- Composed by James Horner
- Varèse Sarabande / 1985 / 30:15
Directed by visual effects legend Douglas Trumbull (whose spectacular work began when he supervised the effects in 2001), Brainstorm attracted attention on its release in 1983 primarily because one of its leads (Natalie Wood) died in an accident shortly before filming completed. Trumbull had to battle with the studio to get the film completed and released (MGM execs rather scurrilously wanted to cash in on the insurance money from her death and cancel the film). This rather detracted attention from the fact that the high-concept science fiction film is actually pretty good – it revolves around the invention of a device that can record people’s brainwaves and they can play them back for a kind of out-of-body experience.
For the score, Trumbull turned to the young James Horner, fast making his way towards the top of the film music A-list at the time (an unbelievably prolific one for the composer). As well as being prolific, it was a particularly fruitful time, containing many wonderful scores. And Brainstorm is one of the most wonderful of all. These days known mostly for his elegant, long-lined melodies, this film provided him with an opportunity to journey around much darker territory, including a few trips into genuine dissonance – but also some of the strident action music so popular from that phase in his career, along with a devastatingly gorgeous theme which is undoubtedly one of the highlights of his career.
He mixes these disparate elements so skilfully, the score sounds neither chaotic nor unfocused – indeed, the single-minded focus so often a feature of his strongest work is one of the driving forces behind its success. The main title cue which opens the album features the shimmering glow of a female chorus but also frequent passages of orchestral terror which seem to be striking down the beauty in a classic light-versus-dark battle. When he finally allows that choral music to soar on its own without the ongoing battle, the effect is spinetingling – tension has built up and up, finally gets released. Horner is not exactly renowned for his subtlety, but the way he takes his music on a real journey from one place to another over the course of a film (and album) is evidence of a thought process only a handful of film composers have ever seriously rivalled.
The action music is clearly of the same stock as Horner’s first Star Trek score (composed shortly before this) – and there are hints of things to come, particularly the style employed a decade later in Sneakers and Apollo 13. But when he goes to a darker place – “First Playback” and “Final Playback” in particular – the composer offers some pretty terrifying music, employing the vocalists in completely different ways (including some Omen-style shrieking).
The above might not sound very appealing, depending on your point of view (I think it’s brilliant). But there can surely not be a soul alive who would not find the love theme – first heard in “Michael’s Gift to Karen” – appealing. A very long-lined theme heard primarily on shimmering strings with beautifully lilting accompaniment from harp, piano and choir, it’s heart melting stuff. The cynic in me assumes that Horner probably pilfered it from some 18th century work I’m not familiar with (no doubt the cognoscenti could point out what it is in the comments section at the end of this review), but regardless of that, it is simply a stunning piece of music. Its very classical sound is so unlike film music, yet sounds so at home in this score.
The album is a 30-minute recording of selections from the music – I guess a deluxe edition will appear some day – but really, it’s just perfect as it is. There’s a great performance from the London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Voices, a crisp recording and above all, some of the greatest film music of the 1980s. The downside is that the album’s out-of-print, but it can still be picked up at a reasonable price at the time of writing. Not everybody shares my love of the more recent scores of this composer; proclaiming Brainstorm to be a masterpiece is surely less controversial. *****