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Avatar by James Horner

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Avatar (Soundtrack) by James Horner

Avatar
Composed by James Horner
Atlantic Records (2009)

Rating: 7/10

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“AVATAR is truly a breathtaking, cinematic achievement; one best enjoyed on the biggest of the big screens. Beyond that, there isn't anything "gamechanging" about the film and that extends down to JAMES HORNER's score.”

We Hear You.
Review By Christopher Coleman

Without question the movie-event of 2009 was James Cameron's AVATAR. There could have hardly have been any more hype and subsequent expectation placed on this film. Prospective-fans were ready to line up for midnight showings (among whom I count myself) and hammerhead-critics (among whom some would count me) began to circle as the blood of overhype began to fill the waters of the internet. Upon release, new fans were won across the land, while critics returned from the potential feeding-frenzy, quite full, but not in the way they expected. AVATAR is a super-hit and most everyone seems to be happy with it and about it.

No doubt you've read and listened to enough online discussions and podcasts on the film, so I am not going to go in-depth here. Of course, the storyline of AVATAR really doesn't warrant going "in depth," because it is one that any moderate moviegoer will already know quite well. AVATAR's great achievement is in its stunning visuals and ability to deliver character performance-capture like never before. On those items there is no argument; however, comparisons of AVATAR to the impact of a STAR WARS or even THE MATRIX are wildly off course. Cameron's latest visual feast just doesn't operate on the same meta-levels as these predecessors. In the wake of viewing AVATAR, there aren't many deep philosophical questions, posed by the film's plot, being discussed by exiting audiences or kids pretending to wield their invisible weapon in play-battles. Are there any lines we repeat once we've left the theater? Do we whistle or hum any musical themes? No. AVATAR isn't THAT movie. Cameron's technical and photographic achievements in AVATAR are certainly due all the praise, but it's unlikely this film will make an equivalent impact on popular culture and I'm not convinced Cameron had this as a goal to start with anyway.

If I can continue the STAR WARS and THE MATRIX comparison, I'd like to direct us to the point of each film's music. JOHN WILLIAMS' score for STAR WARS can hardly be overstated in terms of it's impact on the film...and later on the culture of the day. A similar thing could be said about DON DAVIS' music for THE MATRIX, albeit to a lesser degree. DAVIS' post-modern epic worked much more subtly, but, make no mistake, when audiences hear those reflecting brass swells, there's no question about what characters, scenes or images come flooding into mind. Both films feature scores that monopolize the genre. Any movie (or game) that adopts such a sound immediately draws comparisons to them. If AVATAR is going to be rightly compared with these classics, then it's score will have to approach such status. For AVATAR, James Cameron hired long-time collaborator, JAMES HORNER, to provide the musical character for his new sci-fi/fantasy. But does the resulting score help the film to become an icon of pop culture or is it transcendent in its own right?

The fact that JAMES HORNER labored for over a year on AVATAR has certainly been well publicized and the expectations of some film music fans rose accordingly. Horner has well proven himself in the realms of sci-fi/fantasy with efforts like: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KAHN, KRULL, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, and ALIENS, but that was many Pandorian-moons ago. It has been quite some time since the prolific composer has ventured into the vastness of space and visited alien worlds. So for other film music fans, there was reasonable trepidation towards what the musical outcome might be in AVATAR. In the end, both film music camps probably got a bit of what they expected or feared.

Let me first say that JAMES HORNER's score does it's job well within the context of the film. It helps to create the appropriate moods, reflect character disposition, and fuel the action; however, not in a genre-redefining way. It isn't for lack of effort or creativity on Horner's part, but his creative efforts struggle against his own, famed, audio signatures such as: the four-note, villain motif, the shakuhachi accent and the familiarly constructed love-theme. For those, like myself, who have listened to James Horner's works for years, the appearance of these signatures can immediately distract, if not detract, from the experience. The title motif, the "I See You" theme, is the backbone of the score. The construction of the theme is in classic-Horner style, which sadly reminds the listener of a number his previous efforts, rather than carving out a unique identity of its own. Following his proven formula, this theme is transformed into a pop-love-song, "I See You" (14) sung with Celine-Dion-like-passion by Leona Lewis. Continuing to make extensive use of his familiar palette, Horner calls on the infamous 4-note-menace-motif almost immediately in track 1, albeit in an extended variation, but it's pure-form is used many other times elsewhere. The effect of its inclusion is still the same...I find myself thinking about hearing that motif yet again, rather than being sucked into the moment onscreen or enjoying all of the other aspects of the music. The same can be said about Horner's employment of shakuhachi accents in the action sequences or the solemn and wordless, female, vocal solo. Yes. You can go right through this soundtrack and find many pieces of well-used, Hornerisms and come out feeling quite disappointed...if that is all you focus on.

