Home > Reviews > FIELD OF DREAMS – James Horner

FIELD OF DREAMS – James Horner

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Field of Dreams is a film about baseball, but it’s also about much, much more than that. It’s a film about regret, about missed opportunities, about the relationships we allow to fritter away through petty disagreements and neglect. It’s a film about life, about how the ambitions we had in our youth turn into something completely different in adulthood, and how we deal with that change. It’s a film about hope, about how each of us longs to re-capture that innocence and optimism we once had, and the things we will do to get it. And it’s a film about reconciliation, coming to terms with the mistakes we have made, and making things right. The film is written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, based on the novel ‘Shoeless Joe’ by W. P. Kinsella; it stars Kevin Costner as Ray, a corn farmer who lives in Iowa with his wife Annie (Amy Madigan), and their young daughter Karen (Gaby Hoffmann), on the property that his late father left him. Ray had been estranged from his father for many years before he died, and the legacy of that relationship weighs heavily upon him. One day, while out in the cornfield, Ray hears a spectral voice whispering the words ‘if you build it, he will come,’ and he is subsequently inspired to build a full-size baseball diamond on his property. This event sends Ray off on a voyage of personal self-discovery involving Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) and the ghosts of the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox team, a reclusive political author (James Earl Jones), and a beloved country doctor (Burt Lancaster) who played just a single game in the major leagues for the New York Giants in 1922.

Since its release in the spring of 1989 Field of Dreams has been the recipient of significant praise and acclaim. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is regularly included on lists of cinema’s greatest sports films. The film is also considered to be one of the most emotional and moving dramas ever made, especially in its finale, and one of the main contributors to that is the score, by James Horner. Robinson and Horner had never worked together before, but the executives at Universal Pictures recommended the two men to each other anyway; Horner was one of the most respected young composers in Hollywood at the time, and the producers felt that Horner would write one of his familiar big orchestral works for the film. After his first viewing of the film, Horner immediately stood up and left the screening room without saying a word; Robinson, misunderstanding what was happening, thought that Horner hated the film, but in reality Horner had been so moved by what he saw that he needed a moment to collect himself before speaking to Robinson and agreeing to score it.

Contrary to the expectations of the executives, Horner felt that a traditional big orchestral score would not be appropriate for the film, and instead he wrote a score which was quiet, intimate, at times almost spectral in its atmospheric calmness. It made use of piano and synths augmented with a number of atmospheric woodwind instruments, alongside a smaller orchestral ensemble that becomes more prominent as the score develops towards its conclusion. There are four main themes and several recurring motifs running through the score, as well as a couple of standalone pieces for specific scenes. The most prominent of these are ‘The Timeless Call,’ the Irish theme, and the Baseball theme, plus a character-specific theme for Moonlight Graham.

While the application of the Baseball theme and the Moonlight Graham theme is obvious, the Timeless Call theme is less so. It’s the name Horner gave to the melody we hear in anticipation of a magical event, or some piece of wonderment; it is heard just before Ray hears the voice in his cornfield entreating him to build the diamond, just before the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson appears on the field, and when Ray is compelled to drive across country to seek out people he has never met. It’s inviting, warm, wholesome, but just a tiny bit adventurous and inquisitive, with a sense of childlike innocence that is completely compelling. Similarly, the Irish Theme really has nothing to do with Ireland, but is instead related directly to Ray – his needs, his loves, his regrets, his past, and his future. It is this theme that is the emotional backbone of the score, and which will send the score to new heights during its finale.

The score opens with “The Cornfield” and a set of mysterious breathy pan pipes, before the first performance of the Timeless Call theme appears on warm horns at 0:15. The theme is surrounded by an array of gorgeous piano chords and chimes which are prototypical Horner; eventually, at 1:29, this gives way to the nostalgic piano-based Baseball theme, an old-fashioned piece that affectionately underscores America’s long-standing passion with the sport, and Ray’s personal memories of the game as they relate to his long-deceased father. By the end of the cue Ray has his first encounter with ‘The Voice,’ and we hear the first iteration of the Cornfield Voice motif – dark synth chords, trilling pan flutes, eerie and ghostly. This motif is much more prominent in the film than it is on the album, and it provides a sense of uncertainty and potential danger to Ray’s creepy aural encounters in the dead of night. After a few moments of build up for distant-sounding electronics augmented with synth woodwinds, the first performance of the Irish theme appears at 0:56 in “Deciding to Build the Field” for solo piano and breathy electronic woodwinds, providing a wonderful foreshadowing for the reason why the field is built. The sound is intimate, the piano chords sublime. At 2:15 the cue switches to an original piece of country rock for guitars and a modern drum kit – this is Iowa in the 1980s, after all – before concluding with more performances of the Irish theme, surrounded by gorgeous ethereal chords and a moody synth choir that pre-dates Titanic by almost a decade.

