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  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 2015 / 53m

Southpaw sees Jake Gyllenhaal play a boxer whose life falls apart following the death of his wife.  Having lost her, he falls to pieces and sees his daughter taken away from him.  Being a movie, the only way of winning her back is to get back in shape and back into the ring, one last time…  It’s directed by Antoine Fuqua and was originally conceived as a vehicle for Eminem; the rapper didn’t end up appearing in the film but has contributed to the soundtrack album.

Unusually for this sort of movie, as well as the Eminem-produced album there’s also an original score album and it’s a significant one because it’s the last film score James Horner wrote (The 33 is yet to be released but was recorded earlier).  This sort of gritty drama was something very different for the composer and he said in an interview with the James Horner Film Music website back in late 2014 that that’s what attracted him to it – “It’s just a movie I’ve never done before.  I thought it would be really challenging again.  It’ll be really edgy, but it will be very simple.  No big orchestras.”

James Horner

James Horner

In fact Horner wrote one of his grittiest scores – it’s bare, dirty and raw, a genuine 180° turn from what he was  doing for quite a long time beforehand.  Not only is there not a big orchestra, there’s barely an orchestra at all through much of it – it’s a score of textures, not generally themes – melodic at times (achingly so, in fact) but frequently more about ambiance.  The bulk of it is identifiably the music of James Horner but it’s him doing something I doubt anyone would have expected – firmly entering the territory of Harry Gregson-Williams, scoring the type of film you would expect him to score, for a director he in fact usually works with, and rather going towards his style.  And what’s even odder is that Gregson-Williams was originally slated to score this before Horner was brought on board.  What he brings to the table that’s very different is his incredibly vivid dramatic sense, with the narrative structure of the music on the album very clearly going from despair to redemption.

And it really does start at despair.  “The Preparations” has some modified piano, dark synth pulses and (very briefly)… the Remote Control HORN(er) OF DOOM.  Never thought I’d see the day…  Fortunately it’s not heard from again.  That aside, it’s a very subtle piece, sparse and introspective.  “A More Normal Life” puts a (presumably sampled) muted trumpet over some synths, a piano melody that is vintage Horner and goes on to be the score’s main theme is just hinted at – it sounds like a clever idea, a portrait of domestic bliss but with lots of little fragments of ideas pulling the piece from one place to another.  Then disaster strikes in “A Fatal Tragedy”, ambient synth sounds combining with percussion and piano, becoming more and more intense, bordering on chaotic – before then being stripped down to its barest form at the end.  It’s powerfully executed and strangely stylish, but not exactly pleasant (as of course it has no reason to be).

“The Funeral, Alone…” is very introspective – the synth figure from the second cue is reprised, mixed this time with mournful strings, very slow pace, appearing in short phrases between moments of silence very much like Ennio Morricone has done often.  It actually goes through moments of great beauty,-these always shattered by other sounds: the guitar effects seeming to stretch off into the distance, yearning; the percussive phrases starting then stopping; that trumpet fading in and out of consciousness.  It’s mildly unsettling; much less mildly unsettling is “Suicidal Rampage”, an eight-and-a-half-minute descent into depravity featuring some startlingly aggressive synths reminiscent of the most industrial-sounding moments of Beyond Borders, which in turn had a certain Mike Oldfield feel at times.  Over the top of some of it, like a crystal clear heartbeat, is the woodblock percussion familiar from a lot of the composer’s 1990s scores (most famously Sneakers and Apollo 13).  Horner again strips a lot of it down to its bare bones as the piece moves forward, just a delicate piano line over the synths which become less and less aggressive.

The synth theme returns in “Empty Showers” but it’s more minimalistic here, generally playing underneath some hypnotic multi-layered keyboard writing which is really very deep and multi-textured, but certainly not melodic.  In “Dream Crusher” the score begins its turnaround, some simply gorgeous  string writing laden with emotion.  Once more there’s a hint of Morricone there, the phrases seeming to breathe in and out over a long pedal note just as the great Italian maestro has done so many times.  “A Cry for Help” pushes the emotion further, dark emotion, but this time expressed melodically and a sudden determination is obviously present in the second half of the cue, which remains dark but there are just hints that the clouds may be lifting.

“House Auction” ratchets up the tension, with real and synthetic strings interesting used alongside each other, then the main theme begins to reveal itself in the form of a piano solo which becomes more expressive as it goes on.  It’s quite a moving moment, then pushed further in the album’s standout cue, “A Long Road Back”, which is A-grade Horner, tugging on the heartstrings and achieving a dramatic and emotional sweep without being sentimental.  “Training” has hints of the gritty style of earlier in the score but there’s a bright little piano motif that builds over the top of it to give great contrast.  In “How Much They Miss Her”, the score’s main theme is heard in its most emotional form, actually sounding here not unlike a more raw take on the love theme from The Amazing Spider-Man of all things.

