'Apocalypse' in All Its Sonic Splendor


For once, the hyperbole may be justified.

Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979) has been touted as "a new depth of sound in home video." In its new wide-screen laser-disc version (Paramount/Pioneer, $45, 155 minutes, 20 chapter stops), the film puts you in the middle of the Vietnam War with sound so realistic that it takes your breath away. Heard on a Yamaha Surround Sound seven-speaker system, the sound is such a powerful presence that it makes the film seen on a TV screen seem bigger than life.

Oscar-winning audio designer Walter Murch has taken the original six-track masters and remixed the entire film using the Home THX Audio System. The result is a soundtrack that takes advantage of the home environment by using sound so low it is barely audible (sound that would be impossible to hear in a crowded theater) to contrast with the frightening bursts of battle.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who also won an Oscar, supervised the restoration of the broad spectrum of colors and light and dark contrasts that helped make the film so intense. Coppola supervised the entire project, and it shows in the razor-sharp wide-screen image. The pan-and-scan videotape with its washed-out colors and tinny sound are now obsolete.

The film, inspired by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," seems ready-made for the small screen with its personal vignettes, but the big set-pieces, such as the overwhelming "Ride of the Valkyries" helicopter sequence, work well on the home screen, thanks to the incredible sonics.

None of the film is better served on this disc than the opening sequence, as Martin Sheen waits for his orders to "terminate with extreme prejudice" the renegade colonel Marlon Brando--with the sound of the overhead fan mixed with the ominous whirling of the helicopter blades anticipating the horror to come. The clear audio helps make Brando's mumbled performance lucid.

It's unfortunate that Paramount didn't work out a deal to package this disc with the recent illuminating documentary "Hearts of Darkness," which vividly chronicles the turbulent making of "Apocalypse Now." Its absence is a real loss, for the film and documentary complement each other beautifully.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that Paramount has not given Coppola's monumental "Godfather" saga, at minimum, the same kind of attention it has given to "Apocalypse." The laser disc package of "The Godfather Collector's Edition" (Paramount/Pioneer, $130) of all three "Godfathers" is simply the videotape edition repackaged--no letterboxing, no special sound, no special features. The only bonus offered is "A Look Inside" disc with behind-the-scenes material, including rehearsal footage.

The single release of "The Godfather, Part III" (Paramount/Pioneer, $40, 170 minutes) does include nine minutes of additional footage never seen theatrically, as does the collector's edition. Since there are no notes or chapter stops indicating what these nine minutes are, you can only guess which scenes have been lengthened or restored. If you've already seen the film, and have a good memory, you might notice that the dance scene between Al Pacino and his screen daughter Sofia Coppola has been extended, as has the climactic finale, and that a scene between Pacino and his son has been inserted.

What's clear is that a special laser video disc edition, such as the Voyager Co. offers in its Criterion Collection series, is overdue for the entire "Godfather" saga--with letterboxing, superior sound and picture, supplementary material (scripts, production stills, intelligent interviews) and Coppola offering scene-by-scene commentary on a second audio track as the films unfold.

A surprising early Coppola film is the underrated "Finian's Rainbow," recently re-released in a special letterbox edition (Warner, $35, 141 minutes). The plot is silly, although its attack on racism was ahead of its time, even if it seems rather dated now.

This 1968 film was a disaster in the pan-and-scan format on its earlier laser-disc (Warner, $40) and current videotape versions. The wide-screen format is the only way to capture choreography, particularly Fred Astaire in his last full-length musical (although at times it almost seems as if dancing feet are slightly shaved off). While the rest of the cast never equals Astaire, the musical score offers a memorable E.Y. Harburg-Burton Lane score, including "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" "Ole Devil Moon," "Look to the Rainbow" and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," among others. Coppola used the wide screen in provocative ways destroyed with pan-and-scan; little of it today looks like trickery, only a precursor of things to come.

All in all, a surprising work from the man responsible for the "Godfather" saga and "Apocalypse Now."

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