The Karate Kid (2010) Composed by James Horner
Madison Gate Records (2010)
“THE KARATE KID is
one of JAMES HORNER’s strongest efforts in years and does
wonders to support the unexpectedly great film re-make it’s written for.”
Everything is Kung Fu
Review by Marius Masalar
There is magic at work here. The magic is called good filmmaking and it
becomes evident when you consider that all the individual parts of THE
KARATE KID are essentially formulaic re-hashes of stuff we’ve seen and
heard before. If you were to analyze it coldly, you would see a typical
inspirational movie, the likes of which would barely be worthy of a second
glance. And yet…when you watch the film, everything comes together so
effortlessly that no amount of analysis seems able to distract from the
inherent spirit of the picture. It’s fun, it’s motivational, it’s moving.
Initially, the project was to be scored by Icelandic composer, Atli
Örvarsson, whose work has recently reached mainstream notice after several
successful films done for Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. Fairly late
in the production process, however, he was replaced by none other than
JAMES HORNER, fresh from his work on AVATAR. Perhaps it’s appropriate that
HORNER, who is known for being self-referential, offers a very fresh
sounding score for THE KARATE KID, even if the rushed schedule is evident.
The film’s opening sequence is underscored by the gentle “Leaving Detroit”
(1), whose soft woodwind solos give way to strings and an introduction of
the film’s main thematic material on the trumpet. There isn’t really an
overarching theme per se, but there are some recognizable musical shapes
that recur throughout the score to good effect. The latter half of the
track is a nostalgic throwback to family movie scores of the 90s, with a
piano joining underneath the ensemble. There is actually a fair bit of
time spent in the film with portraying the characters’ new life in
Beijing, but “Looking for Mr. Han” (2), a very brief and unremarkable cue,
is about the only thing the score has to show for it. A poignant moment in
the film where the local martial arts school is discovered is accompanied
by an absolutely stunning introduction of HORNER’s theme for the Kung Fu
elements in the film. “Kung Fu Heaven” (3) is an uncomplicated rising
motif voiced by strings and choir that manages to perfectly and
beautifully capture the peace and awe of the subject matter.
The climatic and affecting moments that close the first act of the film
are neatly summed up in “’I Want to Go Home’ — The Forbidden City” (4),
which begins with sensitive underscore before rising to reveal the
majestic Forbidden City with a sublime dance of the strings. The
pentatonic theme appearing midway through the track is stirring and
magical, and it’s a great pity that it does not make another appearance in
the score because it is easily one of the best moments on the album.
HORNER chooses to use a mostly traditional western orchestral ensemble for
THE KARATE KID, and the ethnic instruments he does use appear sparingly
and to great effect. “The Lunchroom” (5) showcases some of these elements
more prominently before giving way to a sinister, pulsing piano motif for
the building conflict between the young rivals in the film.
Perhaps the first slip is “Backstreet Beating” (6). There is nothing
inherently wrong with the track; it’s got a good sense of motion and some
contemporary percussion lines, but it feels somehow incongruous. The
fights in the film are visceral and while the electronic elements aren’t
necessarily out of place, the track feels like it was written on
autopilot. It’s a standard percussion loop-driven cue with some
instrumental lines meandering about overtop, and the result is
underwhelming. Interestingly, “Han’s Kung Fu” (7) has a very similar
construction but makes a far better impression because it returns to the
character established in the earlier cues. It feels more authentic. The
percussion loops are accompanied by rousing key changes and string
arpeggios, and although the loops fall a bit out of sync with the
orchestra, it’s still an excellent track.
“Ancient Chinese Medicine” (8) and “Beijing Valentine” (9) are more
ambient offerings that accomplish their mission admirably against the
picture but aren’t terribly interesting on album. The latter opens as if
working toward a stirring love theme, but the stunted length never gives
it the chance. Luckily, “Mei Ying’s Kiss” (10) makes up for it. A slow,
waltz-like ballad, this cue also features the warm tones of the piano and
muted strings peacefully stating the main theme. There are several
training montages in the film, all admirably featuring score rather than
jarring pop songs. “Jacket On, Jacket Off” (11) is one such cue, featuring
some misty synth vocals and processed percussion that combine to evoke an
airy, meditative feeling.
“Journey to the Spiritual Mountain” (12) is another cue that stood out
both on album and in the film as a bit out of place. At least parts of it.
The opening is sudden and suggests Home Alone more than any journey to a
sacred temple of Kung Fu training. It’s almost dorky in its treatment of
the excitement. The track tones things down a bit over the course of its
nearly 9-minute length, and the vast majority redeems the two statements
of the unnecessarily peppy theme from the opening seconds. This track
would have been the perfect place to revisit the stirring motif from the
Forbidden City sequence, but the opportunity was overlooked. Nevertheless,
after the three-minute mark the track rises to match the visuals of the
mountains with a climatic motif and moody ethnic woodwind and string
“Hard Training” (13) is another training montage, as the title suggests.
It is more active than its predecessor and punctuates the action with
strong hits and rhythms. It is thoroughly enjoyable despite the slightly
Mickey-Mouse-like ending. “All Work And No Play” (14) is a quick
transitional cue that comes and goes without leaving an impression, which
definitely cannot be said about what follows. “From Master To Student To
Master” (15) is the longest track on the album, clocking in at just over
ten and a half minutes, and it features one of the most patient and
heartfelt builds in recent memory. The intensity reached by the sixth
minute and beyond is staggering, especially in conjunction with the
emotional moments in the film.
“Dre’s Gift and Apology” (16) falls quite flat after the strength of the
previous cue, but it serves as a good way to ease into the ending tracks.
“Tournament Time” (17) is another one of those tracks that feels like it’s
just going through the motions, so it’s hardly worth mentioning. “Final
Contest” (18) is an extremely strong closing cue, summing up the thematic
elements of the score in a powerful and celebratory climax.
When you reach the end of the album, you may be struck by several things.
For one, not only is the score less blatantly self-referential than other
JAMES HORNER scores (and no danger motif!), but it also feels like it came
from the heart somehow. I mention this because even with a year to work on
it, HORNER’s score for AVATAR felt soulless to me. Somehow this
occasionally messy rush job — with loops falling out of sync with the
orchestra and some unfortunate autopilot tracks — felt more alive and
authentic than AVATAR ever did. More excitingly, it makes me feel like
perhaps HORNER is turning over a new leaf. Without a doubt though, THE
KARATE KID is one of JAMES HORNER’s strongest efforts in years and does
wonders to support the unexpectedly great film re-make it’s written for.