THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – James Horner and Simon Franglen
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The death of James Horner in June 2015, in a plane crash at the age of 61, was one of the most shocking events to hit the film music community in many, many years. It wasn’t just the fact that Horner was seemingly on the verge of a comeback, having written several classical pieces and new scores in the preceding year, and having signed to write several new works (Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, and several Avatar sequels among them); it was the suddenness, the randomness of it all, coming completely out of the blue with no time to prepare for a film music world without him. At the time, once the immediate grief and concern for his family had been addressed, thoughts naturally turned to his musical legacy, and all the great music he was yet to write, and which we would now never get to hear. As it turns out, Horner had one last gift to share – the score for director Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the great western The Magnificent Seven, starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke as three members of a gang of gun-slinging heroes who team up to protect a town from ruthless industrialist Peter Sarsgaard, who is forcibly removing the inhabitants of a small Old West community for his own nefarious purposes.
Horner had scored Antoine Fuqua’s previous film, the boxing drama Southpaw, and was instrumental in convincing the director to take the helm of The Magnificent Seven. Having signed on and committed to make the film, Fuqua went to Louisiana to begin pre-production. Meanwhile Horner, who was obviously keen to score the film, quietly wrote a suite of music based solely on his impressions from reading the screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, and then worked with his long-time friend and collaborator Simon Franglen to make a recording of the suite with a full orchestra in London. Horner intended to surprise Fuqua with the music, in hopes of being hired to score it properly, but then fate intervened and Horner died one month before principal photography ended. Despite the tragedy, Franglen still presented the music to Fuqua; Fuqua fell in love with what Horner had done, and tasked Franglen and several of Horner’s other long-time collaborators (Simon Rhodes, JAC Redford, Joe Rand, Jim Henriksen) with taking Horner’s original ideas and converting them into a complete score.
The resulting work is Horner’s final score for the cinema, a contemporary Western score which is as much inspired by his own back catalogue as it is by the conventions of the genre, and which owes more of a debt to Jerry Goldsmith and Jerry Fielding’s more gritty style than it does to the rousing cowboy anthems of someone like Elmer Bernstein, Jerome Moross, or even Bruce Broughton. This is the one thing which may take people aback; Horner’s The Magnificent Seven does not live in the same sonic world as those classic scores, and anyone expecting a score along the lines of Silverado or The Big Country will be disappointed. According to Franglen, during post-production director Fuqua was obsessed with Horner’s 1992 score Thunderheart, which was itself a more gritty, contemporary take on the American west, and which made use of a great many electronic textures to capture the mysterious, moody vibe of the film. As such, The Magnificent Seven pays homage to that score in several ways, while simultaneously referencing an enormous range of other Horner scores, almost to the point where the score sometimes feels like a “Horner Greatest Hits” sampler, albeit one with some new thematic material tacked on to make sure it sounds fresh.
Fans of Horner’s work will love this approach; as a life-long aficionado of Horner’s music, I found The Magnificent Seven to be a wonderfully nostalgic trip down memory lane, a 70-minute game of ‘spot the reference’. It is a great compliment to the skill of Franglen, Rhodes, Redford, and the others, that they were able to mimic Horner’s compositional style, and many of his trademark tics, with such accuracy; this score feels like an actual Horner score rather than a bad pastiche, and it could so easily have been one of those had it been written by composers without their skill and sensitivity. On the other hand, Horner’s detractors always found his incessant self-referencing to be the biggest negative aspect of his work, and I can certainly see how the enormous amount of self-referencing heard here would drive them bananas. I’d like to think that the allusions to other scores was a final ‘screw you’ from Franglen to all the Horner-haters of the world, but I know this was probably not the case.
The main new theme for the score actually takes a while to emerge; after some brief allusions in the fifteenth cue, “So Far So Good,” and the seventeenth cue, “Pacing the Town,” it gets its first prominent statement in cue nineteen, “Bell Hangers”. Whereas Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven theme was all about rousing action, Horner’s take on the story is more subtle, speaking instead to the righteousness of their cause, and the inherent nobility of the group that emerges in their camaraderie, and in spite of their vastly different backgrounds and motivations. It is initially heard as a warm, inviting theme for sweeping strings and dignified horns, with tonal similarities to Legends of the Fall, but in later cues Horner adapts it to suit different emotional intentions, and as an action motif. In “Faraday’s Ride,” for example, the theme is bold and determined, heard on brass with guitar accents; later, in “Horne Sacrifice,” it is haunted and anguished, accented by subtle voices. Perhaps the best performance of the theme comes in “House of Judgment ,” where Franglen arranges Horner‘s theme for strings and solo voice, sung by a female vocalist with a stunningly beautiful, Edda dell’Orso-esque quality, an emotional moment that would make Ennio Morricone proud.
