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Wolf Totem by James Horner - Soundtrack Review (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

Senior HTF Member
Nov 15, 2001
Real Name
Neil Middlemiss

Release Company: Milan Records

Catalog ID: B00U0YFFEW

Film Year: 2015

Running Time: 58:57

Number of Discs: 1

Edition: Digital Release

Composer(s): James Horner

Release Date: 02/26/2015

Wolf Totem Soundtrack Review

The Score: 4/5

Wolf Totem, based on the novel by Lu Jiamin, tells the story of Chen Shen, a Chinese student dispatched during the cultural revolution of the 1960s to Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China, to live as one of the shepherds who work the open landscape. Chen becomes a student of the indigenous people’s way of life and enamored with their unique relationship with the wolves of the region. That relationship is threatened when Chairman Mao’s government orders the wolves killed to make way for farming collectives.

Wolf Totem marks James Horner’s fourth collaboration with Director Jean-Jacque Annaud’s, a relationship that began in 1986 with the synth-heavy score The Name of the Rose, followed 15 years later by their work together on the Russian World War II film Enemy at the Gates, and then 2011’s Day of the Falcon (also known as Black Gold.) Each collaboration has produced a fine composition, even if Day of the Falcon was marked by heavy reuse of Horner’s previous work. Wolf Totem however stands as their most wonderful work together, producing a marvelous and captivating score with a lush central theme, tight accompanying themes, and a simple and beautiful mood and musical flavor; a score that affirms the power of Horner’s the burgeoning fourth distinct musical phase of his career.

James Horner, an eminent talent in film composition, was once an industriously productive composer with an incredible output rate (composing 5-7 feature films for many years.) In the 1980’s, after scoring low-budget films such as Battle Beyond the Stars and Humanoids from the Deep, he was picked to score Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, a duty that would not only raise his profile considerably, but allowed him to demonstre his fantastic skills in crafting lush orchestral majesty, rich themes, and rousing musical action set-pieces. Star Trek II became heavily representative of the first distinct period in Horner’s career – ambitious orchestrations, powerfully thematic, and wonderfully raw at times. His prolific scoring would continue deep into the 1990’s, and the second distinctive phase of his career, with extraordinary and impressibly effective scores for Braveheart, Apollo 13, and more understated scores for films like The Pelican Brief and Thunderheart.

With the new century, Horner’s sound would evolve ever so slightly again into his third distinct phase, as the composer began to more purposefully shy away from bigger films, preferring a more understated approach with scores for Iris, featuring violinist Joshua Bell, the experimental Beyond Borders and The Chumbscrubber, the brooding low piano register of Flightplan, and the stripped down, vocalization-rich Apocalypto. He would certainly still produce larger, rousing scores (Troy, The Legend of Zorro,) but his heart was clearly veering more off the beaten path, musically speaking.

James Horner, throughout his career, has examined adventurous, action-oriented pictures and smaller, more intimate affairs where, as he himself has said, he welcomingly trades the bombast for simpler sounds. To Gillian on her 37th Birthday, The Spitfire Grill, Where the river Runs Black, Iris, and In Country representing the strongest examples of his musical counterbalance to the driving scores for Red Heat, Avatar, Clear and Present Danger, and the like. Of course, there are variations on those distinct approaches, but the core of Horner’s filmography has these two sides coalesced beautifully.

Wolf Totem then is a triumphant score that represents a deeper step into a new creative phase for Horner, his fourth distinct musical phase that began, I would argue, with 2010’s The Karate Kid. While his lush orchestrations, emotionally rich themes and delightfully emotive and resonant use of instrument and vocalizations alike come together to deliver a wonderfully authentic, and dare I say traditional, score, with the imprint of Horner’s sensibilities occupying every note, there is something anew about his approach – and a freshness to his composition that, frankly, had been lacking since the early 2000s.

The soundtrack to Wolf Totem opens with “Leaving for the Country,” and we are quickly introduced to the main theme following some moody vocalizations. The action picks up in “Wolves Stalking Gazelles,” but is tempered with a beautiful, whispering and faint musical notion to close the track. Horner’s gift in long tracks is evident in the 4th track, “Wolves attack the Horses,” a 9:22 track that slowly builds from simmering cello and violins, building and building, and layers in militaristic drums, before exploding with brass, piano and percussion (in a passage interestingly reminiscent of “Futile Escape” from Aliens.)

Track 6, “The Frozen Lake,” is perhaps one of the best on the album, featuring tremolo on the violin, hypnotic repeating violin strokes that segue to some minor drum bombast, and a fine, tense thematic brass line. Track 11, “Hunting the Wolves,” begins spirited with a strong violin introduction before taking off with something rare in scores, an action track that doesn’t rely on standard percussion to create its rhythm and energy, and features a hopeful theme before settling back to a variation on the main theme.

Welcome whispers of Horner’s score for The Rocketeer show up in the score’s final track, the mesmerizing near-10 minutes of “Return to the Wild,” a passage that sweeps with the full power of the score, alternating with energy, emotion, and a haunting mood.

I should add that echoes of John William’s Munich theme show up in the 3rd track, “An Offering to Tengger/Chen Saves the Last Wolf,” though this is clearly incidental.

Track Listing:
  1. Leaving For The Country
  2. An Offering To Tengger / Chen Saves The Last Wolf Pup
  3. Wolves Attack The Horses
  4. A Red Ribbon
  5. The Frozen Lake
  6. Discovering Hidden Dangers
  7. Suicide Pact
  8. Hunting The Wolves
  9. Death Of A’ba
  10. Return To The Wild
Audio Rating: 4.5/5

Available only as a digital release at this time, I purchased a copy through my retailer of choice, Amazon. The audio is top-notch for digital purchases and features fine nuances in the orchestral sounds (with my fine set of headphones helping the cause.) The release also comes with a digital pdf booklet with precious little to it beyond acknowledgments and a comment from the director about working with Horner.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

James Horner’s first feature film score since 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man is a wonderful, beautiful, achingly good score. Lyrical orchestral scores are harder to find in mainstream movie theaters, though the more traditional scoring approach is alive and well mostly overseas for films most of you will have never heard of. But James Horner, like John Williams and a few other notable composers, remains dedicated to the traditional approach (though not afraid to experiment outside of it,) and his return to feature film scoring after a couple of years away is most welcome.

Wolf Totem is only available as a digital download at this time, from retailers like Amazon and iTunes, though a physical release is expected closer to the film’s release in America (a CD was released in France where the film has already opened.)

The soundtrack for Wolf Totem is simply wonderful, and comes highly recommended.

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