Home > 100 Greatest Scores, Reviews > APOLLO 13 – James Horner

APOLLO 13 – James Horner

100 GREATEST SCORES OF ALL TIME

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Following his retirement from NASA in 1973, Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell collaborated with journalist Jeffrey Kluger to recount the riveting tale of his failed moon landing, titled ‘Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13’. In 1993 director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment received a pre-publication copy of the novel and immediately realized that this story offered classic American heroism, which needed to be brought to the big screen. They secured the film rights and, in partnership with Universal Pictures, undertook the project with a modest budget of $52 million. Howard secured a stellar cast, which included NASA fan Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell, Kathleen Quinlan as his wife Marilyn, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as fellow astronauts Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly, and Ed Harris as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz. The story retells the harrowing tale of the Apollo 13 mission, which was intended to bring a third astronaut team to the moon.

Problems arise immediately during launch when the second stage booster shuts down prematurely, and they barely achieve Earth orbit. They successfully dock the Command module with the Aquarius Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and then set off for the moon. Three days into the journey they suffer a catastrophic mission ending problem. A routine stirring of the liquid oxygen tanks triggers an explosion, which empties and oxygen tank and ruptures the hull of the command module’s mechanical compartment. As the craft tumbles it is hemorrhaging oxygen and the decision is made to shut off some fuel cells to stop the leak. The shutoff fails, which forecloses a lunar landing. This necessitates a forced evacuation to the Aquarius, which will now serve as a life boat. The crew is forced to battle bone numbing cold, rising levels of carbon dioxide, and finally power constraints when firing up the command module for Earth descent – yet all obstacles are overcome and they miraculously safely return to Earth. Apollo 13 was a huge commercial success earning $355 million at the US box office. The film secured critical acclaim, garnering nine Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Sound and Best Film Editing. In 2006 the American Film Institute named it as the 12th most inspirational movie ever made.

Ron Howard had greatly enjoyed his collaboration with James Horner on two prior films, Cocoon and Willow, and he was the natural choice for the project. Horner related his approach to the score in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“If you start off with a big score, it sets the audience up for just another sci-fi movie, except this is a documentary; you know where it is going to end. What I was trying to get out of the story was idealism, everything that was great in the guys at Mission Control and in the capsule, the best thing about NASA. And that’s a very illusive thing to bring out. . . but that’s what I wanted – idealism, in a very different way.”

Horner understood that this was not an action film, but rather a docudrama film in which he would have to speak to the adventure of space flight, the aspirations of the crew, but also the harrowing tension as they fight first for their lives, and then to find a way home in a damaged spacecraft. For his soundscape Horner composed three primary themes, a number of set pieces, and several motifs. The NASA Theme offers repeating seven note phrases born by trumpets nobile underpinned by martial snare drums. There is no heroism or patriotic fervor in the notes, it is instead aspirational, emoting reverentially, embracing the idealism the organization and its men, which Horner sought. The second primary theme is the Apollo 13 Theme, which serves as the identity of the Apollo 13 mission. Seven note phrasing by a chorale of mid and low register horns solenne imbue the music with a spiritual serenity, which speaks of the vastness and mysteries of space.

The third primary theme, the Aspiration Theme offers the score’s most eloquent and evocative theme, which speaks to the men’s aspirations for exploring the cosmos. A five note declarative phrase and six note response phrase by refulgent strings and horns nobile stirs our souls. When joined by chorus it elicits quivers and elevates the music to the sublime. Its renderings during the Launch and Re-entry scenes soar, providing the score’s two finest moments. For tension scenes Horner eschewed melody, instead sowing fear, desperation and uncertainty using textural writing consisting of crashing and rumbling piano, wood block percussion, snare drums and tingling cymbals. It is instructive how he used Annie Lennox’s voice and ethereal children’s choir to create a sense of wonderment, and mystery. Lastly, the orchestral and electronica are segregated on the album. I reorder them in film sequence to support the review’s narrative flow.

