In Apocalypse Now, music primarily sets a psychedelic, hallucinatory tone that both places the film in its historical period—America in the late 1960s—and mirrors the surreal events depicted onscreen. The opening sequence fades in to “The End,” an atmospheric song by the Doors that sounds as exotic as the Vietnamese jungle looks. With this eerie, moody song as his backdrop, Captain Willard tumbles into a downward spiral that continues throughout the film. Immediately, the music links image to place and time: with its frenzied rhythms, the song prepares us for the odyssey that is about to begin. Music from the Doors appears again near the end of the film, when Willard emerges from the river and shots of Kurtz’s slaughter are interwoven with shots of the caribou slaughter. The murder scene is the most hallucinatory of the film, thanks to the combination of the Doors’ rock, cinematographer Storaro’s surreal lighting scheme, and the back-and-forth cuts between Kurtz and the caribou.
In other instances, the soundtrack is used to reinforce the notion of war’s absurdity. The most obvious example occurs as Kilgore blasts Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to announce a senseless, unnecessary air strike. To pair such a bombastic composition with the atrocities that unfold below is absurd nearly to the point of comedy. But the comedy dissipates as soldiers are wounded and a Vietnamese woman throws a grenade into a helicopter, killing all on board. Soon, the combination of triumphant music and deadly combat creates a sense of madness that is reinforced by Kilgore’s unconventional “surf or fight” methods.
Elsewhere, the soundtrack symbolizes home. Kilgore strums a guitar around the campfire as his troops sing along during a gathering akin to an American beach party. Clean frequently listens to the radio, which blasts comforting American rock in the midst of a strange country and climate. The USO show features Flash Cadillac’s “Suzie Q,” a song popularized by the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. In the Playmates scene, the pairing of American women and American pop music becomes too much for some of the soldiers to bear, and several cannot control themselves. A few soldiers even cling to the Playmates’ helicopter as it ascends. Eventually, these men let go and fall into the river. What was meant to be a patriotic reminder that America still cares about them turns into a sad reality check. As the songs remind the soldiers of home, they also serve to remind us that the film is not just fiction but historical fiction.
Coppola used music to anchor the film to its specific social context. The songs’ recognizability lends the film another layer of authenticity, particularly to those who lived through the Vietnam War and, like the characters, can instantly relate to the sounds that characterized this era of American cultural history.