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The "Perfect Score"?

Well, We're Still Waiting

by Jason Comerford

I couldn't resist it -- I had to listen to James Horner's score to The Perfect Storm. I mean, it's sitting right beside Jon Kaplan's computer, next to a whole bunch of other CDs I've already listened to. One can only listen to Don Quixote and I Dreamed of Africa so many times before the temptation to kick back with some good, old-fashioned Horner claptrap becomes irresistible.

The film isn't very good -- unlike The Patriot, which was an interesting misfire that at least makes you think about how it could have been better, The Perfect Storm is another summer-movie entry that just lies there, inert. It evaporates from your mind the moment you walk out of the theatre; the only thought I had afterwards was, "Wow, the effects were really good." It's a shame, really, because the story was a goldmine for great emotional material. But ultimately the script, by Bill Witliff and Bo Goldman, trucks out so many hoary old cliches that The Patriot, in comparison, looks like Bergman. There are a couple of game stabs at emotional connection, but on the whole the filmmakers seemed to have wanted to concentrate more on the spectacle of the 1991 "perfect storm" that apparently sunk the fishing boat Andrea Gail. Keep in mind that Sebastian Junger's inexplicably popular book on the subject used only radio communications to invoke what was happening on the boat -- the rest of the material in the film was fabrication, but unfortunately, it was bad fabrication. And while the movie has the guts to keep the downbeat outset of the story intact, there's not much feeling extant in Mark Wahlberg's silly pseudo-telepathic treatise at the film's outset ("There's no goodbye! There's only love!"). Ultimately the movie is just another notch carved into Wolfgang Petersen's hit-and-miss body of work: a technically brilliant but dramatically inert film, like so many others released of late.

Maybe it's this malaise on the part of the films released lately that's been affecting the way I listen to film music. But I'm finding more and more often that I can't put composers at fault for delivering subpar material -- for many of these things, there just isn't anything to inspire anyone. I think people get upset at great composers when they churn out serviceable music because they know they're capable of better things, and in many cases, this is certainly true. But think about it this way. If no one notices that you're doing good work -- or worse, if people start taking it for granted -- you're going to tire of putting your guts out there every time. And believe me, I can understand this mindset. There have been many a job that I was disgusted with because I knew I was working hard, and no one else seemed to care. Take Goldsmith, Kamen, Horner -- composers whose great works were earlier in their careers, and whose output now seems to pale in comparison. Rare is the instance where these musicians find something to inspire them to their earlier heights of greatness.

Horner's music for the film is, as always, a veritable catalogue of his own well-worn transitions and progressions, with a serviceable primary theme and the use of a four-note trill from Willow (his idea of a motif for General Kale, itself stolen outright from Rachmaninov's First Symphony) to characterize the violent perils of the storm. The damndest thing about all this familiar material is that it works. Horner hasn't gotten to where he is by doing things badly; he's gotten to where he is by getting to the emotional meat of the material, whatever it is, and applying his skills to what he sees as the bottom line. After all, what is the point of a film? To entertain, to engage, to thrill -- the usual adjectives. And Horner does this. But there is a calculating edge to his music, a lowest-common-denominator element that many people are rubbed the wrong way by. It all depends on how you take any given score -- how much of a balance you prefer between the art and the emotion.

It's useless to try and evaluate the music proper, because there's hardly anything original or innovative in it. It's more useful to analyze what Horner is trying to achieve through his textures and progressions and patches; what emotions he's appealing to, how he sees the scenes, the like. And with this in mind, what Horner does with The Perfect Storm is, a large part of the time, effective. The opening cue alone is terrific in terms of what it does when it's married to the film -- he goes about capturing the exultancy of the return of the Andrea Gail to Gloucester, and he nails it. The crescendos are all there, in the right places, and the love theme (for Wahlberg and love interest Diane Lane) gets everything down pat. I can't lie -- I got goosebumps when I saw the opening scene, and I thought, if the rest of the score and the movie is like this, then this will be a great ride. Yeah, it's overwrought, what with the loop-de-loop Steadicam-whirling, but for sheer entertainment value it does exactly what it's supposed to do.

Then the movie goes south, and Horner's music goes with it, and the energy drains away. Always extant in his music is a fundamental simplicity of melody and texture, which is appropriate -- Horner sees the characters as simple working- class folks, and reflects this with an admirable directness of approach. But character simplicity and moral simplicity are all too easily confused, and Horner falls into this trap, by painting with strokes that are too broad -- broader, in fact, than the film's. If anything, the score could have been used as a psychological mirror to the struggle of the characters, in a Bernard Herrmannesque fashion. (Look at any Hitchcock film and see how Herrmann's music plays such a vital subtextual role.) But Horner's approach is overly simplistic that even when he's appealing to the most obvious emotions, he scuttles himself by leaving himself no room for spreading out into more emotionally rewarding territory.

Field of Dreams worked because there was a sparseness that allowed you to fill in your own blanks -- Horner's only dip into richness, in the beautiful "The Place Where Dreams Come True" cue, worked so well because he had earned the right to swell into grandiosity. In The Perfect Storm, he overplays his hand right away -- that opening cue may work like gangbusters, but he spends the rest of the score working overtime, and the problem is that he doesn't have anything to play around with. The score churns and drones and saws away, but there's nothing to merit all the fuss anyway. But again, I return to my predisposition to forgive the artist for not having much to work with. If anything, Horner's lay-it- all-out approach was the only logical thing that he could have done. Had he tried to underplay and characterize, his attempts would likely have been lost, buried under the Dolby Digital sound effects; his only choice was to go for broke, put the pedal to the metal, and stay that way for 135 minutes.

So while we all know Horner is capable of good, meaty material -- let's all wave our CDs of Field of Dreams and Krull, and start screaming -- we might as well resign ourselves to the fact that it's going to take a miracle to get him to return to the roots that made him so successful in the first place.

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