As the Universal logo unfolds snare drums militare usher in the “Main Title” with the NASA Theme declared by trumpets solenne and strings. Narration by Walter Cronkite speaks of America’s resolve to win the space race and the tragedy, which befell the Apollo 1 astronauts. It is a somber moment, a time for reflection and Horner’s opening elegy perfectly sets the tone of the film. “Lunar Dreams” reveals Jim watching the momentous broadcast of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon. We see in his eyes admiration, yet also aspiration. Horner supports the moment with the NASA Theme rendered dolcemente. The music after 1:34 was dialed out of the film, replaced by source music. Violins tenero and flute delicato support an intimate moment for Jim and Marilyn in their garden, concluding with the trumpets of the NASA Theme as he relates his desire to return to the Moon. In “Marilyn’s Nightmare” we see Jim and his crew experience a catastrophic malfunction, which results with him being ejected from the capsule into space. As Marilyn opens her eyes, we realize it was a nightmare. Horner unleashes a horrific cacophony, a discordant torrent of writhing strings, rumbling piano and screeching horns, which join in a grotesque synergy with the blaring klaxon.

“A Son’s Worries” reveals Jim’s son Jeffrey inquiring about the Apollo 1 fire. It is a tender moment between father and son and Horner supports the intimacy with the NASA Theme, with the trumpet line adorned with refulgent violins. The remainder of the cue is comprised of music dialed out of the film, which would have supported the earlier docking simulation scene. Horner evokes tension with a musical ascent, which mirrors Ken’s piloting maneuvers. At 2:11 we segue into a new scene, “Simulator Crash” where snare drums, strings, woodwinds doloroso, wood block percussion, join with plaintive horns to sow tension and then sadness as replacement pilot Jack fails a re-entry simulation. In “Night Visitors” Marilyn unexpectantly visits Launch Control intent on saying goodbye to Jim before he departs. Horner supports the intimate moment gently with an ambiance cue born by twinkling piano and shimmering strings tenero. Trumpets sound and we end with portentous low register strings as we arrive with the golden sunrise auras of launch day.

“All Systems Go – The Launch” offers the score’s first of three masterpiece cues where Horner convincingly demonstrates mastery of his craft. The cue supports three scenes; NASA preparing for launch, the Launch and finally achieving Earth orbit. The horn chorale of the Apollo 13 Theme supports the crew donning their space suits and ascending to the capsule. At 1:41 the Aspiration Theme resounds and we are awestruck as we behold the imposing Saturn V rocket and the men’s arrival at the causeway to the capsule. The music demurs as we switch to the control room yet returns gloriously atop the Aspiration Theme at 2:39 as the men are strapped into the capsule, and the capsule hatch is secured. An accelerando commences at 3:00, which supports the check-off of each of the command counsels declaring “Go For Launch”. As we cut away to Ken preparing to watch the launch, ethereal chorus join and inform us the space beckons. Slowly, yet inexorably Horner builds tension with a cadence of snare drum percussion, chorus, shimmering strings and horns bravura. At 5:11 an stepped ascent on horns joined by snare drums and strings animato support “Go For Launch” as the countdown commences. At 6:11 lift off occurs and Apollo 13’s ascent is carried gloriously with a bold and celebratory rendering of the NASA Theme, now unshackled and declared in all its magnificence, joined by ethereal chorus. We transition to space flight dynamics at 7:11 with a return of the aggressive, kinetic snare drum cadence and horns drammatici. At 7:33 horns bravura resound as the first stage of the rocket detaches, and we soar atop the Aspiration Theme as we see the ship flying over the Earth. At 7:59 Horner sows tension with a staccato line of snare drums, and dire trombones with trumpet counters as the center engine of the second stage fails. The music demurs as conversations in the command center determine whether to abort. The decision is “Go”, and at 9:02 we return to Ken supported by the Apollo 13 Theme, informing us of his longing and disappointment. We close atop the NASA Theme and ethereal chorus as they shut down stage 3 engines, now safely in Earth orbit.

