Pick Of The Week

[Pick Of The Week - Apollo 13 - by James Horner]

This is one of the types of soundtracks that just about everyone wished was done differently than how it turned out in the end. This Ron Howard film ("Opie" to those of you who grew up in the 60's and 70's) has one of the most prolific and most controversial composers writing the score, our friend and yours, James Horner. Looking at Mr. Horner's filmography, and of which pieces that were written and released on legal and illegal soundtracks, the handling of "Apollo 13" was the most disappointing. However, if you're one who is not a score purist (someone who actually enjoyed getting the "Ghostbusters" album the way it is) you may enjoy the 3 out of the four official releases that have come about to this date. Now you may wonder, "FOUR releases, what ever do you mean?", and you have a right to, since you may have ended up already buying two and thinking you got everything.

Well, we're lucky enough to have acquired three out of the four, and I think we can effectively cover most of the bases in this review. First, we have the two everyone has probably seen, the mis-labeled and mis-timed "gold" surround-sound release, and the similar, but less "audiophile-ish", regular aluminum version. Now I have a relatively OK surround system (JVC Dolby Pro-Logic) and can quickly say; don't spend the cash on the "gold" disc because you can find a five-pack of sound effects CDs for the same price in the same store. The only track that's really worth it at all is the ten minute behemoth "The Launch" which is more dynamic and better sounding on the limited release promotional score disc. "Whoa... 'score' disc? What? Where was it? I looked for it!" Mind you I said "limited promotional copy",however it's not all that rare, and can be found with some effort. It's shorter, but doesn't have the same annoyances as the two retail releases but has more actual score pieces (a grand total of 12.. one less than 13 for the mathematically inclined) compared to the roughly seven on the other two.

"Hey, didn't you say there were four releases... so what about this fourth one... is it a combination of both?" Well, from what I've heard around the Internet it's the same as the US retail version, just with a second disc of "period" music (as much as you can consider Jefferson Airplane and Jimmy Hendrix as "period" like you would for something by Beethoven). This release, as heard on the Internet, was strictly released in Australia and it's dependencies (possibly New Zealand and New Guinea). So three out of the four suffer from NOT HAVING ENOUGH Horner. Sometimes, as heard many times over on FILMUS-L (the film music listserver), we see fans divide into three camps; Horner-ites (as they're popularly termed... you can cheer now if you're one of them); anti-Horner (or the ones who think Horner just copies himself in every piece he written after 1982's "Star Trek II : The Wrath of Kahn"); and the third camp who doesn't care and would rather talk about why there will never be an equal to Rozsa, Herrmann, Delerue, ad infinitum. I'm one who's usually found in the third group.. but here I'm found wondering why they never officially released this score because it's a real ORIGINAL piece (minus a few rips from "Sneakers" and "Aliens") that is a watermark for Horner as was another in the same year, "Braveheart" (which suffers from over-marketing and has been copied to death in this year's "The Devil's Own"). But to keep from getting a full mailbox, or fear of starting a flame war, I would give a thumbs down to all three commercial releases a thumbs down and leave it at that.

So, now that we've effectively bashed the versions of the soundtrack everyone can go home and listen to after reading this article, we'll now move into the critique of the score release, of which some fans, have spent in upwards of $40 US to acquire (and it IS worth it). At this point I would recommend downloading the first clip from the movie found by clicking here (about 13 MB [temporarily removed]). Here we have the "Main Title" which overlaps the Universal logo on the film and segues into the opening dialog about the tragedy of Apollo 1 narrated by Walter Cronkite. Unfortunately, the score piece is written to handle 2 minutes and 33 seconds of film which, as can be seen in this clip, is much longer than what appeared on screen. This piece establishes the major themes in the film, most prevalently, the "Moon Theme", based upon a trumpet solo (performed by Tim Morrison) which is played every time a short of the moon appears on screen . We edited this video piece ourselves to give you an idea of what it was like during the scoring sessions while the movie was projected. There is a prevalent use of percussion throughout the score, in tune with the use of the patriotic trumpet and other brass, keeping the flow of the pieces very steady and non-wandering. The second cue on this promo is pretty unremarkable, entitled "Lunar Dreams", reiterating the "Moon Theme" mentioned earlier, this time just played by a low flute. The third cue, and my personal favorite (it made it's way on to my "Honerdisc" compilation for those long road trips, is the longest standing at a hefty ten minutes and nineteen seconds. It has an enjoyable rhythmic synthesizer piece that keeps time between the varying on-screen images and their associated themes, "The Control Room", "The Launch Pad", "The Capsule" (yes, there is a capsule theme), and is augmented by the above mentioned percussion. It's a beautiful piece during it's sharp edits and cuts while the on-screen performances become tense or decisions are being made, heightening the excitement and mystery behind how a rocket like that (a Saturn V rocket I believe) can find it's way into space safely. Horner does his best work of using the string section here sparingly, many composers have a tendency to overuse them, thus applying a level of "schlock" to the movie, which Horner has run into before (see "Sneakers" or "The Rocketeer"). The piece moves into a heavy action section in which the stages for the rocket are jettisoned before the capsule and the L.E.M are to be joined and make their way to the moon. Ah-ha, detractors from Horner who say he can only copy himself will have afield day with the beginning of "Docking", the fourth cue, which, if you tune in late to the movie on some cable channel, you might end up mistaking it with "Aliens" and later with "Sneakers". The fifth cue, here called "Master Alarm", provides us with the expected suspense needed for the moment, but at the cost of sounding like "Sneakers" again (a trend maybe?).

