We woke up on Tuesday morning to some very sad news: James Horner, the Oscar-winning composer of such classic films as Apollo 13 and Titanic, had passed unexpectedly. He was only 61 but left behind a truly stunning body of work, some of the best of which was for the Walt Disney Company, including, in our estimation, the greatest score of Horner’s career.
Horner got his start working for Roger Corman on a string of schlocky, low budget genre movies that would rightfully find their place in the canon of great cult films. And Horner’s ability to work quickly and efficiently, something he learned while on the Corman films, would come in handy throughout his career. He recently admitted to writing the score to frequent collaborator James Cameron’s Aliens (a score that was used endlessly in trailers for action movies for more than a decade after the film came out and can be currently heard in Walt Disney World’s Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios) in less than two weeks. And Horner’s first two scores for the Walt Disney Company came in the form of last minute replacements.
For 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Horner replaced French composer Georges Delerue, as part of a massive, $5 million overhaul of the film (a process that also included radically re-editing director Jack Clayton’s original, far darker cut and shooting new footage, which set back the initial release date by more than a year). Horner’s work was less severe and more commercial (for curious collectors, Delerue’s original score was eventually released by Disney). Two years later, Horner performed a similar feat for The Journey of Natty Gann, replacing work done by Elmer Bernstein, who had labored so long on the film that he had essentially composed two separate scores. Still, that wasn’t good enough, and his work was jettisoned for Horner’s more soulful approach. (The final film, while largely Horner’s, still contains two small Bernstein cues.) In both cases, Horner came in and made a seemingly impossible situation seem quite possible, pulling off two pieces of film music with grace and passion.
Horner would go on to produce scores for several more Disney films, including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (one of our personal favorites and unlike anything else Horner had done before or since), Bicentennial Man, Mighty Joe Young and A Far Off Place (an underrated movie on pretty much every front, including Horner’s music). He also contributed minor work to Disney’s witchy cult classic Hocus Pocus. But Horner’s greatest score and biggest accomplishment in terms of his work with Disney, was The Rocketeer.
The Rocketeer, released 24 years ago this month, feels like a film slightly out-of-step with the times. This is not a bad thing; in 1991 action movies were pulse pounding, quick-cutting, violent affairs with sarcastic, indestructible leading men and an emphasis on “attitude” and “edginess.” The Rocketeer, on the other hand, was a deliberate, winking throwback to kitschy Saturday morning serials. Our hero was an aw-shucks goofball (Billy Campbell) whose biggest superpower was sunny optimism and who discovers his trademark rocket pack by accident. It’s a film that feels both classic and ahead of its time. And Horner’s score is no different.
The music for The Rocketeer stands largely as a venue for the kind of sweeping, romantic scores that Horner loved and did so, so well. There are soaring strings, twinkly pianos, and deep woodwinds. It’s a lush, full-bodied, swinging score, with swagger to spare. It also had one of the more memorable main themes of the period, eschewing what was then a popular move into more electronic music, which emphasized atmosphere over melody. (This was the same summer as Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a film whose chilly metallic score Horner did not work on.) Like the movie itself, Horner’s music for The Rocketeer existed outside of the normal flow of things. It was different and bold and unlike anything else being done at the time. What makes this even more impressive is that, by his own admission, Horner only had two-and-a-half weeks to write the score (due to a seemingly endless period of test screenings and executive-mandated re-editing). With The Rocketeer, Horner was miles away from those early days scoring Roger Corman cheapies, but the amount of time he had to work remained unreasonably brief.
And yes, Horner has had some bigger, more widely popular scores, but for us, The Rocketeer is his best. It’s so big and open hearted; the first few notes of the score sound like someone throwing glitter over the top of a piano. It feels warm. Like you’re being invited to watch something while snuggled up in your favorite blanket. This is the most typical James Horner score and also the most incredible. About the only thing missing, that would define his other, most beloved scores, is a subtle mixture of Celtic influences (this wound up being a big part of Titanic and Braveheart). Instead of cultural specificity, The Rocketeer sounds like America: the big, beautiful mixture of cultures that, especially during the timeframe of the movie (California in 1938) was bound together by loyalty and a shared spirit of adventure. There’s a reason that when listening to the score we think of the honeyed atmosphere of Disney California Adventure’s Buena Vista Street or Hollywood Boulevard at Disney’s Hollywood Studios: it just feels right.
If there was anything that was widely and immediately accepted from The Rocketeer, it was Horner’s score. It was often cited as a highlight of the film and selections from the score were utilized by more than a dozen film trailers after the movie came out, probably because it is achieves such a sky high level of inspiration in such a short period of time. And the summer that the movie opened, the character (and the music) made an appearance in the Vincent Price-narrated Sorcery in the Sky nighttime spectacular at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then Disney-MGM Studios). Even if you don’t know that it’s from The Rocketeer or that James Horner composed it, chances are you’ve heard it and that it has moved you.