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Bicentennial Man
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 66m

Overly mawkish and sentimental, Chris Columbus’s Bicentennial Man is not well-remembered.  Based on an Isaac Asimov story, it follows the story of a robot (Robin Williams) who is the slave of a wealthy family over an extended period (the length of the period is no surprise to those who know what the title means).  Over time he becomes more and more human-like and it becomes a story about just how human you have to be before you can have human rights.  (And he falls in love, of course.)

Columbus has worked with many great film composers over the years, most frequently John Williams – and in fact Williams was at one point attached to this, but dropped out due to a presumably-euphemistic “scheduling conflict” (it seems more likely that his Spidey sense told him this was not likely to be a great film) – in his absence, Horner was perfect composer-casting for this.  The sprawling timeframe, romantic elements and indeed the sentimentality are all things that attracted him to projects.  And taken on its own terms, nobody could deny just how good his score is – but it’s perhaps the ultimate one where your appreciation will depend on your tolerance level for the composer’s well-documented reuse of material, for virtually all the major content in the score can also be found in others.

James Horner

It starts off with an absolute belter of a track, “The Machine Age”, easily one of my favourite individual cues by the composer.  A deceptively sweet melody (which goes on to become the score’s main theme) ushers us into the piece before suddenly it goes off in the most wonderful direction – the little swirling wind motif first used in Sneakers is joined by the “genius theme” piano (also used in Searching for Bobby Fischer and later, perhaps most famously, in A Beautiful Mind).  Here it is joined by metallic, clanging percussion and brass which give it the most wonderful sense of motion – and it all leads up to a brilliant variant on the James Horner Ending.  It’s awesome, it really is, sending shivers down the spine every time – three and a half minutes of absolute musical genius.

Slightly disappointingly, good as it is, the rest of the score is really nothing like that.  “Special Delivery” opens with a beautiful, slightly mysterious melody (recalling Casper in arrangement but I think in Horner terms the tune actually started back in his Star Trek days).  In the second half of the piece the beauty becomes more pastoral in nature (The Spitfire Grill, etc).  The sense of mystery is back in “The Magic Spirit”, accompanied at first by some of the suspense electronics of Sneakers and Apollo 13, and also the synth choir which the composer used in many of his scores of this period (and which is heard frequently through this score).

“A Gift For Little Miss” is very different, opening with a playful scherzo before going through a whole host of melodies (including not just this score’s main theme, but also The Spitfire Grill‘s).  It leads up to a delightfully gentle conclusion, with simple harp playing over the synth choir.  “Mechanical Love” is a bit unusual (as, I suppose, mechanical love would be) – the main theme is played by keyboard over pizzicato strings and some odd percussion.  Then, “Wearing Clothes for the First Time” is much more low-key but does introduce a motif that will go on to be used quite often over the remainder of the score, a twinkly piano motif used a few times over the years by the composer, most famously in Deep Impact.

We come to “The Wedding”… if you’d never heard another score by James Horner but knew how well-regarded he is, you’d think this must surely be one of the most wonderful pieces he had ever written.  But if the use of that Deep Impact theme (which dominates the cue’s opening) is a little offputting… then, after the first really big performance of this score’s love theme – you hear the strings suddenly entering a rather familiar-sounding set of truly sumptuous harmonies and all of a sudden, it’s the Princess theme from Braveheart (altered at the end, admittedly) – somehow it seems more egregious than the other borrowings, perhaps just because it’s one of the composer’s most famous tunes (imagine if John Barry had stuck the James Bond theme in The Ipcress File – it’s that sort of thing, really).  Anyway, even if your patience isn’t tested by the rest, that moment might be a bit much for you.  Still, like I said, if you can get over that then it is genuinely sensationally beautiful.

The lengthy “The Passage of Time, A Changing of Seasons” (a vintage Horner track title, that) is another gorgeous piece.  It opens with the main theme, performed as usual by winds, goes into the twinkly piano motif, then an extended riff on the love theme (and more Braveheart).  It’s all very lovely and has a classic Horner sweep to it.  The main theme is back to open “The Search for Another”, with a bit of a driving momentum to it this time; it leads (as it frequently does in the score’s second half) into the love theme, which itself leads (as it just as frequently does) into Braveheart (perhaps the latter two devices are both part of the same thing).  And then Deep Impact again.  “Transformed” is a bit different from the rest, a nice, playful piece with some creative use of synths, before more typical swoony Horner piano writing.

The prevailing emotion in “Emotions” is joy, really, coupled with a sense of discovery that is quite compelling.  Another playful scherzo follows, “A New Nervous System” – Horner didn’t do such light-hearted music so often, but when he did, he did it very well.  In “A Truer Love”, the orchestra gradually swells and becomes ever-warmer like the rising sun, before the love theme bursts forth in all its glory.  Things take a slightly darker turn with a feeling of tragedy in the air in “Petition Denied”, and then Horner starts pulling out all his emotional stops in “Growing Old”, a gorgeous take on the main theme.  The score ends with “The Gift of Mortality”, a superb summary of the score’s main themes.  There is one more track on the album, as we’re “treated” to a Celine Dion vocal of the love theme (“Then You Look At Me”) – if the hope was to capture lightning in the bottle again, well, it didn’t work.  It’s the only track on the album I don’t like.

I think I’ve said before that I’ve long since come to terms with James Horner’s self-referencing.  While it sounds pretentious, I really do think that he approached things as if he was writing some kind of great big single work across all of his scores really, and he used to link things together quite deliberately.  I can understand why others would just get annoyed by it – and truly, if you’re someone who does, you should stay well away from Bicentennial Man.  Ignoring all that, it really is a brilliant piece of work if you just judge it on its own merits.  As he usually was, Horner was criticised by many for going overly-sentimental with his music, but if you really pay attention then all that sentiment is just coming from the film – while some of it is undeniably big and lush, there’s a remarkable lightness-of-touch running through a surprising amount of the score which is a joy – and the melodic content, familiar though it may be, is simply brilliant.

Rating: **** 1/2

See also:
Sneakers James Horner
Searching for Bobby Fischer James Horner | |

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  1. mastadge (Reply) on Saturday 12 May, 2018 at 21:59

    Great review!

    Out of curiosity, what would you count as your other favorite individual cues by Horne?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 12 May, 2018 at 22:23

      Off the top of my head, my top ten would be something like…

      Battle in the Mutara Nebula from Star Trek
      Ride of the Firemares from Krull
      Theme from Cocoon
      Rocketeer to the Rescue
      Early Victories from Bobby Fischer
      The Ludlow from Legends of the Fall
      For the Love of a Princess from Braveheart
      The Machine Age from Bicentennial Man
      Horizon to Horizon from Black Gold
      Finale from Pas de Deux

      • Rory (Reply) on Wednesday 16 May, 2018 at 19:09

        Thanks for this.

  2. Jules (Reply) on Sunday 13 May, 2018 at 05:57

    I haven’t heard enough of Horner to start picking up on all the reused themes, so doesn’t bother me at all. Thomas Newman basically does the same thing, maybe less overtly. Lovely score

  3. Brendon Kelly (Reply) on Saturday 19 May, 2018 at 06:14

    Great review. Nice to read a positive review of this score. James Horner was a master at music storytelling in my view, and this is a perfect example of that.
    Your review prompted me to listen to the music again and it really is a treat of an album.