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PROJECT X – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Project X was a genre-defying film – part action, part sci-fi, part-comedy, part drama – directed by Jonathan Kaplan from a screenplay by Lawrence Lasker and Stanley Weiser. Matthew Broderick starred as young US Air Force researcher Jimmy Garrett, who is assigned to a top secret project that involves teaching chimpanzees to fly planes. He bonds with one of the chimps, Virgil, after he discovers that it was taught sign language by its previous owner, graduate student Teri MacDonald (Helen Hunt). When Jimmy realizes that Virgil, along with all the other chimps, is supposed to die as part of the project’s research into the effects of radiation poisoning, he finds and contacts Teri; appalled by what the government is going to do to the animals, they agree to work together to rescue Virgil, and stop the project. The film co-stars William Sadler, Jonathan Stark, Stephen Lang, and Jean Smart, and was well received by critics at the time, who praised it as a ‘young person’s morality tale’ that tackles the important subject of animal welfare.

The score for Project X was by composer James Horner, secure in his new-found status as a Hollywood A-lister off the back of his Oscar nominations and Grammy wins for Aliens and An American Tail in 1986. What’s immediately apparent about the score for Project X is that it appears to sit at something of a crossroads in his career, in that it notably draws from the already-established palette of sounds from the early part of the decade, while simultaneously introducing a number of ideas that would recur throughout much of the rest. The score is fully orchestral, but with a number of specialist instruments intended to convey the verdant, remote jungle from which Virgil hails: ethnic woodwinds, pan pipes, didgeridoos, and shakuhachi are all used with a flagrant disregard for geographic specificity, while a whole host of percussion items, rattlers, and shakers add to the rhythmic bed of the score.

The whole thing is built around two main themes – one for Virgil himself, one for the concept of flying – which interweave throughout the score and form the core of most cues. The two melodies are actually quite similar to each other, and regularly play against each other, consecutively and contrapuntally, elaborating on the idea that the two ideas are linked in the character of Virgil. There are especially beautiful performances of one or the other in several cues, but several specific statements are worthy of special praise, including the one half way through the “Main Title,” the beautiful shifting orchestrations in “First Lesson,” and the gorgeous guitar variation in “Losing Virgil.” The performance of the flying theme in “Learning to Fly” has a similar feeling to that of Jerry Goldsmith’s The Blue Max: broad, open, and with a sense of freedom and spaciousness, while “New Friends” adopts a fun rhythmic undercurrent and playful, dextrous woodwinds, before swelling with emotion in its second half. You can clearly feel James Horner’s life-long love of flying throughout the performances of these things, which gives the score a special sense of poignancy considering how the composer’s life ended in 2015.

During many of these early-score cues Horner engages in some quite wondrous sequences that are mostly mood, texture and color, and which recall several other Horner scores from the period. In the “Main Title,” for example, the jungle synths and pan pipes have a strong resemblance to the score for Where the River Runs Black, while the aggressive synth jazz during that cue’s second half is clearly inspired by the score from Commando. Meanwhile, the light, intimate guitar writing in “First Lesson” recalls some of the more tender and understated moments from Cocoon, and is quite sublime. These familiar textures, chord progressions, and compositional tics stayed with Horner through the entirety of his career, and listening to theme here is a familiar and welcoming nostalgia trip.

The score changes tone quite considerably in the aftermath of “Student Pilots,” during which the thematic ideas are underpinned by contemporary synths and more insistent rhythmic ideas that give them a sense of urgency. “Bluebeard’s Flight,” which underscores the scene where Matthew Broderick’s character discovers the terrible truth behind the simian flight simulator project, presents the flying theme in a much darker and more sinister setting, and is enlivened with shakuhachi blasts, low end brass clusters, piano rolls, and all manner of clattering percussion. It is here that Horner introduces the first of several ideas which dominate the score’s second half, notably the familiar 4-note danger motif, and the tragic elegy adagio from Aliens, which was itself inspired by Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.

