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DAD – James Horner

September 26, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Dad was a sentimental family drama starring Jack Lemmon, Ted Danson, and Ethan Hawke as Jake, John, and Billy Tremont, three generations of fathers and sons who are brought together when Jake’s wife Bette, played by Olympia Dukakis, suffers a health emergency. Needing to fend for himself for the first time in decades, Jake finds a new lease of life through his forced independence, and bonds with his workaholic son and free-spirited grandson, as well as members of his extended family that he has been neglecting. However, when Bette returns home, she baulks at the formerly-passive Jake’s new assertiveness, which leads to conflict and – eventually – more medical drama. The film was written and directed by Gary David Goldberg (the creator of Family Ties), adapted from a novel by William Wharton, and was an unexpected critical success, with special praise reserved for Jack Lemmon’s performance, and for the Oscar-nominated old age makeup.

The score for Dad was by James Horner, and it’s one of those scores in his career that often gets overlooked because it’s sandwiched between all-time classics like Field of Dreams and Glory, and box office smashes like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, all of which came out a few months either side of this one. It really is a shame that Dad so little-known these days, because Horner excelled at this sort of writing; in many ways, Dad was the first score in a series of works which looked at family dynamics in an emotional way, because over the next few years he would explore more intimate territory through scores like 1990’s Once Around, 1993’s pair House of Cards and Jack the Bear, and 1996’s To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. These scores all share a similar sound, and a similar approach to the emotional depth, and anyone who appreciates those works will find themselves being drawn to Horner’s tender sentiment here too.

The score is mainly a one-theme work, with an A-phrase and a B-phrase which are both introduced in the first cue, “Prologue and Main Title”. The theme is one of Horner’s loveliest, light and whimsical, but imbued with heart and compassion. The A-phrase appears for the first time at 1:55 on elegant pianos backed by strings and light woodwinds, and then switches to the B-phrase at 2:26 to present a melody that is a little more heartfelt, with oboes backed by a sweeping string accompaniment. These two themes pass backwards and forwards between each other for the rest of the cue, with each new repetition offering a slightly different variation – the piano statement of the A-phrase at 4:15, which is enlivened by a light percussion sound and a more poppy arrangement, is especially noteworthy.

Thereafter, these two melodies form the core of the score. “Saying Goodnight” performs the main theme at a slower tempo, with nostalgia and kindness, and a sense of heartfelt intimacy that is quite beautiful. “The Vigil” is a fuller exploration of a secondary theme featuring a gorgeous duet for guitar and oboe, which segues into the main theme after a minute or so with great delicacy and warmth. “Taking Dad Home” is much more symphonic than most of the rest of the score, and adopts a much more dramatic style, with serious piano chords and moments of brooding darkness that speak to the ever-present concerns over Jake’s health. The repeated statements of the main themes in this cue are at times deeply moving. Some of the chord progressions and interludes in these tracks remind me very much of the work Horner did on Cocoon, another film about an elderly person regaining a new lease of life. There’s that Horner ‘career symphony’ raising its head again.

The other interesting element of the score is a sort of ethereal sound which seems to represent one of the film’s other key elements – the ‘fantasy world’ that Jake retreats into whenever life gets too much for him. The fantasy world is one of lakes and fields, trees and wide open spaces, and it’s here that Horner adopts (possibly for the first time) the gorgeous textures that he often associated with nature, and which he would later explore more fully in scores like The Spitfire Grill and The New World. You can hear it in the beginning of the “Prologue,” where Horner uses shimmering piano and synth textures, in “Playing Catch/The Farm,” which is dreamlike and hypnotic, and in “Recovery,” which has a more prominent synth component that gives the cue a different, interesting texture. This was the second time that year that Horner would score scenes of a father and son bonding over a simple game of baseball.

Two other cues of note include “Mopping The Floor,” a fun and catchy country/bluegrass piece for a montage sequence featuring fiddle, bass, and steel drums; and “Dad,” which appears to be a specially-recorded pop version of the main theme featuring contemporary percussion licks and a saxophone solo that is perfectly pleasant, but has dated somewhat.

The final two cues, “The Greenhouse” and “Goodbyes,” run for a combined total of thirteen minutes, and are where Horner really goes for the emotional jugular. Both parts of the main theme are performed at their most sentimental and manipulative, with the sole intention of stirring the listener’s tear ducts, but when it’s done with as much taste and sensitivity as Horner does it here, this sort of manipulation is exactly what’s required. The tremolo strings that underpin large parts of “The Greenhouse” make the whole thing feel anticipatory, like a weight waiting to be lifted, while the deep cello chords that come to the fore in the cue’s second half give it gravitas and meaning. “Goodbyes” builds in emotion as it progresses, giving the movie’s sad finale just the right amount of bittersweet catharsis; the cymbal rings, chimes, and harp glissandi that herald each new statement of the theme increase their impact significantly, and by the end the music has simply swept you away with its loveliness. God, when Horner wrote like this, he really was peerless.

Dad is one of James Horner’s little masterpieces. It’s running time is short – just a hair over half an hour – but any longer than that might have resulted in a score that felt too repetitive, considering that it’s essentially a one-theme-and-variations work. The score was released on CD by MCA Records, but has been out of print for some time, so physical copies of it might be difficult to find, but it is available to purchase or stream through most online retailers. As such, anyone who has ever appreciated Horner’s style of writing for emotionally powerful family drama scores will find this to be one of the finest of his entire career.

Buy the Dad soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue and Main Title (5:15)
  • Saying Goodnight (2:31)
  • Mopping The Floor (1:01)
  • Playing Catch/The Farm (3:26)
  • The Vigil (2:22)
  • Taking Dad Home (6:39)
  • Dad (3:11)
  • Recovery (1:26)
  • The Greenhouse (4:04)
  • Goodbyes (9:09)

Running Time: 39 minutes 04 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-6359 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Grieg McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by James Horner.

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