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SNEAKERS – James Horner

September 1, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Sneakers is a fun caper movie with an all-star cast, directed by Phil Alden Robinson, and written by Robinson with Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes. Robert Redford stars as Martin Bishop, a former computer hacker now working as a ‘penetration tester’ for the tech industry, who spends his time leading a team of various misfits played by Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, and David Strathairn, while trying to maintain a relationship with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Mary McDonnell. Bishop’s life is thrown into turmoil when he is tasked by the NSA with recovering a device that is capable of breaking the encryption of nearly every computer system in the world; this brings him back into contact with his former partner Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), who spent many years in federal prison, and who now wants the device for himself so he can destabilize the global economy and exact some revenge. The film was a reasonable critical and commercial success, which grossed over $105 million at the box office worldwide, and maintained the then 55-year-old Redford’s status as a top cinematic draw.

The score for Sneakers was by James Horner, who previously worked with director Robinson on Field of Dreams in 1989, and it was the last of his four scores from 1992. In many ways, Sneakers is one of the most important scores of his entire career, as it sort of marks the dividing line between the pre-1992 period when he would still regularly write off-beat works for banks of synths or for rock ensembles, and the post-1992 period where he fully and consistently embraced bold, rich orchestral lyricism. Sneakers is also something of a seminal work in the way that it introduced so many of the thematic, compositional, and dramatic touchstones that defined a great deal of the rest of his career. It’s not completely cut-and-dried, of course, and bits and pieces of Sneakers do hearken back to earlier techniques and sounds, but so many of the ideas Horner introduced in this score would go on to become staples, influencing significantly scores as diverse as Apollo 13, The Pelican Brief, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Titanic, The Spitfire Grill, A Beautiful Mind, and so many more.

The score is mostly orchestral, albeit with a more restrained ensemble size than one might expect, but it is bolstered by the wonderful saxophone solos of jazz virtuoso Branford Marsalis. Horner collaborated with numerous acclaimed soloists in the latter part of his career, but Sneakers was the first time that a luminary such as Marsalis was involved at such a high profile level, and as such he gets prime billing and even his photo on the CD cover. Marsalis’s sax usually carries the performances of the score’s main theme, which is heard in a concert arrangement the third cue, “The Sneakers Theme.” The theme is light, effervescent, and a little bit sexy, and is backed with delicate sparkling orchestra, a prancing marimba, and jazzy brushed and tapped percussion lines that almost sound like a typewriter.

However, the score is much richer and more varied than just that one theme, and offers so many interesting ideas as it develops. The “Main Title,” which underscores the opening scene of teenage hackers Martin and Cosmo being rumbled by the FBI, leading to Cosmo being arrested because Martin left to get pizza, is initially a fun variation on Horner’s familiar four-note motif for saxophones and cooing female voices, but then it morphs into what I believe is the career-first performance of the propulsive accelerando that would later appear prominently in the scores for films such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, A Beautiful Mind, and Bicentennial Man, and would become popularly known as his ‘genius theme’ – each film has some sort of intellectual prodigy as its main character, and so Horner responded to all of them in a similar musical way, as per the now-virtually-confirmed ‘Horner career symphony’ theory. It remains one of Horner’s most interesting and recognizable recurring ideas, and it’s as great now as it was then.

The first part of “Too Many Secrets” underscores the scene where Martin and his cohorts begin to unravel the mysteries of the black box that they have uncovered for the NSA, and it is scored initially with a light, unusually ghostly passage for piano and woodwinds performing deconstructed variations on the ‘genius theme,’ before switching back to the four-note sax-and-vocals main theme. The second half of the cue is filled with action and suspense, and relates to Martin’s discovery that the NSA Agents who hired him are not exactly who they claimed to be. Horner’s music for the scene is dynamic and energetic, and filled with so many highly personal touches in the composition and the instrumentation. The enthralling ticking woodblocks and metallic tinkles would later feature prominently in scores like Apollo 13, the dissonant crashing pianos are from The Pelican Brief, and many of the chord progressions are pure Horner, and will be instantly familiar to his fans, going all the way back to things like Brainstorm. Running through all this are numerous allusions to the main theme and the genius theme – it’s such a brilliant, inventive piece of music.

There is a subtle undercurrent of menace to the excellent “Cosmo… Old Friend,” wherein Martin’s childhood partner reveals himself to be the mastermind behind the plot to secure the black box, 25 years after that fateful night. Horner returns to the delicacy of the main theme, with its 4-note motif and little vocal inflections, but here it’s injected with such iciness, such thinly-veiled malice; the layers of dissonance in the strings behind the piano chords and Marsalis’s sax make the whole thing feel unsettling, without ever truly tipping its hand, and speak to the bitterness that Cosmo feels at how his life turned out compared to Martin’s – all on the random luck of who went out for pizza. The more classically-minded will appreciate Horner’s subtle allusions to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in the string phrasing, and it’s all just superb.

