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Searching for Bobby Fischer
  • Composed by James Horner
  • La-La Land / 2015 / 78m

Telling the true story of the early life of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, Searching for Bobby Fischer follows the boy as he learns the game from vastly different methods – a tutor who encourages him to play like the legendary Bobby Fischer, and share his drive and determination to win at all costs; and a speed chess player he meets in Washington Square Park, who has a rather different approach to the game.  The film was the directorial debut of Steven Zaillian and attracted rave reviews, but it disappeared almost without trace at the box office and has not been heard of much since.

James Horner was in his most prolific period at the time – this was, incredibly, one of ten scores he’s credited with in 1993.  And it’s the best of them – a magical piece of work that builds on some foundations which had been laid in earlier works, and sets down new ones which would be explored later on – in the way of so many of his scores.  We get magical musical expressions of childhood innocence, the familiar genius theme representing the chess itself, and some genuinely sweeping vintage Horner emotional grandstanding for the big moments.

James Horner

The main title piece begins with the one of the main themes – a variant of which would appear several years later in A Beautiful Mind (the theme in that score that formed the basis for the song melody) – gorgeously orchestrated for winds and then strings, with some slightly agitated piano accompaniment initially quickly fading away.  There’s a hint in the piece also of the softer, more pastoral theme in the score (which has a certain childhood innocence to it).  “Washington Square” picks up these ideas and further explores the first theme, the piano chords much more up-front now.

“Chess Piece in the Dark / Shirazi Game / Little Castle” introduces a third theme – the wonderful piano theme heard briefly in Sneakers and much more famously later in A Beautiful Mind, the genius theme – I think it’s one of the composer’s finest inventions.  Yet another theme is then introduced in “Josh vs Dad”, a delightful tune which dances around so breezily.  “Josh’s First Lesson” is another delightful cue, with effortlessly charming music of such warmth.

“Master Class Points” is notable for giving us a tender arrangement of what is the score’s most memorable theme (I will call it Josh’s theme, though all of the themes are his in some way or other) and making it sound a bit like a precursor to Legends of the Fall, which would follow not long later.  When that theme really gets going is the sensational, I’d-give-this-album-five-stars-even-if-every-other-track-was-complete-rubbish “Early Victories”.  It starts innocuously enough – twinkly opening, noble horn solo – and then it just explodes with orgasmic delight into the most soaring, fluid musical expression of joy you could ever wish to hear.  If it’s not in your top ten list of James Horner cues, you haven’t done it right and should seek help immediately.

After that, you wouldn’t expect the score to hit such heights again, but amazingly “Josh and Vinnie” comes really close.  The genius theme now, presented in exuberant fashion – supremely entertaining – and it leads up to another soaring performance of the magnificent Josh’s theme.  “The Nationals” isn’t quite as soaring, but it’s another fine piece: this time the piano starts dancing around again, so dreamy, before we hear a bit more Sneakers (including that score’s lovely, wistful take on the danger motif – we got nearly to the end without it).  “Poe Watches Josh Advance / Certificate from Bruce” offers another really charming take on Josh’s theme; and the lengthy end title piece is as good as lengthy James Horner end title pieces always are.

I’ve become so used to the original album that the 2015 expansion from La-La Land just sounds a bit odd to me – I prefer the musical architecture of the original (which was presented significantly out of film order).  There isn’t much genuinely new music (most of the extra length comes from alternative versions of cues) and there are some tracks from the original album that aren’t on it, replaced by film versions instead of Horner’s preferred takes (I never really understand why expanded albums do that).  But of course, you should get it if you don’t have the first album.  This is a magnificent piece of work.  Yes, it recalls Sneakers, quite clearly; yes, it foreshadows A Beautiful Mind, quite clearly.  But they’re both exceptional scores too – and this one also has “Early Victories”, which honestly is just sensational.  I don’t see Searching for Bobby Fischer mentioned very often when people are talking about their favourite James Horner scores – it’s certainly one of mine.  So full of life, so exuberant, so beautiful – recommended without reservation.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Texas Tim (Reply) on Wednesday 17 January, 2018 at 01:55

    I agree with you — I’m perplexed that people don’t mention this one more; I love so many of Horner’s works, and this is one that I just keep coming back to. I have the LLL expansion, but I haven’t been able to give up the original album yet. This is a wonderful, beautiful score. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, James.

  2. silverghost (Reply) on Thursday 18 January, 2018 at 14:04

    One of the finest James Horner scores he composed. It’s been in my Top 10 favorites of his since I bought the original album. Yeah I am shocked that many other Horner fans don’t mention this in their favorite scores of his list. The expanded edition has some interesting Poe theme not explored in the OST. My favorite cue is Josh and Vinnie, but Early Victories is also a great cue. But so many cues on here are great you almost can’t go wrong with any of them.