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Sneakers – Expanded Edition (James Horner)

During the year or so leading up to his work on Sneakers (1992), James Horner scored no less than three other thrillers – Unlawful Entry (1992), Patriot Games (1992) and Class Action (1991). Still, the composer had plenty of inspiration left in him for Phil Alden Robinson’s film, supplying a remarkably listenable and engaging work.

With Sneakers, Robinson and Horner continued their cooperation from the director’s previous film, the tearjerking baseball drama Field of Dreams (1989), where Horner’s beautiful, atmospheric score is a fan favorite.

As thrillers go, Sneakers is lighthearted and fun, with a star-studded cast, including Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, and River Phoenix, who all deliver excellent performances. They play a group of tech experts/nerds, led by Redford’s character Bishop, who are hired by private corporations to break into their own premises, in an effort to evaluate their security measures. But they get into more trouble than they bargained for when they are hired by government agents to, shall we say, acquire an advanced decrypting machine.

This new 2CD release from La-La Land Records presents, as is the norm for expanded soundtrack releases these days, the complete score (73 minutes) on disc 1, with the original 1992 soundtrack release (48 minutes) in remastered form on disc 2.

Though basically an orchestral score, Horner made some significant alterations to the traditional symphonic setup for Sneakers: He drops trumpets and horns from the brass section, with only trombones supplying some heft when necessary. Piano is also featured prominently, and Horner hired world famous saxophonist Branford Marsalis to add another color to his score, giving the movie even more star power. His exquisite alto sax tone adds elegance and a touch of laid-back coolness to the soundscape.

The film’s lightness of touch is reflected and enhanced through Horner’s scoring, with transparent orchestrations characterized by playful, lilting rhythms in percussion and strings, as well as airy, repeating phrases in piano, strings and woodwinds. These sometimes border on Philip Glass- or John Adams-like minimalism, further contributing to the sense of lightness.

This style is established, after a short solo introduction by Marsalis, in the excellent, though restrained and low-key, «Sneakers Main Title». The use of choir lends yet an additional color to the soundscape here (and in later tracks), and the choral writing sometimes has a whimsical, almost confused quality, as if asking, “what’s going on?”

Horner’s main theme is first presented in Marsalis’ introductory cue, and then again in «Bank Penetration» after the action starts. Adding to the score’s breezy tonal landscape, the theme is surprisingly hummable and infectious, despite consisting of what on the surface is a succession of rather static two-tone phrases. We hear it in a variety of guises, but it’s usually performed by Marsalis, or on piano or mallet percussion.

The musical playfulness is most prominent during the initial sections of the score, indicating that for Bishop and his group, their activities are more or less a game. But even within this predominantly consonant landscape, Horner is able to generate a great deal of tension and excitement, particularly during the second half of the movie when the plot thickens.

«Too Many Secrets» is a standout here, and this is also a textbook example of how to build suspense and release in a scene, as the group hack their way into government computers while simultaneously trying to solve a linguistic riddle that will help them locate the decrypting device. A ticking clock effect in light percussion (a sound used in several of the cues) serves as the foundation, and the cue starts quietly with ethereal phrases in piano and choir. But the intensity soon builds with gradually more insistent low-end, rumbling piano and percussion outbursts – a Horner trademark. Horner’s “tension motif” – a hard-hitting, staccato low-register piano phrase – also makes its debut here.

These effects are at the forefront also in other tension-building cues, and «Playtronics Break-in Part 2» is another highlight in this part of the score, alternating between fluttering, shimmering effects in strings and keyboards, and exciting, rhythmic drive from percussion and piano.

The expanded presentation of the score manages to keep me engaged through most of its running time, with a few of exceptions. «What Did It Sound Like» gets a little repetitive in its use of the tension motif, and the searching, high-register string phrases of the nine-minute «Cosmo… Old Friend» do wear out their welcome, despite some well-placed embellishments from Marsalis.

The lighter touch returns even as the film reaches its climax. «The Escape / Whistler’s Rescue» is both adventurous and almost ethereal at the same time, with the kind of uplifting, thrilling writing that Horner had such a unique talent for.

Another example of James Horner’s outstanding versatility in his musical approach to films of almost any genre and style, this is one the composer’s freshest and most spirited scores.

 

The expanded release is currently not available for streaming, but the CD can be purcased at LaLaLand Records’ site here. For some reason, the original soundtrack album is not available on regular streaming platforms either, so here’s a suite from YouTube:

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