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The Karate Kid
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Amazon CD on demand / 2010 / 64:11

In one of the most unlikely-seeming scoring assignments in years, James Horner came on board this remake of The Karate Kid quite late in the day (the Remote Control composer Atli Orvarsson had previously been announced, but I don’t think he actually wrote any music).  James Horner, whose projects since Titanic have rarely been anything but Oscar bait films (and actually have rarely ended up winning many Oscars – maybe there’s a lesson to be learned); the prospect of anything made by Harald Zwart (whose previous film was The Pink Panther 2) being nominated for an Oscar seemed somewhat remote.  Yet, against the odds, this film has garnered very good reviews, being called a faithful remake of the much-loved original film (apart from, erm, not being about karate at all, but kung fu) – but of course something today’s kids might relate to a little more closely.  This time, the teacher is Jackie Chan and the student is Jaden Smith.

Horner’s score opens with a lovely slice of Americana, “Leaving Detroit”, featuring a gorgeous theme in Horner’s typical strings, wind and piano arrangement.  While I’m sure he could write this sort of thing before breakfast, he’s so good at it; and while it’s exactly what you might expect to hear in a James Horner score, it’s not necessarily what you might expect to hear in a Karate Kid score.  “Looking for Mr Han” offers the first hints of the ethnic Chinese (I told you it was kung fu and not karate) music Horner will use – though he keeps the usage rather subtle throughout, always relying primarily on western orchestral instrumentation.  “Kung Fu Heaven”, with its modal progressions, is pretty stunningly beautiful (though before anyone writes to me, I know it’s basically quoting from Vaughan Williams – but that is rarely a bad thing).  Another new theme appears in “The Forbidden City” – and it’s another doozy.  After a brief oriental flourish (presumably accompanying an aerial shot of Beijing) comes a really sweet melody.

James Horner

The action doesn’t appear until “Backstreet Beating”, the sixth track.  It’s a lot more electronics-heavy than we’ve become accustomed to Horner being in the last few years (even an electric guitar thrown in too) – and parts of it, like parts of Avatar, seem to be steering surprisingly close to the Hans Zimmer sound (but just listen to how much is going on in the orchestra alongside the electronics – nobody would actually mistake this for Zimmer).  Perhaps Horner failed to notice the apostrophe when he wrote the next track, “Han’s Kung Fu”, because that one steers even closer – far more based on texture than melody, which is very rare for this composer; but like much of the music of the guy who seemingly inspired it, it’s very enjoyably despite being so simplistic.

Love is, of course, in the air – and there’s nothing James Horner loves more than a little romance to score.  “Mei Ying’s Kiss” is yet another lovely piece of music, a surprisingly restrained piano piece which highlights the qualities which made the composer so popular in the mid-late 1990s.  Another thing Horner does so love (this time, his fans less so) is a synthetic choir and that first appears in “Jacket On, Jacket Off” – it does have a certain ethereal quality and works well enough.  There’s something wonderfully old-school about “Journey to the Spiritual Mountain”, which opens with a jaunty orchestral burst which could easily come from Horner’s 1980s period – there’s a bit of shakuhachi (which was, let’s face it, inevitable at some point) – and yet he mixes these elements from his past together into one of his lengthy pieces, constructed so beautifully (the music, like the images it accompanies, really does go on a journey) – as far as I know, James Horner is still the only film composer who regularly composes such long pieces of music (lengthier cues on other composers’ albums tend to be two or more shorter ones pasted together) and he does it with such skill.

Having dished out all the praise above, this is some way from being prime-grade Horner.  That simplistic action music (though in truth there’s no more than a few minutes of it) seems a long way beneath a composer of his standing; and there are one or two tracks which don’t really go anywhere.  There are plenty of highlights – more than enough to recommend the album.  When Horner completely lets rip (as in the last few minutes of the lengthy “From Master to Student to Master”) there is a sweep to the music which few contemporary film composers could match; and there are some truly beautiful melodies here.  But one final complaint – very unusually for Horner, the final cue seems to lack resolution (I guess it leads into a song in the film’s end credits).  *** 1/2

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