“Houston, We Have a Problem!”

My first memory of news from the outside world is the death of Judy Garland on June 22, 1969. Let me tell you, Dorothy’s death rocked my little seven-year-old world. Less than a month later, my second “real life” memory came from something even more astonishing–man landed on the moon. I don’t remember sitting around the TV with my family (we weren’t the type to do that anyway); I just remember the accomplishment. That’s also my earliest memory of being fascinated by space, something that continues to this day. I went through my sci-fi period during my teen years and actually considered going into a career in astronomy, until music took over. So it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of APOLLO 13.

Even if you already know the story of the famed doomed space mission, Ron Howard’s film is a nail-biter. The film is every bit as exciting and emotional as any story about space should be, thanks in no small part to Tom Hanks’ anchoring lead performance and a team of great supporting players, including Ed Harris, Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan. James Horner‘s score is haunting and thrilling, and shows the composer at his very best.

A majestic trumpet solo opens the film and comes back at various points throughout the film conveying the heroic endeavors of the astronauts and the NASA technicians at Mission Control. Horner uses his trademark snare drum riffs to heighten the tension and suspense as systems fail aboard the ship. Another effective technique is the quick, descending piano clusters that signal the astronauts’ measured chaos and inner panic.

[audio:apollo13a.MP3] Click Track: Master Alarm

The most poignant sequence occurs as the astronauts get close enough to the moon to see the details of its terrain knowing full well they will never set foot on it. Horner keeps his music quiet and uses Annie Lennox’s hollow, pure vocals to convey sadness and loss. The trumpet melody comes back at the end, forlorn and lonely.

But it’s the memorable finale that gives Horner’s his biggest moment to shine. As the spacecraft plummets toward earth, the snare drum riffs in quick succession as the orchestra builds and builds. The bottom drops out, breathless and silent with anticipation for the static crackle of the astronauts’ voices, followed by a full orchestral explosion at their safe return. I defy you not to shed a few joyful tears.

[audio:apollo13b.MP3] Click Track: Re-Entry & Splashdown

Nominated for nine Oscars, APOLLO 13 should have won Best Picture. But Ron Howard’s inexplicable exclusion from the Director category virtually guaranteed a win for Mel Gibson’s lackluster direction and the vastly inferior (though still entertaining) BRAVEHEART. (It didn’t hurt that BRAVEHEART had two studios behind it, automatically doubling its votes).

Though most film music fans prefer Horner’s work on BRAVEHEART, I’m in the APOLLO 13 camp. Horner’s score captures the awe-inspiring sight of space, the knuckle-whitening tension of the mission and the unmistakable patriotism of the space program. So it’s a shame that the original soundtrack demonstrates film music marketing at its worst, containing roughly half the score and filling out the rest of the CD with snatches of dialogue from the film and period source cues. You’ll need to do some fancy programming to get rid of all the detritus on the disc, and even then you’ll still end up with some minimal dialogue. To get the score by itself, you’ll need to find a copy of the pricey Academy promo disc or rip the isolated score off the menu screen on the DVD. It’s well worth your time to pursue either one.

7 comments

  1. Grrrrr. This score burns my ass. It’s key components are, in effect, barely veiled reworkings of the entire “Pelican Brief” score, a composition I vastly prefer. I’m not a rabid Horner detractor, but this was truly shameless. It also hammers a definitive nail in the coffin of AMPAS’s credibility that the Music Branch nominated it as an original contribution.

    1. I don’t know PELICAN BRIEF, though I did see the movie. I’ll have to check it out. Given that it’s Horner, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a veil reworking though. I will be disappointed though.

  2. I am most definitely in the Apollo 13 camp too. Braveheart, while good, just does compare to the nobility and Americana heart of Apollo 13. The story of Apollo 13 is just so inspiring as well and Horner nailed the spirit of those brave space sojourners and their tireless helpers in mission control. In response to the mention of Pelican Brief above, I think Apollo 13 distinguishes itself. Pelican Brief has its own distinct strong theme, the theme for Darby. Certainly in the same vein as Apollo, but definitely not a carbon copy. Now I’m going to have to go listen to the Pelican Brief :).

  3. Actually, I do hear the resemblance to Pelican Brief. I never really noticed before. Hotel Chase certainly has some similar writing as the tense moments in Apollo 13.

    1. This must REALLY be close to the PELICAN BRIEF score. I almost done want to know how close, since I’m such a fan of APOLLO 13. But, okay, I’ll give it a listen.

  4. Not in your camp on this one Jim. I’m not sure why but this score, even more so the film didn’t do much for me.

    I’m not a big Ron Howard fan. I feel most of his work is conventional and oh so by the numbers predictable.

    Horner’s score is certainly fine, but except for a few soaring moments didn’t make much of an impression, while BRAVEHART – in many ways a masochistic warmup to THE PASSION, which I didn’t care for – did with its perhaps less than authentic Scottish flavored themes -grab and make a strong impression on me. I feel that BRAVEHEART, GLORY and most of all LEGENDS OF THE FALL where some of his best scores.

    1. I’m with you on Ron Howard, Charles. “Oh so by the numbers predictable” totally sums it up. And yet even though it’s true with APOLLO 13 as well, the story grabbed me. Maybe it’s because of my fascination with space.

      As for Horner’s other scores that you mention, BRAVEHEART certainly isn’t awful, but it was “by the book” scoring for me with zero emotion. GLORY is a winner, even with its Prokofiev stealing. But I loathe the movie of LEGENDS OF THE FALL and just can’t get past it for the score, which never did much for me either. Perhaps someday I’ll give it another shot. But it’s hard when images of the movie come to mind. Oh well.

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