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A Beautiful Mind
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Decca / 71m

Loosely based on his life, A Beautiful Mind tells the story of John Nash, a genius mathematician who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. In the film he’s played (brilliantly) by Russell Crowe, deciphering codes while working at the Pentagon during the Cold War, becoming increasingly convinced he is being targeted by Soviets.

James Horner already had a strong relationship with Ron Howard but the director often rotated between composers – this time Horner actively pursued the film, so inspired was he by Nash’s story as told in Sylvia Nasar’s book. Horner had used a musical depiction of genius previously and this became the fourth (and final) film score featuring his “genius theme”, swirling kaleidoscopically around and fitting perfectly with the character’s mental illness and genius in equal measure.

James Horner

It opens the score in “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics”, essentially a variant on the opening cue from Bicentennial Man, released not long beforehand; the difference is that it’s less harsh here, accentuated by wordless vocals provided by the (at the time) “voice of an angel” Charlotte Church. The piano’s still there, of course – dancing around, brilliantly, one of the composer’s greatest inventions. Even those who had grown tired of the composer’s reuse of his own material by this point were generally forgiving of it on this occasion, so effective was it.

Interestingly (and unlike the previous scores that featured it), for A Beautiful Mind Horner took the melodic thrust of the string part of that theme and turned it into a much softer theme which is heard through the score. It’s somewhat subtle and at first you may not even realise you’re hearing the same melody, but it’s heard at length in the third cue, “Looking for the Next Great Idea” – long-lined, beautiful, deliberately orchestrated to give it a bit of mystery in this case – and then later on he uses it as the love theme (and even as a song – this time with words – for Church, “All Love Can Be”, a typically-pleasant Horner ballad based on this theme and the score’s other major one, which isn’t introduced until much later on).

The showiest parts of the score are certainly when those pianos are dancing about (the composer reportedly used five of them) – it goes off in a different direction in “Creating Governing Dynamics”, brilliantly. “Cracking the Russian Codes” starts with much darker music (with the Sneakers woodblock) before it soars off with that genius theme. Another old Horner standby, the Khachaturian adagio from Aliens and all the rest, briefly rears its head near the end of the very downbeat “Nash Descends into Parcher’s World”. In “First Drop-Off; First Kiss” Horner takes a little phrase from the main theme and sends it swirling endlessly, obsessively around. This is taken even further in the subsequent “The Car Chase”, a bold approach to the scene it’s scoring, with Horner zeroing in on Nash’s state of mind. In the lengthy “Alicia Discovers Nash’s Dark World” Horner contrasts that swirling motif with the stark beauty of Church’s vocals and dramatically, it’s devastatingly effective.

In the second half of the score, Horner introduces what seems to be another major theme. This one is wistful and slightly melancholic – fragments of the theme are explored in turn in “Real Or Imagined?” which is so light and airy at first, before becoming more intensely dramatic later on. But I said “seems to be” because really it’s a major-key, heavily disguised version of that “little phrase” I mentioned in the previous paragraph, going in a very different direction in the end, but I love how thoughtfully Horner is showing us how two sides of the same thing can be so different, mirroring the character who’s story he is scoring.

The lighter side is the focus of the last few cues; I love the thoughtful, unshowy “Of One Heart, Of One Mind”. A genuinely new theme does then appear, fleetingly, in “Saying Goodbye to Those You So Love” – it’s very beautiful, a bit like one of the minor themes from Deep Impact (though the synth choir – which Horner used so frequently around this time – doesn’t really do it any favours). The theme gets an uplifting arrangement in “Teaching Mathematics Again”, and the brilliant “The Prize Of One’s Life… The Prize Of One’s Mind” (a James Horner track title if ever there was one).

After the song we get another version of the predominant theme of the score’s second half in the unusually short (for Horner) end titles piece – only five minutes! It brings to an end an interesting and entertaining album showcasing a clever film score; from the dazzling genius of the opening through the dark and emotionally-fraught middle section to the lengthy catharsis, it’s actually quite a draining experience in a way which is what places it a notch below the very best Horner albums – but only a notch.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. Matthew Cadman (Reply) on Saturday 14 March, 2020 at 16:20

    I’ve always loved this score. It blew me away as a teenager and I’ve never stopped marveling at the beautiful melodies and genius motifs Horner employed with pianos and Church’s gorgeous vocals.
    I even recall Brian Tyler’s The Greatest Game Ever Played borrowing the love theme from this.
    In any case, it’s the perfect score to relax to, read to or sleep to. I agree with your assessment completely. James Horner was extremely thoughtful and a master of manipulating and arranging his techniques and melodies to adapt and drive any film scene and character to the desired effect which always had such an impact on me. His writing was so emotional, beautiful and inspiring.

  2. Kevin (Reply) on Sunday 15 March, 2020 at 17:58

    My favorite score from my favorite movie. It was this score that introduced me to film music in the first place.

    Slight correction: this was not the last time Horner used the genius motif. That was The Amazing Spider Man in the cue “The Ganali Device.” That cue even borrows Church’s vocals with trumpet.