- Composed by James Horner
- Milan Records / 2015 / 59m
Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem is adapted from the excellent autobiographical Chinese novel by Jiang Rong, set in Inner Mongolia during Mao’s cultural revolution and scathing in its allegorical comparison of wolves and sheep with the fiercely passionate ethnic Mongolians being tamed by the migrating Han Chinese farmers, with the narrator having been sent from Beijing to teach the Mongolians how to farm – and ending up learning far more from them than he could ever have taught. Annaud was allowed to shoot the film where the book was set despite previously having been banned from China for life after controversy over Seven Years in Tibet and it’s the kind of expansive outdoors stuff that the director loves.
2013 was the first calendar year since his career began in 1978 that did not see a new film released featuring music by James Horner. Then 2014 became the second. There was a rare new concert work (the double concerto for violin and cello, “Pas de Deux” – released on album in a few weeks) but with one film score rejected after being fully recorded and a couple of others announced for him but ultimately scored by others – and him very publicly saying he didn’t think he fit in Hollywood any more – fans of the composer like myself began wondering whether we might be seeing another John Barry situation, a supremely gifted film composer not working on films despite being willing and able to do so. Fortunately 2015 appears to be the year that he is back, with Wolf Totem becoming his first film score since 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man. Annaud is clearly a director he does like working with and who enjoys working with him (this is their fourth film together) and Horner has already recorded his music for The 33 (about the trapped Chilean miners) and the IMAX film Living in the Age of Airplanes; the boxing movie Southpaw is due to follow later in the year.
Horner has always loved doing films with an epic sweep – throw in this film’s theme of man’s relationship with nature, the stunning locations and a like-minded director and it was not hard to imagine that the composer might have been inspired to create something really rather special for Wolf Totem; and that’s exactly what he’s done, writing a score that immediately shoots right up there with his best. Not only is he back, he’s back with an almighty bang.
Memorable melodies have always been a big part of Horner’s appeal and this score’s main theme was stuck in my head for months after the briefest snippet of it was heard in the film’s trailer. Like those he wrote for his previous film Spider-Man and Annaud’s last film Black Gold it is a stunner – and it gets a full airing in the opening cue, “Leaving for the Country”. After a few bars of a wailing woman (as I saw somebody quip on a messageboard, the chances of this score not featuring a wailing woman were somewhat slim – but she’s barely heard again in the score after the opening moments) the horns kick in with the theme itself, then taken up by first a plucked Chinese string instrument (a more well-informed person than me would no doubt know what it is) then the more familiar erhu, then back to the horns and then more traditional symphonic winds – it’s a real knockout, noble and heroic and – to use the most appropriate adjective that applies to the score as a whole – epic.
The score continues in “Wolves Stalking Gazelles”, opening with a contemplative passage for somewhat subdued strings and Horner’s old favourite the shakuhachi (here used in a far higher register than we used to hear from the composer back when he used it so often in the 1990s) before a powerful action motif takes over – brutal and uncompromising yet with a certain elegance, it’s thrilling music. The last minute of the cue is brilliantly evocative of the complex emotions that follow a successful kill – shimmering strings and a heavenly keyboard sound respectful and satisfied.
The lengthy “An Offering to Tengger / Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup” covers quite some ground over its nine and a half minutes, beginning with a delicate piano solo accompanied by shakuhachi and then those high-register strings from the previous cue’s ending again, lending it a religious feeling; then it’s back to the action, savage strings swirling around a repeating figure before the brass joins in. There’s a mournful feeling to the theme Horner uses in the next part of the cue, a close relative to the main theme but harmonically altered to emphasise the sadness. It’s tear-jerking stuff that will no doubt prompt scorn from film reviewers who like their film music best when it is unheard; for those who like it to contain some feeling, it’s manna from heaven. Eventually the main theme itself does make an appearance as the second part of the cue begins and its incredible beauty is made all the more obvious because of the contrast with the previous melody – as ever Horner’s musical and dramatic architecture is so well-considered, the pieces making up the tapestry sewed together just so. The B-section of the theme – with echoes of Braveheart, but further removed from Holst here – gets its first extended airing and it’s another emotion-laden moment, very haunting.
“Wolves Attack the Horses” will set the Horner snipers a-sniping and bring a massive smile to the face of his more resolute fans. The first part of the cue starts with ominous suspense before turning into a refined, elegant variation on Apollo 13‘s brilliant “Master Alarm”. I think that was one of the greatest action music inventions in all of film music and it’s brilliant to hear another take on it. Then all of a sudden… we’re into a variation on “Futile Escape” from Aliens… which just so happened to have been another of the greatest action music inventions in all of film music! Finally, it goes a bit Wrath of Khan. Not only do I not care, I positively applaud this trip down memory lane through some of Horner’s most exciting music – and there’s more than enough variation to mean there’s no straight lifting going on (indeed, it’s fascinating when the different action classics get combined and play in counterpoint to each other). A thrilling cue!
