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Apollo 13
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Promotional / 1995 / 59m

One of the major films of 1995, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 was a big hit with both critics and audiences and is probably the director’s finest film.  Telling the story of the “successful failure” of what was to have been NASA’s third manned trip to the moon, disaster struck before the crew arrived following an explosion in an oxygen tank – Houston, they had a problem – and it became a race against time to get back to earth before oxygen or fuel ran out – or indeed carbon dioxide became too prevalent in the astronauts’ cabin.

Howard liked to alternate between different composers at the time and for Apollo 13 it was James Horner’s turn in the rotation.  It’s not necessarily that straightforward to score a film like this – documentary in nature, everyone knows how it ends, it’s important for the score to observe rather than manipulate and this is something the composer pulled off perfectly.  The noble trumpet theme which opens the score is filled with respectful heroism but never goes over the top.  In “Lunar Dreams”, it gets an ethereal string-laden arrangement which brings to mind Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”; it’s beautiful.

James Horner

James Horner

“All Systems Go – The Launch” is a spectacular cue, one of James Horner’s finest.  A ten minute expression of both the majesty of space flight and the nervous emotions of both the astronauts and their families, the composer masterfully alternates between his two main themes and a host of other ideas to paint a very vivid – not to mention very exciting – portrait.  His use of choir and subtle electronics serve to enhance the piece further.  Within the context of the film, the piece is even more impressive when you note how many dramatic hits it makes – it sounds so fluid and organic away from the film you’d never really guess it.

“Docking” is a more low-key piece, subtly building tension with various percussive devices and synth choir, marching towards a conclusion full of relief.  Then it’s in “Master Alarm” that disaster strikes – and Horner’s music (while familiar from Sneakers, crashing pianos and all) is perfect, rumbling and at moments quite chaotic, it’s the most urgent and exciting piece of the score.  “Into the LEM” is a calm piece to follow; as the dire nature of the situation begins to dawn on the astronauts, Horner gently prods with dark emotions before the mood shifts from “oh dear” to “let’s sort this out” – gaining urgency once more during the track’s second half.

One of the most impressive pieces without question, “The Dark Side of the Moon” has a dreamy quality to it thanks to the distinctive wordless vocals of Annie Lennox.  It fulfils a number of purposes – expressing the stark beauty of the moon itself; conveying the uncertainty of the astronauts’ fate, particularly as they go through a period of radio silence; even acting as a lament as they are forced to acknowledge how near they are to realising their dream of walking on the moon, yet so far.  It’s staggeringly beautiful music, one of the composer’s most wonderful achievements.

“Carbon Dioxide” is another tense track, beginning gently with the subtle woodblock percussion creating an atmosphere tense enough to be cut with a knife, before Horner ratchets up the orchestral presence to bring more excitement.  “Master Burn” sees the music head into genuinely dissonant territory for the only time; it’s a violent piece, chillingly effective.  “Four More Amps” is one final sequence of desperate musical tension, again the percussion serving to remind the audience that the clock’s ticking; it’s simple music, but very effective.

The payoff finally comes in the superb nine-minute “Re-entry and Splashdown”, Horner using every trick in the bag to bring emotion and excitement to the sequence.  It’s another superbly-crafted piece of music, mirroring the earlier launch sequence; this time with a huge emotional payoff, the composer appropriately allowing the score’s only real Hollywood swell for the moment Tom Hanks’s voice is heard for the first time after the astronauts re-enter the atmosphere and it’s clear that all is well.  The music swells with pride and passion – another perfectly-judged moment – then comes a soothing, reflective choral passage to close the piece.  It feels like a perfect climax but there’s still a terrific end title piece, the voice of Lennox being heard again, this time over more prominent electronics, before a fine summary of the main themes.

Apollo 13 is one of James Horner’s very best scores, in fact one of the best of the 1990s and its only real competition for the Oscar that year should have come from the same composer’s Braveheart (as it happens, the award went to Il Postino).  It is respectfully heroic and noble but still carries a real dramatic thrust and the emotional climax is wonderful.  In the film, every note of the music is perfectly judged; away from it, a constant source of pleasure.  Sadly, it’s quite hard to hear the music away from the film, since the soundtrack release at the time unforgivably cross-faded highlights of the Horner score into dialogue and pop songs.  There was a promotional release focusing solely on the score and if you can find a copy of that, it’s undoubtedly the one to grab, the only way to appreciate this masterpiece without watching the film.

Rating: *****

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  1. Ammar Kalo (Reply) on Sunday 18 August, 2013 at 17:25

    Im really glad you reviews this album, a bit surprised you hadn’t already ..
    One of my favorite scores of all time. Every single track is perfect and its such a wonderful listening experience every time.

    Its been 18 years since this score was released and it still sounds pretty damn fresh!

  2. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Sunday 18 August, 2013 at 19:30

    how, freaking, insane is it — i mean, really — that Horner didn’t receive an Oscar that year for ”””””’either””””””” Apollo 13 OR Braveheart? must say, if I was Horner that year, and they handed that meaningless bronze piece of shit to the composer of II Postino, I’d probably have blown my head off with a shotgun.

  3. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Sunday 18 August, 2013 at 19:32

    Not to mention the man also wrote Casper that year, which is probably one of my favorite Horner scores; it’s simply unbelievable what he was able to accomplish during some of those years in the 90’s.

  4. James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 18 August, 2013 at 19:41

    And Balto that year, which is also outstanding.

  5. Anthony Aguilar (Reply) on Sunday 18 August, 2013 at 20:45

    What a great score. One of my favorites from Horner. I am glad you’ve chosen to review this.

  6. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Sunday 18 August, 2013 at 23:03

    Yeah James, I didn’t mention Balto, which it would be fair to say is just as good as Casper. Like I said, unbelievable…

  7. Matthew Cadman (Reply) on Friday 6 September, 2013 at 13:32

    I agree with your review 100%. When I first started exploring the film score world, back in high school, I found a copy of this at the local library. I instantly fell in love. The stunning trumpet solos, Lennox’s soulful vocals and the incredible action music. All of the elements just really come together on this particular score.
    My sincere wish is that the complete score will be released someday (without songs/dialogue) so we can all enjoy Horner’s music without interruption!

  8. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Sunday 8 September, 2013 at 21:01

    Matthew, acquire the promo/bootleg somehow. I downloaded it way back in the daaaaaay, like 2001, and burnt it on CD I’ve since lost. I could probably find it again for you and e-mail/send it your way somehow though, if you really wanted.

  9. Nick (Reply) on Tuesday 21 January, 2014 at 05:46

    The complete score (82 minutes versus the 58 or so for the promo) was leaked online in early 2013 several months before this review was posted. It even features music not used in the film. Hearing it from beginning to end in full is even more impressive and also surprising that the score is far more electronic than the promo suggests.

  10. tiago (Reply) on Sunday 6 September, 2015 at 00:37

    As someone who has obsessively listening to both Apollo 13 and Legends of the Fall (along with, of course, a lot of other Horner classics from the 90s), I was surprised to hear a bit of Legends on Re Entry and Splashdown, including a little appeareance of Tristan’s theme from that score on 1:37.

    A lot of people would say Horner loved to self-borrow, but I just find these little connections rather funny.