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MUSIC BY: James Newton Howard
It seems that more often than not, films now are overshadowed by what goes on behind the scenes. Talk of power struggles between director and star have been commonplace since movies began, not to mention the usual talk of studio interference, which seems to be used more and more as an excuse for making a shitty movie.
I’m mentioning this now because of what happened with the score for Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Howard Shore had originally been hired to compose the music for the epic, based on his previous association with Jackson on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, that wonderful term ‘creative differences’ arose, and Shore was out, being quickly replaced by James Newton Howard who had a pretty short time to write a score for a three hour movie (the press release confirming JNH’s involvement was issued on the 14th of October, two months before the movie’s release).
It’s hard to imagine that kind of pressure. Most of us only have experience of getting our work in on deadline, which I assume doesn’t involve writing a score for a major motion picture in two months. But James Newton Howard managed it. But is it any good? I’ll tell you in a page or so.
King Kong has a reasonably rich musical history. Of course, the first movie was the recipient of one of the best early Hollywood symphonic scores, and still stands up as an amazing piece of work. Max Steiner’s compositions are still stunning today, and one of the highlights of Jackson’s Kong was to hear a selection of his score played in the scene in the Alhambra theatre.
Even the 1976 pseudo-remake, a stunningly awful piece of cinema, had a pretty fancy music score. Composed by 007 veteran John Barry, it’s a decent selection of music, but not half as good as some people would have you think, especially with the awfully syrupy love theme. But two composers like Steiner and Barry are still a tough act to follow.
Newton Howard’s Kong is definitely its own beast. It has an old-Hollywood feel to some of it, and sometimes sounds like it’s channelling Steiner, but still remains contemporary enough to fit with Jackson’s technologically advanced reinvention of the big ape. Having seen the film a few days ago, listening to the album on its own is quite a different experience, especially since the picture has so much noise in the way of sound effects. It’s pretty hard to hear where a cue is going when you have Brontosaurs roaring left right and centre.
The album starts with the main title theme, appropriately titled ‘King Kong,’ encompassing the Universal logo, the Universal/WingNut credits and the main title. It’s an appropriately ominous piece, with a choral reading of the Skull Island theme that immediately brings Shore’s Rings scores to mind. Suddenly, the four-note main theme comes in as the title appears on screen, and it fits perfectly, being as bombastic and powerful as the title character. That fades away and we’re into the film.
As a side note, I wish the album had included Al Jolson’s ‘I’m Sitting On Top Of The World,’ which was brilliantly used by Jackson to illustrate the film’s introduction to a Depression-era New York City, but I can understand that they just wanted to go with the original compositions, after all, there’s only so much space on a CD. Next up is ‘A Fateful Meeting’ and ‘Defeat Is Always Momentary,’ both of which are based around Ann Darrow and her dire situation as she searches for work and food, as well as the introduction of Orson Welles-in-training Carl Denham.
The first track starts with a nice string movement, and includes a sweeping melody that recalls ‘The Grey Havens’ from The Return of the King. A lot of piano is involved, with some particularly touching and almost melancholy notes that, especially when it all quietens down to the piano, mirrors Ann’s isolation and depression well. It slowly builds to a quite beautiful movement two-thirds of the way in that is almost a crescendo, before returning to the piano.
‘Defeat Is Always Momentary’ starts off quite fast-paced, with some nice humorous touches. It accompanies both Ann’s comedy routines as she performs on stage and also Carl Denham and his scheming as he steals his film away from the studio, although I can’t honestly be sure where one storyline stops and the other starts until I see the film again. This is where liner notes would come in handy, although it seems they’re usually reserved for retrospective releases. It then segues into a quite playful string piece, after which it returns to the fast pace, before ending with a classy section that just screams 1930s.
‘It’s In The Subtext’ starts off quite ominously (I can tell I’m going to be using this word a lot), presenting us with a haunting melody that underscores a soaring version of the Skull Island theme. The track builds quite beautifully using that theme, repeating it to give a real sense of foreboding danger that works really well.
‘Two Grand’ is again more of a humorous piece, using the horn section to underscore Denham’s attempt to stall Jack Driscoll from getting off the boat. It’s very playful, and contains yet another reading of the Skull Island theme, albeit a very brief one. It’s a relatively fun track, although I think it works more with Black and Brody’s interaction on screen, as opposed to on this album.
