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The Perfect Storm
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 2000 / 79m

Loosely based on events of 1991 when a fishing trawler was lost in the Atlantic during freak weather conditions, The Perfect Storm starred George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and was a big box office success on its release in 2000.  Wolfgang Petersen’s second boat movie, it may not have been as good as his first, but at least it was better than his third and it’s actually a pretty watchable film despite being somewhat ludicrous, particularly in the entirely fictionalised later moments of the doomed voyage.

James Horner was also doing his second boat movie – his previous one had met with some success and perhaps Petersen thought he could get a touch of the magic to rub off on his film by working with the composer for the first time.  This time round – unlike the previous – Horner makes his music very much about the sea.  There is a kind of doomed romance story there again, but he was right not to latch onto that for the most part and to focus instead on the more brotherly relationships between the crewmates and especially the awesome power of the ocean.

James Horner

James Horner

The lengthy album gets going with “Coming Home From the Sea”, with a pastoral acoustic guitar solo accompanying the long-lined main theme, heard first in a noble horn solo before being taken up by the strings.  The B-section has a more epic sweep to it, though the shackles are kept on in this first performance, but it’s not long before some dark action and then suspense makes a fleeting appearance.  Like a bubbling eddy, it comes and goes, perfect resolution being found before an oboe takes up the main theme.  There’s still more – an electric guitar riff heralds the introduction of a brilliant section, horns and then trumpets accompanied by driving percussion providing a fanfare which leads into a much more up-tempo version of the main theme, strings ultimately sweeping in all their glory.  Finally, the score’s second theme is introduced – a rising-and-falling melody, designed to be like passing waves, it has a certain hypnotic quality to it – and then Horner plays the two themes in perfect counterpoint to each other, putting the band-of-brothers feeling on top of the oceanic swell of the second theme.  In those nine and a half minutes, the composer tells so much – playing organically through a lot of different things happening on-screen but providing a perfectly-contained piece of music – just what he did best.

“The Fog’s Just Lifting…” is at four minutes by far the shortest score track on the album, including a more emotional arrangement of the main theme, a nagging doubt (at times downright despair) playing off against some of the score’s few romantic tinges.  In “Let’s Go Boys” the swelling sea theme is explored further – strident at first, then after a passage of rumination, harmonically linked to the main theme, it appears in more reflective form.  Some very Coplandesque Americana follows this (and it should be noted that the main theme does somewhat resemble a melody from Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”, though nowhere near as much as certain commentators would have had you believe when this score was first heard).

“To the Flemish Cap” (it being an area of shallow water off Newfoundland and not, in fact, a cap) initially features some trademark Horner suspense writing of the Sneakers-through-Apollo 13 lineage before that gloriously dynamic fanfare from the opening cue makes another appearance, this time leading into a thrilling sequence of action, complete with crashing pianos and ever-more-urgent snare drums punctuating the string-led theatrics.  It’s great stuff, so potent and exciting.  In “The Decision to Turn Around”, the thrills move from energy and excitement to downright darkness, with a real sense of desperation running through the dramatic ebb and flow of the cue.  There is a certain heroism to the main action motif employed, in between passages of a secondary ocean theme as well as the main one and some blasts of dissonance, the pianos crashing more than ever.  It’s such rich musical storytelling.

That secondary ocean motif from the previous cue returns in the brilliant “Small Victories”, here competing with bursts of heroism in some vintage Horner action music.  It’s done so elegantly – and there’s such dramatic power there – and it never gets corny.  In keeping with the rest of the album, it’s a monster of a track and there’s a lot going on – all of it exciting.  The action continues into “Coast Guard Rescue”, which goes down the “give them hope and then take it away” route.  The results are predictably enthralling.  The score’s “danger motif index”, which is to say the point at which the familiar phrase makes its first appearance, is 50’18” – which must be approaching record-breaking territory; and it’s very effective when it does turn up, in the middle of a passage of hard-hitting action, leading to a crescendo of despair.  After that, in the cue’s second half, the score enters its darkest territory, as small candles of hope are extinguished, the music starting to take on a brutal tone, the full force of the sea’s anger starting to take hold.  Initially “Rogue Wave” suggests the calm after the storm of the previous cue but, as you might deduce from its name, it’s an illusion and the storm comes right back again, with the moment it does being an almost ear-piercing moment of terror from the orchestra which swells and swells and then eerily vanishes, leaving all lost in its wake.  It’s so effective and powerful.  Eventually the ocean theme rises and falls again, always there, never ending.

