Black Gold (James Horner)

Final Musings: James Horner delivers an epic that is worthy to sit amongst his classic predecessors’ ventures into the deserts of Arabia. With a soaring theme of great grandeur that sings the song of the sandy plains almost as well as Jarre did with Lawrence of Arabia, this score will impress in its most glorious moments. The haunting vocals add an incredibly rich sense of authenticity that is to be commended. Yet the score is largely an intimate one and while the subtlety of the score may not be for everyone, Horner strikes gold with this excellent balance of emotion and majesty. A  triumph of 2011.

The 2011 film Black Gold was a project close to director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s heart. The ambitious epic was a throwback to the flair of the big films of the 50s and 60s with its stunning production values, and having a strong cast that includes prominent actors such as Mark Strong, Antonio Banderas and the rising star, Freida Pinto, films like this are just not seen in the industry anymore. And it’s a shame that Black Gold did not receive greater attention for films of such scope are sadly rare to witness and relish these days. The movie is based on the novel, The Great Thirst, which tells a tale of two warring leaders that agree to a truce to leave the desert lands of the Yellow Belt as neutral territory. In order to maintain loyalty, one of the clan leaders is forced to forfeit his two sons as hostages so that conflict would not be provoked. Years later, it is found to be that there are massive of deposits of oil found in this unmanned land, and now the idea of the potential fortune threatens both clans with war. The film brings up the important issue of black gold while addressing the history of Arab revolts in the Middle East.

To go on, the stunning cinematography of the film and its gorgeous visuals often pay homage to the infamous desert film, Lawrence of Arabia. And a film of such great scope would need an equally inspired score that would attempt to reach for the success of Maurice Jarre’s score, which became an instant classic upon its release. Film composing veteran, James Horner was signed on for the task. This would be the third collaboration between the director and the composer; their past works including The Name of the Rose and Enemy at the Gates. It has been said that director Jean-Jacques Annaud went to L.A. seeking a composer only to find himself showing the film to James. Unfortunately, the budget for the film couldn’t make room for an A-list composer like Horner. Yet Horner was apparently so impressed with the film and its potential that he decreased his fees so that he could make it on with the project. Often following up on the director whenever he could, it was clear that Horner approached this film with a sense of genuine passion.

While the score never really reaches the heights of Maurice Jarre’s magnificent score for Lawrence of Arabia, it certainly comes close in moments. For instance, when the main theme is given time to truly soar, the music truly conjure up the majesty of the sandy plains of the Arabian deserts as Jarre did so well with his universal desert theme. In other regards, Horner’s music does resemble Jarre’s score in certain chord progressions and stylistic devices. The density of the more suspenseful moments of the score in cues like The Blowing Sands will herald back to some Jarre’s suspense material for his score. In a like manner, the flute solo upon the conclusion of the opening cue will bring back similar moments in Lawrence of Arabia as well. Unlike Jarre however, Horner chose to take a much more intimate approach with his score, using his romantic and melodramatic tones to focus more upon characters and their struggles. Yet that doesn’t mean to say that this score is not epic, for in its greatest moments of grandeur, Horner truly blows the audience away.  While often using the piano and the vocals to evocate a more personal connection with the figures on screen, Horner does also give way to the moments of stunning scenery with some truly aspiring music.

