“space station docking” – alex north/jerry goldsmith & the national philharmonic orchestra (1993)


Last week, I had the privilege of seeing a really interesting screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.  Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic sci-film came into my life in high school when I bought a retrospective box set of the director’s work starting with 1962’s Lolita and ending with 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.  Kubrick became my favorite filmmaker and 2001 was a point of fascination even though I was at an age where I didn’t fully understand what it meant.  It is a work of art the reveals more to you as you grow older and see it from a unique perspective.

For years, I was satisfied with my DVD copy that would I watch on my 27” tube television.  I was satisfied because that was all I had.  Theaters where I lived didn’t play old movies let alone films like 2001.  I wouldn’t have a theater like that until I moved to Chicago in 2011 and discovered the Music Box.

The screening I went to last week was my third time seeing 2001 in a theater.  The previous two times were also at the Music Box.  The Music Box is one of very few movie theaters that can screen 70mm film.  The first two times seeing 2001 were in 70mm.  In fact, they were original 70mm prints.  Of course, seeing a film like 2001 is better in a theater on 70mm than on a 27” television.  No doubt about it.  And it is kind of cool to say that I’ve seen the film on an original print.  However, those prints aren’t that great.  Over the course of 50 years, the prints have been screened hundreds of time and they accumulate scratches and dirt.  It is still a great visual experience, but you still see the age.  However, last week’s screening was on a whole different level.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the classic film.  To mark the occasion, filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Dunkirk) embarked on a project to create new 70mm prints from the original film negatives.  He produced five prints and debuted the first one at the Cannes Film Festival.

What is an important distinction about these prints is that they are not restorations.  Nolan and his team didn’t take an existing print and clean it up.  Newly minted prints were created and showcased.  When I saw one of these prints on Friday, it was quite gorgeous and the experience felt like I was watching the film for the first time.  The print also included a proper overture and intermission.  The experience was designed to recreate how one would’ve seen 2001 when it first premiered in 1968.  And to top it all off, the screening I went to was screening the print for the first time ever.  Perfect timing.

As always, every time I revisit a film I love, I find new things I missed.  I pick up visual or narrative details that I was unaware of or had entirely forgotten.  And these details matter.  Kubrick didn’t just put things in his film haphazardly.  Everything had a role, purpose, or subtle meaning that contributed to the film. Nothing was accidental.

Or that is at least the legend that is associated with Kubrick.  Now, don’t get me wrong. He was a masterful filmmaker who made his films deliberately and meticulously.  That isn’t up for debate.  However, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t open to changes in his film.  The final product of one of his movies isn’t a 100% genuine reflection of his initial concepts.  While Kubrick made sure he got an image the way he wanted (even if it meant crafting huge sets, buying outrageously expensive lenses, or performing over a hundred takes), there was times where a film was improved by happy accident.

Even if you haven’t seen 2001, the film’s use of music and imagery is so ubiquitous in our society and we’ve seen it parodied or referenced hundreds of time.  It is impossible to hear “Also sprach Zarathustra” without thinking about early man throwing a bone in the air or to not imagine spaceships sailing through space as part of a cosmic ballet when one hears “The Blue Danube.”  Those visual and aural associations are so ingrained in our consciousness that one cannot use those musical pieces without the Kubrick association.

The use of music is perfect in both its execution and the pieces selected.  They fit so well and act as their own character that drives the narrative.  There has been so much to say about the music that I wonder what, if anything at all, can I possibly contribute.  However, it is mind-boggling to find out that 2001’s iconic music was almost not used.

Alex North is a notable Hollywood composer who had worked with Kubrick before when writing the score for Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove.  North was commissioned to create a score for 2001.  Kubrick, during the production, had provided North whole sequences to provide a visualization to help him craft a score.  These sequences had “guide pieces” that acted as filler to provide an aesthetic reference point for North to compose an original score.

North composed the score and sent it to Kubrick.  When the film premiered, North attended and then found out that not one piece of his music was used.  During post-production, Kubrick trashed everything North had sent him and used the guide pieces from his earlier cuts.  These guide pieces were the Strauss pieces that have garnered legendary status.

North was devastated, but there was nothing he could do.  All he had left from his work was a cassette containing the score.  He had only played it for his friend and fellow composer Jerry Goldsmith.  Then, somehow, the tape was lost.

In 1993, Jerry Goldsmith finally recorded the original score that North provided him.  The missing cassette miraculously resurfaced one week before the recording and was used to help Goldsmith match tempos and dynamics based on North’s original intentions.  Performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the album was released as Alex North’s 2001 (The Legendary Original Score – World Premiere Recording).  This would be the first time the public would hear the original score since the release of 2001 in theaters 25 years prior.

It is a strange experience to listen to Alex North’s original 2001 score.  Primarily because I am so used to the music that appeared in the final cut and it’s influence on our culture.  Not only that, but the music sounds more Hollywood.  And that makes sense because that was what North was best at.  When I think of 2001, I think of Strauss.  Everyone thinks of Strauss.  We’re meant to think of Strauss.  So, North’s score becomes an interesting film score footnote and a curiosity for those who think about how different things would be if 2001 was scored differently.

Take “Space Station Docking” from Alex North’s 2001 as an example.  The final cut used “The Blue Danube” which is such a classic waltz and evokes elegance.  Watching the spaceship dock with the station in the final cut feels graceful like a ballet.  Alex North’s “Space Station Docking,” intended for the same scene, is graceful and elegant as well.  However, you can tell that it is a derivative piece.  North saw early cuts with Strauss’ classic work and tried to emulate the same feelings.  However, North’s score sounds dated.  It sounds like a typical film score from that cinematic era.  It evokes sense of being good enough, but not great.  “The Blue Danube” is timeless.  “Space Station Docking” is a score reflective of its own time regardless how much North tried to recreate Strauss with a futuristic flare.

I know I’m being harsh here.  North didn’t choose for his music to be discarded from the film.  So, I can’t hold it against him.  However, what I’m speaking more to is Kubrick’s creative intent.  He made the right call.  His original plan may have been to use Straus as reference points.  That is the process a filmmaker goes through to get where they want to go.  However, it takes a genius to make the call to keep that guide music.  His original intent wasn’t to use Strauss but rather North.  The ability to change direction and be open to new ideas is essential.  And it works.  It worked so well that it is out of this world.