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CLASS ACTION – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Class Action is a courtroom drama directed by Michael Apted, starring Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Hackman plays Jedidiah Ward, a liberal civil rights lawyer who is hired to file a lawsuit against a major auto manufacturer whose station wagons have a dangerous design flaw. The case becomes more complicated for him when he discovers that his daughter Maggie (Mastrantonio) is representing the firm he’s suing; Jedidiah and Maggie have been estranged for many years ever since she discovered that he was cheating on his wife, her mother. The film is intended to be an indictment of corporate greed, specifically companies which weigh financial risk against public interest, while also providing a father-daughter redemption story. The film co-stars Colin Friels, Joanna Merlin, and Laurence Fishburne, and has a score by James Horner.

Class Action was the second of three films that Horner scored for Michael Apted, after Gorky Park in 1983 and before Thunderheart in 1992. Apted was a director who generally preferred Horner to write more understated scores for his films, and Class Action is perhaps the most understated of them all. In fact, a case could be made for Class Action being one of the most understated scores of James Horner’s entire career; it’s a score written for just three instruments: a piano performed either by Horner or fellow pianist Ralph Grierson, a saxophone performed by Brandon Fields, and various keyboard synthesizers performed by Ian Underwood, the latter often mimicking a bass guitar, a synth choir, and some metallic sound effects. Other than that, that’s it – no strings, no brass, no other woodwinds, no other live percussion.

The score is also defiantly monothematic, with almost every cue – and I do mean EVERY cue – being built around the same recurring theme, which is presented in full in the “Main Title”. The theme is a lightly jazzy, lightly dramatic piece that passes a melody around from saxophone to piano, over the top of a twisty keyboard riff accentuated by metallic percussion and synth bass. It’s a sound that Horner would later revisit in scores like Unlawful Entry and especially Sneakers, the latter with a great deal more success; there are also some tonal echoes of John Williams scores like Presumed Innocent, the popularity of which tended to influence the sound of courtroom thrillers for many years afterwards.

And, basically, that’s your lot. Virtually every cue thereafter is a direct restatement, or a subtle variation, on this main theme, with very little dramatic or emotional deviation from cue to cue. It’s really quite surprising that Horner chose to do this; I don’t know whether he was a late replacement for a different composer and had to throw it all together at the last minute, or whether Apted specifically asked Horner to put this one theme across the entire movie, but whatever the reason is, Class Action is perhaps the most thematically unambitious score of Horner’s career. There’s nothing really depicting the relationship between Jedidiah and Maggie, or how their antagonism thaws into mutual respect by the end of the film. There’s no prominent motif for the villainous auto manufacturer at the heart of the story. It’s just this one theme, over and over and over and over and over… for nearly half an hour.

Actually, that’s not quite true. “Memories of Mom” is a piece performed by Horner on solo piano and is the emotional high point of the score. It’s the one variation on the main theme that seeks to offer a different sound and texture; the performance is clearly based on the ‘Moonlight Graham’ theme from Field of Dreams, and it has the same sort of wistful, longing sound that accompanied Kevin Costner’s search for the spectral baseball player in that movie’s magical midsection. The layer of atmospheric electronics over the second half of the cue builds up this feeling of melancholy nostalgia even more, resulting in an effective and poignant sound.

“Do You Like Me” continues the predominantly electronic tone. Cues like “The Deposition” and “Iron Mountain” use some eerily dissonant textures and tension-filled keyboard passages to increase the sense of drama. “Michael Revealed” has perhaps a little more emphasis on the saxophone. “Paper Blizzard” brings together the saxophone and the keyboard dissonance, while the rattling nervousness of “Stolen Files” offers something of a foreshadowing of the style of another of Horner’s legal thrillers, The Pelican Brief.

“The Trial” is almost wholly dissonant, a series of eerie, blustery keyboard chords that add a level of disagreeable but effective anxiety. “Healing the Rift” returns to the soft sentimentality of “Memories of Mom” with a more prominent (and occasionally impressionistic) saxophone part. The “End Title” is essentially a reprise of the main, and that’s your lot. The one source cue is a solo piano version of Harry Warren and Mac Gordon’s standard song “The More I See You” performed with lush romanticism by Ralph Grierson.

Class Action is not going to live long in the annals of film music history. It barely scratches into the third tier of Horner scores that are ‘just OK,’ and so this score will be mostly of interest to Horner completists and anyone with an abiding admiration for Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose flowing raven hair is featured prominently in several of the photos in the CD booklet. Hackman, in contrast, looks surly and has a receding hairline, which Mastrantonio’s character has probably noticed, and this is why she is wildly over-compensating in the follicle department now, anticipating the day when her own unkempt tresses will lose their youthful luxuriousness and vivacious volume. As you can see, the fact that I am writing about hair rather than music at this point is indicative that there is very little else to say about James Horner here. Class Action is a fine, but mostly unremarkable score, with a decent jazzy main theme that unfortunately loses its impact after the twelfth refrain.

Buy the Class Action soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:54)
  • Memories of Mom (4:10)
  • Do You Like Me (1:43)
  • The Deposition (2:39)
  • The More I See You (written by Harry Warren and Mac Gordon, performed by Ralph Grierson) (1:53)
  • Depth Charge (1:49)
  • Michael Revealed (1:21)
  • Iron Mountain (0:45)
  • Paper Blizzard (2:44)
  • Stolen Files (1:11)
  • The Trial (2:47)
  • Healing the Rift (5:20)
  • End Title (2:37)

Running Time: 31 minutes 53 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5303 (1991)

Music composed and performed by James Horner. Additional featured performances by Ralph Grierson, Brandon Fields and Ian Underwood. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by James Horner.

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