The film’s main antagonist, Bartholomew Bogue, has his own motif, described by Franglen as ‘the personification of evil,’ a snake-like motif for a ‘disgruntled banjo’, scraped strings, and a rhythmic core that is slightly off balance. The theme first appears in “Devil in the Church,” where it impresses with its sense of malice and cruelty. In “A Bear in People’s Clothes” Bogue’s theme combines with con legno pulses and low-end string harmonics to create an equally spiteful mood, while in “Sheriff Demoted” the Bogue theme is transposed from banjos to angry-sounding metallic textures. Cleverly, towards the end of the film, Bogue’s theme and the Magnificent Seven theme play off each other in the action music, with cues such as “Army Invades Town,” “Faraday’s Ride,” “The Darkest Hour,” and “House of Judgment “ engaging in some very impressive interplay to illustrate the conflict between the two parties.
The rest of the score tends to be more understated, often taking its stylistic leads from score like Patriot Games, Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, and the aforementioned Thunderheart, especially the sparse, tension-filled action music that those scores contain. The opening cue, “Rose Creek Oppression,” is a perfect example of this type of writing: a cacophony of metallic percussion textures, shakuhachi flutters, snare drum trills, low-end string harmonics, and ethereal vocals, moody, ominous, and dangerous-sounding. Interestingly – and perhaps intentionally – the cue also features a wonderful reference to Horner’s first ‘major’ score, Battle Beyond the Stars from 1980, which opened with a fading, echoing set of trumpet triplets, which had themselves been inspired by Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Patton. Having this little motif as the opening idea of this score is brilliant on several levels – not only does it bring a circular, bookending quality to Horner’s entire career, but it acknowledges the fact that Battle Beyond the Stars itself was basically ‘The Magnificent Seven in Space’.
These austere action stylistics recur frequently throughout the score, re-appearing in cues such as “Street Slaughter,” “Magic Trick,” “Red Harvest,” and “Takedown,” among others. This unique side of Horner’s action writing has never been universally popular, but I always found it to be a very creative way of depicting anticipation, that breathless, nerve-shredding calm before the violence erupts. Franglen keeps these cues interesting by working in several of Horner’s calling cards; in “Street Slaughter,” for example, the sound is augmented by an explosion of anguished vocalizations in the style of The Four Feathers, followed by a crescendo of thunderous, apocalyptic drums. Later, in “Red Harvest,” the music adopts a tone very similar to Horner’s score for Windtalkers through Tony Hinnigan’s beautiful ethnic woodwinds, making this cue, like Windtalkers before it, an appropriate and respectful depiction of Native American character and culture.
The more vivid action material reminds me at times of the music Horner wrote for scores like The Mask of Zorro, especially through the use of castanets and handclaps in the percussion section, and through the use of flamboyant guitar twangs, which in this instance are intended to be a brief leitmotif to acknowledge the ‘coolness’ of Denzel Washington’s character Sam Chisolm. “Seven Angels of Vengeance” showcases this style strongly, as do several subsequent cues. “Lighting the Fuse” features a guest appearance from the well-known four note ‘danger motif’, as well as thrumming bass flutes, and an interesting textural idea in the strings related to parts of Wolf Totem. Similarly, “Robicheaux Reunion” augments the style with more upbeat rhythmic ideas, contrapuntal horn writing, and snare drum licks in the style of Apollo 13 or Glory.
Only occasionally does Horner embrace the traditional, stereotypical sound of a Hollywood western. A warm Americana-inspired theme reminiscent of Horner’s score for The Missing forms the core of cues such as “Volcano Springs,” “Town Exodus/Knife Training,” and “7 Days, That’s All You Got”. This theme is clearly intended to reflect the wholesomeness of the people whose town the Seven come together to protect, but it often has a hint of sadness too, lamenting a little for the terrible events they endure at the hands of the evil Bogue.
