A watershed film that nearly killed both its director and star, Apocalypse Now is continually cited as one of the most influential films about the Vietnam War ever put to celluloid. Interest in the film has been revived in the new millennium with a new Redux cut returning to theaters, as well as a new album. But what of the original album, available both in LP and CD form?
As a period piece, a decade removed from its setting, Apocalypse Now featured several contemporary songs, most notably portions of “The End” by The Doors, as well as a memorable performance of “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner. For the score, Francis Ford Coppola turned to his father, Carmine, and apparently wrote some cues himself, since father and son are co-credited in places. The music was then turned over to a group of synthesizer operators (including the late Shirley Walker), whose electronic performances of the music gave it an otherworldly feel.
Based on the packaging, it appears that the Apocalypse Now soundtrack is made up of score and songs, with liberal additions of dialogue from the film. This is misleading; instead, sound effects and dialogue are heard over nearly every cue, relegating both songs and score to the background. Sound effects and dialogue, while tolerated or even embraced by the general public, have long been the bane of soundtrack collectors, and the situation with this two-disc set is particularly dire.
Removed from the context of the film’s images, the dialogue and sound effects make no real sense; characters react to unseen events, and gunfire or jungle noises regularly compete with the dialogue and music for aural space. Thus, even when there is no dialogue, isolated noises ruin any chance of listening to or appriciating Coppola’s score. This decision made some sense in an era before home video when a record could serve as a sort of audio souvenir of the film (which might not be re-released for years, if at all). Today, when most film buffs might have multiple versions of Apocalypse Now on their DVD self or in their iTunes playlist…the horror, the horror.
The music itself is intersting, with Coppola’s classically-inclined musical training filtered through sythesizers, though it is largely atmosphereic rather than thematic. It fulfills its function of supporting the narrative with psychedelic connective tissue between song performances. The songs are not presented in their original forms either, and are overlayed with sound effects and dialogue too. The short edit of “The End” that opens the album is the only real success of the album’s approach: the addition of whirling helicopter blades to music does little to undermine it (indeed, James Horner would do the same years later for Courage Under Fire), and the track contains only the music heard in the film, rather than the complete eleven-minute song.
Aside from the film version of “The End,” the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now is dire, perhaps the worst possible kind of release for score or song fans. The music works brilliantly in the film, but the album presentation is so flawed that it cannot be recommended to anyone but the most obsessive fans of the film. Buy the separate score album, a Doors greatest hits CD, and the film itself instead. But don’t seek out this album unless you want an audio book of the famous film, including intrusive dialogue and sound effects, and don’t mind that virtually none of Carmine Coppola’s eerie score or the songs from the movie can be clearly heard.