Reel Music: James Horner & James Cameron

Film score composer James Horner has had some of his greatest successes working with director James Cameron, but it was not always a happy union. The two got off to a bad start in 1986 working on Aliens. With just six weeks to the movie’s release date, there was still no final edit of the film, and therefore, nothing for Horner to score, since, in the movies, timing and cues are everything, and the music has to match. Aliens

By the time James Horner was able to get to work, time was so short he had to record the film’s score in just four days. But the result was perhaps proof that sometimes the pressure of a deadline is good for the creative spirit because James Horner picked up his first Academy Award nomination for Aliens.

After the film was finished, tensions between the director and composer were so high, that Horner assumed he and Cameron would never work together again. And for ten years, they didn’t. Then, in 1995, James Cameron heard the score Horner wrote for Mel Gibson’s epic, Braveheart, and realized Horner was perfect for his own epic, Titanic.

On set, much of the cast and crew got a dose of what Horner had endured on Aliens. Director Cameron was known for his explosive temper and screaming rants. Actress Kate Winslet said, “There were times when I was genuinely frightened of him.” When the film was running long and well over budget, studio execs suggested a full hour of specific cuts, to which Cameron responded, “You want to cut my movie? You’re going to have to fire me! You want to fire me? You’re going to have to kill me!”

Composer James Horner, having learned from his experience on Aliens, waited until James Cameron was in an acceptable mood to present him with the now-classic song, “My Heart Will Go On.” Director Cameron wanted no songs in the film, particularly at the end, which he felt might be perceived as “going commercial.” After hearing the song several times, however, Cameron consented, and the rest is history. The song and the score won James Horner his first—and so far, only—Oscars.

Enjoy a tribute to James Horner on the next Reel Music, Friday, August 29, at 9pm, on 89.9 and And to hear music from Aliens and other classic films, listen to this recent concert by the Brevard Sinfonia:

You Know More Opera Than You Think

Not familiar with opera? You may know more opera tunes than you might think. Here are a few you may recognize:

Shawshank Redemption
“Duettino – Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) by W. A. Mozart

Shawshank RedemptionShawshank Redemption remains perhaps one cinema’s best and most famous movies of all time. The 1994 American drama film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins tells the story of a banker (played by Tim Robbins) who, despite claiming his innocence, spends 19 years at Shawshank Prison for murdering his wife and her lover. The banker, named Andy Dufresne, befriends a fellow inmate, Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman), and begins assisting the warden in a money laundering operation to gain protection from the prison guards against inmate violence towards him.

One of the most powerful scenes of the movie occurs when Andy, after locking a prison guard out of the warden’s office, plays Mozart’s “Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro over the prison public announcement system.

Occurring in Act Three, the aria is a duet between Contessa and Susanna. Contessa dictates a letter designed to expose the infidelity of her husband. The song reflects Dufresne’s wife’s affair, but at the same time provides hope and peace for the rest of the prisoners. Considered one of the greatest cinematic uses of opera, many people fail to recognize the power of opera not only in movies, but in society in general.


“La Mamma Morta” from Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano 

PhiladelphiaThe 1993 release of Philadelphia represented one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to address HIV/AIDS. Tom Hanks, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, portrayed a successful Philadelphia lawyer who, unbeknownst to his law firm, has AIDS. Beckett is not open about his homosexuality or sickness around the office, but one day one of the firm’s partners discovers a lesion on Beckett’s forehead. He is soon fired, which Beckett believes is because of his illness.  Beckett decides to sue his law firm for discrimination. A poignant scene from the film shows Beckett and his soon to be attorney, Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington), listening to one of Beckett’s favorite opera arias.

“La Mamma Morta” from Andrea Chénier, an aria sung by the character Maddalena di Coigny, tells the story of how her mother was killed protecting her during the French Revolution. Maddalena describes how she almost gave up on life after the events. After hearing the “voice of love,” however, she chooses to go on with her life. In the film, Beckett states this is his favorite opera. Miller, while watching Beckett react to the aria, comes finds a man who loves life and deserves more than discrimination. Through the aria, Miller learns what Beckett is truly feeling. The scene becomes a turning point for Miller’s involvement in Beckett’s lawsuit.


Apocalypse Now
“Ride of the Valküres” from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner

Apocalypse NowApocalypse Now, released in 1979, is an epic war film depicting the Vietnam War. One would not think that opera would appear in movie set during this time, but Wagner’s famous “Ride of the Valküres” appears very fittingly. The figure of the Valkyrie derives from Norse mythology. They are female figures who pick certain soldiers who have died on the battle field and take them to Valhalla, the afterlife hall of slain warriors. In Apocalypse Now, a group of soldiers attack a Vietnamese village on a beach and during the process blare Wagner’s famous operatic tune from their helicopters’ speakers to intimidate the enemy. The now famous battle scene perfectly utilizes the tune to show the soldiers’ heroic nature.

