UNEARTHING DAVID SHIRE’S APOCALYPSE NOW
It might sound fairly crazy to some — “So it’s a record made up of music that wasn’t actually in the movie?” — but there is a fascination with so called “unused scores” that has seen many of them released as separate albums, if not restored back to the actual picture. It’s a kinder term than “rejected” but that’s what these works ostensibly are, scores that for whatever reason didn’t end up in the film.
There have been some big examples over the years but one of the most interesting is for Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which originally had a score by David Shire. Unused in favour of music by the director’s father Carmine, the score is now being issued by Californian soundtrack label La-La Land Records, providing a tantalising glimpse into an alternate version of a film that’s not only an iconic piece of cinema, but that also already has an incredibly strong musical presence. Coppola’s moody score certainly provides an oppressive atmosphere for the film, but it’s that hallucinatory beginning that most remember, with the fields going up in napalm flames to the sound of The Doors.
Shire was well suited to the task, having provided a groundbreaking hybrid score for Coppola’s paranoid thriller The Conversation, and was one of the most unique voices of the seventies. However, it was a victim of Coppola’s lengthy post-production process on the film, and a scheduling conflict with Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (on which Shire won a shared Oscar for Best Original Song) meant his departure from the project, something that wasn’t even widely known until recently. Album producer Tim Greiving was with Shire when he found out about the score. “I was at David Shire’s house in New York in the summer of 2013, collecting tapes from his personal archives — the idea was to digitize his entire collection, as well as hopefully produce/release some of his scores through various labels. He had some filing cabinets that were not the storage location for his main archives, but there were a few stray cassette tapes inside… including one tape with a yellowed label that simply said ‘APOC. NOW (ROUGH MIXES).’ I couldn’t believe my eyes, and David told me the story of how he was originally hired to write an all-electronic score for Coppola’s film (after their very happy collaboration on The Conversation), but due to a “perfect storm” of circumstances, he and his score were bumped from the project.”
Four years of negotiations with Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope meant a long gestation process, but Grieving is overwhelmed with the results, especially the score itself. “It has that rich, analogue Moog synthesizer sound common to the work of Wendy Carlos, John Carpenter, and Giorgio Moroder at that time,” Greiving states. “David, with the help of a man named Dan Wyman (who was his “synthestrator” on the score, and who had also helped Carpenter realize Halloween and The Fog), created some really interesting, bespoke synth voices. Stylistically, it’s avant-garde and psychedelic in how it attempts to evoke the drug-addled horrors of the Vietnam War… but it’s also David Shire, who is a melodist at heart (and a showtune composer), so it’s full of melodies that are both beautiful and disturbing. It’s definitely trippy, but it’s a hauntingly addictive trip.”
Greiving also describes it as a “psychedelic tone poem”, something which could be said of the film itself and its existential themes that, while fitting into the chaos and moral quandary of the Vietnam conflict, are not limited to any specific time or place. “It begins with the stereophonic buzz of helicopter blades (created entirely with synthesizers),” Greiving continues, “and ends with a dark, hallucinatory entrance into Kurtz’s horrific compound. And it’s going to be a huge revelation to fans of early electronic music/scores.”
David Shire himself is somewhat of an unknown quantity to those outside the film music enthusiast circles, even with scores like The Conversation and the kinetic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three under his belt. Shire’s ability to compose in different styles has always been one of his secrets, with such different scores as All The President’s Men, 2010, and Return To Oz in his catalogue, as well as the David Fincher drama Zodiac and the transmogrification of Modest Mussorgy’s Night On Bald Mountain into a disco floor-filler for Saturday Night Fever, and Greiving believes it’s time for a reappraisal of his work: “I’m on a personal mission to bring more of David’s scores into the world, including a few more that were rejected. There is some absolute gold waiting to be discovered, not to mention the incredible music that’s already out there. He is John Williams’ contemporary, and in my mind his equal in terms of talent and versatility — he just wasn’t given the same opportunities and didn’t pair up with the same blockbuster/auteur directors, and thus isn’t as widely appreciated. It’s high time for a renaissance of David Shire appreciation.”
Few places to start are better than with a project like Apocalypse Now. Available to purchase now, the album runs just under an hour and has been fully remastered by Grammy-award winning engineer Doug Schwartz, with notes by Greiving himself. Greiving admits his bias towards the project, but only has one thing to say about the album: “I think it’s going to blow people’s minds.”
Buy Apocalypse Now at La-La Land Records