“Docking” offers a masterfully conceived cue. It reveals Ken piloting the Command Module Odyssey to dock with the Aquarius. The men are alone in space and Horner creates a tense, yet remarkable shimmering mysterioso using ethereal chorus, pulsing woodwinds, refulgent strings, timpani and wood block percussion. A plaintive trumpet and ticking wood block percussion carry the tense final moments as Ken successfully acquires the Lunar Module. The crew is relieved and we close ominously on low register strings. In “Canister Explosion” Jack initiates a routine oxygen tank stir that goes awry when a faulty electric coil triggers an explosion, which rips through the Service Module’s hull. Horner supports the explosion with a grotesque, writhing crescendo of terror. “Master Alarm” supports a riveting score highlight, which reveals Horner’s genius, and offers the score’s most tense and desperate writing. As the master alarm sounds and the ship tumbles out of control Horner sows fear and a growing desperation as the men frantically seek to understand what has happened. A rapid, relentless and driving ostinato by snare drums and harsh piano crashes joins with tense strings and dire horns to propel the action. The music is sustained as we shift to the Command Center, which is trying to diagnose the problem.

In “Reactant Valves” Houston orders the crew to shut down fuel cells one and three in hope of stopping the hemorrhaging of oxygen. Jim understands that if this is done, they lose the Moon and reluctantly carries out the order. Horner supports the scene texturally with and eerie shifting electronica sustain as they watch to their horror the effort fail and the number one tank drain out. “Into The L.E.M.” supports a very tense scene and offers a testament to Horner’s mastery of his craft as his music drives Howard’s narrative. The shutdown of fuel cells one and three has failed to stop the hemorrhaging of oxygen, which means the Odyssey will soon be left without oxygen. This forces the crew to evacuate to, and power-up the Aquarius, which will serve as a life boat. The initial part of the cue, which offers unsettling string figures along with the scene it supported were edited out of the film. We sync with the film at 1:48 with great urgency, propelled by snare drums, wood block percussion, violins tesi and dire horns as James orders Fred into the Aquarius for an immediate power-up. Gene is told by his engineers that Odyssey has only 15 minutes of oxygen. Slowly, yet inexorably Horner escalates a rising desperation as the crew struggles to shut down the Odyssey, and transfer navigation to the Aquarius. At 3:06 dire dissonant strings and random drums strikes support an exterior view of the wobbling craft. We close with anxiety atop strings doloroso, snare drums and the unnerving ticking effect of wood block percussion.

“Out of Control” is a stress cue supporting a tense argument among the crew, which is inadvertently relayed to Houston as the transmission audio switch is on. Horner supports the crew’s agitation and stress with an unsettling, writing and grotesque electronica with percussive accents. “Power Off” reveals the powering down of the Odyssey, which Horner supports with interplay of upper and lower register electronica sustains. “The Dark Side Of The Moon” offers a brilliantly conceived and executed score highlight. To return safely, the craft must circle the Moon and be sling-shot back to the earth with a burn of the Aquarius’ thruster. This maneuver takes them to the dark side of the Moon and out of radio contact. Horner’s music must speak to a powerful intersection of contrasting emotions; anxiety from the maneuver and loss of radio contact, a sense of wonderment at the pristine beauty of the lunar surface, and a lamentation, which supports Jim’s envisioning of his Moon landing. Horner supports the scene brilliantly with a haunting vocalise by Annie Lennox. We open with strings doloroso that are joined by Lennox’s ethereal wordless vocals. At 1:06 trumpets declare the Nasa Theme as Jim laments for what cannot be. Lennox’s other-worldly vocals joined now with angelic children’s choir, strings doloroso and a steady drum cadence support the vistas of the lunar surface and scenes of Marilyn sobbing on Earth. At 3:01 the NASA Theme returns on trumpets for a wistful exposition as they pass over the intended landing site and Jim envisions himself walking on the Moon with a spectacular Earth rise on the horizon. The dream ends at 4:10 on trumpet with a return to Jim’s face on the Aquarius. We close the cue atop the NASA Theme with acceptance, and renewed determination as Jim leaves the Moon behind and commits to the task at hand, getting his crew home safely.