The song is triumphal and symbolizes riding into hell itself. (Watch this version from New York Metropolitan Opera’s production.) The song allows for the director to juxtapose the heroic nature of the American soldiers with the poor moral justifications of the character of Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore for being there in the first place: he wanted a nice surfing position.


Your Turn…

What are some other movies that have featured opera pieces? Tell us some of your favorite opera moments in film in the comments below.

Classical Music & Film

Classical music has long influenced the world of film, both directly and through the influence of composers. Figures like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold forged the identity of early Hollywood music with their Romantic compositional styles, and classical pieces were often used as test music for producers and writers.

Here are several classical works made ubiquitous by their inclusion in film.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
by Johann Sebastian Bach

Music Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe Piece: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was first published in 1833 after Felix Mendelssohn, a frequent admirer of Bach’s work, prepared and edited the piece. Critics and musicians alike praised the piece throughout the 19th century, with Mendelssohn, Liszt and others adopting it as a part of their repertoires. Mendelssohn deemed it “at the same time learned and something for the people”- certainly an astute presage of the work’s eventual popularity in the film world.

The Score: The booming, iconic introduction was used for the main titles of 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, creating an indelible association with the horror genre. However, the film world perceived it as a powerfully dramatic score in its own right, leading to its inclusion in Sunset Boulevard and Federico Fellini’s 1960 Palme D’Or winning film La Dolce Vita. Robert Schumann, though, viewed the aggressive opening lines as clever histrionics revealing Bach’s sense of humor, a view that is perhaps more in line with how the oft-parodied work is now regarded.


“The Call to Cows” and “The Finale” from William Tell Overture
by Gioachino Rossini

A Clockwork OrangeThe Piece: Rossini’s final opera, based on the play by Friedrich Schiller, was met with modest success during its initial performance history, but it is now best remembered for its four-part overture, which depicts an idyllic picture of the Swiss Alps. Franz Liszt, among others, prepared a piano arrangement that joined his concert repertoire. Though a frequent critic of Rossini, Hector Berlioz praised the overture as “a symphony in four parts,” despite its short length and uninterrupted structure.

The Score: “The Call to Cows” is often used to connote a pastoral morning setting, especially in cartoons such as Disney’s The Old Mill. “The Finale” is perhaps more recognizable. The rousing score was popular with American brass bands in the early 20th century, and gained a public profile as the theme to The Lone Ranger. Since then, it has appeared in everything from A Clockwork Orange to Armageddon and Toy Story 2.


Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
and The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II

The Piece: These two Strauss’s wrote two works remembered in the film world for their use in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space OdysseyAlso Sprach Zarathustra was a tone poem that joined the classical canon after its 1896 premiere. While The Blue Danube was met with universal acclaim as perhaps the best-known waltz from the “The Waltz King” himself, Johann Strauss II.

The Score: Also Sprach Zarathustra drew inspiration from Nietzsche’s philosophical work of the same name- an appropriately heady conceit for the eccentric Kubrick. The score’s powerful introduction accompanies the title shot of 2001, and this connotation of the majestic and imposing has stuck ever since.  Kubrick did not shape the popular interpretation of The Blue Danube as he did for Also Sprach Zarathustra. However, his inclusion of the piece in 2001-where it accompanies two satellites as they “dance” in space-brought it to the public fore, and the lilting, elegant piece is now a staple in film and commercials.

Space Odyssey2001 is also notable for its use of several pieces from the modernist composer György Ligeti. Ligeti’s idiosyncratic work utilized micropolyphony, an abstract technique that went on to inform the work of minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. At the time of the film, Ligeti was struggling in obscurity, and Kubrick actually utilized his music without permission. The director was apparently incredulous when Ligeti objected to the unsanctioned use of his work, since, he argued, the film served as publicity for Ligeti’s music. Free marketing or not, a lawsuit duly followed, but the two soon settled out of court. Ligeti moved on with a heightened public profile, and Kubrick moved on with his reputation for an abrasive personality intact.

Ligeti’s dense work does like its classical counterparts in 2001, but it has since appeared in Hollywood films such as Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island. Additionally, the leitmotif from Darren Arnofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, entitled Lux Aeterna, takes its name from one of Ligeti’s works. Lux Aeterna has since been used extensively in film trailers and other forms of media, and the piece is popular for the dramatic tone it borrows from Ligeti’s work (though Requiem composer Clint Mansell wisely ignored the modernist composer’s absence of melody).