The fact is that JAMES HORNER is able to overcome the obstacles of his own familiarity by introducing elements that are unique to this film. I'll start with one of the most glaring elements and that is the tribal vocal accents. I start there because I find a portion of these accents entirely off-putting and distracting.  There is something in the high-pitched vocals that are akin to nails on the chalkboard for me. Going back to Goldsmith's THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS, Williams' AMISTAD, and even Horner's own MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, that specific style of tribal-vocals has never resonated with me and is certainly a sore spot.  Somehow, through his brilliance elsewhere in the score, Horner manages to overcome even this. Thankfully, he begins his path to redemption by occasionally countering the semi-abrasiveness of these vocals with more, deep and forceful accents.

Now, there are two areas where JAMES HORNER's score truly excels. First, his subtler and exotic music representing the forest and certain aspects of the Na'Vi are truly beautiful and engaging. Tracks such as "Pure spirits of the Forest" (3), "The Bioluminescence of the Night" (4) and "Becoming One with the People. Becoming One with Neytiri." (5) offer a special brand of magic, as the various synths, bells, chimes, percussion and woodwinds combine to form a mystical and enchanting environment; overcoming the Hornerisms I have previously named. Second, as we reach the climactic moments of the film and soundtrack, we hear Horner taking his action chops to an entirely new level. The concluding two tracks "Gather All the Na'Vi Clans for Battle" (12) and "War" (13) are simply the best two pieces of this release and feature a tour de force that should thrill just about any fan of film music. It's clear here that Horner poured himself fully into these pieces as we get a powerful dose of symphonic force that we haven't heard from Horner in many years.

If I were to judge AVATAR simply on this soundtrack release, I could easily call it "much too familiar" to qualify as an excellent score; however, having seen the film, there clearly are a few significant pieces that didn't make their way to this soundtrack. Even with nearly 79 minutes of score released, there are cues left out that would make this soundtrack experience a more notable and enjoyable one. It would come as little surprise to me if there is a "MORE MUSIC FROM AVATAR" forthcoming. (If so, let's just pray it is devoid of dialogue from the movie.) Still, given proper supervision, such a release could help elevate the appreciation of JAMES HORNER's score even further. AVATAR is truly a breathtaking, cinematic achievement; one best enjoyed on the biggest of the big screens. Beyond that, there isn't anything "gamechanging" about the film and that extends down to JAMES HORNER's score. But let's be honest, how many "gamechanging," film scores are there? Despite Horner's score not earning such a lofty label, his score for AVATAR contains some stellar work and despite it being full of his famous signatures there's enough creative pathos to satisfy even some of his harsher critics...at least until the sequels arrive.
 

Rating: 7/10

 

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Track

Track Title Track Time  Rating
1 "You Don't Dream in Cryo..." 6:09  ***
2 Jake Enters His Avatar World 5:24  ***
3 Pure Spirits of the Forest 8:49  ****
4 The Bioluminescence of the Night 3:37  ****
5 Becoming One of "The People" Become One with Neytiri 7:43  ***
6 Climbing Up Iknimaya - The Path to Heaven 3:18  ****
7 Jake's First Flight 4:50  ****
8 Scorched Earth 3:32  ***
9 Quaritch 5:01  ****
10 The Destruction of Hometree 6:47  ****
11 Shitting Down Grace's Lab 2:47  ****
12 Gathering all the Na'vi Clans for Battle 5:14  *****
13 War 11:21  *****
14 I See you (Theme from Avatar) - Leona Lewis 4:20  ***
  Total Running Time (approx) 79 minutes  

 

 
   

 

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