“A Square Peg” supports a scene where the crew powers down most of the essential systems to preserve sufficient power for reentry. NASA then discovers a new problem rising levels of carbon dioxide, which if not checked will kill the crew. Horner scores the scene texturally with an unnerving cadence of wood block percussion, a stepped ascent by tense violins, a bass sustain, and cymbal strikes. The remainder of the cue was attached to a deleted scene and continues the textural writing, joined now with woodwind adornment and a cadence of piano strikes. “Carbon Dioxide” offers another tense scene, which Horner supports texturally. We open with plaintive strings and ticking wood block percussion as NASA engineers struggle to piecemeal the square CO2 scrubber from the Odyssey with the round scrubber on Aquarius. At 0:48 trumpets launch an accelerando of urgency as engineers present to Gene their make-shift solution to join the two scrubbers together. At 2:10 an aggressive piano rhythm joins with urgent wood block percussion to propel the crew as they begin building the device. Horner escalates the tension and urgency builds as horns join the fray as the men struggle to complete the assembly. At 3:23 an accelerando builds as they near completion. A shift to a press interview at 4:10 is supported by other-worldly strings and woodwinds as NASA explains the problem. We close with a stepped crescendo of tension, which crests at 5:19 as the men mount and turn on the device. We close on a diminuendo as the crew confirms that CO2 levels have returned to normal.

“Manual Burn” offers yet another tense scene of life and death where Horner’s music drives the drama. The ship’s angle of descent is too shallow, and unless corrected by a manual main engine burn by the Aquarius, will result in the ship bouncing off the atmosphere and into deep space. Horner supports the tense scene with the score’s most aggressive and dissonant music. Violins doloroso provide an eerie prelude, which triggers a tense trumpet blaring descent, unleashing a ferocious, discordant orchestral torrent at 0:34 as the ship careens back and forth as the men struggle to hold it on course. We close again on a diminuendo of relief as they shut down the engines and are informed, they were successful. In “A War Story” Marilyn watches an old interview of Jim, where he relates a harrowing incident as a fighter pilot who successfully brought his damaged plane home. A reserved yet hopeful rendering of the NASA Theme supports the moment, an allusion that Jim will once again make it home. “Four More Amps” reveals Ken struggling in the flight simulator to identify the reentry power-up sequence that will not exceed the 20-amp limit. The music is a testament to textural minimalism creating tension. Wood block percussion again simulates the ticking passage of time, joined by a high tremolo sustain and piano strikes as Ken devises a solution. At 1:38 a string ostinato joins to further escalate tension. They do a mock power up and piano strikes and a percussive crash at 2:13 affirms their success. We close as we began with textural minimalism as the plan is brought to Gene and then relayed to the crew.

“Restarting The L.E.M.” is not found on the album. Jack is following Ken’s instructions for a step by step power up the Aquarius. The music from the “Carbon Dioxide” cue is reprised to provide the tension. “Typhoon Warning / SM Jettison” is not found on the album. Gene is alerted that a typhoon warning has been declared proximate to the recovery area. Shifting back to space, the crew initiates the separation of the service module, which enables them to view the extent of the catastrophic damage caused by the explosion. The other-worldly music from the “Docking” cue was reprised and actually worked very effectively in supporting the mystery of the explosion. “Cosmic Connection” affirms that there is beauty in simplicity. The scene reveals Jim looking down to Earth as he passes over his Florida home, while Marilyn is looking upwards to the heavens. Horner captures the wonder of the moment, their cosmic connection with ethereal electronica. “L.E.M. Jettison” supports a multiple film scenes. We begin with the crew relocating to the Odyssey and then saying goodbye to their lifeboat, the Aquarius. A warm and thankful rendering of the NASA Theme supports the moment. At 0:32 we shift atop snare drums militare, chimes and horns nobile to the ocean below as we see the recovery ship, the U.S.S. Iwo Jima preparing for the arrival of the command capsule.

