With Southpaw, James Horner Left Us With Some of His Best Work

By  · Published on July 24th, 2015

The Weinstein Co.

The passing of James Horner was a big blow to the film music community. His music has been such a part of the musical lexicon over the years; the idea of never getting new music from Horner still seems unfathomable.

But there is a silver lining – Horner has a few more projects (Southpaw and The 33) that have not come out yet so we still have new Horner music to look forward to.

Horner is best known for his sweeping orchestral scores and their ability to make audiences feel whether it is for two teenagers trapped on the Titanic or two avatars falling for each other in another world. Horner knew how to make us care.

But in Southpaw, Horner’s compositions have to contend with a very different style of music thanks to the hip-hop driven soundtrack from Eminem (who was originally slated to star in the film).

At first blush, Southpaw may seem like just another film about a rough and tumble boxer who finds himself falling on hard times that he must rise above. And this is true, but director Antoine Fuqua infuses the film with a palpable fervor, which is further influenced by Horner’s score, that makes Southpaw’s sudden turns of events – even if you know they are coming – completely devastating.

Horner has long been the master of influencing intense feelings and while Southpaw is a story of grit set against hard hitting rap tracks, his melodic score highlights the necessary emotion that truly drives the story.

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a boxer who came up in an orphanage in Hell’s Kitchen where he met his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams). But Billy and Maureen have risen above their rough beginnings with Billy now a champion boxer and Maureen his ever supportive wife. What makes this relationship work is Gyllenhaal and McAdams’ performances which are full of subtleties that make them feel like a couple who have truly known each other their entire lives.

Billy and Maureen’s connection is established in the first scene of the film as Billy is getting ready for a fight and Maureen clears the locker room to spend a few quiet moments with her husband. Barely a word is spoken between the two, but it is apparent this is ritual they go through before every match and when Maureen removes Billy’s headphones, Eminem’s music gives way to Horner’s score.

Horner is a master when it comes to making sure the music is present without being overwhelming, allowing the emotion of the scene to lie solely with Billy and Maureen. The way she touches him – gently, but purposefully. The way his face stays stern, but you can feel him relax as she presses her forehead against his. These are two people who have been fighting all their lives, but they do so from a place of love and Horner delivers one of his most sparse, but most compelling, scores to underline these feelings.

When Billy and Maureen return home after the fight, we meet their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) and the familial connection between the three is felt immediately. When it comes to the aptly named Hope family, Horner takes on an almost fantastical tone to the score creating the sound of happiness and safety – a stark contrast to Billy’s life in the ring. The Hopes are a family – one who may live in a big house full of beautiful things, but it is clear all they really care about is each other.

The Hope family is the driving heart at the center of Southpaw and the film would not have the same impact without it. And Horner proves, yet again, how he can take relationships (whether it be between a man and woman or a father and daughter) and elevate them to ones you not only care about, but also connect to.

Horner’s work is subtle, yet potent. It is the kind of music that grows with you – taking you back to certain moments and becomes an embedded, essential part of any movie it is in. Southpaw works thanks to strong direction, fantastic acting, and sharp editing, but it hits a needed emotional core thanks to the music.

An except of an interview with Horner (posted just two weeks before his untimely passing) quoted him talking about Southpaw, saying, “I’m starting another film in a world I know nothing about. About a boxer, an American boxer. It’s just a movie I’ve never done before. I thought it would be really challenging again. It’ll be really edgy, but it will be very simple. No big orchestras.”

And it is simple, but incredibly powerful. Billy can pack a punch, but as he is taught later in the film, controlling that power leaves a more lasting impression than laying it all out on the line. As Billy learns to defend and jab, Horner uses the score to continue weaving the subtle emotions that drive Billy. Southpaw builds to a crescendo that is the final fight between Billy and the man who’s friend may have killed his wife, but Billy refuses to see it as a fight about revenge – he is simply looking for redemption and Horner makes sure that feeling is felt in every part of the score.

The amount of layers that go into each cue could almost work as their own standalone films. Despite all the different layers, each cue is still subtle, almost atmospheric. “The Funeral, Alone…” sounds almost like a track from M83 and that is what makes the music of Southpaw so brilliant. Horner was known for his big orchestral opuses, but those opuses always hinted at deeper range and Southpaw gives a glimmer of him starting to show it. This is Horner like you have never heard him before – stripped down while still creating sharp edges without needing to turn up the volume.

When listened to on its own, certain aspects of the score almost sound like it could play in a horror movie as the carefully crafted subtitles build into alarming sound bursts. But that is the underlying truth of Southpaw. Billy wears his heart on his sleeve so when it is broken, he starts breaking everything around him and you start to fear the moments he darkens a door because you never know what unpredictability you will find. Horner wisely counters this feeling and more chaotic moments by using his score to rebuild things and bring in melodies as Billy starts to rebuild his life and repair his relationships.

“Suicidal Rampage” builds to a terrifying crescendo, but then pulls back into a soft piano refrain, directly emulating Billy who can (and will) explode, but then immediately regrets it. This is where Horner shines – in his ability to follow along with a character and create music that directly emulates their mood and temperament, without directly influencing it. Horner’s music dances with a character, never trying to lead.

Horner has always been able to connect audiences with characters through his music, but his work here feels much more intimate thanks to it’s stripped down nature. There is no where to hide, no big orchestral swells to get buried in – Horner is laying himself bare and in doing so, has created some of his best work.

Thank you, James Horner. Your music will live on forever.

Southpaw is in theaters Thursday, July 23rd.