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The Pelican Brief
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Big Screen Records / 1994 / 52m

A rather routine John Grisham thriller (on screen at least, it’s hard to argue that there’s any other kind of John Grisham thriller, apart from the first one, though many of them are very entertaining) The Pelican Brief attracted the services of veteran director Alan J. Pakula, no stranger to this kind of conspiracy story.  Julia Roberts plays a young law student (of course!) who unmasks a government conspiracy (of course!) behind the deaths of two Supreme Court judges, and gets the help of friendly journalist Denzel Washington as they then have to dodge attempts on their own lives.

Pakula often used Michael Small to score his films but throughout his career he would sometimes turn to others (including David Shire, Marvin Hamlisch and John Williams) and his last two films – this and The Devil’s Own – were scored by James Horner, who in 1993 was extraordinarily prolific and approaching the height of his popularity (ten films featuring his music were released that year alone).  Against such a background, it is little surprise that this score has always fallen under the radar somewhat, despite the surprising success of the film.

James Horner

James Horner

In many ways The Pelican Brief might be considered as routine as the film; in terms of James Horner thriller scores all the ingredients you might expect are there, but there is one special extra ingredient and that’s the one that makes the album worth having.  The tenth track, “Darby’s Theme” (not featured in the film so presumably arranged just for the album) is superb, a sweeping central melody for strings really very beautiful, a little bridging motif (mainly piano but in various other guises too) binding it together.  If it’s not on your Best of Horner playlist, you’re missing out.

The bulk of the rest of the score is built around very familiar action/suspense techniques in the Sneakers template.  The wood blocks and distant voices at the start of the main title, then the synth pads and subtle piano: it’s nothing new, but it’s certainly effective.  What’s really impressive is how Horner weaves little touches of Darby’s Theme (especially the bridging piano motif) through several cues, connecting all the narrative to her and giving the music a real flow.  In that first cue it’s just fragments in the floating piano melody that permeate through.  Then comes “The Pelican Brief”, strained strings, good use of pauses causing deliberate detachment; there are just hints of the composer’s favourite Khachaturian adagio, familiar from so many of Horner’s scores, but it’s a much subtler presence here.  “Researching the Brief” returns to the sound of the main title, but there’s a more palpable energy now, a definite dramatic undercurrent flowing through it.

The first real action then appears in “Hotel Chase”, piano jabbed in the lowest bass registers, strings swirling, pounding percussion, an abrasive feel from some synths – it’s very much of that Sneakers lineage, one of the darkest examples of that style in fact. “The Killing” opens with more wood block and a quick piano version of the bridging motif from Darby’s Theme, as Horner builds tension through the piece, a swirling phrase repeating before a very downbeat version of the main melody of the theme.  “Bourbon Street” is a more routine piece of suspense, surprisingly heavy on the electronics, the theme weaving subtly through it again; nothing special, but very effective.

“Planting the Bomb” initially keeps up the suspense, but then Horner lets it explode out a bit with some of his trademark piano crashes and it becomes a solid piece of action music.  The mood darkens yet further in “Chasing Gray”, more synthy action/suspense, and there’s a good display of inner turbulence in “Darby’s Emotions” which builds up to a very black string version of her theme.  Then after the album arrangement of the theme, “Morgan’s Final Testament” is a bit of a damp squib (fairly anonymous suspense) before the score springs back into life with “Garage Chase”, the pick of the action cues, though it’s very familiar.  Then the album draws to a close with the brilliant ten-minute “Airport Goodbye”, an extended take on the main theme which is full of various emotions – just a hint of romance, a definite feeling of relief and closure – and above all that trademark Horner sweep.

The Pelican Brief is a slightly hard one to slap a rating on – you get the great plus of that wonderful theme, but in truth the action and suspense material – while certainly impressive on its own terms for the most pat – was done at least as well in other Horner scores; and there are certainly a couple of less interesting cues, so the album is in truth only a middling one, especially by James Horner’s standards, but the plus points mean it’s certainly worth having.

Rating: *** | |

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  1. Cindylover1969 (Reply) on Monday 24 August, 2015 at 03:47

    It does deserve credit for getting name-checked on “The Simpsons” in that episode with Lisa and a little girl called Judith whose parents are huge John Grisham fans and put on the OST – “Track 3, ‘Researching The Brief.'”

    Someone should ask Emily Blunt (who voiced Judith) if she really hates track 3…

  2. Kevin (Reply) on Monday 24 August, 2015 at 04:38

    One of Horner’s more underrated scores, in my opinion. The action/suspense music is familiar but I’m a sucker for that crashing piano. “Hotel Chase” and “Garage Chase” are the highlights for me.