Home > Reviews > THUNDERHEART – James Horner



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Thunderheart is a serious, interesting murder-mystery thriller, directed by Michael Apted from an original screenplay by John Fusco. The film stars Val Kilmer as FBI agent Ray Levoi, who is sent to a Native American reservation in South Dakota to lead the investigation into the murder of a tribal council member; Levoi is of Sioux heritage, but has no connection to his tribe and his ancestry, and is reluctant to go. However, once he arrives on the reservation, he becomes increasingly convinced that a cover-up is happening, involving local authorities, an apparently dangerous militia group, and even members of the US government. The film co-stars Sam Shepard, Graham Greene, and Fred Ward, and was a modest box office hit, while also receiving critical acclaim for its tone, pacing, performances, and sympathetic portrayal of contemporary issues in Native American communities.

The score for Thunderheart was by James Horner, who previously worked with director Apted on Gorky Park in 1983 and Class Action in 1991. Thunderheart is an interesting score because it appears at the very end of Horner’s ‘experimental synth’ period, and is one of the last scores he wrote in the series that includes such titles as Where the River Runs Black, The Name of the Rose, and Vibes, among others. It’s also one of the first scores where Horner incorporated musical elements related to Native American culture, which is something he would explore later to a more intense degree in his music for films like Windtalkers and The Missing. As such, Thunderheart is one of most the interesting but, unfortunately, least accessible Horner scores of the 1990s. It’s a score awash in moody, sometimes quite eerie electronic tonalities, accentuated by a variety of chanted vocals, Native American woodwind textures, and metallic percussion, alongside the ethnically incongruous but hugely effective Japanese shakuhachi flute, which is used to add a haunting, mysterious quality to the entire score.

There is a main theme of sorts – a slow, elegant, subtly mystical synth melody that is first introduced at the very beginning of “The Oglala Sioux,” and reappears later in “Proud Nation” and the deliberate, serious “Thunderheart” – and which slowly comes to represent the nobility of the tribe, their determination to hold onto their ancestral land at all costs, and Ray’s gradual acceptance of his own native heritage. It’s understated almost to the point where it becomes subliminal, barely even registering as a theme, until it finally comes to a head in the 8½-minute final cue “This Land is Not For Sale/End Titles,” but more on that later.

The other important elements of the score are the vocals and the shakuhachi. In context, the vocals represent an important plot point in which Ray – who has suppressed his native heritage for years – is identified by a tribal elder as ‘thunderheart,’ a prophesied savior, and then begins having visions of ancient Sioux warriors, spectral dancing figures out on the prairie. The “Main Title,” and then later cues like “First Vision” and “Ghost Dance,” adopt this texture prominently, resulting in a series of shadowy, hauntingly evocative pieces which are authentic but with which some listeners may find it difficult to connect.

Meanwhile, the ethereal sound of the shakuhachi flute adds a harsh, abrasive tone to several cues: sometimes Horner has it performing chuffing, pulsating, breathy rhythms, while in other places it is a shrill, piercing scream, almost like a Sioux war cry. Horner’s repeated use of this instrument over the years is so odd in terms of its actual ethnic origins, but so effective at creating a melancholy mood: everything from Willow to Legends of the Fall, Jumanji, and even The Mask of Zorro made excellent use of its plaintive sound, and Thunderheart is very much the same.

Other cues of note in Thunderheart include the desolate piano solos and intense electronic bass rumbles in “The Oglala Sioux” and “Evidence,” the brutal musical violence of “My People/Wounded Knee,” and a couple of strong action sequences in “Jimmy’s Escape,” “The Goons,” and especially the excellent and intense “Run for the Stronghold”. These action cues all have commonalities – rhythmic shakuhachi blasts, low end piano clusters, clattering percussion, electronic drones, and occasionally some very harsh synth sounds – but the latter of the three is really superb, a foreshadowing of the similar-sounding action music in scores like Legends of the Fall and Braveheart – I’m thinking especially of cues like “Revenge” from the former, and (interestingly) “Revenge” from the latter . In addition, Horner sometimes weaves a deconstructed version of the main theme through these cues, sometimes nothing more than the underlying rhythm transposed to anvils, as a subliminal reminder of the score’s overarching architecture.

The powerful finale of the score is the aforementioned “This Land is Not For Sale/End Titles,” in which the subtle main theme finally emerges in a recognizable, more emotional performance. Don’t get your hopes up for one of Horner’s trademark sweeping orchestral statements, because it’s not that in any way, but when taken in context with the style and tone of the rest of the score, it still makes quite an impact with its sense of quiet, solemn power, and rich heritage. The first half of the cue explores the main theme, while the second revisits some of the action material from elsewhere in the score, before fading out with more ghostly electronic textures, shimmering vocals, and spooky shakuhachi chords.

When you consider where Thunderheart fits in James Horner’s chronology – just after things like Field of Dreams and Glory and The Rocketeer, and just before things like Sneakers and Searching for Bobby Fischer and The Man Without a Face – it’s an easy score to overlook. It’s so different from everything else around it, and most people would agree that it’s inferior all to the others that have been mentioned. However, to ignore it would be to do it a disservice. In many ways Thunderheart marks the end of the era where Horner would write experimental synth scores with reasonable regularity; of course he would revisit some of the stylistics heard here in other later scores, but it wouldn’t really be until The Chumscrubber in 2005 that Horner would fully embrace this style of scoring across an entire score again.

Listeners have to have a tolerance for low-key moody electronica, synth-based ambiance, dissonant action music, tribal chanting, and lots of shakuhachi, in order to appreciate Thunderheart, but those with the patience to do so will eventually find it to be a rewarding listen. In film context the score is outstanding, capturing Ray’s journey and the desolate visual atmosphere perfectly, while the album offers a dark, anguished, plaintive howl for Native American cultural acceptance, and a echo of past atrocities that is hard to ignore.

Buy the Thunderheart soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:13)
  • The Oglala Sioux (2:38)
  • Jimmy’s Escape (3:34)
  • Proud Nation (1:59)
  • Evidence (1:40)
  • First Vision (1:16)
  • Ghost Dance (3:16)
  • The Goons (2:36)
  • Medicine Man (1:02)
  • My People/Wounded Knee (4:30)
  • Thunderheart (5:26)
  • Run for the Stronghold (5:25)
  • This Land is Not For Sale/End Titles (8:24)

Running Time: 43 minutes 59 seconds

Intrada Records MAF-7027D (1992)

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

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