Avatar - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Shows Review


Avatar - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Review

It is funny that two of the year's greatest scores have come along right at the end of it. Also, it is strangely amusing that the two composers responsible for these achievements - both enormously prolific and successful - are also both constantly harangued by their extremely vocal detractors for often shameless self-plagiarism, something that I, myself, despite being a major fan of the pair, have been forced to concede to over the years. But, in the closing days of 2009, both Hans Zimmer's score for Sherlock Holmes and, this, James Horner's year-long musical odyssey through the lushly emotional jungles of James Cameron's vibrant Avatar, have arrived and delivered, respectively, completely addictive left-field, avant-garde atmospherics, and massively textured, heartfelt colour that both totally embrace their subjects and provide something much more than just the typical modern-day scoring that far too many filmmakers demand from their composers - in that they both tell stories in their own right and they both reveal innovative writing and musical styles that are truly unique, inspiring and individual. Nuances abound within the two works, although I'm certain that the pair of them will still court the same vociferous naysaying from the usual quarters. But, trust me on this, these scores are electrifying, intelligent and, as albums divorced from their movies, actually quite mesmerising.

Here, we can take a look at James Horner's long-awaited score for Avatar. A full review of Zimmer's industrial-gypsy work for Sherlock Holmes will come later.

As is widely known, James Cameron requested (well, knowing him, it would probably be more of a demand) that his frequent musical collaborator abstain from any other composing for over a year, so that he could concentrate solely on finding the sounds, thematic resonances, colours and voices for the alien moon of Pandora and its scintillating denizens, the tall, blue-skinned Na'vi. With the classic scores for Aliens and the Oscar-nabbing Titanic under his belt, Horner was the perfect choice to go to for a rich, highly emotional and thrilling wilderness score that aimed to make the pulse pound, the heart soar and the soul feel energised. As I have made plain with numerous reviews already, I have been a huge fan of Horner right from the get-go, with his memorable and refreshing scores for Humanoids From The Deep, The Hand and Wolfen (a strong personal favourite score and film of mine), but his recognisable style of danger-motifs (yes, that would be the familiar Rachmaninov burst), emotional ethnicity, warmly all-enveloping symphonics and terrific percussive drive have become almost household cadences thanks to the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn, Aliens, Glory, Braveheart, Titanic, The Mask Of Zorro, Cocoon and Willow. Over the course of his earlier scores, he found his own voice and, revisiting it many times over the years that followed, perfected it. No matter what his detractors say - and they say plenty (I'm surprised they haven't yet blamed him for the Twin Towers coming down) - every other film composer utilises their own back catalogue as part of their ongoing repertoire, and they use, modify and pamper elements from the classical composers that came before them. It could be argued that one of the most unique scoring passages in movies, John Williams fabulous 2-note shark theme from Jaws is actually derived from Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, and people like Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Trevor Jones (Dark City was massively derived from Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring), Alex North, Bernard Herrmann amongst many others have nicked and remoulded assemblages and successions from the greats, too. It is strange that Horner gets so singled-out for such behaviour. With a wealth of these grand ideas accessible to a trained and schooled composer, it would be nigh-on impossible to remain totally original and not draw upon them.

But be this as it may, Horner's fans are legion and have grown to love this aspect of his composing.

Thus it is that listening to Avatar, most score fans will readily be able to spot his trademarks throughout. Indeed, the first time I saw the film I was constantly name-checking - motifs and ideas from everything from Battle Beyond The Stars and Aliens to Legends Of The Fall and Troy make an appearance, but the most obvious hallmarks hail from Glory, Titanic, Braveheart, Apocalypto (which is, perhaps, only fitting) and Willow. This recognisable signature is not something to lament, however. Rather, it becomes an enormously satisfying figurehead for a composer who is totally unafraid to work from a purely emotional standpoint, spotting the films he works on far better than any other composer at work today. Clearly writing with his heart upon his sleeve, Horner taps into a place that is a dream-fable of the environment, coupled with a haunting spiritual transformation that you cannot help but experience right along with him and his work. The only other composer that I can think of right now who does something similar in both re-using his established motifs and being shamelessly emotional, is John Barry. He and Horner have only to write the first three or four notes of a score and you instantly know that it is they who are behind it. But whereas Barry had become quite stuck in the one theme, Horner, at least, has a vast reservoir of them to fall back on.