Horner has often proved his impressive intellectual capabilities of integrating ethnic elements into his scores with prime examples that include Thunderheart, Braveheart, The Four Feathers, and even the recent Avatar. Many listeners will purchase the score expecting an expansion of the same sound heard in The Four Feathers. In some ways this can be true while in other ways it is not. One of the primary highlighting features of this new score is the haunting vocal work. Those who found Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s vocal contribution in The Four Feathers to be too frenetic and eclectic for their tastes will likely be pleased to find that Horner has taken the similarly natured elements down a notch with this score. The composer graces this score with the rich voice of the Tunisian singer, Dhafer Youssef for the majority of the score along with that of local Qatari pop-star, Fahad Al-Kubaisi for the opening track of the film. Instead of using these talents with the hyperactive intensity that he explored in The Four Feathers, Horner utilizes their vocals to add a more contemplative, melancholic flavour to the music that does an extraordinary job of really bringing out the nature of the desert of the film. The vocals are often masterfully weaved into the fabric of the more intimate elements of the score, resulting in a chilling effect that will bring listeners to find themselves coming back to the score for more. Take for instance the cue Father and Son, with a beautiful integration of lovely ensemble instruments backed up by the effective humming of Youssef in the background. Another first-rate example would be how he integrates the vocals and his piano tones for a strong sense of authenticity. Of course he’s already has some experience with this from The Four Feathers but its nice to hear him push the sound to a more interesting direction. Horner continues to show off his intriguing use of ethnic instrumentation in cues like “You Were A Prince” where rambling percussion and the striking anvils that have been heard before in Horner’s career coordinate with the more Middle- Eastern elements of this score. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this score is just how Horner meticulously uses the aforementioned elements and his trademark compositional sounds to really bring out all the elements of the desert locale. The most obvious example of this is when he allows the main theme to explode in moments like Leave As An Emissary and One Brother Lives, One Brother Dies so the music may really reflect the beauty of countless hills of the desert. But it doesn’t just stop there. The composer claims that he tried to capture the sounds and the lonely winds of the isolated desert in his score and this is done exceptionally well. Horner’s use of the more shrill, high pitched vocal work heard in cues like Phantom Army and The Blowing Sands shows the sense of excruciating solitude in the desert well. In the more slowly paced moments, Horner gives way to the orchestra to churn away. This effective low bass churning really evokes the heat and the mirage-like quality of the location. While listening to 2:07 onwards in Main Title – A Desert Truce, one can tell that Horner was really trying to capture the unsettling silence of the desert with the churning bass and the malevolent rising horn and string lines. He continues to do this in cues like The Blowing Sands where the dense orchestrations showcase the danger of the blazing wastelands.

Thematically, Horner is very loyal with to the main theme. At times, it is played out in a more personally intimate way on the piano in cues like “I Have Chosen You” while at other times it is shown off in a sweepingly monumental fashion.  Its most powerful statement is really shown off at 4: 23 in A Kingdom of Oil where the orchestra rises to such grandeur that even Jarre would be impressed. And the cello counter-melodies are absolutely gorgeous in its scenic applications.  In terms of originality, the rising and falling broken-interval structure of the first half theme may remind some of his controversial theme for Enemy at the Gates, but this theme retains enough originality to dismiss such claims. The clear Middle Eastern chord progressions of some of its variations sometimes understandably pay homage to Jarre’s classic theme for the desert. In the more dense portions of the score, Horner effectively hints at the main theme on eerie woodwinds or brief string figures. It is also seen in its more robust variations in the two action highlights of the album, One Brother Lives, One Brother Dies and Battle in the Oil Fields. To go on, Horner also introduces a theme for the sense of family and loss for the protagonist. Often used to represent the brothers’ love for each other and their personal struggles with their father, it would be apt to dub this theme as the family theme. This theme debuts at Father and Son and often receives treatment on the piano and solo violin in cues like So This is War and One Brother Lives, One Brother Dies. The melody receives more tragic alternating variations in cues like Phantom Army and A Kingdom of Oil. In terms of secondary material, the B phrase of the main theme can be heard at 2:47 in Horizon to Horizon but it does not appear much in the score. What is more prevalent however is a heralding progression built off of some of Horner’s favourite chords and it is first heard at 1:51 of Horizon to Horizon. It is a very appealing series of harmonies that usually builds up towards the main theme and its climaxes and can be found building up in Leaving as an Emissary, A Kingdom of Oil, etc. Look below for some highlights to look at.

Muse on These:

Father And Son

Opening with Dhafer Youssef’s mesmerizing voice, humming as several pretty instrumental elements join together to welcome the family theme. As the strings join in, its hard not to appreciate the emotional resonance that Horner creates with a good combination of his ethnic elements.

Fresh Water

Pulsating strings open to a very whimsical rendition of the main theme. The awakening colour and the buoyant life in the orchestra is a welcome change from the melodramatic material in the first half. Ending off on some intriguing piano statements, a great cue.

One Brother Lives, One Brother Dies

The cue opens with the metallic striking that has graced many of Horner’s scores along with some of his trademark percussive material (the anvil in particular). After some yearning Horner cello writing, the orchestra stirs to life to play out the heralding progression so that the main theme can soar in its glory. This quickly followed by some of Horner’s exciting snare ripping action and some great action variants of the main theme. The trumpets then shine at 2:40 only to die away and let Horner’s more somber writing cross over to the family theme.

