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Brainstorm
  • 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.

James Horner

A young James Horner

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.  *****

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  1. Erik Woods on Thursday 10 May, 2012 at 22:16

    One of James Horner’s finest scores. I wrote a little blurb about the score as well a little while back. http://www.cinematicsound.net/?p=287

    I also highly recommend everyone check out the following scene. This is the heart attack scene labeled “Lillian’s Heart Attack” on the soundtrack album. Horner absolutely owns this scene and elevates an already terrific performance by Louise Fletcher with his music! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFQrd2Y9R04

  2. AntonioE1778 on Thursday 10 May, 2012 at 22:17

    One of the Horner scores I have not heard. I’ve always heard that it was a little gem, but for some reason have yet to pick it up. Thanks for making me think about it again James!

  3. Alfred Scudiero on Saturday 12 May, 2012 at 14:10

    I had the original vinyl release of this score and played the hell out of it. I think the inspiration for Horner was two fold, Trumbull and the loss of Natalie. He had a lot on his shoulders at the time; the pressure of working with an established giant and the loss of a giant in the film making industry, but instead of cowering to the gravity of what he was given and writing a more typical score, he came through to elevate the film beyond anything anyone could have imagined. Combining this with a literal Kaleidoscope of musical opportunities for the outstanding visuals, he took the ball and ran with it, and we are all so lucky to have seen his fruitful efforts unfold, which to this day is hard to deny as superb musicianship. My only criticism is that ever since this effort, we can tell when he’s not as inspired, when he’s just going through the motions and duplicating established phrases instead of creating something more original like Brainstorm. Still, I always look forward to what he’s going to do next. Perhaps if he got away from the commercial niche he’s fashioned for himself with the likes of Titanic, he may find a new muse to push him into sonic landscapes he’s never traversed. Fingers crossed!

  4. Roman Martel on Tuesday 15 May, 2012 at 05:45

    Easily one of my favorite Horner scores. I love the dark music he wrote here as well as the excellent action material and love theme. Just a solid score all the way around. This is one that could use a rerelease so newer fans can pick it up.

  5. Ian Smith on Sunday 28 June, 2015 at 14:26

    My first Horner score and likely my favourite, sadly the deluxe edition you predicted back then is yet to materialise. Perhaps recent events will put that back on the agenda but I’m sure it deserves that reappraisal.There is some beautiful music in this film. Great review.

  6. Kevin on Wednesday 8 July, 2015 at 05:51

    The love theme sounds like something Prokofiev would have written. Surely Horner was a huge fan of Profokiev, among other Russian greats.

  7. ANDRÉ -- Cape Town. on Sunday 12 July, 2015 at 11:28

    When the score was initially released, most critics pointed to a MOZARTIAN classical influence BUT, of course, HORNER encoded a beautiful melody into that pastiche that surpassed any MOZARTIAN opus. Yes, Kevin, HORNER’S admiration for PROKOFIEV is evident in his scores, particularly in ‘The Land Before Time’ (the CD has been out of print for ages!). There is a moment of Cinematic magic in ‘Brainstorm’ that remains vividly in my mind…The screen’s aspect ratio, when the film opens, is ordinary wide screen. We witness Louise Fletcher’s character managing to don a device that records her heart-attack death…this technology also follows the passage of the Soul/Spirit as it leaves her body and returns to its Divine source. And when this sequence occurs, the wide screen’s aspect ratio suddenly morphs into the majestic CINERAMA screen that enfolds the viewer– with stereo audio-speakers suddenly being activated and pouring out HORNER’S magnificent numinous themes. We are also privy to the Fletcher character’s whole life…her memories are enclosed in rotating translucent bubbles [surrounded by glowing micro angelic-type beings] that the camera tracks and enters. The brilliance of producer/director Douglas Trumbull’s special-effects wizardry and storyline is spectacularly enhanced by the music of a very youthful JAMES HORNER. Here’s hoping an expanded, audio-remastered CD will soon be released.

  8. Gabriel Arthur Petrie on Tuesday 10 January, 2017 at 06:54

    Um Franz Shubert also appears in this score, completely uncredited.