Many of the subsequent cues, from “The Rescue” through to “The Escape,” adopt a much more aggressive action style, capturing the desperate measures that Broderick and Hunt’s characters take to ensure their primate pals are safe. Horner goes back to the well of Aliens several times in these cues, using some of the rhythmic ideas from the ‘Futile Escape’ sequence from that score to underpin the action here. Horner indulges in a great deal of creative dissonance in these cues, reveling in chaotic collisions of sound that occasionally rise to embrace dark brass crescendos. “The Tower” is especially abstract in parts, with all manner of screeching dissonances and deconstructed statements of the various themes, while “Chain Reaction” presents several variations on the Flying theme underpinned by trilling snare drums, and a relentless battery of the 4-note motif, to give it forward motion.

To counterbalance this, “Ghost Call” features some beautiful, sentimental guitar and woodwind writing, including a thematic idea that would later be used more prominently in Mighty Joe Young, another film about monkeys (and thereby continuing to prove my theory about the intellectual application behind Horner’s self-referencing). Meanwhile, the “Chimp Rumble” gives Horner the opportunity to really go-for broke and score some outlandish monkey mayhem: to capture the frenetic chaos of the facility breakout sequence Horner introduces the Raymond Scott ‘Powerhouse’ motif that would later be used in the score for Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The shenanigans reverberate to wailing brass, relentless tom-tom hits, pan flute wails, the 4-note motif, and a battery of clattering percussive ideas which appear to share some rhythmic similarities to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Planet of the Apes.

The score’s finale commences in “Flying,” which contains the most majestic statements of both the Flying theme and Virgil’s theme. It builds out of a small, gentle opening for light chimes, woodwinds, and muted horns, but gradually becomes more grandiose, swelling with cymbal rings, flighty flute trills, and twinkling synths, until the beautiful emergence of the elegant and long-lined theme at the 2:50 mark. The “End Credits” provides the score with a beautiful finale, a welcome return to the idyllic sylvan textures from the score’s opening cues, breathing a sigh of relief as Virgil return home. The joyous, celebratory middle section foreshadows the end of the score for Willow with its distorted dancing accordions and tribal drums, while the warm statement of Virgil’s theme, accompanied by ethnic percussion and woodwinds, ends the score on a lovely note.

Despite the success and popularity of the film at the time, a soundtrack album for Project X was not released, and for many years collectors had to be content with a poor-quality bootleg which emerged onto the secondary market around 1997. The score was finally released in 2001, some 11 years after the film came out, as part of the Varese Sarabande CD Club, and is now the recommended presentation. The mordant liner notes by album producer Nick Redman are a special treat.

Looking back at Project X now, with the hindsight of thirty years, it’s interesting to acknowledge just what a quintessential James Horner score it is. Fans of his work, who know and appreciate the familiarity of his composing style, will look at it as a necessary stepping stone bridging the gap between landmark works like Aliens and Willow. Others, who are less inclined to forgive his musical kleptomania, may dismiss it as a mere amalgam of other, better works. Personally, I find there’s much to appreciate and admire in this score; the two central themes are undeniably lovely, and some of the touches in orchestration have a wonderful nostalgic quality that is easy to admire.

Buy the Project X soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (4:54)
  • First Lesson (3:15)
  • Losing Virgil (4:10)
  • Learning To Fly (3:02)
  • The Plea (1:03)
  • New Friends (5:48)
  • Student Pilots (5:00)
  • Bluebeard’s Flight (6:13)
  • Ghost Call (4:09)
  • The Rescue (6:00)
  • The Tower (6:02)
  • Chimp Rumble (5:48)
  • Chain Reaction (4:36)
  • The Escape (4:12)
  • Flying (4:28)
  • End Credits (6:09)

Running Time: 74 minutes 49 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCL 1101-1002 (1987/2001)

Music composed conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg and Tom Carlson. Score produced by James Horner. Album produced by Nick Redman and Robert Townson.

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