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JAMES HORNER FILM MUSIC | February 28, 2020 |

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Time and again, Horner showed himself to be a master storyteller. His trick was always to latch onto the protagonist and follow him or her through the requisite and tumultuous transformation process. When he was asked to score Apollo 13 in 1995, all that had to go out the window, because Ron Howard’s well-regarded account of the troubled moon mission was, first and foremost, a documentary. The focus of the piece is on events (such as the daunting problems the astronauts faced in getting back home) and concepts (such as NASA, space, defeat and success), and those were the elements that the film score had to take its cues from. Again, what sets a documentary apart from a story is the stagnant nature of its human characters. Sure enough, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) go to hell and back over the course of a mission that is politely remembered as a “successful failure”, but by and large, they come out of the story as exactly the same human beings, their personalities, their belief systems, their identities, in short their essence completely intact. There is no profound transformation the way Balto’s essence changed when he stopped wanting to be a dog and embraced his wolf origins.
Without a transforming protagonist as its backbone, there can be no clear three-act narrative, but do not hold that against screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, who adapted Jim Lovell’s book and tried to reconstruct the Apollo 13 mission as faithfully as possible rather than massage it into a three-act story. Still, a number of narrative beats survive. The Master Alarm cue underscores the moment when the mission kicks into (breaks into) its second act: disaster strikes, the mental and logistical world the characters inhabit is turned upside down, thesis becomes antithesis. When the decision is made to abandon the Odyssey and use the Lunar Module (LM, but curiously given its obsolete acronym of Lunar Excursion Module or LEM for the purposes of the score) as a lifeboat, Jim Lovell realizes that “we’ve just lost the moon”. This All Is Lost is followed by the scene the entire movie hinges on, when the astronauts lose radio contact with Mission Control and do a fly-by of the far side of the moon. Both literally and metaphorically, it is the story’s Dark Night of the Soul. Not surprisingly, it is one of the score’s standout set pieces – if you factor in James Horner’s personality and especially what appealed to his instincts as a dramatist, it was probably his favorite cue of the entire score. Toward the end of the cue, Jim Lovell is roused from his musings and addresses the crew: “Gentlemen, what are your intentions? I’d like to go home.” Having gotten the dream of setting foot on the moon out of his system, that line of dialogue sets in motion (breaks into) the third act, which occupies the remainder of the movie. The three-act structure as realized in Apollo 13 is of course crude and unbalanced, with an underdeveloped second act and a protruded third, but again, it would be unfair to use that argument as a criticism because the screenplay never tried to be a three-act narrative in the first place.
So without having the luxury of following a transforming protagonist and a clear three-act screenplay, what inspired James Horner to write this Oscar-nominated score that would quickly become a fan favorite? The answer to that question reveals the score’s true brilliance. To quote James Horner: "If you start off with a big score, it sets an audience up for just another sci-fi movie… except Apollo 13 is a documentary; you know where it's going to end. What I'm trying to get out of the story is the idealism."
In fact, Horner gets much more out of Apollo 13. The documentary approach is one of the reasons for the down-to-earth electronic nature of many of the underscore cues, on top of them being a natural fit for scenes involving technology and NASA engineers’ thought processes. Horner brings it out in his lightly tapping percussion, especially the effective use of woodblocks in cues such as Into The LEM, Carbon Dioxide and Four More Amps. Moreover, in these often understated tension cues, the tingling of cymbals frequently mimics the transferring of an electrical current.
The orchestra is used for the patriotic side of the story, and apart from its potential for glorious statements of triumph and lyricism (in All Systems Go – The Launch, The Dark Side Of The Moon, Re-Entry and Splashdown and End Credits), it is used for the most overt examples of action and tension music (Master Alarm, Carbon Dioxide, Manual Burn and Into The L.E.M.).
