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  • Composed by James Horner
  • Intrada / 2013 / 62m

Ron Howard’s Cocoon proved to be wildly popular at the box office in 1985, its feelgood story of residents of a retirement home being given back their youthful vigour by aliens being widely embraced by audiences.  It brought about unlikely late-career attention to its excellent collection of older actors including Don Ameche, Jessica Tandy and Wilfred Brimley, and was another early success in the blossoming directorial career of Ron Howard.  Musically, it marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Howard and composer James Horner, himself emerging as one of the  leading lights in film music at the time; the relationship has gone on to span seven films, though it’s now been a decade since the last of them.

Horner’s whimsical music is one of the film’s greatest assets and is one of the most important – and most impressive – scores of his earlier years.  His main theme for the film is an absolute gem – in keeping with some others from those early days, it is very long-lined, effectively made up of three distinct parts, and he draws from those three parts through the score to lend the whole thing a distinct coherence which is evidence that the deep thought-process that goes into making his scores the dramatic musical journeys they are was very much in force even back in his formative years.

James Horner

That wonderful main themes (there are three, frequently heard together) are hinted at in the opening “Through the Window” but only later on does Horner fully develop them and use them to their most powerful effect.  “The Lovemaking” opens with a stirring romantic arrangement of one of the main themes (with some of the sound of the romantic parts of Krull) that leads into a second half featuring some slightly jarring dissonance.  “The Chase” is a wonderful, prototypical early Horner piece of action, featuring echoes of his Star Trek scores in its wildly enthusiastic string runs and characteristic dynamic brass hits (sadly not brought to the fore in the slightly flat recording).  “The Boys are Out” is a surprise, a lovely piece of big band swing (something Horner would do more fully in the score for the sequel – and in between those films, also use in his music for another Jessica Tandy film, Batteries Not Included).

“Discovered in the Poolhouse” is a gem of a piece, orchestral playfulness giving way to a frantic period before a magical secondary theme is heard in full – and then the action returns to close the piece.  This kind of musical schizophrenia is not uncommon in film music, but what is uncommon is for it to be held together so perfectly, so musically.  “First Tears” highlights the “alien wonder” theme to full effect, again blessed seemingly with a heavenly spirit.  The acoustic guitar-led “Rose’s Death” is unsurprisingly emotional, sentimental even; but in Cocoon nobody could criticise Horner for being over-sentimental, since that’s essentially what the movie’s all about.  “Returning to Sea” and then “Sad Goodbye” push things still further, as the tugs at the heartstrings become ever more urgent.

The glory of the main themes is finally unleashed in the full in the final two cues, “The Ascension” and “Theme from Cocoon”.  Together they mark a kind of film music magic, an explosion of unadulterated joy which is James Horner at his finest.  The sweeping melody of the final cue in particular is an early sign of things to come later in the composer’s career, Legends of the Fall in particular.  Such unbridled exhibitions of musical passion were still allowed back in 1985 and the composer took full advantage of that.  It is outrageously beautiful music, a master film composer delivering the most heartfelt emotional punch of his career.

This excellent score has been quite hard to come by over the years – there was a CD release at the time of the film and another in 1997 but both stuck around only fleetingly before disappearing again.  Fortunately it is now available to a wider audience and will hopefully stick around for a while to come, thanks to Intrada’s 2013 release, which also offers quite a collection of additional music, along with the customarily excellent liner notes from Julie Kirgo and perhaps most notably a big improvement in sonics, the mastering allowing the wonderfully warm recording by Armin Steiner to be enjoyed in full for the first time.  (Only one downside – the pick of the big band pieces, “The Boys Are Out”, is relegated to the bonus track section.)

“Pool is Closed” is the pick of the new tracks – a strident brass theme swirls around, typical of Horner around this period; it’s lively and memorable.  The following “Mysterious Dive” is full of magic and wonder, quite outstanding.  There’s a bit more big band in “Going to the Pool” and (to an extent) “Seduction / Let’s Go”.  “A Relapse” offers a further variation on the main themes; “Sneaking Away” represents the composer at his most playful and it’s easy to imagine the wide grin on his face as he conducted it.  “David Runs to the Boat” is a satisfying piece of action music which leads into “The Chase”.

At heart Cocoon is a simple score, and it would be tempting to say that Horner’s job was just to add the final gloss to a film that was perfectly heartwarming enough already; but the melodies are so exquisite, the emotional releases provided so carefully at the important moments, I think that would be doing him a disservice.  Intrada’s album really unleashes it in a way that hasn’t been done before – while (with the exception of “Pool is Closed”) the additional music is pretty much all variations on material already heard in the original album programme, adding it in (and resequencing into chronological order) allows the architecture of Horner’s vision to be appreciated for the first time away from the film, with everything getting more time for development now.  Cocoon is a masterpiece – one of Horner’s most notable achievements and one of the most genuinely touching, warmest film scores you’ll ever hear.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Monday 16 April, 2012 at 01:53

    Great review! I agree that it’s high time for another Howard/Horner collaboration, but sadly he seems intent on sticking with Zimmerclonemusik.

  2. Matt C. (Reply) on Monday 16 April, 2012 at 05:37

    This is truly a great Horner gem. I will be shocked if Intrada or La La Land Records doesn’t release a complete score in the near future! A new release of this classic music is well over due.

  3. Mikal (Reply) on Monday 16 April, 2012 at 15:21

    Yeah, because Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, and Frost/Nixon all sound exactly the same… I’d love to see another Howard/Horner too, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to dismiss Zimmer’s scores.

  4. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Tuesday 17 April, 2012 at 20:56

    Mikal is absolutely right in his response (presumably) to orion_mk3…Zimmer clone music? Firstly, it’s only ever been Zimmer himself collaborating with Howard and never any of hiis “clones”…and secondly, yeah, the four scores he’s written for Howard couldn’t be more different from each other.

    I swear, half of the Zimmer-and-company-bashing I see these days is totally unjustified.

  5. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Monday 30 December, 2013 at 09:15 small yet large

  6. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Monday 30 December, 2013 at 09:25
    sometimes I have to play this role when James’ is drowning in his misguided beliefs (cough:*#$*)man of steel*@@cough#$()!)

  7. connor (Reply) on Monday 14 April, 2014 at 23:40

    You should do a review of Cocoon: The Return. It’s been panned mostly but I like a lot of it, aside from some terribly muted sound. I’d love to hear what you think.