Horner has one last surprise up his sleeve, which is the lengthy “Hope vs Escobar” – it opens with the most aggressively modern music I’ve ever heard by the composer.  Again there are hints of Beyond Borders but he pushes it even further here – there’s a kind of untamed ferocity to it just waiting to burst out.  And then it does burst out, the pace becomes much faster and for the first time the brass joins in – and it sounds for all the world like very high-gloss Remote Control music.  Then in the powerhouse finale to the cue we hear unrestrained triumphalism from the composer that’s pure Horner before he strips it down once more to the piano, bringing things full circle.  There’s a brief coda, “A Quiet Moment…” which is exactly that – and makes a calm ending to an emotionally turbulent album.

Southpaw is so far out of left field it’s a bit of a shock at first.  I have at times felt fairly lonely championing Horner’s great, sweeping orchestral scores over the last few years while so many have dismissed them as “heard it all before”; well, here’s one that certainly hasn’t been heard before, at least not from this composer, a very dark yet very introspective piece of music that proves that the composer’s creative muse was burning bright, an eagerness to challenge himself very much there.  It’s at times very subtle, at times painfully sad, at others undoubtedly beautiful.  In short, it’s a very interesting listen.  But it’s also a rather challenging one – music very easy to admire but there are no cheap thrills.  Summing these things up with a star rating is always hard, this album harder than most because I know I’m very unlikely to be listening to this one anywhere near as often in the coming years as any of Horner’s other scores of the recent past – despite how impressive the execution is, how even in a score like this the composer was able to plot out this grand dramatic journey and see it through so well, taking it at surface level I doubt I (or anyone else) would pay it much attention were it not composed by James Horner.  But it is composed by James Horner and that means that go beneath the surface and there’s a depth to the music despite its generally sparse nature ;while the colour palette might be far removed from the Horner norm, it is still a vivid one.  I know this is one of those occasions that people are likely to buy the album whatever the reviews say – and I’ll be fascinated to watch how it is received.

Rating: *** 1/2 | |

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  1. D.V. (Reply) on Friday 3 July, 2015 at 00:52

    I was hoping for a very listenable one, like Wolf Totem, for his final score, but maybe there is a certain poetic justice with this one. I will listen to it with interest.

  2. tiago (Reply) on Friday 10 July, 2015 at 04:22

    It reminded me a bit of House of Sand and Fog, because of the extremely dark and depressing mood.

    I like this more introspective and minimalistic side of Horner, ’cause it brings a lot of beautiful moments. And, apparently The 33 will be in the same vein, with no big orchestras.

    For his final score, would’ve been nice another “epic Horner” like Wolf Totem again, but Southpaw is pretty good. It won’t be an unanimity among Horner fans, like HoSaF, but those who are more familiar with this side of him will be pleased.

  3. Kevin (Reply) on Sunday 19 July, 2015 at 04:19

    “…some startlingly aggressive synths reminiscent of the most industrial-sounding moments of Beyond Borders, which in turn had a certain Mike Oldfield feel at times.”


  4. John (Reply) on Monday 20 July, 2015 at 16:16

    Just got to hear this. I really love it, actually. My only complaint with this branch of his language is that there’s a little too much “reverberate electronic eternalness” and twinkly pianos that I find intrusive. They both come off as a bit insincere somehow. Otherwise I think it’s a mature, restrained piece of music, and certainly not as harsh as I expected from this review. He was in such good form…

  5. Brendon Kelly (Reply) on Friday 24 July, 2015 at 20:26

    I watched the film tonight and then got home to find the score waiting for me. Horner nails it. This was not the film for a big orchestra. And yes my favourite cue is the one James refers to as Grade A Horner.

  6. Kalman (Reply) on Wednesday 19 August, 2015 at 17:15

    I really love this score. I don’t think gritty is the right word to describe it. Reading the reviews I expected a much harder score but it is not like that at all. Most of the time it is quiet, introverted, subdued but full of emotions. The melodies are typical Horner. From all of his scores in a similar vein I like this one the most.

  7. connor (Reply) on Friday 4 September, 2015 at 02:55

    Unusual that you praise the electronic aspects and how restrained this score can be but you hated The Forgotten, which is pretty similar, at least in terms of style