Two days ago – June 22nd – marked a year after the tragic death of composer James Horner in an airplane crash and in honor of his memory Film Music Central is hosting the “Remembering James Horner Blogathon.” Be sure to check out the other great posts here. For my contribution, I am focusing on James Horner’s score from Cocoon, a sci-fi/fantasy that was directed by Ron Howard in 1985.
As a fan of Don Ameche, I’d been curious to see the film for some time after I’d read that he earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. I’m not usually very familiar with actors from the 1980s, but Cocoon is actually full of familiar faces. Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton and even Tyrone Power’s son, Tyrone Power Jr. (who looks like his father, but has none of his charisma).
The film begins with three friends – Art (Don Ameche), Ben (Wilford Brimley), and Joe (Hume Cronyn) – who live at a retirement home, but sneak into an empty neighboring mansion to swim in the pool. But after four mysterious strangers rent the mansion and charter a boat captained by the somewhat awkward Jack (Steve Guttenberg), they start bringing cocoons up from the ocean and putting them in the pool.
The three men discover that the pool suddenly has regenerative powers. They feel more alive and vital and Joe’s cancer goes into remission. Ben and Joe’s respective married life suddenly comes alive and Art starts going out with fellow retiree Bess (Gwen Verdon). Soon all six of them are swimming in the pool, recapturing the romance and excitement of their youth.
There are no villains in Cocoon. The four strangers are revealed to be aliens who used to live on earth thousands of years ago and are trying to rescue their friends, who are in the cocoons. The aliens seem to have remarkable healing abilities and do not experience old age or death by natural causes. Their leader, Walter (Brian Dennehy), agrees to let the six of them continue to swim in the pool (since Joe will die if he doesn’t), but only if they keep it a secret, which isn’t easy to do because all the inhabitants of the retirement home have noticed their remarkable rejuvenation and want to share in it.
The movie is a meditation on life, death and love and although the beginning seems like more of a comedy, ultimately there is a melancholy and gentle vibe to the film which James Horner’s score perfectly captures, or rather, frames. His music is as much a star as the excellent cast. I was crying at the death of a green and shriveled alien. That had to be the music. The music is at times whimsical, melancholy, but also full of wonder and I was unexpectedly moved by the beauty of the score.
(plot spoilers ahead)
The wonder is reserved partly for the aliens, with their unique ability to make people feel good when they are around. They are the friendliest, most normal aliens one will ever encounter, who can empathize with the frailty of the humans, even though they do not experience that same frailty. But when Walter is unable to save a few of his friends, he too learns what it feels like to grieve, feel helpless, and he offers to take all the members of the retirement home back with him when he leaves earth.
Its like the adventure of a lifetime for many of these people who thought they were going to live out the remainder of their days in increasing illness as they watch those they love die, but it is still hard not to see their leaving with the aliens as partly a metaphor for life after death. A new adventure, leaving earth behind forever. The wonderment and difficulty of imagining what that will be like is present…as well as the regret of leaving behind the life that is known. This isn’t as much of a problem for most of the people, who do not seem to have family, but Ben (Wilford Brimley) and his wife have a daughter and grandson, who they are particularly close to, and it’s hard to say goodbye, especially to their grandson.
One man believes that the aliens and their cocoon are cheating death and the natural passage of time and prefers to stay “home” on earth. His decision is sympathetic, too, especially after his wife dies. You can see that he and his wife were a couple essentially satisfied with life, with no regrets, and now that she’s gone, he’s ready to go, too.
Cocoon provided the first opportunity for James Horner to work with director Ron Howard and they would collaborate on seven films, including Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. But his score for Cocoon is particularly poignant. There is a gentleness to it, a transparent simplicity that also gives space for reflection.
What was also fun about the soundtrack was the inclusion of many songs from the 1940s. As the retirees recapture their youth, they sing and we hear the songs of their youth. Don Ameche sings “I’m in the Mood for Love” and goes down on one knee to sing “Some Enchanted Evening” to the woman he’s wooing. We also hear “Dancing in the Dark” and “You’ll Never Know.” There is even a contemporary eighties song called “Gravity,” which Ameche (and his stunt double) dances to demonstrate the level of his rejuvenation.
This post was part of the “Remembering James Horner Blogathon.” I want to thank Bex at Film Music Central for hosting this wonderful event!
On the website James Horner Film Music, the soundtrack is discussed for Cocoon, pointing out the piano and guitar used during the song “Rose’s Death,” which is a scene guaranteed to have you bawling. To quote the article, “The composer recently said that he wants to look for melancholic colors echoing the past with certain instruments that are the key to unlocking the heart”.
James Horner repeats the theme in “First Tears,” when the alien dies, this time using horn and oboe. I defy anyone not to cry during this scene.
And here are the end credits, which encapsulates the entire score, the entire theme of wonder, awe, longing, loss and love. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.
And just for good measure, here is the trailer.