So prolific and passionate about film music was the late James Horner that, nearly 18 months after his tragic passing, new scores have continued to emerge that further solidify his legacy. Following Wolf Totem, Southpaw and The 33 Horner's final work, sketched out before his death and completed posthumously by Simon Franglen, is his score for Training Day director Antoine Fuqua's pistol-toting Western remake The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke. It's a score that caps off an extraordinary career spanning nearly 40 years. By now the reports of how the score came together are well established. Back in 2015 Fuqua, unsure of whether to proceed with his take on the original Yul Brynner/Steve McQueen classic, was encouraged to move forward by his Southpaw composer Horner. So in love with the project was Horner that he actually wrote seven tracks in secret off the basis of the script before filming had even began. In the interim tragedy struck when Horner died in a plane crash, and it seemed unclear how the music for the movie would proceed.
Ultimately the latter's longtime collaborator and close friend, not to mention a noted composer in his own right, Simon Franglen, rode into the fray to musically complete what Horner had started. Assembling an orchestral suite based on Horner's ideas that he then presented to Fuqua, Franglen got the job of completing the composer's final score. Working with a small army of assistants and orchestrators including Horner regulars Simon Rhodes, J.A.C. Redford, Jim Henrikson, Carl Johnson, Joe E. Rand, Tony Hinnigan and George Doering, the epic and mightily challenging task of assembling Horner's multifaceted tapestry began.
By Franglen's own admission the score isn't "trying to create a mausoleum to James's heritage"; after all, the most crucial role of any film score is to serve its respective movie, regardless of the pathos that lies behind its creation. It's also important to note that Fuqua as a director has a far edgier, tougher sensibility than the original movie's John Sturges, amping up the violence and threat. "If you listen to it, its got the essence of dangerous cowboy music. It has a bit of an attitude about it", Franglen tells Entertainment Weekly. "Throughout the score, when I was working with the team, one thing we wanted to have, was the score had to have a swagger about it."
These are important factors in determining the tone of the score, one filled with immediately recognisable Horner-isms but which is also surprisingly low-key, textural and pensive for a great deal of its 78 minute running time. Of course Horner delivered several such scores throughout his career (Thunderheart and Apocalypto being two noteable examples) but anyone expecting the immediately rollicking and bombastic personality of Elmer Bernstein's iconic original soundtrack are likely to be a tad disappointed.
Bernstein's theme is inevitably treated to a lively and crowd-pleasing end credits suite and acts as the clear rhythmic inspiration to Horner and Franglen's own theme, one that rips along off a pulsating brass section and thundering timpani in tracks like 'Volcano Springs', the hugely dramatic 'Faraday's Ride' and the climactic 'Seven Riders'. It also makes a triumphant burst in 'Several Angels of Vengeance', sandwiched between hard-edged, surprisingly modernistic action music, Franglen bringing a more oppressive edge to Horner's traditional lyricism. The ostinato strings of 'Pacing the Town' meanwhile build to a punchy brass section that is quite brilliant.
There's also a steady build to the brief 'Lighting the Fuse' where a percussive variant on the theme works around Horner's much-parodied four-note theme of danger (thankfully used infrequently) and the composer's ever-present shakuhachi wood flute, whose stark tones really draw out the movie's themes of violence and vengeance akin to Horner's work on 2003 Western The Missing. '7 Days, That's All You Got' utilises ostinato strings to offer the merest hint of the theme but the overriding feel is one of pensive tension, danger lurking around the corner. 'So Far, So Good' resounds with a deep, resonant brass section and clanging bells in the manner of Horner masterpieces Glory and Legends of the Fall. Eventually, it moves through a rhythmic action sequence, picking up snare drum clusters, piano and brass that carry with them an air of defiant heroism.
By contrast 'Chisholm Enrolled' is one of the score's most overtly emotional pieces, building the theme on anguished strings before clanging bells signal the onset of doom and destruction. This material is later reprised at the lovely start of 'Town Exodus - Knife Training' to excellent effect, before multi-faceted shakuhachi and cymbal effects again pull the music in a darker direction. 'The Deserter' is another of the score's more attractive cues, the full weight of the string section grappling with a sense of melancholy emotion that's typically arresting.
On the whole however, compared to Bernstein's more lively presence the main theme for this score is used relatively sparingly; Horner and Franglen use carefully placed bursts to gradually develop the heroic presence of the magnificent posse, unlike Bernstein who reiterated it in his score from the very start. In conjunction with the overrarching theme for the seven themselves, Horner and Franglen utilise recurring motifs and textures representing the heroism, attitude and danger of their quest, rather than developing pieces for each of the individual characters (a wise choice, seeing as the score could have become overly knotty and complex).