What James Horner rather succinctly called idealism is actually a stunning case of musical polysemy, a rich tapestry of different meanings rendered, paradoxically, by very simple musical ideas. This brings us to a short discussion of the score’s three themes. By far the most frequently used is a long-line identity for NASA, performed most characteristically by Tim Morrison’s trumpet. The theme is successful on a number of levels. One, it has very meaningful echoes of Aaron Copland, as John Takis notes in Intrada’s booklet. Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was the quintessential American composer, the one who basically invented what would later be dubbed Americana music, notably Appalachian Spring, and Horner appropriately draws from this well for an event that reconstructs a singularly American feat: NASA’s high-minded space program and its dogged efforts to turn the tide of catastrophe and bring the Apollo 13 crew safely back home. Quite simply, the NASA theme reflects the American spirit of exploration and adventure, an idea that Horner would develop further for The Perfect Storm. Secondly, the theme is constructed in such a way that by the time its basic seven-note progression enters its third iteration, it dissolves into a series of beautifully repeating and echoing notes. Especially when performed by solo trumpet and recorded with a healthy dose of reverb, this part of the theme is a wonderful musical metaphor for the vastness of space. Seeing an opportunity to create structure where there was none, Horner bookends the score with the idea, whose solo trumpet statement at the very end of the End Credits lends the film a nearly mystical touch. It is Horner’s way of reminding us that when all is said and done, the universe is a lot bigger than any human triumph or failure. Thirdly, scoring the theme for the trumpet was a brilliant orchestration choice, the noble brass painting NASA as a present-day Christopher Columbus. Apart from ratcheting up the tension and danger in action cues, the snare drums do a great job heightening this sense of nobility, as in the Main Titles.
The score’s secondary ideas include a brass chorale that opens All Systems Go – The Launch, another long-line melody made up of seven-note parts (the symmetry is admirable) and an irresistible two-part lyrical theme which is given its most glorious statement during the moment of take-off (I will call it the take-off theme). It returns in Re-Entry and Splashdown and lays the foundations for the first part of the End Credits.
The vocal material in Apollo 13 is a presence rather than a theme, but it is no less effective for it. Appearing in just two cues, Annie Lennox’s voice makes the most lasting impression. In a case of musical polysemy all its own, her wordless vocals constitute the emotional core of The Dark Side of the Moon, and the Scottish singer’s highly distinctive voice was Horner’s clever way of reconciling director Ron Howard’s wish for a score-only end title cue with the studio’s insistence that a song be used over the end credits.
The other vocal presence in Apollo 13 is the children’s choir, whose light, whimsical touch is a beautiful metaphor for weightlessness itself. Its most effective and magical uses include the moment when the crew members take off their helmets in space for the first time, the film’s slow-motion finale and the opening minutes of the End Credits, where Annie Lennox hands off the lyrical take-off theme to the children's choir before taking it up again herself.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that while the big set pieces feature moments of orchestral exuberance, James Horner generally goes for understated idealism and understated tension in an intentionally understated score. After all, Apollo 13 is a documentary.
The resulting score ends up showcasing a number of James Horner’s many talents: his expertise at handling moments of tension and action (even though musically, it’s a progression of elements introduced in 1992’s Sneakers), his ability to convey multiple meanings with the simplest of musical building stones and his genius at finding, or if needs be, creating the emotional heart of any given project, as evidenced here by the use of vocal elements, which add a crucial dimension that perhaps no other composer would have even bothered to consider.
The album situation
There have been many album incarnations of James Horner’s Apollo 13 score, and while Intrada’s brand-new set is by far the most commendable of the bunch, even it does not present every single cue the composer recorded for the film.
As discussed in the detailed notes by John Takis and Mike Matessino, Apollo 13 was originally released as a kind of 'souvenir' album (MCAD-11241) consisting of spoken dialogue from the film interspersed with selections of James Horner's score (Main Title, All Systems Go – The Launch, The Dark Side of the Moon, Re-Entry and Splashdown and End Titles), popular songs of the era such as I Can See For Miles by The Who and Blue Moon by The Mavericks and even a few minor sound effects.
This idea carried over twice, into both an international release (MCD-11358) which featured the same contents plus a second CD made entirely of more songs from the 60s and 70s, but taken a step further with the release of an 'Ultimate Masterdisc' 24-Karat Gold-Plated CD (MCAD-11316), touted as a 'Virtual Audio Storyboard' of the film. This release featured even more thunderous sound effects because it was effectively a streamlined presentation of the film's original audio mix, presented in 2-channel Dolby Surround. The contents differed from the original album release only because of revisions made for the film's audio presentation. 
In 1996 Universal issued a 'Promotional CD Single' (MCA3P-3432) which was never commercially available and which presented only James Horner's score as originally intended for album release. This assembly, never realized at the time, makes its commercial debut as disc 2 of the new Intrada Special Collection album.
The Promotional Album's presentation, a 59-minute program of 12 cues, did make its way into the ears of the film's wide audience in an unconventional way, as Universal Home Entertainment opted to