- Composed by James Horner and Simon Franglen
- Sony Classical / 2016 / 77m
Not long after the tragic death of the great James Horner in mid-2015, director Antoine Fuqua – whose Southpaw was one of the last films the composer completed work on – revealed that Horner had not only agreed to score his remake of The Magnificent Seven, he had actually already begun to write music for it based on the script (it was still being filmed at the time). He didn’t directly say so, but the implication was that we might get to hear one final composition from the legendary composer, if a way could be found to turn Horner’s early ideas into a proper film score.
Horner’s collaborators Simon Franglen and Simon Rhodes actually arranged those early ideas into a suite and recorded them with an orchestra in London, to present to the director as a gift. Fuqua then engaged Franglen to lead Horner’s old team in composing the full score, incorporating Horner’s material where possible – as well as the two Simons, on board were music editors Jim Henrikson and Joe E. Rand, orchestrator J.A.C. Redford and musicians George Doering and Tony Hinnigan amongst others,all of whom had worked with the composer for many years (in Henrikson’s case, virtually his entire career).
Franglen has been quick to point out that the music couldn’t just be a kind of memorial work, it had to function as a relevant and vibrant piece of film music for the new film, which stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke amongst the seven. Having said that – the opening track of this album, “Rose Creek Oppression”, really is like a journey through many of the mannerisms that made Horner the beloved composer he was – the ethereal female vocals, the shakuhachi, the swirling melody. The only thing missing is the danger motif, but don’t worry, it’s along before long. The first melodic device heard in his final film score is an echoing trumpet from his very first score, Battle Beyond the Stars – whether put there by Horner because that film was, like this one, inspired by Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (which would be a very Horner-like thing to do – he loved making little associations between films) or put there by Franglen as a way of bringing a beautifully symmetrical set of bookends to Horner’s career, I don’t know – but either way it’s brilliant.
The second cue, “Seven Angels of Vengeance”, introduces the main action theme, a little like some of the action from The Amazing Spider-Man – it’s a dynamic action melody but the cue is pretty dark, as indeed is much of the score. Don’t go into it expecting a gloriously sweeping career swansong, and don’t go into it expecting anything like Elmer Bernstein – listen to other scores from Antoine Fuqua movies and expect a slightly (but only slightly) more expansive version of that, with James Horner mannerisms injected from time to time. The most significant of them not yet mentioned first comes in the third cue, the rhythmic suspense style of Legends of the Fall‘s “Revenge” (and various other similar pieces dotted through the composer’s career).
When there is a tip of the hat to the traditional western sound in the next cue, “Volcano Springs”, it’s extremely bouncy and fun and really rather jarring compared with what’s around it. I guess there was never any chance of having a whole score in that style for this movie, but equally I would guess that would have made a lot of people very happy indeed. Few genres of film have such a signature musical sound as the American western – it’s just a pity that the sound was defined well over half a century ago now and would be so alien to modern audiences, especially with the genre itself now so sparsely-populated. Equally jarring is the inclusion at the end of the digital version of an abridged version of the famous Bernstein theme, one of the greatest and most iconic melodies ever written for cinema – and as glorious as it is, I can’t help but think it is a bit of a mistake to stick it on there, rather overshadowing what goes before it.
“Street Slaughter” contrasts a beautiful solo female voice with agitated suspense, percussion and harsh winds which somehow turn into an elegy by the time the cue ends – it’s stirring stuff, one of the album’s most effective cues. The piano-led suspense music heard first in “Magic Trick” but more prominently later brings back memories of Sneakers, The Pelican Brief, Apollo 13 and all the rest – it’s more subtle here, but great to hear one of Horner’s most brilliant devices again. Later in the same cue, there’s a great, propulsive theme reminiscent of The Missing (Horner’s previous western).
There are some moments of sweep here. “Town Exodus / Knife Training” starts with an excellent string theme, a hint of sadness there but it’s quite expansive. We have to wait until the album reaches its half-way mark before we finally hear a glimpse of the main theme, in “So Far, So Good” – noble and heroic, I assume it is the most prominent of Horner’s own contributions to the score (but may of course be wrong). After “The Deserter”, whose solemn trumpet writing reminds me of Dances With Wolves, we finally get the main theme properly unleashed, in “The Bell Hangers”, and it is revealed to be a beautiful piece, dripping with emotion.
From that point on the score has real energy. “Army Invades Town” is a terrific action piece (a bit like Avatar‘s finale), so propulsive and exciting, and the momentum continues into the wonderful “Faraday’s Ride”, which buzzes with dynamic flair – when the main theme trots forth towards the end and is revealed to have the Elmer Bernstein theme’s rhythmic pattern, it’s a great moment. “Home Sacrifice” is much darker as you might expect, even with a hint of Aliens in it, and the crashing pianos – the crashing pianos! “The Darkest Hour” is the biggest action track of all, with some genuinely rousing moments particularly thanks to the main theme and the less memorable but effective enough “bad guy theme”. An extended suspense cue (“House of Judgment”, whose highlight is the returning female vocalist, in a moving passage) then precedes the finale, “Seven Riders”, which Franglen himself has described as being like Horner riding off into the sunset – the full-on arrangement of the main theme provides the score with its goosebump moment, the very last chance we will ever have to hear the legend’s unmistakable musical voice.
I think Simon Franglen has done an amazing thing here by building in so much of James Horner’s style into the score – I don’t know (and probably never will) exactly what was Horner’s creation for this film, how much has been used, how many of the Hornerisms were inserted by Franglen and the team rather than by the man himself – but he did an admirable job of paying service to one of the greatest film composers while also writing the right score for the film. But it would be an exaggeration to say that The Magnificent Seven sounds like a fully-realised James Horner score, because it doesn’t. And the reason is obvious – as I just said, he was one of the greatest film composers – he had something impossible to emulate unless you’ve got that special something that he had (and if you tried to count on your fingers the number of people alive who do have that, you wouldn’t reach your wedding ring) – the astonishing gift he had for crafting a dramatic journey while staying entirely musically literate, the long through-composed sequences (I don’t suppose there are many Horner albums with as many tracks as this one), the aching emotions conveyed with such apparent simplicity but underlined with such ferociously accomplished musical technique – that’s the gold dust and, I say with not a hint of criticism of Franglen, it’s not really here.
I should focus on what is here rather than what isn’t – and that’s an accomplished modern action/thriller score with western elements and lots of valentines to James Horner fans – with one or two standout moments. Yes, its historical significance does somewhat outweigh its musical significance, which is that of a decent, frequently above-average 2016 film score lifted up by an excellent final 20 minutes. The valentines and those 20 minutes make me wonder if Franglen might score the Avatar sequels, in fact – and I’d be pretty happy if he did. The Magnificent Seven isn’t quite the glorious swansong I had selfishly craved it to be, but for what it is, it does the job. There’ll never be another James Horner and this is one last chance to hear his thing – it’s bittersweet but ultimately rewarding. What a career he had – what a body of work he left behind.
Rating: *** 1/2