It's strange, really. Everyone - it doesn't matter whether they are huge James Horner fans, or simply can't stand his music - seems to be interested in every score Horner puts out. Horner fans because they like his music, of course. That's not especially surprising. But why do the Horner "haters" keep listening to the composers' music? Or so it seems, anyway. Because every time a new Horner soundtrack is released, the same people always seem to get their hands on a copy for their own collection, after which they share their opinions with the rest of the film music community. I just think it's strange that people keep spending money on music they don't like... Anyway, these people will probably pick up a copy of Horner's latest score, The Four Feathers, as well. And they'll probably moan about how unoriginal it is or about the large number of lifts from other scores. And while I sort of agreed with them when they complained about Windtalkers, which really was an uninspired and unoriginal score, I just won't agree with them when they start going on about The Four Feathers. Because The Four Feathers really isn't in the same league as Windtalkers. It's much better. The score won't be the most original thing you'll ever hear, but Horner luckily manages to avoid the easy and convenient lifts he tends to do, and it even seems to be written by a composer with ideas. And for some reason, that feels like winning the lottery.
The score can be divided into two different parts, or moods. First, there's the action music. And then there's the drama and romance. The romantic parts of The Four Feathers are typical Horner stuff, when it comes to sound and orchestrations - we get the piano, woodwinds and soft strings (and some airy synth sounds) - but Horner does not reuse any thematic material for these sections. And the love theme is a beauty. Especially when performed on solo piano (like in "The Dance") or by lush strings in the wonderful "The Letters". It's one of those classic Horner themes that it's impossible not to love. And luckily the romantic parts never get overly sentimental. There are thick, strong renditions of the love theme but Horner never goes as far as he did in for example Enemy at the Gates, which was more or less embarrassing to watch because of the sentimental, over the top appearances of Horner's love theme (worked great on CD, tough). At times these soft moments remind me of Horner's score for To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, since they both share the same delicate piano, woodwinds and strings. Lovely stuff, and the largest reason this music scores many points in my book.
The action music isn't in the same league. Altough we don't get even one appearance of the overused four note motif (yay! We won the lottery again!) and Horner actually presents some ideas I haven't heard before (such as wind chimes, lots of subtle, and not so subtle, synth sounds, that actually work) I'm having a hard time trying to appreciate these cues. The largest, and perhaps only, reason this is so hard are the vocals by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. To be frank they annoy the hell out of me. Apart from the vocals the action music actually is rather good. Not great, but good. There are a lot of percussion and calling horns and trumpets, of course, but every time Horner starts to build up his action cues, presenting some interesting ideas, these damn vocals take over the entire stage, ruining the mood and the music. Sure, they probably work great in the film (when I can't hear them because of the sound effects) but I can't stand listening to them. Horner just makes use of this effect too much. The only time it works is in "To Abou Clea" where the vocals are more subtle and together with all kinds of percussion and ethnical instruments create a sound that reminds me quite a lot of Hans Zimmer's Gladiator score. But cues such as "The Mahdi", "Snier!" and "Ghost of Serenity" are practically unlistenable.
Still, I enjoy most of the score for The Four Feathers. And it gives me hope. Clearly, Horner can be original when he really tries. Not entirely original, mind you, but far from unoriginal. Unlike Windtalkers, The Four Feathers score doesn't come with any obvious and downright painful reuses of previous scores. It still sounds like a typical Horner score, of course, but that can, and should, be explained with style, which is a whole other thing - it's something I welcome. Three strong or four weak stars, that's the question. Ah, why not... four weak ones, it is.