“Re-Entry And Splashdown” offers the score’s emotional apogee, and one of the finest compositions in Horner’s canon. We begin with Jim stating, “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”, which commences their reentry. Strings gentile and snare drums join with trumpets nobile in a stirring declarative statement as they descend into the atmosphere. With music kindred to the NASA Theme, lyrical strings, and horns resound atop snare drum percussion as the heat shield heats to a bright flaming red. At 1:19 we shift on a diminuendo with muted trumpets, an oboe counter and snare drums to the command center as the team tracks Apollo 13’s descent during the three-minute radio blackout. At 2:21 ethereal choir enters as the three-minute mark is reached and Houston begins hailing the Odyssey. Tension mounts and Horner creates anxiety with a solo oboe doloroso, which plays forlornly over muted snare drum rhythms. As despair mounts, strings doloroso join variable, repeating phrases of the NASA Theme over snare drums, which slowly dissipates as the despair of radio silence becomes a dark pall. Yet at 4:13 the capsule is seen descending with parachutes on TV and joy is born with a heartfelt rendering of the NASA Theme, now expressed fully, with unabashed pride as the families and command center staff embrace in thankful celebration. Choir joins at 5:51 as the retrieval crew reaches the capsule. We crescendo gloriously at 6:29 on the theme as Jim declares; “This is Apollo 13 signing off.” At 7:02 the Apollo 13 Theme is rendered by ethereal choir as the men exit the helicopter to cheering crowds. At 7:49 Tom Hanks begins a heartfelt and moving narration, which speaks to the fortunes of his crewmates, Gene and the fact that he never would go into space again. Horner supports his testament reverently with a final reprise of the Nasa Theme, which builds to a wondrous and inspired final declaration to end the film.

We segue into the “End Credits” the NASA Theme carried by Lennox’s vocals, which is joined by children’s choir and energetic electronica. At 1:41 Lennox in duet with another female vocalist sings the Aspiration Theme. At 2:42 full orchestra takes up the NASA Theme for a full, extended rendering, which joins in wondrous interplay with the Apollo 13 Theme carried by choir for one of the score’s finest expositions. We close with an homage to the heroism of the Apollo 13 crew with a solo elegiac trumpet declaring the NASA Theme.

I wish to thank Mike Matessino, and Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson of Intrada for this magnificent and long sought reissue of James Horner’s masterpiece. The dream to replace the flawed dialogue ridden OST with a quality album has at last been realized. As can be expected from Mike Matessino, the sound quality is pristine and offers a superb listening experience. Horner understood that this was docudrama film in which he would have to speak to the adventure of space flight, the aspirations of the crew, but also the harrowing tension as they fight first for their lives, and then to find a way home in a damaged spacecraft. To that end her created three primary themes, with his NASA Theme earning its place as one of the finest and inspiring in cinematic history. His compositional eloquence captured the emotional core of Howard’s film, and succeeded on all counts is realizing his vision. The inspiring “All Systems Go – The Launch” is one of the finest compositions in his canon, while the haunting vocalise for the “Dark Side of the Moon” scene was brilliantly conceived, and achieved a wondrous synergy with Howard’s cinematography. We all know of Horner’s gift for melody, but what also shines here is his brilliance using textural, no-melodic writing to sow tension, fear and terror for the many scenes the crew was confronted with life and death situations. In my judgment it was his music, which empowered those scenes, filling us in the audience with great anxiety – even though we knew the final outcome! Apollo 13 reveals Horner’s genius in both conception and execution, a score which inspires, rouses, yet also frightens us. In my judgement, this film, as good as it is, ultimately achieves greatness because of Horner’s music. I consider it a masterpiece, and one of the finest of the Bronze Age. I highly recommend this exceptional Intrada album for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the masterpiece cue “All Systems Go – The Launch”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fra-m7RNMrU

