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All the King’s Men
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Varèse Sarabande / 56m

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel All the King’s Men had already been adapted for the big screen in a hugely successful 1949 film – so successful, in fact, that it won the Best Picture Oscar. Sean Penn was itching to play the juicy central role of a fictional Louisiana governor’s rise and fall himself and I remember a lot of buzz about Steven Zaillian’s film before it was released in 2006 – buzz that soon disappeared once people watched it.

James Horner wrote a brilliant score the previous time he worked with Zaillian – on Searching for Bobby Fisher – the director’s instructions this time was to write something Shakesperian, full of drama and tragedy. The composer did not hold back in following this – and sadly got rather roundly pilloried by film critics for doing so, many of whom dismissed the score as being too melodramatic.

James Horner

The main title piece opens and closes with a dramatic motif for horns accompanied by militaristic drums, and is heard often in the score, but in between its two appearances we hear the actual main theme, a slow but stirring melody that goes through many variations. It gets a big orchestral variant in the next cue “Time brings all things to light” (this album is distinguished as being the one with the most “James Horner” track titles of any).

The third cue is something a bit different – the lengthy “Give me a hammer and I’ll nail ’em up!” (really) focuses on more turbulent orchestral drama for its first half but then a standalone theme of great power and light is the focus of the second half – rousing and optimistic, culminating in a (slightly incongruous) quote from Braveheart, it’s the album’s standout piece.

“Bring down the lion and the rest of the jungle will quake in fear” (really, again) dials things back somewhat – an aching melody is heard for piano, there is gentle accompaniment from accordion; then there are some really interesting textures in “Conjuring the hick vote”, a very slow version of the main theme played subtly by the horns accompanied by lots of plucked strings – it’s quite an unusual style from Horner (I don’t remember anything similar in any other scores – it’s more the sort of thing you might expect Thomas Newman to do) and has quite a dramatic impetus.

A beautiful secondary theme is introduced in “Anne’s Memories”, a tender melody introduced by piano before being taken up by the strings and later (most hauntingly) winds. It’s got a bit of a nostalgic feel to it and is quite lovely.

Then we come to a completely different take on the main theme – in “Adam’s World” it’s heard for solo violin and then piano, and takes on a distinctly tragic quality as a result. “Jack’s Childhood” then explores the secondary theme – it’s delicate, lilting almost, but interestingly here Horner injects it with the kind of sadness that he has used in the big music so far (his approach having been to score the character’s rise in such a way that leaves no doubt of the fall to come).

“The Rise to Power” reprises two of the most interesting ideas of the score so far – first the violin version of the theme, then that sense of elegant tumult that somehow comes from the pizzicato strings heard earlier, that rising militaristic motif being used several times as well. It’s a fascinating track utilising some great material – and climaxes with an enormous version of the theme for full orchestra, one of the score’s great moments.

In “Love’s Betrayal” Horner weaves the two main themes together, including by far the biggest performance of the beautiful secondary theme. There’s a really haunting version of the main theme in “Only Faded Pictures”, again reaching Shakesperian proportions as Horner pushes it towards elegiac territory. By contrast it receives its gentlest arrangement in “As we were children once”, a piece full of innocent longing.

The score is at its most brutal in “Verdict and Punishment”, where after some dynamic drama from the strings a clear menace emerges in the music, conjuring real anger and evil. “All Our Lives Collide” follows that with a reflective sadness, before the album concludes with “Time brings all things to light… I trust it so” – the haunting violin version of the main theme opens the track before Horner takes us on a tour through most of the score’s main ideas, as he so often did in his finale pieces.

For a lot of his scores for what you might term straight dramas in the 2000s, James Horner took on a far more subtle approach than his reputation would have you believe (think of scores like House of Sand and Fog). There is nothing remotely subtle about All the King’s Men – it’s treated very much as an epic tragedy and the music is very big most of the time. While the secondary theme is prominent enough to leave an impression, in truth much of the score is devoted to variations on the main theme – often with a passionate rage bubbling under, sometimes with it exploding to the surface. It’s quite exhausting to listen to, really – but it is more than worth listening to, as an example of something different from the composer and (on album at least) a richly-told musical story.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Kevin (Reply) on Monday 15 June, 2020 at 18:36

    I love how “big” the score is. It is a great reminder of Horner’s unmatched dramatic sensibility.