- Composed by James Horner
- WaterTower Music / 2015 / 63m
It was in 2010 that the world’s attention was gripped by the tale of 33 Chilean miners stuck underground for over two months. With the mining company reluctant to mount a rescue bid, the government eventually stepped in and did so by drilling a hole from the surface to the chamber in which they were trapped 700m below. It was no surprise to see Hollywood turn their story into a movie, with Antonio Banderas playing the miners’ leader. Mexican director Patricia Riggen took the helm for by far her biggest film to date, but it has received mixed reviews and poor box office receipts.
The 33 is just the type of movie that James Horner loved to score, with its focus on the human spirit and a triumph against the odds allowing his natural instinct for finding emotion to shine through. He recorded the score back in October 2014, ten months before the film’s Chilean premiere and over a year before its American one; it hardly needs saying that during that time he lost his life, meaning that while this was not the last film music he recorded (Southpaw), it is the last film released that will ever feature a complete original score by James Horner.
His music took me a little by surprise at first – I was expecting something very small-scale, synthetic with a few exotic soloists, probably fairly gritty – but in fact it’s a warm, quite lovely work and while it does feature the synths and the soloists, there’s also a string orchestra featured prominently throughout. The album opens with “The Atacama Desert”, a wash of Andean pipes performing that familiar Horner staccato rhythm as heard for the instrument in several of his other scores with a percussive heartbeat accompanying before a simply gorgeous, lilting guitar theme takes over. “Empenadas for Dario” uses a similar guitar theme but this time there’s an extremely intimate feel, a pale and distant sound with subtle string accompaniment.
Far less subtle is “To the Heart of the Mountain”, a piece of vintage Horner “peril” music with the strings frantic, the percussive heartbeat now much more forceful, somewhat abrasive electronics accompanying – the sort of cue he always wrote so well. It culminates in a desperate burst of the pipes and the stakes get even higher in the following “The Collapse”, the kind of big action cue I really didn’t expect the score to feature (but am very happy it does). It’s got a hint of Avatar‘s “War” about it at times, though isn’t nearly as frantic. “Buried Alive” opens with a little minor-mode variant on the main theme for pan flutes before a lovely melody is heard for (I think) a quena, another traditional Andean instrument, with a lovely, sprightly sound; but as the track title suggests, for the most part it’s a dark cue, brooding and anguished.
The score’s second main theme is introduced in “Drilling, the Sweetest Sound” – the quena again, this time genuinely happy, with a dance-like atmosphere, it’s completely lovely. The theme is back in the next cue, “Prayer – Camp Hope”, springing into life after a low-key opening section. The jovial atmosphere turns sour in “The Drill Misses (and Dreams Fade…)” which is mournful, the pace funereal, synth strings mixing with the real ones and little atmospheric bursts of guitar and pan flute, and a profoundly sad arrangement of the main theme.
“Aiming to Miss” is ethereal – dreamy synths, gentle plucked strings and chimes – again a slight hint of Avatar. Somehow from this Horner manages to produce a great tension, but it’s a subtle piece really, nothing showy. The joyful secondary theme returns in “We Are All Well in the Refuge, the 33” this time starting gently but its familiar energy soon comes in. A lot of feeling goes into “Always Brothers”, George Doering’s performance of the main theme just splendid. “Fénix” has a great feeling of momentum, strings echoing from one side to the other around a beautiful arrangement for harp of one of the themes. Just as the cue nears its climax comes a lovely little transcendent melody full of hope, which leads into “First Ascent”, the heartbeat returning for the first time in a while, strings shimmering, shafts of light becoming gradually less hazy, the ethereal side of the score reaching its climax here.
The track most likely to get stuck onto people’s James Horner playlists is “Celebrations”, which actually starts off by introducing a new theme – well, not entirely new, since as has been noted elsewhere it’s a close cousin to Glory (and originates in Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible). Whatever – it’s certainly glorious. In the second half of the cue, Horner introduces a hypnotic choral chant (Glory‘s gone well and truly into Avatar by now) and I love the decisive choir-and-percussion conclusion, clearly a tip of the hat to reportedly Horner’s own favourite film score, Ennio Morricone’s The Mission. After that, “Family Is All We Have” is understated but completely lovely, a quiet relief rather than an overwrought grand finale.
Two score tracks remain: “The 33” is one last airing for the happy theme, “Hope is Love” a lush and romantic one for the main theme, the perfect send-off to not just the score but (tragically) James Horner’s magnificent career. The 33 isn’t the kind of grand, dramatic work like most of the ones which will forever dominate people’s lists of favourites but it’s a really beautiful piece of music, full of passion and feeling, similarities with the composer’s other South American-flavoured works only really superficial. Inevitably it’s a somewhat bittersweet experience – but an enriching one.