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The Magnificent 7 (James Horner & Simon Franglen)

September 17, 2016

cover_magnificentsevenTHE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

James Horner & Simon Franglen, 2016, Sony Classical
26 tracks, 78:26

Arguably the most anticipated score of the year hardly needs an introduction…

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the 1960s western by the same name, which itself was a re-interpretation of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai. Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves. It stars Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio amongst others.

The tragic story of how the score came about is pretty well known by now. James Horner scored Fuqua’s Southpaw and from there Horner was keen to tackle The Magnificent Seven. When Fuqua felt that the western might never come off the ground, it was Horner who encouraged him to carry on. Sadly, Horner died in June of 2015 whilst piloting one of his private planes. Unbeknownst to Fuqua, the composer had already written down several ideas for the score. Simon Franglen and Simon Rhodes, frequent collaborators of Horner, had already been approached by Horner to discuss the themes and schedules (as other movies like Hacksaw Ridge and The Great Wall were also lined up for him). Following Horner’s death, Franglen hired an orchestra and produced a demo for Fuqua, presenting it to the director as a gift from the late composer. Fuqua then hired Franglen to finish the score; and Franglen gathered the clans (Simon Rhodes, J.A.C. Redford, Jim Henrikson, Carl Johnson, Joe E. Rand, Tony Hinnigan, George Doering, et al) to create this film score using Horner’s original themes and his typical mannerisms, colours and textures.

What does it sound like?

Having listened to the score several times now, I feel it should probably come with a few caveats. I have already read several disappointed reactions from people saying that this is not the score they wanted to hear. And to be honest… it’s not the score I was initially hoping for either. That doesn’t make it a bad score though. In fact, I suspect it will work pretty well in the movie. It’s as an album that it has its flaws.

Let’s start with: is it a Horner score? Yes and no. It features themes and motifs by Horner (some original, some not), but the score as a whole is probably more Franglen interpreting and juggling with Horner’s final notes and Fuqua’s requirements for this film. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to find the right balance, but ultimately the music must serve the film. It is, after all, a film score, not a requiem. If you’re expecting this to be the maestro’s magnum opus, you will likely be disappointed.

Franglen mentioned in an interview with CBC Music that he wasn’t “trying to create a mausoleum to James’s heritage. This is a living, breathing score that needed to reflect the film it was in.” That said, a great many of his trademarks make an appearance. The inclusion of so many Hornerisms feels like a fitting tribute on the one hand, yet feels forced on the other. The opening cue almost turns into a cacophony of shakuhachi blasts, echoing trumpets, metallic percussion, fluttering pan-flutes, a familiar snare motif, some droning sounds and female vocal. All that’s missing here is the four-note danger motif, but don’t fret… that one appears elsewhere! To the uninitiated, this will likely sound as effective, perhaps even quite innovative, suspense music; but for anyone vaguely familiar with Horner’s oeuvre it might just border on the side of overkill (even considering the circumstances).

The reason why many people say that this isn’t the score they wanted it to be, is largely due to its rather low-key themes. There are several melodies to be discovered throughout the score, but none are particularly rousing (not until the very end at least). Those expecting a grandiose Western score like the original The Magnificent Seven or something like Silverado or Wyatt Earp will find… well, not that. And I think we need to look towards the director as to why. Southpaw was a gritty film, and Horner wrote a suitably gritty score that relied heavily on colours and textures. The Magnificent Seven, in a way, is no different. This too is a gritty film, with an edgy score that relies more on it’s orchestrations than it does on melodic content. Southpaw happened to be largely electronic, whilst The Magnificent Seven is largely orchestral. Antoine Fuqua’s movies are not known for their lush, sweeping scores. Don’t expect this one to change that.

So now that we have established that this is not the sweepiest of score (though it does pick up towards the end), is it at least a cool action score? Yes, actually it is. However, the album is hampered by the inclusion of many less interesting suspense cues that don’t really add much to a stand-alone listening experience. There’s definitely a very strong and very cool, but really much shorter, action score in there somewhere.

Ultimately I feel that it captures Horner’s spirit, but it lacks his finesse.

I already mentioned the opening cue “Rose Creek Oppression”, which features a plethora of Hornerisms. The echoing trumpets are a surprising and particularly nice touch. You see, these appeared in Battle Beyond the Stars, one of Horner’s very first movies and one that was also based on Seven Samurai, so it’s really gone full circle. Whether this was one of Horner’s ideas or one of Franglen’s it’s pretty neat to hear such an old-fashioned trick in a modern film. Metallic ticks, female vocals and fluttering flutes remind strongly of the “Revenge” cue from Legends of the Fall. Those vocals offer a first glimpse off Horner’s main theme, a quite simple rising-and-falling melody.