‘The Venture Departs’ begins again with a sweeping rendition of the Skull Island theme, before descending into a quiet melody that definitely can be described as Steiner-esque. It follows with more of the fun jazzy 1930s music with an underlying mischievous tone, before moving into a more romantic and emotional section. Like the last track, it’s a nice piece, but not essential.
‘Last Blank Space On The Map’ is when it really starts to get interesting. We’re past the character introductions – well, bar the obvious one – and we’re nearing the infamous Skull Island. The track starts with heavy beating drums and a slight twinge of tribal instrumentation, which immediately tells you something is up. The drums morph into an ascending drone, which is uncomfortable and, yet again, very ominous. This is where it starts to get into the real meat, and where this soundtrack goes from scoring character work to being real monster movie music.
The drone follows with a heavy repeating rhythm as the Venture reaches the island, quickly accompanied by some high strings and choral readings, before slamming into a thick tribal percussion section mixed with a haunting, droning melody that sounds almost vocal. This segues into a string section mixed with some dissonant chords that remind me of James Horner’s work on Star Trek II and Aliens. It ends with a restatement of the droning melody, and tells us to get ready for heavy dinosaurs-on-ape action.
‘It’s Deserted’ begins with quite a grand statement of string music, before going onto a beautiful yet sinister rendition of the Skull Island theme. Ordinarily, I’d get pissed off with a theme repeating so much, but hey, it’s thematic and a very good piece of writing. The theme is pierced about a minute and a half in with an ominous reading of Kong’s theme, letting us know about what’s in store, both in the music and the picture. This is followed by some pretty grand music, illustrated the astonishment of the Venture’s crew at the grandeur of the architecture on the island. It’s choral in parts, and sounds reminiscent of Alan Silvestri’s fantastic themes for The Abyss.
That’s quickly interrupted by a fast section of tense strings as the Skull Island natives attack the crew, which then gives way to some damn creepy droning that sounds like the kind of music cockroaches would make if they had the ability to play instruments and form an orchestra. More tense strings come in along with a heroic theme that I believe scores the rescue of the crew from the natives by Englehorn, before it winds down. At just over seven minutes, this is the longest track on the album, but one of the best. Tense in all the right parts, with some great string work, it’s a winner.
And now we get to the big guy himself. The unwieldy-titled ‘Something Monstrous… Neither Beast Nor Man’ begins with a rising horn and string section that quickly moves to a crescendo before following with a grand statement of Kong’s theme as he is finally revealed. Some pretty generic action music follows, with lots of pounding percussion and high notes as Ann is taken by the beast. It’s a decent track, but for the introduction of the title character, you’d expect something, well, a bit more memorable really.
‘Head Towards The Animals’ is another action cue that scores the fantastic Brontosaurus stampede, as the crew attempts to escape being crushed by the gigantic lizards while also trying not to get eaten by the raptors stalking them. Again, it’s pretty generic really. There’s an odd melody that I remember not liking from when I saw the film, and it doesn’t really work that well, although it’s not too bad when it’s mixed with dinosaur roars.
The next track, ‘Beautiful,’ is pretty self-explanatory, really. It’s a very emotional and sweet track that scores Kong’s return to his lair with Ann, which explores not only his relationship with her but his history and his legacy as the last survivor of his race. It repeats a slightly Eastern sounding melody, along with a quiet piano rendition of his second theme, both of which add a subtle rich texture to his character without ever going overboard.
‘Tooth and Claw’ is the music for the fight between Kong and the three V-Rex’s, and it fits pretty well. It’s full of powerful horns and heavy percussion, and is a very solid piece of action music. I’ll be honest, I tend to get bored by these kind of pieces on albums as they generally sound the same, but there are always exceptions to the rule, such as the battle music in LOTR and some of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones pieces. ‘Tooth…’ has some very nice music in amongst the generics, with some good thematic work including Kong’s secondary theme that gives the track the edge over some of the earlier action pieces, notably towards the end of the piece, essentially giving him the hero theme.
It’s also worth noting that this is another example of soundtrack albums not bothering to put tracks in the right order, as in the film, this cue directly leads into ‘Beautiful,’ and gives it more of a build-up, or context if you will. If you rip the CD and then burn it in the right order, it works much better, providing the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Kong, juxtaposing his killer instinct and savage brutality against the lonely and noble creature he is with Ann.
I’m not a fan of using the word playful, but it’s the best way to describe ‘That’s All There Is…’ This track scores the scene where Ann does her Vaudeville routine for Kong’s amusement, and includes some of the music that appeared in ‘Defeat Is Also Momentary,’ linking her performance there as an NYC performer and here as an actress on a very different stage. It’s a cute track, and makes me laugh because of the way it moves between Kong’s different states of emotion and Ann’s attempts to entertain him. I’m not sure it’s a piece I’d return to over and over again, but it’s definitely a fun little track.
