James Horner Is Known for His Titanic Score. But His Music for Sneakers Is a Masterpiece.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 10 2012 1:00 PM

Is That a Glockenspiel?

How a young composer fell in love with the score of Sneakers, and what makes the film’s music so great.

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Here’s another example of unexpectedly subtle and beautiful music:

This music is from the scene in Sneakers in which Martin Bishop and his crew begin to decipher that “Setec Astronomy”—the research project of a mathematician they’ve been pursuing—is actually an anagram for “Too Many Secrets,”—a hint that they’re on the trail of a codebreaker. At first, we hear a simple yet catchy piano theme repeated over and over. As it continues repeating, a second piano line joins in as a partner to it. The music is quiet yet densely populated with short little piano notes. The music feels like a perfect counterpoint to what is taking place on-screen: The characters are uncovering a secret. As if speaking to this, the music is soft, almost whispered, enhancing our feeling of the mystery about to be unlocked.

Beyond just conjuring up a sense of elevated mystery, Horner’s subtle, minimalist music also underscores the film’s ideas about computer technology. At the end of the film, Cosmo lays out his grand view of the future: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money, it’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons.” Horner’s dense texture of uniform repeated notes feels like the “little bits of data,” the “ones and zeroes” that are at the heart of the film’s drama. Listening further to the piece in the “Setec Astronomy” scene, we see the music continue to develop: one, two, then three different pianos playing along simultaneously. As the characters get closer to deciphering the code, more and more musical elements join in: female choir, harp, strings, woodwinds, percussion. We really begin to feel viscerally the newfound power of these “little ones and zeroes.”

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The choices a film composer makes can either reinforce the drama on-screen, or they can move in contrary motion to it. I’ve always felt that the best film music does both: It emphasizes the story onscreen and creates its own parallel story. To me, the Sneakers score endures because it does exactly this: supporting the action while overlaying the film with a veneer of quiet beauty and unexpected elegance that lends a sense of richness and complexity to the characters and their drama.

Like the film itself, admired by a small coterie of enthusiastic fans, Horner’s score for Sneakers is often overlooked; it seems to get overshadowed by the more famous and widely acclaimed projects he has worked on. Horner has written iconic music for such films as Field of Dreams, Braveheart, Glory, Aliens, and—of course—Titanic and Avatar, so it’s understandable that his Sneakers score might get eclipsed. But 20 years later, now that I’m working as a composer, I keep coming back to it. And actually, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a glockenspiel: It was a celesta and a harp.

Nicholas Britell is a composer, pianist, and producer. He has recently finished the score for the film Gimme the Loot by Adam Leon, which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in March 2012 and was an official selection for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

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