Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In the Shadow of No One

By Tony Buchsbaum

I am of certain age, an age at which I can remember, with absolutely zero difficulty, childhood days spent assembling model kits of the Saturn V rockets that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon. My dad and I did these models together. The rocket stood very tall, and the stages separated perfectly, and the Lunar Landing Module had little hinged legs that unfolded so the thing could land on the surface of my bed -- or rather, the moon.

So it's no surprise that I am a huge fan of the new documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon--and in fact have been since I saw the trailer some months ago. The film is essentially talking heads blended with archival NASA footage of the several Saturn rocket launches and Apollo footage shot on the surface of the moon. Most of this (and maybe all of it) has never been seen before now; the director David Sington somehow got them to open vaults that have been closed for almost 40 years, and the result is breathtaking. The images are as clear as if they were shot yesterday; maybe even clearer. This stuff wasn't shot to glorify the missions, but to document them in all their built-in glory.

There's also footage shot on the floor of the control center, and it's filled, edge to edge, with great human drama, from the elation that mirrored the rocket actually getting off the ground, to the utter amazed disbelief when Neil Armstrong actually stepped onto the moon.

But the film, for all its wide-eyed wonder, doesn't skirt the bad news. Many minutes are spent on the accident that killed the astronauts of Apollo 1, which killed Gus Grissom and two others.

Now, as wonderful as this film is (and you should place it high on your must-see list), it's the music that sends it into the stratosphere. British composer Philip Sheppard has created a score that transcends every possible cliche -- and there were many such opportunities; after all, space and space travel have a sound that we've all learned quite well, thanks to heavy hitters like John Williams (Star Wars) and James Horner (Apollo 13).

Instead of setting the zips and zooms of ships to music, Sheppard has opted to score the raw, unfiltered emotion of the adventure we all shared. There's pure Americana here, the golly-gung-ho-ness of it all, but there are also stunning passages of vast wonder. It's the perfect accompaniment to the talking heads of the astronauts, whose own stories of very human excitement, fear, disappointment, and the elation are the real story of this film.

Though I'm tempted to pick out cues from the CD, it's sort of beside the point. The entire score is a wonder, from the high-pitched strains of the opening titles to the the knocks and fiddles that accompany the building of the rockets, from the angelic choir and soaring violins that follow the rockets into the black of space to the synthesized notes that lift the LLM off the moon to the infectious ripples of piano that telegraph the desolation of Apollo 13, when no one was sure Lovell and the others would make it home.

In recent weeks, I have been immersed in this music, and every time I listen, I find new things to love. This is a soundtrack, but it's so much more than that. It's a symphony for us all, inspiring us to remember what it was like when we -- everyone we knew and everyone we didn't know, all over the world -- had a common goal, to reach space not just as Americans but as people.

This is Philip Sheppard's first feature film score, and it heralds the arrival of a great new talent. I can't wait to hear what he does next. His work here makes me remember model kits, afternoons with dad, the unique smell of glue, and the wonderful idea that I, too, could be an astronaut when I grew up.

No comments: