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Avatar
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Fox Music / Atlantic  7567-89576-1 / 2009 / 78:51

James Cameron’s new film Avatar didn’t seem like a sure thing for success, despite all the hype – it being a harder sell for a mainstream audience than Titanic – but it is already second only to that film in the all-time global box office charts and perhaps will end up overtaking it.  Personally, I don’t know anyone who has seen it and didn’t think “wow” – its visual effects are truly astonishing and hopefully will raise the bar for other films, much like Jurassic Park did.  Yes, the plot is predictable and is one that has been told many times before – but when the film looks as good as this one does, it doesn’t really matter.  It’s more than worth seeing for the spectacle alone.

It’s fair to say that James Cameron and James Horner didn’t enjoy the easiest of working relationships on Aliens and so it was a huge surprise when they teamed up again for Titanic a decade later – but that proved to be an entirely satisfying experience for all parties (and led to the biggest-selling soundtrack album of all) so it was no surprise that Horner returned for Avatar.  This was a perfect film for Horner, whose music over the last decade has often tended towards a kind of “organic” sound evocative of the natural world (see The New World for the most obvious example, but there are others).  For Avatar he was able to combine that with some heroic music, some action music and – of course – some romance.

James Cameron and James Horner at the Avatar scoring session

Within the film, the score is perfect – Horner captures everything in a way that no other Hollywood composer would have pulled off, accentuating the spectacle but constantly trying to also push forward an emotional reaction.  On the album, your enjoyment of the music is likely to be in direct proportion to your willingness to forgive Horner his self-repetition.  Forget all the interviews he (and Cameron) did saying how he had reinvented himself, created a new sound etc – if there’s one thing he hasn’t done, it’s that.  There are vague echoes of many Horner scores here (a theme from The Four Feathers, stuff from Mighty Joe Young) and striking resemblances to others (most obviously Glory and Apocalypto) – and almost the first piece of music heard in the film or on the album is the infamous four-note motif which appears in almost all his scores.  It doesn’t particularly bother me (I don’t actually think Horner these days is any more of a culprit than anyone else who has written as many scores as he has – he’s still being punished for past sins, really).  If it bothers you, you may as well stop reading now and not buy the album.

The most impressive thing for me is how Horner pulls together so many ideas and turns them into such a coherent score.  He has a large orchestra at his disposal, also a choir, there is widespread use of electronics and various vocal soloists – he uses a lot of themes and other little motifs here – and yet he manages to pull everything together into his usual collection of mostly long cues which individually span disparate scenes in the film and yet hang together musically, a trick I’m not sure any other film composer has really even attempted all that seriously, let alone done successfully (as Horner does in almost all his scores).

The first couple of cues on the album concentrate on the awe and wonder of what the audience is seeing, and the main character is feeling.  They introduce many of the main ideas which are to be developed later on.  Then, “Pure spirits of the forest” begins a five-track sequence of truly beautiful pieces of music.  Its wispy, wondrous sound, bolstered by lots of electronics, is a terrific demonstration of that “organic” sound I mentioned earlier – an impressively evocative piece.  “The bioluminescence of the night” is another beauty – such an impressive companion to the colourful images.  “Becoming one of the people… becoming one with Neytiri” is the most obviously romantic piece on the album, featuring some full-blown  orchestral performances of the love theme, but also introducing the lovely choral music – the melody is Glory-esque, but Horner this time gives it a far more “tribal” feel.  “Climbing up Iknimaya – the path to heaven” expands on that choral music, develops it much further; and the composer also takes the opportunity to bring back the sense of wonder from earlier in the album, something he goes even further with in “Jake’s first flight”, a majestic piece which will, I’m sure, be many people’s favourite cue on the album.

After this, the score takes on a considerably darker tone as it enters its second half.  “Scorched earth” sees action music enter the score for the first time and there’s some pretty dark stuff – particularly impressive are the choral “stabs” which create a kind of visceral feel.  This continues through “Quaritch”, Horner playing his darker music off against the more heroic main theme.  There’s a bit of a desperate feel when the strings swell up – the sound of hope being lost – before some more muscular, aggressive action.  The longer “The destruction of Hometree” sees these ideas continue, including some terrific string-based action music.

James Cameron, Leona Lewis and James Horner at the Avatar premiere

For the finale, Horner pulls out some lengthy battle music.  First there’s “Gathering all the Na’vi clans for battle”, opening with a calm violin solo – the calm before the storm, of course.  The piece develops into an heroic anthem, the score’s most obvious concession to modern blockbuster scoring techniques, but Horner using his orchestra to make it something far more interesting.  Then there’s the eleven-minute “War” (which in the film is even longer), a frenzied piece of action music which is extremely satisfying, constantly exciting and running through the emotional wringer from fear through despair and ultimately (of course) satisfaction.  It’s a bit of an anti-climax that the album then ends with a song based on the love theme (“I See You” sung by Leona Lewis) which is nice enough, but I guess that was inevitable.

Some commentators have written that they’ve been disappointed with this music because there’s nothing new.  I will take an opposite view, because there are a couple of important firsts for me here.  It’s the first time in a very long time that the score for a blockbuster has been this intricate, this detailed, had so much going on in it – I must have listened to the album 50 times before writing this review, and it still keeps revealing more with each new listen – I can’t remember the last time I could say that about any score, let alone one for a big blockbuster.  It’s also the first time in the recent past that I can say that any film score album – let alone one which is almost 80 minutes long – feels like it could easily be longer and would actually be even better if it were.  It’s this sort of score that got many people of my generation into loving film music in the first place – actual musical development, proper themes, great drama – they’re all here in bucketloads.  I’ve been waiting a while for someone to strike back against the increasing mediocrity and frequent banality which has dominated music for big Hollywood blockbusters recently – and that’s what Avatar does.  It’s a reminder of how good film music can be when it’s written by a proper composer with proper dramatic instincts, not some guy who subcontracts it all out to a team of people with fancy computers; and, who knows, maybe it might just be the first sign of a reversal of the trend.  This is the score of the year.  *****

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  1. Random Name (Reply) on Friday 17 June, 2011 at 07:39

    You’re right, this is the type of score that will get people into film music. I’m example number one.

    It made me realize that all of the excellence of the greats of orchestral music from hundreds of years ago could be translated into a film score. It’s far more subtle than almost anything else being churned out today, without any loss of emotional content or clarity. It really is a shame it didn’t get the credit it deserved, but at least it converted me. Bravo.

  2. Nate Elias (Reply) on Monday 12 November, 2012 at 00:55

    Well put James, it was the work James Horner & John Williams that got me interested in Film Music in the First place. Horner’s work on The Films The Land Before Time, The Mask of Zorro, Titanic, Balto and Braveheart are some of my Favorites! 🙂