The score concludes by going full circle, “There’s No Goodbye… Only Love” marking a return to the pastoral style of the opening, this time with a more melancholy air, and a light pop beat added to the orchestra.  The main themes all get extended airing in that form, wistful and with a sense of inevitability about it rather than overt sadness.  (It’s much better than I’ve made it sound!)  That goes even further in the concluding track, Horner’s themes turned into a song (“Yours Forever”) with vocals by John Mellencamp, whose salty voice is just perfect for the context.

One of James Horner’s great strengths was as a musical storyteller, which I’m sure plays no small part in my love of his music.  You need never to have seen The Perfect Storm to know pretty much what is happening on screen at any point during the music, and that despite it being so fluid and organic.  His ability to do that while maintaining an unbreakable musical architecture, always finding a way of avoiding having to break up the flow of the musical journey (the nine score tracks on this album cover 75 minutes between them) were I think unmatched in film music, probably his greatest gift.  The Perfect Storm is some piece of work – it’s based on a relatively small thematic core but he does so much with those themes, and the music is so evocative, so dramatically rich.  This is an album that, despite its length, needs to be listened to in full to really appreciate, such is the strength of the story being told through the music – the tracks certainly work in isolation, but it really comes into its own when considered as a whole.  I think this is up there with his very best, a great example of his talent and an essential part of any Horner collection.

Rating: *****

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  1. MisterE71 (Reply) on Sunday 28 June, 2015 at 22:57

    I am really going to enjoy this odyssey. Thanks for doing this!

  2. Ian Smith (Reply) on Sunday 28 June, 2015 at 22:57

    The problem is in finding that 75 minutes to listen to the entire album. The optimal listening experience makes a demand on your time that most scores (with traditional highlights or suites) don’t. I haven’t listened to this score for years, precisely because of how dense it is as a listening experience. In some ways it was the beginning of my waning enthusiasm for Horner’s albums. The music was excellent in the films but some of the albums, as they got longer etc, became more of a chore to listen to. The familiarity didn’t help either. Its not true of all his scores – I think Legends of the Fall is richly rewarding and could be even longer on album- but the score for Perfect Storm to me at least is better in the film. But I haven’t listened to the album in years, perhaps my opinion would change if I tried it again.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 28 June, 2015 at 23:19

      Ian – that’s not entirely unlike my early reaction to this (and some others). I’ve done a real turnaround. Horner’s music is just so rich it tends to sustain the longer albums better than most others’ – not all the long ones, by any means, but I do like a lot of them.

  3. D.V. (Reply) on Monday 29 June, 2015 at 03:16

    Thanks for the review, I will seek out the album. I find that taking a very long walk works well with listening to these lengthy albums. Nothing but sky, birds and music and lots of time to think about it.

  4. T. Webb (Reply) on Monday 29 June, 2015 at 03:20

    James,

    Thanks for this review! I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that this work belongs among his best! I was amazed to hear it when I picked it up about a year ago, and I kept listening and thinking, “Wow! This is top shelf Horner!”

    The track I keep thinking of in the wake of his loss is, “There’s No Goodbye… Only Love”.

    Keep up the good work, Tim

  5. T. Webb (Reply) on Monday 29 June, 2015 at 03:27

    ^ James, okay, after reading this review, I went to the main page, and saw that you had titled your blog post about the loss of Horner as “There’s No Goodbye… Only Love”. I guess great minds think alike. 🙂

  6. TDidz927 (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 15:14

    Probably my most listened to Horner score. Yeah, it’s a long album, but never boring. I always skip that last JCM tune, but that’s just fine. Love when the guitar comes in at the 4:00 mark in track one. Cheesy, but epic!