As far as the fruits of James Cameron's twelve-year labour of love go, Avatar, in my opinion, is an unmitigated delight in visual and emotional terms - but it is a severe disappointment in the story stakes. However relevant the premise may be towards our species' ecological rape of the environment and its predilection for war and greed, it is abundantly apparent that the film-pioneer spent all those years honing the technology and the alleged science behind the saga, and only the briefest amount of time actually on creating characters we could truly embrace and an original screenplay. However, even with this in mind, Avatar's power lies precisely in its jaw-dropping realisation of another world and another race whose plight we become embroiled in. Too long and too obvious a film for many people, it is nevertheless not long enough for me. To put it simply, I just didn't want to leave Pandora and could happily have allowed Christmas to have come and gone whilst I sat hypnotically immersed in a world of dangerous alien jungles, floating mountains, bioluminescant flora and exotic wildlife. The addition of brutal action and some colossal explosions only makes the experience more vivid. Therefore, as derivative of Dances With Wolves, The Last Of The Mohicans, A Man Called Horse, Lawrence Of Arabia, Tarzan and The New World (with a violent strand of Verhoeven-style corporate accusation thrown in for good measure) as Avatar plainly is, it still stands as a wonderful slice of extraordinarily hyper-sensory cinema that, despite the protestations of a good few, does leave a moral idea or two in your mind afterwards.

And James Horner completely nailed the saga, tooth and claw, missile and arrow, dragon and gunship, matching, note-for-note, the on-screen action and supplying, in abundance, the cathartic, though admittedly clichéd spiritualism of the tale.

The score doesn't waste any time getting into the primal swing of things. Track 1 is introduced with a tribal squall of drums and female wailing - aggressive, though, not the conventional heavenliness that we normally get. Heavy bass clamours and brass flurries of Horner's four-note danger motif rattle the space that he creates around paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) after he awakes from hypersleep aboard a huge vessel heading towards the exquisite, but formidable moon of Pandora, where his destiny lies. A steady, Zimmer-esque drum pattern develops, but the long, winding string circles that twist around it are pure Horner. Angelic muses combine with the martial beat as we get to understand the military nature of what Sully is to undertake. Taking the place of his murdered twin-brother in the Avatar program run by Sigourney Weaver's headstrong Dr. Grace, he will live portions of his life in a genetically created Na'vi body so that he can infiltrate the tribe whose spiritual home lies right on top of a vast deposit of Cameron's McGuffin, a mineral jokingly monikered Unobtanium that an over-polluted Earth desperately needs. The army of mercenaries that the greedy, evil company has sent there to move the natives on by fair means or foul don't really get much of their own distinctive theme from Horner. Their evocation, with regards to the score, is always intermingled with the themes that he creates for the natives, for Jake Sully and for the awesome blue-skinned uber-vixen warrioress called Neytirie (Zoe Saldana), that he meets and is trained by. In this way, although we get some incredible action music along the way, the majority of the score reflects the bewitching environment and the creatures that thrive within it.

After a Troy-like start, Track 2, Jake Enters His Avatar World, gains a nice, delicate phrase reminiscent of a gently ticking-clock that resides at its core. First accomplished sweetly on piano, with strings and brass then adding a layer of apprehension, this motif then subsides with a sampled breath of something akin to a sparked-alive awakening as the crippled Jake loses consciousness and his fully-mobile and incredibly fleet-footed and agile Avatar wakes up and goes for a well-earned run around this new world. Horner's music captures the slowly dawning capabilities that Jake realises he now has, suddenly bringing in emotions and feelings that stretch out across the orchestra. I did detect a slight Enya-esque note in there, too, (“Sail away, Sail away” - dear God!) but, thankfully, this is gone in the blink of an eye.

The momentous track 3, Pure Spirits Of The Forest, is a journey unto itself. Glimmering shades of colour float about, petals of harmony half-plucked from a textured canopy of slowly lilting ambience. Strings unwind over long lines. The melody is peaceful and fragile, yet tempered with an ethereal flute-accented element that gives it flight. Horner works in several layers of sound, some glistening harp and vibraphone, other forms of primitive percussion mingling with synth until a simply gorgeous echoing refrain tingles and shivers through the mid-section. But Horner is not content with such sweetness, such deceptive elegance. Almost immediately after making visions of leafs and waterfalls dance before your mind's eye, he then grabs you by the scruff of the neck and marches you into the deeper, darker realms of his musical forest with a new theme, earthen and swarthy, yet shot through with a regal air. But I just love the enormity of the deep percussion that propels the second part of the cue. There is a great little reminder of the dark synth-swirls that Horner used for his score to Walter Hill's Arnie-starring Red Heat, but it is the strong nine-note central motif that makes this section so effective. At once intimidating and noble, this marks Jake Sully's capture and arrival at the Na'vi's ancestral base at Hometree. The track then gently smooths-over, though still remains somewhat tense and adds an evocative croaky, old tribal incantation that then bows-out with it as Jake meets the tribal elders who will decide his fate.

