There is not one film score consumer/fan that expected the scoring assignment for The Amazing Spider-Man to go to James Horner. The generally downward spiral that has characterized many of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster films has carried over into the music department as well. Many of these films come attached with soulless, vapid scores of high volume yet very little depth or life. ScoreFans everywhere expected this new spidey film to continue such a trend which was why there was a bit of a collective gasp when Horner was confirmed to score the film.
A certain composer named Hans Zimmer (who, in his own right, is a great composer!) has, over time, completely changed the landscape of action and adventure scoring. There is now a certain style of music that is generally expected when it comes to films of this ilk (big blockbuster entertainment) that is a direct consequence of the impact Zimmer and his production have had on the scoring scene. Unfortunately, Remote Control Productions (Zimmer’s production house and training ground for up-and-coming composers) has become somewhat like the Borg from Star Trek, seemingly assimilating composers into its compositional methods. As such, many film composers in recent times; knowing what sound is expected of them, have written scores for these types of films that have employed many of the same techniques and generally carry the same sound as the music from Zimmer’s camp. James Horner, though, is one of the few composers that simply refuses to be assimilated. He has his own sound and he is not about to prostitute it for a quick buck.
Many had fears that Horner had been “assimilated” when he took on scoring duties, but after listening to the album it becomes clear that this is simply not the case. Much has been said of Horner’s use of electronics. Yes, this score is electronic-heavy, which in and of itself is fine. Both Zimmer and Horner use electronics in their scores (Horner from time to time, Zimmer constantly), but in this score one can see that there are differences in how the two composers use them. Zimmer almost always uses synths and electronic to significantly replace a live orchestra. In other words, he uses his vast electronic palette to form melodies and themes, many of which cannot be performed by a live orchestra to any great effect. The electronics in Horner’s Spider-Man score are supportive. Sure, they drive most of the cues, but a live orchestra is still employed to form the core of his score. Make no mistake, The Amazing Spider-Man is a fully orchestral score with James Horner’s very own unique style stamped all over.
That this is a Horner score and not an “assimilated” score is clear from the very first track. The vocals are vintage Horner as is the main theme. In fact, this entire score could be called “modern vintage”. Behind all of the electronics and modern stylings is a very old-fashioned film score filled with brassy heroics, a dramatic love theme, moments of comedy, punchy and brassy action, and flights of fantasy. The love theme is so tender and earnest and has classic Horner written all over it. It really is a treat to listen to, especially in “Rooftop Kiss” and “I Can’t See You Anymore”. The main theme is incredibly memorable (you will be whistling it after finishing the album). It is suitably heroic while ascending and descending notes signify the swinging flight of the titular character. It is utilized best when it enters to signify the heroics of Spiderman as he saves the day. It all culminates in a staggeringly massive quote of the theme in “Saving New York”.
The action music is tremendous, being more focused in the last half of the album. Horner has almost always been good with percussion and such is still the case here as his heavy rhythms and constantly moving brass and strings carry the action tracks. It all comes together to such thrilling effect in tracks 16, 17, and 18. Action music has not been this satisfying in a mainstream score for a very long time. There is definitely music for the Lizard, though it is less pronounced than the music for the protagonists. It is at its strongest in those final three tracks. Horner employs synthetic choir in the action tracks to great effect (it often sounds very Titanic-like). It is best at the frighteningly massive and loud conclusion to “Oscorp Tower” and in the middle of “Saving New York” when Horner uses it to pulsate one of his “inspirational” interludes. It really is a treat. The brass is especially exciting at the start of “Lizard at School!” where it just blasts all over the place while still remaining structured. “The Bridge” is great in that regard too as it is perhaps one of the best dramatic action cues on the album. There are other brief moments of action, like in the comedic “Rumble in the Subway” and “Ben’s Death”, but the majority of it is focused in the last half of the album.
That being said, it should be made known that this album has a bit of a slow start. Things don’t really begin to pick up until track 10, “Ben’s Death”, which is when Peter/Spidey starts to gain focus, and as such so does the score. The beginning tracks certainly aren’t bad, and there’s great stuff in each and every one of them, like the typical Horner build-up in “Becoming Spider-Man”. I’m not going to lie, that was kind of comforting to hear. Tracks 7, 8, and 9 are suitably mysterious in a fantastical way that it seems only Horner can pull off these days. Still, however, those wanting and expecting an action-heavy score should probably start at “Ben’s Death”.
One of the aspects of a film that Horner is the unrivaled master of translating into music is the feelings/emotions in any given scene. Horner again proves this to be the case here as he conveys a whole smorgasbord of emotions throughout the score, often all in a single cue! However, the one (and only) track where I feel potential may have gone unrealized in this regard is “Ben’s Death”. You feel shock, then a sort of desolation before giving rise to music that provokes feelings of revenge. However, the music never made me feel sad about Ben’s death. For such a pivotal moment in Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s character development a certain amount of pathos would have gone a long way I believe. Still, though, the track is a good one and well portrays the shifting nature of the main character.
Another great thing about this score is that there seems to always be an element of forward-motion. Many scores have this element, but most of the time it is too rushed, jumping from one idea to the next with extreme haste. Horner is one of the few composers that can write a single cue that covers many different scenes and still make it a cohesive cue. Horner and Williams are the reigning kings of this type of scoring and Horner does it well here. There is always a sense of forward-motion whether it be in the thumping of an electronic beat, the steady development of a theme as the score progresses, or something as simple as steadily rising or falling volume (among other things. I really do not know how to truly and perspicuously convey this element in writing). Horner strings all of these scenes, ideas, and events together and creates something truly cohesive. If there was a problem with the film’s pacing, you would never have guessed it from Horner’s score. While it covers a variety of styles and feelings it is not a disjointed score. This makes it a great listen all the way through from start to finish, even with what some would consider an extreme album length.
You might have noticed that I have refrained from comparing Horner’s score to Elfman’s score for the previous incarnation of Spider-Man. This is partially because I feel that Horner’s score stands on its own as its own entity. To be certain, there are stylistic similarities here and there (especially in the electronics) and Horner even gives a few nods to Elfman’s theme for Peter, which was actually a very pleasant surprise. “Ben’s Death” is also quite similar in structure to Elfman’s equivalent. Still, though, both scores are unique in their own regards and their similarities are mostly due to the fact that they both exist in the same fictional universe. I, personally, found Horner’s score more consistently enjoyable and musically superior to Elfman’s original as an entire package. Both of their main themes are just about equal with regards to appropriateness. Horner’s appeals to me more because it is in a major key and as such has an old-school heroic quality to it that I love.
Overall, I hold this score to be a masterpiece for many reasons. I love the fact that Horner has ‘bucked the trend’, as it were, and created a score that is entirely his own style (there is not a single moment of Zimmer sound-a-like). His main theme is absolutely soaring and the love theme achingly gorgeous. Horner’s thematic style of writing has always been a major plus, basing his score around themes and development rather than on sound design and atmosphere (though those do play a vital role here as well). Horner’s use of electronics is skilled and integrates well with the predominant and ever-present live orchestra. The score is largely original, Horner having some truly unique ideas all wrapped in his easily recognized style. His underscore is dramatic and often fantastical and the action music is wonderfully thrilling. If you’re a Horner fan then you have probably already heard it and listened to it a couple hundred times (and if you haven’t bought it…go now!), and if not then chances are you will still enjoy it immensely. Simply put, there is simply no reason why this stunning album should not be in you collection.
Read other recent reviews by Anthony Aguilar: Skyfall
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