With “Seven Angels of Vengeance” we dive straight into the action material. String- and brass ostinatos are accompanied by lively percussion. There’s a nifty rhythm for something that sounds like a processed harmonica. All the while, a rather heroic brass theme is never far away. “Lighting the Fuse” sees the echoing triplet-motif moving to the strings, while Elmer Bernstein’s iconic rhythm from The Magnificent Seven can be heard in the percussion. Franglen made it clear in several interviews that you can’t have a Magnificent Seven score without honouring Bernstein’s work. However, in this day and age you can’t really get away with such a swashbuckling theme as Bernstein’s – but you can with a rhythm. Cleverly, Franglen incorporates that rhythm throughout the score. “Volcano Springs” briefly offers some classic Western swagger, though it doesn’t last long. In contrast, “Street Slaughter” is a gritty and heart-wrenching piece of work for heavy percussion, dramatic strings and lamenting vocals (think The Four Feathers). Unexpectedly perhaps, this is where the music really sounds and feels like Horner.

There are plenty of neat little things happening as the score progresses. From the plucking noises in “Devil in the Church” to that lovely piano flutter in “Magic Trick” (as well as the low piano roll) to the hand-clapping in various cues. “Red Harvest” combines a familiar synth sound with light piano and melancholy (ethnic) flute. It’s such a low-key cue, but again it’s here where you really feel Horner’s presence. The same goes for cues like “The Deserter” and “The Bell Hangers”.

“Takedown” is a crafty cue for all kinds of interesting sounds, ranging from the echoing trumpets to the metallic clicks, pan flute rhythms,  slapped strings, eerie bowed sounds… very much in the vain of “Revenge” from Legends. Elsewhere, “So Far So Good” is a noble cue for brass, strings and familiar snare drums.

“Pacing the Town” makes great use of hand-claps and ostinato string writing, topped with a noble brass theme; whilst “Army Invades Town” and “Faraday’s Ride” are two high-octane cues with plenty of percussion and brass. “The Darkest Hour” opens with a low, agitated string ostinato and menacing brass. As it progresses, a heroic brass theme emerges over Elmer-inspired percussion. It’s without doubt the score’s biggest, most rousing cue (though the rhythmic patterns briefly venture dangerously close to another famous rhythm: Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator). “House of Judgement” starts eerie, continues menacingly, but ends absolutely beautifully with soft strings and a mournful female vocal performance of one of the key themes. This is proper tear-jerking stuff.

The score concludes with “Seven Riders”, a noble cue for horns before the rest of the orchestra joins in. There is the faintest air of The Amazing Spider-Man about it, though it’s difficult to pinpoint how. After a dark seventy minutes, this one let’s the light in, as it gradually evolves into a rousing anthem with the nods to Elmer’s original becoming stronger… and then the (digital version of the) album concludes with Elmer’s original theme. It is so much more lively than Horner’s/Franglen’s score, but the “Seven Riders” cue does serve as a nice set-up to this jubilant closing track. The slight trouble or irony is though, that whilst Horner’s themes have grown on me and I have found myself humming at least one of them, Bernstein’s theme is so darn iconic that after 76 minutes of Franglen carefully finishing what Horner started, you walk away humming the Bernstein theme.

Is it any good?

It is too easy to be negative about the score, because it’s not quite the grand sweeping epitaph to Horner’s career we wanted it to be (let’s just keep pretending that Wolf Totem was that). I spent a big part of my review trying to place the score into context and excusing the score for not being what it isn’t. I feel a bit guilty for doing so, yet feel it is necessary… because it is a pretty cool score (though it may take a few listens)!

Okay, so we established it’s not another Legends of the Fall; that the album is a bit too long; and that Franglen went rather overboard with the number of Hornerisms. It does represent everything the maestro stood for, though I do believe it lacks his finesse. The score feels more like it’s been produced rather than composed. Still, I can’t help but smile melancholically at the various nods. It reminds me that Horner’s work – all of it – was part of a living, breathing organism. I would, at this point, selfishly refer to my journey through James Horner’s body of work.

What we got is mostly an action-and-suspense score that I suspect will serve the film well. That was always Horner’s first concern, and rightfully it is Franglen’s. I’m sure he will have had to walk a tightrope between honouring Horner’s legacy and Fuqua’s modern, gritty demands for the film. I for one think he’s done a marvellous job under difficult and emotional circumstances. Franglen does a good job making the score as melodic as possible (and for all the darkness, we do get a pretty rousing finale); the orchestrations are spot on; and the overall recording has a nice, full sound to it. Despite earlier reservations, I’d happily believe that it isn’t that far from what Horner would’ve done had he lived just a wee bit longer. It may not be what most of us want it to be, but it is what it needs to be… and then some.

Rating [4.5/5]

Tracklist:

1. Rose Creek Oppression
2. Seven Angels of Vengeance
3. Lighting the Fuse
4. Volcano Springs
5. Street Slaughter
6. Devil in the Church
7. Chisolm Enrolled
8. Magic Trick
9. Robicheaux Reunion
10. A Bear in Peoples Clothes
11. Red Harvest
12. Takedown
13. Town Exodus – Knife Training
14. 7 Days, That’s All You Got
15. So Far So Good
16. Sheriff Demoted
17. Pacing the Town
18. The Deserter
19. Bell Hangers
20. Army Invades Town
21. Faraday’s Ride
22. Horne Sacrifice
23. The Darkest Hour
24. House of Judgment
25. Seven Riders
26. The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein) (Digital Version Only)


Review (C) 2016 Synchrotones

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