate from a purely academic perspective if your expectations are kept fairly low.

Buy the Where the River Runs Black soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Where the River Runs Black (4:39)
  • Underwater Ballet (3:08)
  • Serra Pelada (2:47)
  • Alone (3:44)
  • The Orphanage (3:21)
  • The Dolphins (2:26)
  • Baptism (4:33)
  • Down River (5:53)
  • Magic Kitchen (2:03)
  • Discovered at the Mine (3:54)
  • The City (1:13)
  • The Assassin (1:53)
  • End Title (5:27)

Running Time: 45 minutes 06 seconds

Varese Sarabande Encore Series VCL-10151161 (1986/2015)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Score produced by James Horner. Album produced by Tom Null, Richard Kraft and Robert Townson.

  1. tiagovieirarangel
    March 24, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    Hi, Jon! Will you review the score of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?

    Date: Thu, 24 Mar 2016 17:00:44 +0000 To: tiagovieirarangel@hotmail.com

  2. Deborah
    March 28, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for mentioning your favourite part of the music, ‘The Orphange’. It is lovely and i will buy it. It is very helpful when you give individual cues their due. It was a piece I would never have found before. Thank you

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