Tony Palmer’s “The Space Movie” celebrated NASA’s achievements ten years after Apollo 11

By on July 20, 2019

This weekend, July 20th and 21st, marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo Lunar Module Eagle landing on the moon and Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin taking mankind’s important first steps on its surface.

Those of us here at Night Flight HQ couldn’t think of a better way to help celebrate those achievements than to add Tony Palmer‘s 1979 documentary The Space Movie — featuring a soundtrack by Mike Oldfield — to our collection of documentary films now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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This British-made film — which was distributed to theaters via Night Flight’s founder Stuart Shapiro’s International Harmony company in 1980 — was initially created to celebrate the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s achievements with the Apollo 11 mission.

It also celebrates the numerous missions preceding Americans first landing on the moon (Mercury/Atlas, Gemini/Titan, Saturn) which, in turn, also inspired NASA’s subsequent Apollo missions, which ended in 1972.

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Produced by Virgin Records’ Richard Branson and Simon Draper, The Space Movie‘s origins as a documentary project can be traced back to filmmaker Tony Palmer, whose 1977 documentary series for the BBC, All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music, had impressed everyone who watched it.

Palmer was sought out and commissioned by London Weekend Television and Virgin Films to compile NASA’s footage for a UK/US simultaneously-televised television program commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

Tony Palmer explains:

“The invitation to make the film came out of the clear blue sky from NASA in January 1978. I was invited to Washington and shown the mountain of film NASA had collected from the very beginnings with John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the earth in February 1962, until Apollo 17 December 1972.”

“Use whatever I wanted, I was told, plus all the talk-back between ground control in Houston and the various space missions. NASA’s extraordinary and spectacular images made me realize I had access to a treasure house beyond imagination.”

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NASA and the United States National Archive made all the famous footage available to Palmer for the very first time back in 1978, including never-before-seen film of the lunar landscape, life aboard the Apollo spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, Mars, Venus and beyond.

Palmer was given access to “forty miles” of 16mm, 35mm and 70mm footage of space exploration film owned by NASA — equating to at least 35 hours of film — and he edited that down to approximately ninety minutes for the film’s final cut (about ten minutes of the original footage that aired on TV in 1979 has either been damaged or lost since then, so this “Director’s Cut’ is the current final cut of the film available).

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The Space Movie does not use traditional voice-over narration and instead features the extraordinary (and sometimes scary) audio soundtracks of all the conversations between the astronauts and Houston’s ground control, made available to Palmer by NASA.

Read more about Tony Palmer’s The Space Movie below.

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Filmmaker Tony Palmer has said that “from the beginning, I wanted Mike Oldfield to write the music,” and at one point during the project he insisted on hearing the music track that Oldfield had been creating for the film.

That’s when Palmer discovered that Oldfield had only completed about seven minutes on the film’s score thus far during the six months he’d been involved on the project. At the time, Oldfield had also been working on his next album, Incantations.

Palmer says he was facing a deadline in a few months, and he didn’t think Oldfield — working at his current pace and splitting his time between two projects — was likely to finish the remaining eighty minutes of his film score in time, so he and Virgin’s Richard Branson put their heads together to come up with a solution.

It was Branson who persuaded Oldfield to let them use whatever new music he was composing for Incantations for the Space Movie project (Virgin also eventually released those recordings).

Additionally, Branson allowed Palmer to use extracts from his ground-breaking symphonic tone-poems Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge — culled from Oldfield’s first two full-length albums, which had not officially never been released before because Oldfield had decided he didn’t care for them — as well as pieces from Oldfield’s Ommadawn and Portsmouth albums, both the original and orchestral versions.

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When he was asked to write liner notes about his experiences for an official soundtrack release, Oldfield conspired to get Virgin to pay him to travel to Cape Kennedy, which he has described as “an incredible experience.” Unfortunately, the sleeve notes and then the project were both eventually canceled.

A short section of The Space Movie featuring music from Incantations was made available as bonus material on the 1993 video collection, Elements – The Best of Mike Oldfield.

Palmer:

“… The soundtrack which emerged… is remarkable, perfect in every way; evocative, powerful, an inspiring match for the images. And I’m sure it is that, plus of course the astonishing NASA footage and the sound of the astronauts chatting away in space. Virgin Films may have long gone, but together these elements made and make the film what it is – something rather special.”

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Branson would later pick The Space Movie as one of his Top 20 Documentaries:

“Who would have thought back then, when we were making the documentary, that Virgin would one day be in the space business ourselves!”

Watch Tony Palmer’s The Space Movie on Night Flight Plus.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.