As we make our way to the middle of this soundtrack, we find ourselves at a turning point in the movie, where, by per chance, you have the O2 failure/leak and everyone shuffles "Into the L.E.M." (an unremarkable cue six) for the trip around "The Dark Side of the Moon" (no it's not a Pink Floyd song) for the seventh cue. To hear this piece without the dialogue and SFX, we have a rather hefty clip here (34 MB [temporarily removed]). It's amazing how well "The Dark Side of the Moon" reflects well, the emotional state of the characters during this tense time while the capsule is out of contact with the Earth. For a full five minutes we are treated to a reiteration of the major themes ("The Moon", "The Capsule", etc.) and a dream sequence from Tom Hanks's character. The piece is summed up with a quiet string rendition of "The Capsule" theme, fading into nothingness. Cue nine, "Carbon Dioxide" has the most recognizable similarity to "Sneakers" with it's woodblock keeping until, in the movie the crew (both in space and on the ground) realize that the, guess what, carbon dioxide levels are becoming extremely high and may inhibit the piloting abilities of the crew while attempting a re-entry, if it doesn't kill them first. The whole cue can summed up as "tense music" as all the brains on the screen try to figure out solutions. There are no real recognizable themes, just a lot of percussion, strings, and bombastic brass (at one point playing almost a musical inverse of "The Moon" theme).

Into the home stretch, the final four cues begin with a rather abstract "Manual Burn", that taken alone, is very annoying, and lacks any real structure for the two minutes it reverberates your speakers. The tenth cue, "Four More Amps" is the standard run of the mill "tense" music as mentioned above, swiping much of it's instrumentation from "Sneakers" (low piano, wood block, and a smattering of brass)... an acoustically non-existent piece in thin thread of thematic elements in this soundtrack. The next to the last cue (number eleven for the mathematics majors), "Re-Entry & Splashdown" becomes a very longing and heroic piece at the start as the capsule begins to descend through the atmosphere into another radio blackout period, but maintains a different structure than the similarly toned "The Darkside of the Moon", cue seven. This piece also harks the entry of the Annie Lennox's (of Eurithmics fame) Enya-esque vocals into the grand scheme of the score, but sparingly fades out to be almost entirely overused in the "End Credits". About in he middle of this nine minute piece, Horner returns to re-hash the themes, but played grander and slower this time, evoking a sense of, "Whew.. wasn't THAT a close one" whenever one of the astronauts interacts with any of the people who weren't in the capsule with them, including the "sense of relief" cuts to Ms. Quinlan and Mr. Harris. Finally, we get the "Top Gun" Harold Faltemeyer treatment of the main theme from Annie Lennox and Horner... And, to wonder if he influenced or was influenced by John Williams' use of a children's choir (listen to the "Return of the Jedi - Special Edition" to clue yourself in) to lighten an emotional load of a very intense film. All themes are once again reprised and opened up through playing with time signatures and instrumentation within each piece, somewhat similar to what Mr. Horner did with "Glory". All in all, the three important parts of the film, the beginning, the middle, and the end are scored extremely well in comparison to the connecting bits of score that lead to each action or emotional trial a screen character must be faced with during the progression of the film. The end section is tied up nicely with the solo trumpet as it fades off into the distance harking the ending of a monumental piece of filmmaking.