What follows in Track 4, The Bioluminsescence of the Night, is one of the most magical pieces that I have heard in recent years. Nothing in the instrumentation, or the actual theme is new, but it is the deeply captivating manner in which Horner weaves its delicate spell that it makes it so tear-tricklingly beautiful. Cameron's story is simplistic and absolutely black-and-white in its depictions of the two diametrically opposed factions - human and Na'vi - and, as such, Horner has to follow suit with his spiritual evocations of either. But his task is, primarily, to transport and to depict. To transport us, heart and soul, into a strange that he can then help depict with sound, melody and emotion. With bells, chimes, pipes, synths and all manner of ethic woodwinds he effortlessly relocates you to Cameron's glowing glen of mystical enchantment. The first half of the track is a dawning passage of sombre vulnerability, symbolising both Jake's first tentative steps into this brave new world and the sense that things cannot remain as they are with the encroachment of men and their machines upon this idyll. Flutes and pipes call out and muted brass hums against the lapping of strings. But just listen to the haunting elegance of that gleaming glissandi that comes in during the second half. Wood-blocks, rattles and shakes provide an earthy texture, but those chimes, gentle glass echoes and organic ululations definitely find somewhere, someplace, so fragile and so alluring that you just don't want to leave. Shades of Titanic ripple through as the fledgling love theme for Jake and Neytiri begins to evolve. Horner arranges some amazing sounds that caress their way around the final stages of the cue, authentically taking his music out of the conventional and approaching the elemental.

A soft feminine choral decorates the next track. It sounds very young, and once the drums and the cymbals clash along with the piercing flute-line, there are unmistakable reflections of Klaus Badelt's wonderful score for The Time Machine remake, his theme for the passive Eloi, especially. But Horner then makes a playful statement as, on-screen, Jake undergoes tribal tutelage from Neytiri. The sense of the elegiac is something that James Horner is an absolute specialist in, Braveheart, Legends Of The Fall, Glory and, of course, Titanic, all representing his ability to convey the passage of time and the bonding of emotions perfectly. This track, as well as elsewhere in the score, shows that he has not lost the knack. Beautiful strings, distant voices and then a lone flute strike up during the last third of the track. The love theme returns, becoming much more acute. Gentle notes on the piano echo across a plateau of sailing strings. How could you not fall in love to this?

Tracks 6 & 7 echo Glory, a score which, at its heart, rises up out of Prokofiev's Ivan The Terrible. Imagine the triumphant choral swell that backed Matthew Broderick's Col. Shaw now given tribal percussion and an ethnic slant and you've got some of the appeal of this hugely uplifting theme for the Na'vi warriors leading Jake Sully up to the dragon-bird festooned peak of the dreamy floating mountain that hover in the clouds. With visuals that evoke memories of the Mohicans and Mohawks running after one another up the side of Michael Mann's rocky slope, Cameron's film reaches another of its eye-candy heights that, coupled with this soaring theme from Horner, revitalises and stimulates more than any combination of vodka and Red Bull ever could. This is also the sort of thing that straddled the Highlands as Gibson's William Wallace scampered over them cementing his own legend in the minds of those he hoped would rally to his cause. Optimistic and strangely youthful, this may not be the stuff to pump iron to, but the feeling of energy and commitment that it encapsulates certainly pours from it. And then midway through Track 7, Jake's First Flight, Horner slows things down, easing the pace and allowing a lone male voice to crease the soundscape with a lament that doesn't feel anywhere near as tribal as you might have expected. Something here now changes tone, the voice almost like a last sentinel observing the dark clouds approaching and mourning its helplessness.

Fulfilling this promise, Scorched Earth, Track 8, recalls Titanic's excellent use of doomed momentum. Heavy bass swells, along with clanging bells and anvil-like percussive stabs in that time-honoured Hornerism. He also delivers, almost note for note, one of the searing trumpet clarion-calls from Troy, but it works superbly well here. Driving strings keep reaching pinnacles and then falling off, only to rise up again and push further. The evil humans are invading, Jake finds his true calling -and it is not with them - and the battle-lines are, thus, drawn. Panpipes nudge hastily into the fray, the ethnic rubbing shoulders with the Western, and a Titanic-style nervous propulsion begins in earnest.