As the score builds to its climax the music generally adopts a more thrilling, orchestral-based action style, again often utilizing little traits from Horner’s bag of musical tricks to enhance the mood. One part of “So Far So Good” is essentially a montage sequence which borrows the staccato trumpet ideas and ticking woodblocks from Sneakers and Apollo 13, the warm horn crescendos and snare drum riffs from Apollo 13 and In Country, and the little piano flourishes from The Spitfire Grill. The pulsating central section of “Army Invades Town” has some echoes of Avatar in the descending horn lines and rhythmic writing, while “Horne Sacrifice” nods its head to the eerie echoing trumpet lines from Aliens, as well as the wonderful iconic piano crashes that so enlivened scores like The Pelican Brief.
“The Darkest Hour” is the score’s biggest and best action sequence, an amalgamation of all the different elements of the score, beginning with the Braveheart-style tension, but gradually growing to incorporate large performances of both main themes. The conclusive cue, “Seven Riders,” is an upbeat and rousing finale which finally blends Horner’s new Magnificent Seven theme with the rhythmic undercurrent of Bernstein’s theme from the original film. Franglen describes this as being akin to the way Michael Giacchino incorporated Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek TV theme into his score for the new Trek movies, and it is certainly an appropriate tribute without being overt or clichéd.
It occurred to me before I began writing this review that this would be the very last time I would ever write about a new James Horner film score in the present tense. This is it. There will never be any more new music from him. His staff paper will forever more be blank, his piano un-played, his reactions to moving images unexpressed. I had been weighing up the emotional implications of this for a while, and wondering how it would affect my final judgment of the work. James Horner’s music has meant so much to me for so many years, and has had such a profound impact on my life personally, and I had a feeling that I would be inclined to be overly-generous and forgiving when it came to rating The Magnificent Seven. Nostalgic sentiment is a powerful thing. However, when it comes down to it, I feel I owe it to Horner to simply judge it as he would want it to be judged – as a film score, and whether it is an appropriate accompaniment to Fuqua’s film.
With that in mind, the truth is, The Magnificent Seven is not the emotional powerhouse score many wanted it to be. There is no enormous, sweeping statement of a breathtaking theme, and many will likely be disappointed with the score’s lack of a true cathartic moment where we could all cry and say goodbye one last time. Instead, The Magnificent Seven is a perfect accompaniment to the film itself – it embraces its grittier, contemporary edge, and although it acknowledges its genre roots, it’s most definitely a film from 2016, not a film from 1960, and this is a good thing. All the best film music serves the needs of the film for which it was written first and foremost, and it feels appropriate that The Magnificent Seven maintains the level of professionalism that Horner always showed.
Simon Franglen described the score’s final cue as James Horner’s ‘last ride into the sunset,’ and I can’t think of a better way to conclude this review of his final score. Although The Magnificent Seven will certainly never be mentioned in the same breath as his greatest works, it remains a fitting testament to a life spent expressing his unique musical voice against moving images, and allowing movie audiences across the world to experience the multitude of powerful emotions that only great film music can trigger. It’s what James Horner did throughout his career, right up until the day he died, and I shall be grateful to him for that until the day I do the same.
Buy the Magnificent Seven soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Rose Creek Oppression (1:55)
- Seven Angels of Vengeance (3:24)
- Lighting the Fuse (1:21)
- Volcano Springs (2:56)
- Street Slaughter (3:22)
- Devil in the Church (2:06)
- Chisolm Enrolled (3:10)
- Magic Trick (2:37)
- Robicheaux Reunion (1:47)
- A Bear in People’s Clothes (2:01)
- Red Harvest (2:02)
- Takedown (5:50)
- Town Exodus – Knife Training (2:11)
- 7 Days, That’s All You Got (1:49)
- So Far So Good (4:32)
- Sheriff Demoted (1:58)
- Pacing the Town (3:53)
- The Deserter (4:52)
- Bell Hangers (1:43)
- Army Invades Town (3:34)
- Faraday’s Ride (4:03)
- Horne Sacrifice (2:42)
- The Darkest Hour (4:28)
- House of Judgment (5:25)
- Seven Riders (2:58)
Running Time: 76 minutes 49 seconds
Sony Classical (2016)
Music composed by James Horner and Simon Franglen. Conducted by JAC Redford and Carl Johnson. Orchestrations by JAC Redford. Featured musical soloists George Doering and Tony Hinnigan. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson and Joe E. Rand. Album produced by Simon Franglen and Simon Rhodes.