Battle in the Oil Fields

Yes, the action resembles the snare ripping structures of Enemy at the Gates and Glory in some regards, but it is some truly awesome action nonetheless. Horner pushes the orchestra with some great brass writing and some fantastic statements of the main theme.

A Kingdom of Oil

A magnificent 9 min. suite sums up all the great themes and offers the most stunning statements of the main theme in all its glory (4:23 in particular). With great build-ups of the heralding progression and appealing statements of the B phrase of the main theme and the family theme, this suite will easily sell this score to you and is quite a fine finish to this great entry in Horner’s career.

To sum it up, the score really is a magnificent piece of work and its great to hear Horner back in shape after his slightly disappointing effort for The Karate Kid. It isn’t exactly a revolutionary score as it features several trademark ‘Horner-isms’. Ranging from familiar chord progressions, to some predictable piano material in “I Have Chosen You” to the snare-ripping rhythms from his Glory based action scores, you’re bound to hear the usual career trademarks you hear in Horner’s scores these days. Some might roll their eyes at the single appearance of the composers’ well known four note danger motif in the first cue, although its appearance is so insignificant that it will not do any harm. Others might also find the family theme to be predictable, but enjoyable nonetheless. You can even hear his typical classical inspiration as a sense of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring can be heard in Blowing Sands. But that is to be expected in the man’s career and its not bad in terms of innovation as it most certainly is more original than both Avatar and The Karate Kid, or even his previous collaboration with director Jean Jacques-Annaud, Enemy at the Gates. What is interesting however are the occasional hints at Horner’s classic Zorro scores with certain moments like “I Have Chosen You” where the music comes dangerously close to quoting the B phrase of his Zorro theme.  Whether you choose to look at this as a tongue in cheek reference to Antonio Banderas’ casting as one of the lead roles, or simply another one of Horner’s tendencies to take on the “self-borrowing” technique, you will still find yourself impressed with the epic scope that Horner so successfully infuses into his music.

What may throw listeners off at their first listens is the slow pacing of the first half of the album. While the material is quite interesting, the average listener will have to give this score a few runs to really appreciate the rich authenticity and the nuances behind the music. The second half of the album however really picks up and drives towards a fantastic action piece at Battle in the Oil Fields. But if you take some time with the score, you will find yourself loving much more than just the second half. Moreover, the album is surprisingly short with its 55-minute presentation and you can’t help but get the feeling that you’re missing out on some more epic music from the film. Nonetheless, it’s really great to hear Horner tackle a historical epic like this again. The composer has always been known to consistently deliver with great quality when ethnic elements were required and this is definitely no exception. The score will win you over with its spectacular moments of grandeur and its beautiful moments of intimacy. Had this been more balanced with some more action or more of its grandiosity, this score would have earned that last star it falls short of. But as it is now, this is a very strong four-star score that is a formidable first-rate entry in quite a competitive year for film scores.

Rating:  * * * *

7 Comments on “Black Gold (James Horner)”

  1. Beyond El Mar says:

    Nice review.

    I can’t wait to hear this.

  2. Thomas Allen says:

    Excellent review.

  3. Craig Richard Lysy says:

    Very nicely written with insightful commentary. Bravo!

  4. Matthew C. says:

    Thanks for the wonderful review! I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of James Horner’s new score. As an avid collector, I’m sure I will not be disappointed!

  5. altafalvi says:

    Fantastic score by James Horner. Was simply blown away by the texture that Horner has woven around the two leitmotifs. Sure, it does sound like Lawrence of Arabia, in bits and parts, but then who can top Maurice Jarre and the signature theme of desert that he wrote for Lawrence of Arabia. However, Horner does prove himself to be intellectually challenged for this project and gives it his best. Certainly the best of 2011. And your review was very much insightful.

  6. plaintain1 says:

    Yes, I was impressed with the film, the acting and of course, the music. To the point I felt it sounded a little like the music from the film Troy – you can even sing its theme ‘ontop’ of the theme of Black Gold. I wikipedia Troy and guess what, the composer of this film is also J Horner. But no problem I love JH’s style. After John Williams, then James is my ‘next’ favourite.

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