This pell-mell tragic flight is then carried over into Quaritch, the track named after Stephen Lang's genocidal Colonel who, now that he knows his secret spy has become a rebel, is determined to use extreme prejudice to get what he wants. Lang, one of the stand-out stars in Mann's Public Enemies, is sadly quite one-note here as a severely gung-ho soldier-boy - but he is still one of most memorable human elements of Avatar, providing buffed-up boo-hiss villainy on a grand scale. This track takes in several components and shifts marvellously between them. Agitation is shivered through with strings. A soft mournful passage is tended by flute and far-off vocals. The love theme, or Na'vi theme, attempts to return, but martial drums and percussion swiftly stamp it out. Brass counter-punches and that metallic thud crashes home until the track then slides out. The tide has definitely turned and the lilting harmony and tranquillity of this gorgeous forest realm has been shunted aside.

The Destruction Of Hometree is a powerful set-piece. Snare-drums growl in the background as strings wail. Percussive metal clangs sing out as tribal voices snarl and bleat. Martial drums dominate until dark lines of violin fork out across the roof of the cacophony. Horner marshals his orchestra with wonderful dexterity as all hell breaks loose on-screen. Amassed voices appeal against the devastation, but they are unable to stem the tide of human aggression. They, and the clashing of timpani, reach a crescendo, and then a combination of Titanic and Troy-like tragedy looms over the proceedings. Shutting Down Grace's Lab, Track 11, gives vent to some melancholic tribal wailing as well as an eerie sort of Gaelic-cum-Eastern dirge that loiters over and above doomed drums and sobbing strings. The vocal work here is extraordinarily powerful. Bass drums bash out a final exclamation.

The score then ups the game considerably and enters into the full-on heroic splendour of an action-packed finale. Commencing with Gathering All The Na'vi Clans For Battle, Track 12, we get a tranquil, mournful introduction that establishes the sense of tragedy and helplessness in the wake of the wrecking of Hometree and the bleak incomprehensible loss that the Na'vi feel. But then, midway through, we get a tribal build-up that actually comes to sound a little bit like a slightly slowed-down orchestral variation on Hans Zimmer's excellent synth-based cue, The Might Of Rome (or any of its many alternate titles in other less “official” editions) from Gladiator, the build-up to when Maximus is thrust into his arena-debut for the chain-fight. The headlong rush is given accent by a staccato chanting of female voices. But listen how he brings in what sounds a little like more of Maximus' main signature, as well as choral hints from Glory, but blends them into something that is tribal, inspiring and simply soaring in its own heightened field of exultant bravado as the Na'vi prepare to fight back. A relentless beat strikes up, and terrific little punctuations of brass help accelerate its climb.

War, itself, is the score's show-piece. Coming in at a whopping eleven minutes (and still not the full composition), this effectively pulverises you with a blistering array of action motifs and staggeringly good variations on established themes in patriotic mode. Intense brass roars out and almost operatic choral work is unleashed like a weapon in its own right. The military beat is highly exciting, forging ahead like Custer into the unknown, as primitive themes and ethnic surges begin to encircle it. Drowned steel drums are stirred into the mix and massive lunges of brass and strings impact on a sustained synth underbelly that comes to mimic the vast gunships that Quaritch has unleashed upon the Na'vi. Violent drums struggle with the choral defence and several crescendos are crested. The tone veers from victory to loss and back again, the rolling fortunes of battle intricately drawn by Horner's incredibly complex writing. A beautiful string line flies through the conflict at one point, perfectly capturing the see-sawing of the metal sky-ships blasting their way through mountains of stone and through clouds of dragons. But Horner's cue, here, then drops into a more sombre, wounded state for anguished strings and a much more subdued passage that ends the piece on a fragile note of pensive delicacy. If I had to complain at all about his work for this album, it would be that we are missing a good section of the music he created for this enormous battle sequence, which is nowhere to be found in this presentation - which is a shame, as it contains possibly the most exciting pieces. Though, given the Horner/Cameron track record, it is not beyond the realms that Avatar will be revisited on CD before too long with “Deluxe” or “More Music From” tags emblazoned upon them.

So, overall, does this score feel like something that took over a year to compose? Well, to be brutally honest, no. But in Horner's defence, the man he was working for is a hard taskmaster, and a perfectionist who would have been chopping and changing the film to a point where his composer would had to have been continually re-spotting and re-shaping his music to fit it and, all the while, adhering to the same singular vision that was required of him. Therefore, a score of complete originality would have been denied him. What he has come up with, though, is outstanding given the circumstances.

What ultimately lets the score and the album down is, yep, you guessed it, the absolutely horrible pop-warble from Leona Lewis that closes it. I really don't want to waste much time of this patently crass commercial ballad because it is truly appalling to listen to. Entitled “I See You”, this is massively over-produced and full of nastily shoehorned-in lyrics, this makes a mockery of Horner's themes and actually breaks the balance that his score forged with the visual and emotional world of Avatar. Quite why Horner and Cameron allowed this travesty a place on the album, in the score and at the end of the film is beyond me. The score-fans who will want this album will not play this godawful pap and those sitting at the flicks, or watching the eventual disc release of the film will have the bliss of leaving the auditorium or stopping playback once Lewis' fearsome wailing commences.