These two themes occur frequently throughout the rest of the score. “Shoeless Joe” is the scene where Shoeless Joe Jackson – the fall guy of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team which was (perhaps unjustly) accused of throwing games – appears as a ghost on Ray’s newly-constructed baseball diamond. Here, the Timeless Call theme is surrounded by more fluttering pan pipes, more dramatic synth chords, and more reprises of a recurring 5-note piano motif, while the whole thing is underpinned by a relentless and slightly ominous synth pulse, clearly illustrating Ray’s shock and even fear at seeing a man who has been dead for more than 30 years standing in his back yard wielding a baseball bat. Later, “Field of Dreams” offers a sentimental but wholly beautiful version of the Irish theme for a solo acoustic guitar backed by synth pan flutes; it’s just sublime. Elsewhere, “Night Mists” offers a series of explorations and impressions, variations and improvisations, based around the Timeless Call theme, the Irish theme, and the Cornfield Voice motif. The whole thing has a magical, airy sound that is just wonderful, pianos combining with synths and chimes in a way that is emotional and poignant.

One of the mysterious ‘quests’ that Ray embarks on is to find a man named Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, whose entire Major League Baseball career consisted of one inning in a game for the New York Giants in 1922; he subsequently retired to rural Minnesota and became the town doctor, eventually simply becoming known as Doc Graham. Two cues, and one recurring theme, underscore this adventure, in “The Timeless Street,” and “Moonlight Graham”. The theme for Graham is prominent in these cues, appearing for the first time at 1:12 in the former, and 1:08 in the latter; it is tonally similar to the other two main themes, having a deep vein of rich Americana running through its core, speaking to the honor and the decency of the man, but it also has a touch of melancholy too – missed opportunities, regrets, a life that could have been lived a different way. In the first cue Horner arranges the theme for more moody, ghostly, ethereal synths, echoing into the vastness; in the second the now-familiar 5-note piano riff ushers in a beautifully textured, magical statement of the theme on a warm, wholesome solo piano, surrounded by a set of evocative improvisations emanating from the main recurring chords.

Three other cues offer one-off thematic ideas. “Old Ball Players” is a wonderful piece of languid period jazz, orchestrated by the great Billy May for muted horns, clarinets, plucked bass, and brushed snares, as the rest of the 1919 White Sox team comes to play on Ray’s cornfield diamond. “The Library” is another piece of modern scoring, combining electronics with more country rock, and spotlighting an upbeat pennywhistle melody. “The Drive Home” is one of my favorite pieces on the album, a unique melody that emerges from a bed of gorgeous rhapsodic piano textures with an ethereal synth and pan flute backing. It accompanies the scene where Ray is driving at night with the reclusive author Terence Mann, who he has convinced to join him on his quest, and they discuss the big questions – life, death, destiny, fathers and sons. The music is reflective, thoughtful, touching, and completely captivating.

The finale of the score begins with “Doc’s Memories.” Somehow, as if by magic, the 1922 version of Doc Graham had appeared on the side of the road as Ray and Terence drove home, hitch-hiking; they pick him up and take him back to Iowa with them, where the young ballplayer finally gets a bat with the big league ballplayers. Things take a dark turn when Ray’s young daughter Karen accidentally falls off the bleachers and starts choking on a hot dog; threatening blasts on the piano accompanied by shrill pipes illustrate the danger. Moonlight Graham’s theme returns, urgent and dramatic, underpinned with turbulent string pulses, as the young player – knowing that if he steps off the baseball diamond and into the ‘real world’ he will transform back into the Old Doc Graham, and will never be able to return – does exactly that, sacrificing his own dreams to save the life of a child. Horner captures this moment by letting the orchestra take over, combining the Timeless Call theme with Moonlight Graham’s theme and many of the mysterious, ghostly textures heard throughout the score. The ball players show the old timer respect, and form a sort-of guard of honor as Graham leaves the field for the last time and disappears into the corn.

