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Southpaw (James Horner)

July 2, 2015

Cover_SouthpawSOUTHPAW

James Horner, 2015, Sony Music
14 tracks, 52:04

The score to “Southpaw” is released almost a month after the composer’s passing. It’s not the masterpiece upon which one would wish to end a career, but… it is very unique work within James Horner’s impressive body of work.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and screenwriter Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”), “Southpaw! tells the story of Billy “The Great” Hope, reigning Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World (Jake Gyllenhaal). Billy Hope seemingly has it all with an impressive career, a beautiful and loving wife (Rachel McAdams), an adorable daughter (Oona Laurence) and a lavish lifestyle. When tragedy strikes and his lifelong manager and friend leaves him behind, Hope hits rock bottom and turns to an unlikely savior at a run-down local gym: Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a retired fighter and trainer to the city’s toughest amateur boxers. With his future riding on Tick’s guidance and tenacity, Billy enters the hardest battle of his life as he struggles with redemption and to win back the trust of those he loves.

Having worked with modern composers like Mark Mancina, Harry Gregson-Williams and Trevor Morris, it is rather surprising to see Fuqua opting for the much more classical James Horner on this film (and I do apologise for the slight generalisation in that statement, but I’m sure you know what I mean). Though the dramatic twist of the story will certainly have appealed to Horner, it’s still an unexpected assignment for him to accept – certainly when the end result sounds much more like Fuqua than Horner.

What does it sound like?

James Horner’s “Southpaw” is a unique entry in a film- and discography that spans nearly four decades. Whilst Horner is, of course, known for his rich, warm and emotional music, “Southpaw” is one the bleakest and most desolate scores I’ve heard from him. It’s also one of the least melodic, instead relying heavily on atmosphere – or ‘colours’ as he would undoubtedly have explained. Horner often referred to himself as a colourist first and a melody-maker second. That statement has never felt more true than it does here.

There are themes – or rather motifs. “The Preparations” introduces a sparse piano theme. It’s eight piano notes, spread out over two or three times as many bars. The notes are carefully presented – two at a time with a few bars between them. Horner cleverly varies the time (number of bars) between the notes and the repetition of the theme as a whole, so that it gradually becomes faster without actually changing the overall tempo. It’s a slow and minimalistic theme; and it ever so vaguely reminds me of the “Call to Arms” hymn from “Glory” (if you were to strip that theme all the way back to just a few notes).  It recurs a few times throughout the album, with Horner varying the harmonies – there’s not a great deal more you can do with it really.

A secondary theme for strings and piano is best heard in “How Much They Miss Her”. It’s this score’s warmest element; and the one most likely to send a few shivers down your spine. It owes a bit to the love theme from “The Amazing Spider-Man”, though it doesn’t hang around for long enough to make an equal impression.

Throughout the score Horner relies heavily on synthesizer and electronic effects. Even the piano performance is often subject to various effects, as it’s frequently interjected with reversed notes and more often drenched in long reverb. In “A Fatal Tragedy” the reverberating piano is mixed with a similar sounding synth pad, evoking thoughts of Vangelis, of all people! The opening cue “The Preparations” stands out for its harsh synthesized blasts (of doom). It’s quite bizarre to hear such a sound, that’s more frequently associated with Remote Control, in a Horner score. Even stranger is that this is just the beginning! Electronic beats and basses, though carefully placed, feature throughout. The composer uses a wide array of synth pads, from silky smooth to rough-as-f**k. He uses electric guitar sounds, but only in an atonal, sound effect sort-of way. Same for trumpet. He’s sampled a trumpet, but only uses it to add a specific colour, nothing melodic. The electronics are particularly unnerving in “Suicidal Rampage” and they’re particularly harsh in “Hope vs Escobar”. It’s not quite as far-out as “Beyond Borders”, but it’s not far off! I’ve never been fully convinced of Horner’s skills with synthesizers; it’s often sounded a bit corny. I found “The Amazing Spider-Man” surprisingly sophisticated where the synths were concerned, and that feeling continues here. His synth work has been maturing over the last few years, and it would have been interesting to see how much further it would have gone – I mean… do I need to mention “Avatar 2”?

Percussion plays a large role in this score, though most of it is (again) atmospheric. A few timpani rolls reminiscent of “The Devil’s Own”, as well as the ticking woodblock that reminds of “Sneakers” amongst others. Only in “Hope vs Escobar” does the percussion turn more violent, in line with modern (Remote Control-inspired) action-scoring. Even the epic, brassy but clearly sampled finale seems to owe to that ‘music factory’. I mentioned reversed effects in the piano, but there are plenty more reversed or crescendoing effects. Perhaps they are symbolic for a life becoming undone. They sure enhance the lonely feeling that permeates the score. Where the piano isn’t playing the lead motif, it may be doing short arpeggios, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of scores like “A Beautiful Mind” and sometimes echoing his typical high-pitched flutters.

Addendum: there is a separate album featuring songs, mostly rap, from the film. That album also appears to contain two further cues by James Horner, labelled “Cry For Love Pt 1” and “Cry For Love Pt 2”. At the time of writing this review, I’ve not heard those two cues yet.

Is it any good?

James Horner’s “Southpaw” will be remembered for being the composer’s very last score, less so for the music itself. (Though “The 33” and “Living in the Age of Airplanes” have yet to be released, I believe they were written earlier.) It’s a dark horse in Horner’s rich oeuvre. It a rather mysterious entry that raises more questions than it answers, and it’s such a shame that Horner is no longer with us to explain his thought processes on this score. I am baffled that Antoine Fuqua sought out a composer as unique as Horner and then asked him to write this score. And I’m even more surprised that Horner went along with it! It is likely he really believed in the film and its director; or he may have simply fancied doing something totally different (though we all know that ‘totally different’ in Horner’s world isn’t usually quite as different as it is here). It begs the question whether this would’ve been another step into uncharted territory – but we’ll never known.

It’s fascinating just how cold and unsettling this score feels compared to the vast majority of the composer’s work – and I can imagine it working quite well against the more aggressive rap songs that feature in the film. Listening to this so soon after Horner’s untimely passing is quite a bizarre experience. It’s like I’m listening to the emptiness and the sadness I felt upon hearing the news of his death. It all makes for a fascinating score. Not necessarily a very good one or a pleasant one, but it certainly makes for an interesting one.

Rating [3/5]

Tracklisting

01. The Preparations (2.36)
02. A More Normal Life (1.42)
03. A Fatal Tragedy (2.33)
04. The Funeral, Alone… (5.16)
05. Suicidal Rampage (8.28)
06. Empty Showers (3.39)
07. Dream Crusher (2.30)
08. A Cry for Help (4.16)
09. House Auction (2.39)
10. A Long Road Back (2.26)
11. Training (3.53)
12. How Much They Miss Her (2.15)
13. Hope vs Escobar (8.26)
14. A Quiet Moment… (1.25)

Availability

From July 24th.

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