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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

'Rocketeer' Reissue Lets Horner's Music Take Flight


When composer James Horner died in a single-passenger plane crash in June, 2015, it was a sad end to an award-winning career of memorable music. As author Tim Greiving writes in his liner notes to the new Intrada Records release of “The Rocketeer,” it’s a sad bit of poetry that one of Horner’s most memorable themes perfectly evokes the feeling of flight that Horner so dearly loved.

“The Rocketeer” was Disney’s big release for the summer of 1991. Starring Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, and featuring great supporting work from Alan Arkin as a trusty mechanic and Timothy Dalton as an Errol Flynn-esque Hollywood star in league with the Nazis, the movie is an old-fashioned, gee whiz adventure that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1940s Hollywood. But in the early ‘90s, its earnest, non-ironic evocation of a bygone era didn’t fly. On a budget of $40 million, its $46.7 million box office take certified the movie as a flop.

In the years since, “The Rocketeer” has achieved a modest cult status for precisely the reasons that audiences rejected the film in 1991. Its relatively simple story of an amateur pilot--an ordinary guy--turned Nazi fighter is downright refreshing in a world of smash-up superhero films full of wanton destruction. Maybe that's also why “The Rocketeer” director Joe Johnston returned to Disney two decades later to helm “Captain America: The First Avenger,” itself a bit of a throwback in style, albeit with state-of-the-art special effects.

Johnston had worked with James Horner previously on Disney’s “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids,” and once the composer learned Johnston would be working on “The Rocketeer” he asked to come on board the project.

In the film, pilot Cliff Secord (Campbell) stumbles upon the jet pack that’ll make him into the folk hero The Rocketeer in a biplane cockpit, and Horner’s main theme for the film reflects the character’s origins. It’s less “Superman” than a dash of Aaron Copland style Americana with a bit of Gustav Holst’s brassy orchestration from “Jupiter” thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t scream “takeoff!” but glides and soars. The score is mostly built upon this theme that winds its way into cues that evoke the adventure and romance on screen.

Jenny’s theme, also known as the “Love Theme” on the album, reminds me of old Hollywood. Its long lines and conflicting chords resolve in a beautiful way, as if David Raksin took Wagner’s “Tristan,” stripped it of death and madness, and steeped the melody in rose water.

There’s a third theme for villain Neville Sinclair, but Horner’s “Rocketeer” theme is the most prominent throughout the score, often carried by low strings or French horn. This new two-disc set includes the original soundtrack album, as well as a new mix of the film’s complete soundtrack, featuring 20 extra minutes of music. Some of those minutes are nothing more than mood music, without much purpose other than to underscore a scene. I actually enjoyed more the tighter, more focused disc two of the set featuring the original soundtrack release. In addition to the orchestral score, both discs also include two jazz vocal standards heard in the film, “Begin the Beguine” and “When Your Lover Has Gone.”

The set also comes with Intrada’s typically thorough liner notes, detailing the production of the film, the composer’s work, and even the technical process of recording the score. (Horner apparently favored complete takes of his cues, rather than piecing together a few bars here and there to match a scene.) It’s a great set for fans of the film, and one can only hope that Disney will see fit to upgrade the movie on home video someday. It’s available on Blu-ray, but with an appalling dearth of special features. C’mon Disney, let the Rocketeer fly!