Elongated fragments of the main theme bring a real romantic air to “A Red Ribbon”, a lilting and profoundly beautiful cue. “The Frozen Lake” is the next action sequence, a kaleidoscopic string motif constantly repeating under some tortured brass before the main theme is used unexpectedly in an action sequence, percussion pounding away behind it. It builds up to a ferocious attack by the brass and then the composer’s little four-note (presumably in-joke) calling card makes its one and only appearance at the end of the cue. “Discovering Hidden Dangers” contains some of the score’s most harrowing moments before unexpectedly turning into its most playful, if only briefly, with some of the most obviously Chinese-tinted writing in the score.
“Little Wolf” opens with a stunning arrangement of the theme, elegiac strings accompanied by a dark edge from the brass and keyboard; then the familiar melody is taken up by a solo flute, the violins soar away and happiness suddenly breaks forth once more. The joyous feeling doesn’t last long because Horner opens “Scaling the Walls” with some dissonant textures, developing those into tragedy-laden drama. The dramatic journey again takes another turn though, with some busy action/adventure music rising from those ashes, a feeling of importance unmistakable.
“Suicide Pact” is surprisingly chirpy considering it underscores a suicide pact, but what Horner is doing really is underscoring a deep-seated respect between friends and that comes through very clearly in the heart-melting music. There’s one last action set-piece, “Hunting the Wolves”, at times ferociously intense – urgent and breathlessly exciting, with a truly spinetingling sequence beginning around 110 seconds into the cue that is just the most wonderful Hollywood action music I’ve heard since Jerry Goldsmith was in his pomp, marred only by its brevity (and Horner can hardly take the blame for that). When that does give way, it does so to some forlorn feeling, the cue ending requiem style, conveying a quite profound sense of loss with a sad variation on the main theme leading up to a beautiful conclusion.
After the brief but impassioned “Death of A’ba” (which features the wailing woman’s second appearance) comes what the whole score has been leading up to (figuratively as well as, obviously, literally), the ten-minute finale “Return to the Wild”, a sensational cue right up there with Horner’s best. Emotionally draining, the composer takes the listener on a tour through a series of variations on the main theme, soaring majestically from dark lows to monumental highs. It’s James Horner at his purest, most direct – aiming straight for the heart, hitting it right in the middle. It’s a monumental piece, sheer film music perfection.
Regular readers know my love of James Horner and I know that not everybody gets as enthusiastic about him as I do. Really though – if you can’t get enthusiastic about Wolf Totem then you may as well give up ever getting enthusiastic about anything ever again. Melodically inspired, emotionally rewarding, dramatically potent, it offers the very best a soundtrack album can offer – a clear musical journey, colourful and evocative, full of emotion; and then there’s that brilliantly memorable theme. It’s got passion, beauty, tragedy and Horner uses all his skill to massage them into a truly fulfilling whole. I loved his last score for Annaud – Black Gold was a rewarding album with a truly magnificent cue (“Horizon to Horizon”) recalling soaring Hollywood music of the past; but this is on another level still, a master at the peak of his powers reminding the world that’s exactly what he is and where he is. I’ve mentioned a few similarities with past scores, but in terms of direct similarities it’s at the low end of what you’d expect any veteran of well over a hundred film scores to produce. It may in fact surprise people just how fresh the score sounds – Horner is as distinctive as any film composer and so there’s no moment when you’d forget it’s by him, but it’s genuinely fresh-sounding, with lots of new ideas.
It’s highly unlikely that the film will make much of an impression on the world (it doesn’t seem to even have a release scheduled yet in most of it) and that will prevent the score from getting the attention it deserves – what it deserves is to be considered one of the most notable we’ve heard in years. At the time of writing Milan’s album is due to be available imminently in both digital and physical form in parts of Europe, with releases in other territories to follow if and when the film is released in them. That means it might take a bit of effort to find it. Make the effort. James Horner brought his A-game to this one and that’s pretty much as good as film music can get in 2015 for me. That Hollywood filmmakers don’t seem to value him any more isn’t just their loss, it’s ours too; but as long as there are those outside the studio system who do appreciate his talents, hopefully that means we’ll be getting quite a few more of these in the years to come.