‘Captured’ is where the music starts heading towards the tragedy of the title character, scoring the moments when Kong is, well, captured by the Venture’s crew. Kong’s heroic theme is interspersed with some rather tense and pulsing action music as the crew sets upon the beast. It works very well thematically, moving with Kong’s theme as the heroic beat, getting to the point when it works itself up, but is suddenly dragged back by the accompanying action section. It’s both tragic and noble, although it ends rather briefly as Kong is taken down. The Kong themes here are worked beautifully, and it’s one of my favourite tracks on the record.
As the title would suggest, ‘Central Park’ is set in New York City, after Kong has escaped from the theater and he and Ann have found each other. It begins with the same quiet and emotional music as in ‘Beautiful,’ again illustrating his relationship with Ann and her ability to bring out the soulful side of his character. It then segues into a faster and even more emotional version, which scores the “ice skating” scene, working beautifully both as a tender moment between the two but also as an almost melancholy precursor to Kong’s eventual fate.
‘The Empire State Building’ works on the same level, providing an amazing sense of beauty and nobility as Kong and Ann reach the top of the building, but also working in a foreboding sense as we know what’s coming next. It feels from the atmosphere the track gives that this will be the last time they’ll be together, and it’s heartbreaking because of that.
The next five tracks are really one big one split into pieces. Entitled ‘Beauty Killed The Beast I – V,’ this as expected scores Kong’s final moments as he is attacked by biplanes. ‘BKTBI’ introduces the medley with soft and emotional music, which is quickly permeated by powerful military percussion, which is played over a rising string section that gives it tension and an extra tragic edge, before giving way to the inevitable action music.
‘BKTBII’ continues with the action theme, and isn’t really that pleasant to listen to, especially with a horrible rising section of percussion near the end that just doesn’t work. ‘BKTBIII’ carries along the same way, also it’s made a little easier to bear with a nice rendition of Kong’s theme as his end gets that little bit nearer, followed by some tense percussion and strings. It ends with a quite beautiful moment that is far too brief, illustrating Kong’s injuries and the emotional distress of Ann.
‘BKTBIV’ has Kong’s final moments, and it’s a beautifully sad track. Once again, it has the choral readings Jackson was so fond of in LOTR, and does a great job of tugging at our heart-strings as Kong and Ann share their last moment, before a boy soloist sings a haunting theme as Kong falls to the streets of New York, and his doom. It seems to go on for an age, but never feels like it’s outstaying its welcome, instead taking a moment for us to not only grieve Kong’s demise but also ponder his senseless death, and his existence, and extinction.
‘Beauty Killed The Beast V’ provides a soaring emotional theme as the crowd of New Yorkers stand at the body of Kong, while Denham stands before the ape’s body, uttering that immortal line of ‘Beauty killed the beast,’ as Kong’s heroic theme soars into an emotional and beautiful choral reading, before slowly descending as the movie closes.
Considering he had less than two months to work on it, James Newton Howard’s score is quite a remarkable achievement. I’ll be perfectly honest, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the guy’s work, especially after the disappointment of Batman Begins (music that worked well on its own but was utterly forgettable as a part of the film), but he should be proud of Kong.
I’d be lying if I said it was perfect, but taking into account of the timescales and the work involved, plus that he was following a composer of Howard Shore’s stature, I think it’s a very good piece of work. It fits the film well, and is a very good listening experience in its own right, although I wish they’d left some of the more generic cues off the album in favour of some of the other music that I liked from the film. However, some of the pieces that are here ‘It’s Deserted,’ ‘Beautiful,’ ‘The Empire State Building,’ ‘Beauty Killed The Beast V’ make it worth the dollars.
As an aside, I would love to hear what Howard Shore had written. As much as I like JNH’s music, I see Shore as the heir to John Williams’ throne, and while it’s probably slim at best, I hold out hope we’ll be able to hear some of that on the DVD, or perhaps as an individual release, dependant on how much music was recorded.
All in all, I feared the worst with King Kong, what with a composer I was never all that fond of and a timescale that would kill most people. But I’m glad to say that it’s a solid piece of work that, while displaying some pretty generic music, also has some wonderful pieces that scale the heights needed for this film, and bring a strong edge to the character – and film – of King Kong.