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APOCALYPTO – James Horner

December 8, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

What with all the furore surrounding Mel Gibson, his DUI arrest on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, and his subsequent drunken anti-Semitic rant to the highway patrol officers, it’s easy to forget that he remains a truly tremendous filmmaker. Apocalypto is Gibson’s fourth film as director, after The Man Without a Face, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. Filmed entirely in the Yukatek language of the ancient Mayans, who inhabited what is now Mexico, Belize and Guatemala for millennia prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1400s, Apocalypto is a detailed look at the lives, cultures and traditions of that ancient civilisation, dressed up as an exciting chase-fuelled action movie.

Novice actor Rudy Youngblood stars as Jaguar Paw, a young Mayan warrior who is separated from his wife and son when his village is raided by rival Holcane tribesmen, and he is captured into slavery. Taken to a massive construction site where pyramids are being constructed, Jaguar Paw is set to be killed as a human sacrifice, until an unexpected eclipse stop the ceremony, and he manages to escape. Setting off back through the unyielding jungle, Jaguar Paw races to rescue his family, while all the time being pursued by a vicious gang of Holcane warriors intent on stopping him…

After dallying with John Debney on Passion, Gibson has returned to his traditional composer of choice – James Horner – for Apocalypto. Inspired by Gibson’s decision to film his movie in an ancient language, and being mindful of the authenticity of the project as a whole, Horner chose to dispense with his usual symphonic approach, which would have been anachronistic in context, and instead wrote a score predominantly for percussion, voice, and a vast array of obscure woodwind and string instruments, including Slovakian fujara flutes, Armenian duduks, Swedish naverlur pipes, Turkish sipsi clarinets, Renaissance-era tromba marina lutes and Syrian zourna oboes. And while all this thought and respect for authenticity is admirable, unfortunately it’s rather disappointing in terms of the actual end result: the listening experience.

For the majority of its running time, Apocalypto is a score more concerned with texture and rhythm than themes and melodies. It’s a raw, primal, at times quite brutal score which rings with percussive and vocal savagery, and enjoys very little in the way of the traditional writing we have come to expect from Horner. In a way, this approach is perfect: as Jaguar Paw makes his desperate flight through the primordial jungles, Horner’s incessant hammering provides the film with an internal rhythm to drive the action along. However, as before, appropriateness in context doesn’t always make for an appealing album – such is the case here.

The vocals are provided by famed Pakistani qawwali singer Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who collaborated with Horner on The Four Feathers in 2002, and Terry Edwards, director of the London Voices choral group, and most recently famous for collaborating with Howard Shore on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But their contributions are not pleasant, or soothing: on the contrary, Khan and Edwards howl, growl, sigh and grunt their way through the score, adding another level of intensity to the music. The unnerving throat-singing in “Tapir Hunt” is quite remarkable in its ferocity, while Khan’s blood-curdling wailing in “Sacrificial Procession” has to be heard to be fully appreciated, especially when it is heard alongside the ear-shattering duduk blasts. “The Eclipse” features both Khan and Edwards singing in counterpoint to each other, the latter providing eerie, airy vocalisations which sound like some distant demon breathing and whispering and chanting in the listener’s ear. The late-chase cues, such as “An Elusive Quarry” and “No Longer the Hunted”, again see Edwards growling and chanting, as if taunting, or insulting, or trying to scare the listener. I am here. I am coming. Be afraid.

Much of the action music is quite similar to that which he wrote for Braveheart, with woodwinds, percussion and synth drones creating a permeating atmosphere of tension and dread. “Holcane Attack”, “Entering the City with a Future Foretold” and “Words Through the Sky” are perfect examples of this, and it is in these cues that Horner’s familiar voice comes shining through: the way he uses the pan flutes and shakuhachi in tandem with each other, the way the instruments rattle and trill and trail off into the distance, even the tone of the chord held by the synths, it all screams Horner. You can hear slight echoes of Willow, of Legends of the Fall, and of 1980s synth scores like Vibes, Where the River Runs Black, and The Name of the Rose, as well as Howard Shore’s The Cell and Mychael Danna’s 8MM. The bullroarer from The Missing also makes a couple of guest appearances, notably at the beginning of “The Games and Escape”, as do the fluttering sampled bird-calls from The New World in the sylvan “Forest” cues which bookend the score.

The pastoral, hypnotic “The Storyteller’s Dreams” is one of the few softer cues, and pits a wandering woodwind element against a backdrop of drones and rattles to good effect, resulting in a cue which is reminiscent of the Native American music he wrote for Thunderheart and The Missing. The gentle melodic content is briefly restated in “Frog Darts”, and provides a welcome respite.

I actually feel quite sorry to give Apocalypto as comparatively low a rating as I have, because quite clearly an enormous amount of effort and energy has been spent assembling the right instruments, finding the right level of authenticity, and ensuring that the overall tone and texture of the film is not spoiled by overly anachronistic music. Furthermore, some of the vocal effects are quite brilliant, and go a long way to enhancing the sense of dread and impending danger in the storyline. In these terms, the score is an unqualified success.

However, it still comes down to the problem that, as an album of music, it remains very difficult to actually sit and listen to, and I’m sure many people will find themselves turned off by the violent nature of the music, the overall lack of melodic content, and unyielding darkness of it all. For Horner fans, or anyone with a tolerance for unconventional film scoring, I can see Apocalypto being received as an interesting curiosity worth examining. Others, however, should proceed with caution.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • From the Forest… (1:55)
  • Tapir Hunt (1:31)
  • The Storyteller’s Dream (3:41)
  • Holcane Attack (9:28)
  • Captives (3:06)
  • Entering the City with a Future Foretold (6:05)
  • Sacrificial Procession (3:40)
  • Words Through the Sky – The Eclipse (5:11)
  • The Games and Escape (5:15)
  • An Elusive Quarry (2:15)
  • Frog Darts (2:45)
  • No Longer the Hunted (5:50)
  • Civilizations Brought by Sea (3:20)
  • To the Forest… (7:41)

Running Time: 60 minutes 39 seconds

Hollywood Records D000015802 (2006)

Music composed by James Horner. Performed by James Horner, Tony Hinnigan, Jan Hendrickse, Robert A. White, Guo Yi, Gary Kettel, Frank Ricotti, Ian Underwood and Aaron Martin. Special vocal performances by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Terry Edwards. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson and Dick Bernstein. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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