Although easily programmed out of the score, the very fact that Horner went with this - yes, I know he had enormous success with Celine Dion and “My Heart Will Go On”, but the atrocities committed in the name of musical merchandising with the apocryphal crooning at the end of both The Mask Of Zorro and Troy should have been enough to stamp this practice out once and for all - inevitably robs a mark off the final album. But, despite the lack of liner-notes, alternate tracks and the fact that this is not even the complete score, James Horner's Avatar still gets an immensely strong 9 out of 10. The music is that good and one day I hope to be writing about an official release of the full score. The more savvy fans, and potentially the more easily pleased, will probably already know that there is a version out there on the net with an extra track on it. Entitled Into The Na'vi World, this is more of Horner's exquisite Pandoran beauty that contains a simply wonderful pealing of bells amid hugely upbeat ethnic percussion.

Avatar, the album, is very highly recommended. John Williams, once a grand orchestral statesman, has sadly devolved in the last decade into frequent and boring “lush mush”. Horner may still regurgitate ideas he first created back in the early 80's, but his work somehow overrides this and remains fresh, exciting and genuinely moving, proving that he, perhaps against the odds, is still the most mass-marketable, orchestra-preferring and dynamic popular movie-composer out there.

Full Track Listing -

1. "You Don't Dream In Cryo...." (06:09)

2. Jake Enters His Avatar World (05:24)

3. Pure Spirits Of The Forest (08:49)

4. The Bioluminescence Of The Night (03:37)

5. Becoming One Of "The People", Becoming One With Neytiri (07:43)

6. Climbing Up "Iknimaya - The Path To Heaven" (03:18)

7. Jake's First Flight (04:50)

8. Scorched Earth (03:32)

9. Quaritch (05:01)

10. The Destruction Of "Hometree" (06:47)

11. Shutting Down Grace's Lab (02:47)

12. Gathering All The Na'vi Clans For Battle (05:14)

13. War (11:21)

14. I See You (Theme From Avatar) (04:20)
performed by Leona Lewis

Total Running Time - 78.57

Awesomely moving, tremendously exciting and simply spellbinding in its beautiful evocation of war and revelation on Pandora, James Horner's Avatar is the best score that he has composed in years, albeit one that sounds ... well ... a tad familiar. Atlantic's CD release is pretty generous to his work, as well, offering 78 minutes of symphonic bliss (don't forget to remove that Leona Lewis tripe from the playlist, though) that provides lengthy cues that Horner and regular producer Simon Rhodes have put together in film-chronological order and with excellent quality. The music works supremely alongside the film, but it makes for a terrific experience on album, too.

2009 was a magnificent year for fans of James Horner. Not only was this phenomenal score well worth waiting for, but, to fill in the gap, we had glorious older titles getting long-overdue complete releases, such as Star Trek II, Honey I Shrunk The Kids and Something Wicked This Way Comes (all reviewed separately) as well as Extreme Close-up, the haunting House Of Cards and the blissfully rustic The Journey Of Natty Gann. Jerry Goldsmith will always be my number-one composer, but Horner is the one who actually broke my action-hungry mindset and taught me to appreciate the intricate beauty of music and, moreover, how to actually feel it. Avatar does this soul-grasping trick with dynamic aplomb and is a very worthy addition to Horner's considerable catalogue.

If you don't like ethnic percussion and female wailing - the combination of which fast became a cliché years ago courtesy of Horner, himself - then this is definitely a score to avoid. If, however, like me, you love this sort of tribal energy and spiritual transcendentalism, then you are in for a real treat. This is how it should be done. Densely thematic, richly layered and thoroughly intoxicating, Horner's score is a winner. Breathtaking cues build and build, sweeping up Cameron's imagery and bathing it in an atmosphere as tangible as the film's own majestic 3D visualisation. There are those who will criticise this score - even without the film it smothers like alien honey - and much of their arguments will be valid in purely name-checking terms as regards Horner's alleged lack of originality, but to paraphrase Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is Cameron's The Abyss, you have to listen with better ears than that.

For me, this is awesome writing and one of the most enveloping and brilliantly produced scores that has come along this year.

Until the second half of Horner's magical swoon gets some form of release this is pretty much perfect for his fans and for lovers of lyrical, emotive music.

Pandora's symphony is a joy and comes very highly recommended.






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