The outstanding action music returns in “The Hand-Off,” with more of those tremendous clattering pianos, and the ticking woodblocks, all surrounding little fragments of the main sax theme – I especially love the rhythmic sequence for snares that begins around the 1:10 mark, which is clearly Horner’s practice attempt at the motif that would eventually appear in “Samuel’s Death” from Legends of the Fall, and then in several of the main action scenes in Titanic. “Planning the Sneak” is an enjoyable reprise of the Sneakers Theme, albeit transposed from saxophone to piano, and with an unusual flourish at the end of the melodic line that makes the whole thing feel a little playful and optimistic. This leads then into the score’s main set piece, the 15-minute sequence comprising “Playtronics Break-In,” “The Escape,” and “Whistler’s Rescue”.

“Playtronics Break-In” is a masterful exercise in creating tension through suspenseful build-up, and then letting it all go in exhilarating release; it takes all the elements from the rest of the score – the crashing pianos, the tapped woodblocks, the incessant snare drum licks, the eerie female vocals, clanging tubular bells, little orchestral clusters – and weaves them together with elements of both the main four-note theme and the Sneakers theme to create a mini-symphony. The way Horner moves around these different elements is a perfect example of why, for me, he was one of the best dramatic narrative composers in film music history. He’s telling a story with this music, following the emotions of the characters, enhancing the moments of anxiety and/or relief they feel as they bring Martin’s elaborate plan to fruition, and he’s doing it with sophisticated, through-composed music that develops organically and feels like a coherent whole instead of little bits stitched together, but is still precisely timed to the millisecond. It’s fantastic.

Then in “The Escape and Whistler’s Rescue” Horner lets loose with a moment of orchestral dynamism that underscores the scene where David Strathairn’s character Whistler frantically drives a truck through the Playtronics parking lot to rescue his friends, despite the fact that he is completely blind! Horner’s music celebrates Whistler’s moment of startling fearlessness with what is, essentially, a super-hero theme, which has a melody similar to the finale of the 1987 score Project X, and which has a rousing tone and general appeal that fans of scores like The Rocketeer will enjoy. A piece of trivia for movie buffs: the Playtronics parking lot scene was actually filmed in what was then the parking lot of the Countrywide Home Loans building in Simi Valley, California, which I worked in from 2010 to 2014!

The sentimental and wistful “Goodbye” is a lovely, delicate reprise of the Main Theme performed with real tenderness by Marsalis – one of the most interesting and emotional versions of the ‘four note motif’ Horner ever wrote – and which eventually offers a little sense of dramatic closure thanks to Horner’s subtle final statement of Cosmo’s creepy string textures, and some final allusions to the music from the opening scene, as the two former childhood friends reflect on the direction of their lives. The conclusive “And The Blind Shall See” is a superb combination of the Sneakers theme, bold and strong, with Whistler’s heroic theme, which ends the score on a spirited high.

One thing that’s interesting to me is the fact that, for quite some time, I didn’t rate Sneakers especially highly. The film was released 18 months or so before I really started paying proper attention to film music, which meant that scores like Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, and Apollo 13 were my Horner gateway; had I first experienced Horner’s music through Sneakers, then I think my reception to it would have been much more positive than it was when I actually first heard it many years later. Furthermore, in those early years, I found the sax-led jazz elements of the score to be less to my taste than they are now, while my knowledge of Horner’s career and how his stylistics progressed over the years was also lacking. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that, for many years, I severely under-rated this score.

Now, however, with the hindsight of 30 years of experience, and with my much more details knowledge of Horner’s career, I can appreciate Sneakers for the landmark score it is. It’s a creative, intelligent, multi-faceted piece of music that combines elements of jazz with powerful action and suspense, understated but expertly detailed drama, and occasional outbursts of rousing heroism, into a thoroughly entertaining whole. The fact that the score was also the think-tank for so many of Horner’s most iconic late-career thematic and compositional touches, especially the ‘genius motif accelerando’ and the woodblock-led action, makes it stand out as one of the most important scores of his entire filmography, and as such is an essential listen for anyone who has any interest in knowing what James Horner was all about.

Buy the Sneakers soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:59)
  • Too Many Secrets (6:17)
  • The Sneakers Theme (3:34)
  • Cosmo… Old Friend (7:09)
  • The Hand-Off (3:07)
  • Planning The Sneak (3:22)
  • Playtronics Break-In (10:39)
  • The Escape and Whistler’s Rescue (3:24)
  • Goodbye (3:24)
  • And The Blind Shall See (4:28)

Running Time: 48 minutes 23 seconds

Columbia CK 53146 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter and Frank Bennett. Featured musical soloist Branford Marsalis. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by James Horner.

  1. Kevin
    September 4, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    Great review. I agree that this is a lively, jaunty, and seminal score. The “genius” motif is one of my favorite Horner themes and it’s really cool to be able to trace it to this score. But even without that, the score stands alone with its other themes, like the Whistler theme. Great score. RIP James Horner.

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