A shadowy, snaky piece for the movie's slimy villain Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Saarsgaard) crawls its way through creepy tracks 'Devil in the Church' and the climactic 'House of Judgment' but given how relatively little screen-time the character gets, the piece doesn't appear all that much in the body of the score. More effective is the use of a haunting female vocal to lament the brutality befalling the frontier town of Rose Creek. A device extending back to the likes of The Pelican Brief and Legends of the Fall (and even before that), it makes eerily emotional appearances in dramatic tracks like the opening 'Rose Creek Oppression', 'Street Slaughter' and the atmospheric 'Takedown' where it gains added impetus from shakuhachi, timpani and fluttery guitar.
The latter track also features a series of trumpet triplets whose Horner heritage extends way back to the likes of Battle Beyond the Stars; re-contextualised here, it's a brilliant device that utilises the orchestral tropes of the Western genre but in Horner's uniquely identifiable style. Seemingly a musical harbinger of the violence that's set to ensue when the seven go to battle, it wends its way through the score in the aforementioned likes of 'Rose Creek Oppression', where its harsher nature weaves around the elegaic musical plight of the townsfolk, and 'Seven Angels of Vengeance'.
Other techniques that come and go include a fluttery, Spitfire Grill-esque piano motif for card sharp gambler Farraday (played by Chris Pratt) in 'Magic Trick' (also midway through 'So Far, So Good') and Zorro-style handclaps for haunted sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) in 'Robicheaux Reunion'. The way the latter's material is woven around the multifaceted string, brass and percussion elements in 'Pacing the Town' is just one indicator of the dense tapestry Horner and Franglen have constructed. A lovely ethnic woodwind melody in 'Red Harvest' appears to hint at the Seven's Native American contingent in the form of Martin Sensmeier's character Red Harvest, but it's fleeting.
The action sequences are for the most part dense and aggressive in their construction. 'Takedown' is a standout cue, utilising the percussion, shakuhachi and trumpet motifs to build suspense to unbearable levels in the manner of Ennio Morricone's finest work in the genre, whereas the violent opening of 'A Bear In People's Clothes' and the turbulent 'Sheriff Demoted' rely on blasts of musical savagery to rock the listener in their seats. As one would expect the climactic run of action material is spectacular, 'Bell Hangers' acting as an entree with its dark shakuhachi rhythms. The terrific 'Army Invades Town' pits the might of the new Seven theme against the insidious threat of Bogue's theme, the music attaining a level of visceral tension in the manner of Horner's Aliens but undeniably shot through with Franglen's modernistic touch. Following the unashamed heroism and emotion of 'Faraday's Ride', 'Horne Sacrifice' rumbles around with tempestuous snare rhythms and Apollo 13-style rumbling piano, before a pathos-laden string section reminds us of the humanity the seven are fighting for.
Even so it's 'The Darkest Hour' that's the most impressive of all these, the full force of the brass and the string section lending a soaring, noble quality to the seven's theme as they battle against Bogue's forces. Plucked banjo and thundering percussive bursts give a palpably angry feel to 'House of Judgment' before slightest whisper of the string section teases at the dark history between Washington's bounty hunter Chisholm and Saarsgaard's villain, a final reprise of the vocal townsfolk theme bringing the musical battle to an end.
That so many intelligent thematic ideas can play off each other is a sign of Horner's masterful ability as a composer, as well as Franglen's immense skill in stitching it all together. As previously mentioned the album concludes with a statement of their theme in the majestic 'Seven Riders', the high end strings an unmistakeable Horner trademark, which when combined with a punchy brass section paying due diligence to Bernstein's legacy do a superb job of locating the heritage of The Magnificent Seven whilst bringing it forward into the 21st century.
Truth be told, The Magnificent Seven score is a tough one to assess for several reasons. For one it can be very hard divorcing a sense of emotion from an objective analysis of the music itself: the score risks being overshadowed by the tragic events lurking behind its creation. By the same measure it cannot be judged as just a Horner score but a hybrid collaboration between his own ideas and those of longtime collaborator Franglen; for this reason there is an abundance of ideas, some brief and others more developed, that threatens to lend it a cumbersome, overwhelming feel upon first listening. Lastly the influence of master Bernstein hovers over everything, a situation that compels Horner and Franglen to musically acknowledge its legacy whilst forging their own distinct path.
Taking all that on board and casting it aside, the fundamental question is this: is The Magnificent Seven score a fitting testament to Horner's career? The short answer is yes, although its density and grittiness may take aback those expecting something more immediately accessible; if Wolf Totem remains Horner's last true masterwork, this is a score that reveals itself more and more on repeat listenings. Nevertheless it proves what an astonishing musical storyteller Horner was, capable of painting both intimate and grandiose ideas together on an epic canvas with an unparalleled eye for nuance and human emotion.
This swings the emphasis back around to Franglen who has done a quite extraordinary job in the face of very difficult circumstances to bring his friend's final work together, honouring his characteristic flourishes whilst lending a sense of modern day scoring bravado. Truly there could have been no more difficult scoring assigment in 2016 but Franglen has done his late partner proud: a rousing, rollicking reminder of why Horner's remarkable talent will be missed, but will also continue to live on in our hearts and minds. The score is available as a CD release and MP3 download - at the following links on: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.