Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Apollo 13: At last, Another Entry

As well as I can remember, America was feeling pretty good about itself in the mid-to-late '90s. The economy was moving along reasonably well, everybody was starting to discover this new "World Wide Web" thing, and the Cold War was over. Of course, that doesn't make for especially dramatic cinema, especially with the biggest adversaries of America for 50 years having fallen by the wayside. Meanwhile, we'd worked our way through much of America's post-Vietnam angst -- cinematically, anyway.

So, Hollywood started seeking dramatic stories elsewhere. James Bond, the archetypal Cold Warrior, limped along in the mostly uninspired Pierce Brosnan era with stories of rogue agents and megalomaniacal businessmen. Some filmmakers tried to get some topical material out with Internet-driven or related plots. It's best not to speak about most of those. Disaster movies started making a comeback, and alien attacks started cropping up in alarming numbers. Even in most of these, there was a distinctly - and fairly cheesy - "Yeah, America!" attitude: Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon, etc. The not-too-deeply buries subtext of those seemed to be: See, all we need to whup menaces from outer space is a little American gumption and talent! Yeee-haw!

Elsewhere, filmmakers looked to the past. Spielberg finally brought his obsession with World War II to glorious fruition with Saving Private Ryan.* Mel Gibson reached all the way back to distort Medieval history - albeit with enormous style and gusto - in Braveheart. And of course, we got cheese on the high seas in Titanic.

Ron Howard seemingly found the perfect combination of all of these with Apollo 13 - history, space, and a crisis with a comfortingly certain conclusion, not to mention a true showcase of Americans at their very best. It's really a masterpiece of a film, one I'm eager to revisit now that it's on Blu-Ray. It's one of Ron Howard's very best films.

In fact, Ron Howard and composer James Horner are both very comfortably in their element with Apollo 13 - the kind of project that lends itself very well to both their talents. Both the film itself and its score are emotionally manipulative, but I mean that as a compliment here -- it's emotional manipulation in the grandest Hollywood tradition. Ron Howard and James Horner in the '90s were two of the best at delivering classic "Hollywood" products.

Horner wrote this the very same year he scored Braveheart, which I also love, for entirely different reasons. Both Apollo 13 and Braveheart follow the general pattern of Horner scores of the '90s: pick a compelling theme and swing for the fences with it in most of the big cues, preferably played on a featured solo instrument (bagpipe in Braveheart, trumpet in Apollo 13), and fill the rest of the cues with driving percussion at whatever pace the scene demands. Orchestration for these other cues often ends up featuring other solo instruments. Sprinkle with emphasis by wordless chorus and you've got a Horner score, circa 1995.

What I appreciate about Horner's score here is actually just how subtle it can be in its emotional manipulation, as funny as that sounds. Beyond the general (and admittedly oversimplified) stylistic similarities, I'm struck by just how different Apollo 13 is from Braveheart. (Horner was justifiably nominated for the Oscar for both scores that year, by the way.) Maybe it's because the style and tone of Apollo 13 are more grounded, starting with the film itself. The music for Apollo 13 is working within the boundaries of reality and a time period that quite a few of the film's viewers would remember directly. There's less room for romantic myth-making here, and perhaps less enthusiasm from the director to go to that mythological territory.

You can easily see how far Horner could have gone in the direction of grand, overblown scoring by listening to the "End Titles" (Track 23). I have to laugh when this track comes up, at the end of the score -- it sounds like every other typical '90s "cut to the pop song" end credits sequence for a few seconds before it gets into gear. There's a lot more synth happening here than elsewhere, and Annie Lennox wails all over the track, in that way that Annie Lennox does. Later, when the music settles back into orchestral mode, we get much more lavishly played, lusty statements of many of the film's main themes that are kept much more restrained for the most part in the film. It's almost as though Horner was just dying to let loose with a grander and more hyperbolic sound, but couldn't let fly until the credits rolled.

To his credit, the remainder of the score is both forthright and sophisticated, making voice, snare, trumpet, and piano the primary tools for creating the aural environment of Apollo 13, and layering in strings and other instruments where they can be of maximum use. It's probably one of the cleanest-sounding scores I own in terms of its production value. It sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral or some other sonic environment that allows a healthy amount of reverb, which makes every instrumental solo ring with a stirring force, beginning with the opening drums and trumpet stating the main theme beautifully. The echoing sound is also exciting when Horner brings the whole orchestra to bear on the grand moments, like the rocket launch cue ("All Systems Go," Track 9) and the final "Re-Entry and Splashdown" (Track 22) -- both presented in wonderful, uninterrupted long cues.

It's some of the individual cues within the action that really excite me, though. I especially love the tense piano and snare that drive the shortest cue, "Main Alarm" (Track 14) - here is one of my favorite little tricks with an instrument in any score. At about 1:00 into the panicked track, the piano just explodes in a series of fast chords that sound like the player is simply mashing his hands all over the keyboard in frustration -- this effect is repeated twice throughout the rest of the track, and it's there that you realize that this was a specifically scored passage that's just meant to sound like utter chaos.

Elsewhere, Annie Lennox's haunting voice is put to much better use in the eerie, quiet track "Darkside of the Moon" (Track 17). Countered with the solo trumpet representing the heroic astronauts, the layered Lennox vocals and Arvo Part-like strings seem to evoke both intense loneliness and the siren call of the enchanting alien landscape of the Moon herself.

This is one of those soundtrack albums that combines music from the original score with popular music selections and dialogue from the film itself - an overzealous bit of album producing that drives film score purists like me nuts most of the time. Here I don't actually mind it much, because the pop songs are all actually featured in the film and are fairly well-chosen, even if a few of them are a little on-the-nose for the subject matter. (The Who's "I Can See for Miles" makes an appearance, for example -- James Brown's rendition of "Night Train," though, is perhaps a bit cleverer.) I only wish they hadn't chosen to try to overlap the dialogue tracks with the score tracks. It's a minor quibble. We still get a great chunk of a great score to enjoy, and the overall construction of the album does undeniably create some pretty good atmosphere. And it's all in order, at least, which pleases the purist in me.

Finally, my apologies for the delay of the appearance of this post. It has been gestating for weeks, and meanwhile the pace of wedding planning has picked up and there's still that pesky "work" stuff. Hopefully I can still crank out a few of these in the chaos of the next month. Stay tuned!

*Of course, the best Spielberg WWII movie is probably still Empire of the Sun.

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