Buy the Apollo 13 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 2019 INTRADA SPECIAL EDITION
  • Main Title (1:53)
  • Lunar Dreams (2:40)
  • A Son’s Worries and Simulator Crash (4:37)
  • Night Visitors (1:08)
  • All Systems Go – The Launch (10:19)
  • Docking (2:26)
  • Master Alarm (3:31)
  • Into the L.E.M. (5:10)
  • The Dark Side of the Moon (5:18)
  • Carbon Dioxide (5:45)
  • Manual Burn (1:56)
  • A War Story (1:06)
  • Four More Amps (3:22)
  • L.E.M. Jettison (1:37)
  • Re-Entry and Splashdown (9:15)
  • End Credits (6:55)
  • Marilyn’s Nightmare (0:58) – Electronic Bonus Cue
  • Canister Explosion (0:24) – Electronic Bonus Cue
  • Reactant Valves (1:09) – Electronic Bonus Cue
  • Out Of Control (1:08) – Electronic Bonus Cue
  • Power Off (0:57) – Electronic Bonus Cue
  • A Square Peg (3:49) – Electronic Bonus Cue
  • Cosmic Connection (0:44) – Electronic Bonus Cue
  • 1995 OSCAR PROMO
  • Main Title (2:40)
  • Lunar Dreams (2:41)
  • All Systems Go – The Launch (10:21)
  • Docking (2:26)
  • Master Alarm (3:06)
  • Into the L.E.M. (5:10)
  • The Dark Side of the Moon (5:17)
  • Carbon Dioxide (5:45)
  • Manual Burn (1:57)
  • Four More Amps (3:20)
  • Re-Entry and Splashdown (9:15)
  • End Credits (6:59)
  • 1995 MCA RECORDS SOUNDTRACK
  • Main Title (2:28)
  • One Small Step (0:43) – dialogue
  • Night Train (written by Jimmy Forrest, Lewis C. Simpkins, and Oscar Washington, performed by James Brown) (3:27)
  • Groovin’ (written by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati, performed by The Young Rascals) (2:26)
  • Somebody To Love (written by Darby Slick, performed by Jefferson Airplane) (2:54)
  • I Can See For Miles (written by Pete Townshend, performed by The Who) (4:09)
  • Purple Haze (written and performed by Jimi Hendrix) (2:45)
  • Launch Control (0:27) – dialogue
  • All Systems Go/The Launch (10:03)
  • Welcome to Apollo 13 (0:26) – dialogue
  • Spirit in the Sky (written and performed by Norman Greenbaum) (3:50)
  • House Cleaning/Houston, We Have A Problem (0:54) – dialogue
  • Master Alarm (3:36)
  • What’s Going On? (0:51) – dialogue
  • Into the L.E.M. (4:18)
  • Out of Time/Shut Her Down (0:33) – dialogue
  • The Dark Side of the Moon (4:49)
  • Failure is Not an Option (0:23) – dialogue
  • Honky Tonkin’ (written and performed by Hank Williams) (2:42)
  • Blue Moon (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, performed by The Mavericks) (4:01)
  • Waiting for Disaster/A Privilege (0:29) – dialogue
  • Re-Entry & Splashdown (8:52)
  • End Titles (7:01)

Running Time: 76 minutes 07 seconds (2019 Intrada Special Edition)
Running Time: 58 minutes 58 seconds (1995 Oscar Promo)
Running Time: 72 minutes 07 seconds (1995 MCA Soundtrack)

MCA Records MCAD-11241 (1995)
Intrada ISC-415 (1995/2019)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Steve Bramson and Don Davis. Special vocal performances by Annie Lennox. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Score produced by James Horner. 2019 special edition produced by Mike Matessino and Douglass Fake.

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