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(Credit: Zoetrope)

Revisit the lost synth score for Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now

Very few masterpieces in the rich tapestry of cinema, or in the history of art for that matter, have been as taxing to achieve as Apocalypse Now. Therefore, it hardly comes as a surprise that even the scoring of the footage was a fraught and arduous task.

In the final cut of the film, it opens with ‘The End’ by The Doors in a prognostic maelstrom of musical dread. The song was perfectly befitting in every which way. Firstly, it is one of the most apocalyptical pieces of music ever made. Secondly, it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the Vietnam War era in a sonic reflection. And lastly, the dread-laden rock pairs perfectly with the lapping flames of napalm. 

Unsurprisingly, it ended up in the film through a last-minute quirk of fate whereby the record just popped up in the editing suite. The originally planned score was a synth soundscape by David Shire, but much like Harvey Keitel who only last a matter of days in the lead role, Shire found himself fired. 

In the book, The Conversation: A Film Score Guide, David Shire explains that he spent a year working on the score and regulating communicating with Francis Ford Coppola, but owing to the disastrous production of the film the footage he received to work from was the polar opposite of a constant stream. 

Thus, when an offer came along to work on Norma Rae, he snatched at it. Shire then states that Coppola found out his film wasn’t the sole focus of his work and he got angry and fired him. The eventual score, however, is so incredibly different from the synth tones that were planned that you half wonder whether Coppola was actually secretly pleased to be handed an excuse to start afresh on the score. 

The film with its final cut is full of dread that punctured with the visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll and ‘Ride of The Valkyries’. This notion of pop culture and classics residing on the battlefield drives home the deranged madness of it all in a relatable humanised mess. 

David Shire’s score, on the other hand, is an unabated hellscape. It is total nightmare fuel, like placing a conch to your ear and hearing the tortured scream of the underworld. The synth-scape is granted and chaotic as though Vangelis and Ennio Morricone had a lovechild called Lucifer and it was brought up listening to industrial music. It certainly captures the war is hell side of things, and it is a magnificently effective and original piece of work, but it might have been too disorientating, claustrophobic and droning to take in one long full blast of war. 

Fortunately, it now exists as a fascinating glimpse of what could have been and it serves as a very interesting listen. 

You can check out the Tomita-style reimagining of Richard Wagner, below. 

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