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The Spitfire Grill
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 1996 / 51m

Winner of the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, The Spitfire Grill gained a briefly high profile when New Line Cinema paid a fortune to acquire the distribution rights; that profile didn’t extend to anyone really going to see it.  One of those “outsider comes to small town in America where everyone knows everyone else and revitalises things by running the café” films (such a popular genre), it was initially funded by a Christian group hoping to use the film to promote a fall and redemption story; the Sundance audience who gave it their award weren’t representative of the populous as a whole, with the film not really garnering much recognition from anyone else.

James Horner was at the peak of his popularity in the second half of the 1990s, scoring one mega-hit after another, so it was a surprise to see him attached to this very small film, which he apparently agreed to score for a small fee (replacing a previous score by someone else) after falling in love with it.  His music at the time was predominantly BIG – Legends of the Fall, Apollo 13 and so on – but the only big thing about this little gem of a score is its heart.

James Horner

James Horner

It opens, in “An Uncertain Future”, with a twinkly little piano figure which instantly brings to mind To Kill a Mockingbird, but quickly goes off in a different direction, Horner employing the kind of gentle emotional prodding he was so fond of earlier in the 1990s, the relatively small orchestra providing lovely variations on the main theme.  A second style is introduced in “Open for Business”, a lovely folksy piece performed by a small ensemble including fiddle, banjo, guitar and percussion which was a new sound for the composer (the superficially similar parts of Field of Dreams are substantially different, really).

“The Trees” is a beautiful evocation of the New England forest, gentle chimes providing constant accompaniment to the fluttering flutes suggesting the wind and the noble horn solo suggesting the mighty trees themselves.  “A Gift from the Forest” sees that sound blend together with the main theme, including the score’s most romantic material.  While the strings do swell at certain key moments, there is nothing even vaguely over-wrought here – indeed, there’s a calm to Horner’s music that proves to be incredibly soothing.

The composer introduces the score’s second major theme quite late on; it’s a real corker.  In “Reading the Letters”, he plays it initially on the folksy ensemble heard earlier in “Open for Business” before the piece is taken up by the orchestra.  A beautiful slice of gentle Americana, it’s actually one of the most memorable and most lovely pieces he’s ever written and I’m sure that if the film had been a success it would be one of the first selections on any compilation of Horner music.  The melody goes on to appear in most of the subsequent tracks, having been absent for the first two thirds of the disc, an exception being the darker “A Desperate Decision”, which sees the composer using familiar tension-building devices but, impressively, maintaining some hints of the folk style which has run through much of the album.

The album concludes, as many of James Horner’s do, with a lengthy track (in this case the ten-minute “Care of the Spitfire Grill”) which runs through much of the thematic material heard earlier, joining it together in sweeping style.  The Spitfire Grill is a truly gorgeous score; ironically, given that the composer has been criticised over the years for overplaying his hand – and given that the film is noted for its extreme emotional manipulation – he actually keeps an admirable restraint throughout.  The music consistently tugs at the heart strings, but never feels manipulative; it’s a lovely work, one of Horner’s most understated and underrated.  The compositional substance of many of his most famous scores may not be there, but there’s considerable dramatic and emotional substance, and it all comes together in such a beautifully organic way.  This one’s not to be missed.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Friday 16 August, 2013 at 18:32

    Are we going to get a spate of fresh new Horner reviews to assuage the pain of his triple-rejection from Ender’s Game, Romeo and Juliet, and The Unneccessary Spider-Man 2? That would be wonderful 🙂

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Friday 16 August, 2013 at 20:01

    Hmm. It’s possible!