The score by John Williams was his first collaboration with Stone, and he would go on to work with him again for the political thrillers JFK and Nixon. This was not the first political film Williams had worked on, having previously scored the 1977 thriller Black Sunday. However, it began a new path in his career as he explored a new idea for future films: a deeply embedded, strong sense of Americana spirit. Williams had embarked on such concepts with the two Olympic fanfares he had composed before this film, "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" (for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles) and "The Olympic Spirit" (for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea), but the direction he took for Born on the Fourth of July was stark and different. The score would go on to be nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Score, but it lost both awards to another film released in 1989 - specifically, a musical that put a certain "magical" film studio back on the map.
The score makes no use of woodwinds at all, instead relying on a mostly string-based ensemble for its orchestral power and emotional depth. Hauntingly beautiful trumpet solos, masterfully executed by Tim Morrison (who would become a regular collaborator with Williams during their time in the Boston Pops), foreshadow and remind listeners of the tragedies Kovic will experience in his lifetime. Minimal brass and timpani are also present throughout several cues in the score. The main theme is absolutely captivating for its Americana roots, its beauty stemming from both the joy and sorrow of Kovic's life through harmonic simplicity yet genuinely rich orchestration. Included in the middle of this theme is the return of the trumpet in a brighter, nostalgic spirit. The tragedy can be felt in every second of this theme, regardless of the innocence and joyful spirit it also evokes.
"Prologue" is essentially the trumpet solo on its own, with haunting strings in the background and a low, droning bass that will make a few more appearances on the album. "The Early Days; Massapequa, 1957" establishes a new motive for the strings, one that is noble yet grave and sorrowful, establishing the serious tone of the film beyond the trumpet's own foreshadowing. The theme is included here as Kovic feels a moment of joy during his childhood. "The Shooting of Wilson" provides the most difficult listening experience for the album, an aleatoric mixture of chaos and confusion complete with eerie strings, synthesized pulses, piano clusters, and that droning bass. At the end of the track, however, the trumpet solo and the first few moments of the main theme return for its last tragic iteration before the pivotal moment of Kovic's life. "Cua Viet River; Vietnam, 1968" is the score's most heartbreaking piece detailing this brutal moment, reprising material from both "The Early Days" cue and the main theme before enveloping itself into yet another world of synthesized voices, piano sounds, and dissonant strings. "Homecoming" returns to the Americana roots of the score before reprising the trumpet's nostalgic spirit in the middle of the main theme, accompanied by a synthesized drum-set beat.
Unfortunately, the commercial album released by MCA only contains these specific tracks from Williams's score, accumulating up to roughly 24 minutes in total. The film itself, however, contains nearly triple the length of music in context, leaving behind a large number of commercially unreleased cues. Bootleg copies of the full score have circulated across the Internet, but an official release of the full score by a major record label does not currently exist. The rest of the commercial album is filled instead by songs featured exclusively in the movie, such as Henry Mancini's Moon River (the main theme from the popular Breakfast at Tiffany's) and Eddie Brickell's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. Thankfully, the album does not insert these songs in between tracks of Williams's score, but this is a minor convenience when considering the fact that much of the score remains commercially unreleased.
When viewing Born on the Fourth of July, the score presented in the film is actually not that different from the few cues that exist on the commercial album. Much of the unreleased cues appear to be just reprisals of the thematic identities described above - the recurring haunting trumpet solos, the sorrowful string motif, and the main theme. However, there are presentations of these identities that deserve recognition for being strikingly effective. The scene where Ron Kovic is separated from his high school sweetheart Donna by police officers during a rally at her college in Syracuse, New York, presents the best reprisal of the main theme altogether. The haunting trumpet solo returns when Ron is honored as a Vietnam veteran during a Fourth of July parade in his hometown of Massapequa. This scene in particular brings his life full circle when he reacts to the loud noises of fireworks and sparklers as if gunshots are ringing, as he witnessed during his childhood a similar parade honoring the veterans of World War II. Finally, the scenes at Villa Dulce include some of the most romanticized, emotionally compelling renditions of this material.
Ultimately, Born on the Fourth of July at its core is a powerful and gripping score. Williams's work on the commercial album is completely stripped of cohesive, narrative flow, but this is not the composer's fault. In context of the film, the constant usage of his thematic identities help give shape to the drama and emotional resonance Stone's film was always meant to have. Although Williams's main theme is not as memorable as the themes listeners consider to be his most iconic ones, this one is as tragic as it is beautiful and gut-wrenching. Indeed, those are the best words to describe the score altogether as well. It is overall worth listening to, and the film itself worth your time.
Rating as heard on the commercial album: 2/5
Rating as heard within context of the film: 5/5
Overall Rating: 4/5
Born on the Fourth of July © 1989 Universal Studios
Album and album artwork © 1989 MCA Records