Thursday, 8 October 2009

Seminal Scores: Apollo 13 (James Horner, 1995)

With hugely exciting news (well, for film score devotees like myself) on James Horner's proposed 'epic' score for James Cameron's 3D marvel Avatar having hit the interweb, perhaps it's time to reflect on what a good composer Horner can be when he doesn't slip into complacency and self-plagiarism.


James Horner had a blindingly good year in 1995, composing six (yes, six) movie scores. Presumably he had time to finish his breakfast every once in a while. Two of these scores are certified masterpieces (Apollo 13, the subject of this review, and Braveheart) while the others veer from excellent (Balto) to good (Casper) to mixed (Jumanji, Jade).

Braveheart has understandably stolen the limelight in the intervening years with its bombastic pipe and orchestra arrangements becoming an instant staple for film music compilations and intents of heroism. However for a score that flies its flag somewhat more subtly (although no less nobly) we have to look to that which accompanied Ron Howard's recreation of Apollo 13.

Howard received probably the greatest acclaim of his career to date with Apollo 13, drawing considerable praise for underscoring the immaculate technical credits with quiet patriotism and genuine heart. Well with wholesome Tom Hanks in the starring role, what did we expect? Also along for the ride (as he had been for several of Howard's efforts beforehand, including Cocoon and Willow) was Horner, whose calmly dignified score is one of the movie's key attributes.

Horner is a composer frequently (and justly) scorned for self-plagiarism but there's none of that in Apollo 13. Like Braveheart and his masterpiece Legends of the Fall from 1994, Howard's film clearly inspired the composer to pull something great out of the bag. Tonally, the music is consistent with previous efforts but the music itself is all original.

One qualm existing with Apollo 13's commercial album release is in its presentation, mixing several cues of Horner with dialogue exercepts and source music from artists like Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. Luckily the score is strong enough to stand on its own. The Main Title is one of the composer's most understated, a graceful trumpet melody (performed by the great Tim Morrison) speaking of the American Spirit, of the Space Age and of discovery. It's referenced very little in the underscore proper but forms suitable bookends, and its lack of mawkishness is a big relief (Horner's intention was instead to score the documentary idealism of the film).

The lengthy warm tones of All Systems Go/The Launch is one of those classic 'building' cues Horner does so well, holding the listener's interest over a lengthy track as the astronauts depart on their doomed venture. The trumpet again is aglow with patriotism, prepping us for the sudden shift in dramatic tension in the midway section of the soundtrack (and film).

The thrilling action that explodes in Master Alarm casts an immediate dark shadow over the space expedition, with rapid snare drum clusters and Horner's fearsome 'crashing' piano (heard in The Pelican Brief) creating a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere and shattering the earlier idyll. Into the Lem, the next Horner track, thus proceeds in a much gloomier fashion, the strings, percussion and trumpet coming off more pensive as the protagonists are forced to confront their dangerous situation.

Darkside of the Moon changes the tone of the score yet again, to that of ethereal, haunting beauty as Annie Lennox' eerie vocals precede the arrival of the full orchestra. Here is where the Main Title arrangement makes a most prominent and moving appearance, sounding a lament for the failure of the mission yet celebrating the heroism of the characters.

Then we arrive at the score's quite simply magnificent conclusion, Horner pulling out all the emotional stops (as he frequently does at the climax of his albums) as the ill-fated ship makes its journey back to Earth. Re-Entry/Splashdown brings out the electronic choir/orchestra combo in spine-tingling fashion, underpinned by nervy snare drums as those on the ground await the craft's arrival (there's even a motif in there to be stolen by Horner himself in Enemy at the Gates in 2001). Things quieten for a bit before the triumphant, anthemic second half really brings tears to the eyes.

The End Credits then bring in a pulsating, electronic beat beneath Lennox' vocals (much more effective a tactic here than in Titanic) before the beautiful choir and eventually main theme rounds off the score, allowing the listener (and those involved in the film's real-life dramas) to look in hope to the future. There's little else to be said for the magnificence of this soundtrack: Horner really did peak in the 90s with efforts like this and the world waits with baited breath for Avatar, to see if he can rekindle the elusive magic that guided Apollo 13 and others. Fingers crossed!


Here's the Avatar article to stoke the fires of interest in the meantime!

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