The culmination of it all is “The Place Where Dreams Come True,” which without a word of hyperbole I consider to be one of the single greatest pieces of film music ever written. It begins as Shoeless Joe – much to Ray’s frustration – invites Terence to go… wherever the ghosts go at the end of each day. Horner score’s Mann’s child-like excitement and sense of anticipation as he walks out into the cornfield, and beyond, with more of those gorgeous piano chords and motifs, and what sounds like a variation on the Timeless Call theme, only this time the orchestra has joined in, soft chimes and warm horns, delicate strings and harp glissandi. Then it is Ray’s turn; the final realization of what his quest was all about. As the sun sets on the horizon, Shoeless Joe points to a hitherto anonymous ball player, lurking around by home plate; the man takes his helmet off, and Ray sees that it is the ghost of his father, young and handsome, as he was in his youth. If you build it, he will come. Ray realizes that he finally has a chance to reconcile with the father he lost, to bury old disagreements, and finally come to terms with the broken relationship that has defined his life. That’s what all this was about.

Horner switches to the Irish theme at 2:36, finally bringing the full orchestra into play. The music gets lusher and more fulsome, more and more emotional, even bringing back the acoustic guitar to play alongside the orchestra. The oboe statement of the theme that begins at 3:34 is effortlessly sublime. As Ray and his father stroll around the field Horner slowly increases the emotional tension, adding additional layers of instrumentation, passing the first four notes of the theme around the orchestra from strings to trumpets to horns doubled with flutes, until the moment when Ray – on the verge of tears, and with a lump in his throat – asks his ‘dad’ if he wants to ‘have a catch,’ and father and son toss a ball around, bonding over their mutual love of baseball for possibly the first time in their lives. As Ray’s ball nestles into his father’s glove, at precisely 7:33, the Irish theme emerges into its most emotionally devastating performance, majestic yet intimate, glorious yet tender. These are the film music moments I live for. I’m crying as I’m writing this.

The “End Credits” offers a lovely summation of several of the score’s main themes, including a notably wonderful solo horn performance by the legendary Jim Thatcher, a long-awaited recapitulation of the Baseball theme, and an extended final statement of the Cornfield Voice motif and its associated textures, which ends the score on a thoughtful and magical note.

Although James Horner knew very little about baseball, Field of Dreams is nevertheless one of his most personal and moving scores. For the Horner fan, the whole thing is full of ‘Hornerisms’ that sound like home: little chord progressions, certain instrumental combinations, the way many cues fade out into a dream-like ether of sunset and shadow, things he did throughout his career. It’s also a masterclass in thematic application, foreshadowing the final reveal of father and son within the first minute of the second cue, and blending multiple thematic ideas together as the drama progresses. It shows Horner at his most creative, ignoring the ‘full orchestra’ edict the studio expected and instead working with an evocative electronic sound palette that gives the film a unique but wholly appropriate sound. And then, in the finale, it confirms beyond doubt why Horner was so revered by his peers; the way he brings the music to the forefront of the sound mix, allowing the audience to feel the overwhelming emotions Ray feels as he reconciles with his father, is spellbinding.

In that final scene, there is a brief conversation between Ray and his father where he asks “Is this heaven?” and Ray replies, amusingly, “It’s Iowa.” Ray’s father looks around and muses “Could’a sworn it was heaven.” After a beat, Ray hesitatingly asks “Is there a heaven?” to which his father replies “Oh yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true.” For me, Field of Dreams is one of the scores where my musical dreams come true, and I have James Horner to thank for it. This is easily one of the best scores of 1989, is one of the best scores of Horner’s entire career, and that finale cue – as I mentioned before – is one of the greatest single cues in the history of cinema.

Buy the Field of Dreams soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Cornfield (5:34)
  • Deciding to Build The Field (5:51)
  • Shoeless Joe (2:14)
  • The Timeless Street (2:38)
  • Old Ball Players (2:44)
  • The Drive Home (2:13)
  • Field of Dreams (3:30)
  • The Library (2:29)
  • Moonlight Graham (2:03)
  • Night Mists (4:19)
  • Doc’s Memories (3:17)
  • The Place Where Dreams Come True (9:06)
  • End Credits (4:07)

Running Time: 50 minutes 05 seconds

Novus 30602N (1989)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner and Billy May. Featured musical soloists James Horner, Tommy Tedesco, Ian Underwood, Ralph Grierson, Tim May, Steve Schaeffer, Neil Stubenhaus, Jim Thatcher, Mike Taylor and Tony Hinnigan. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by James Horner.

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