February 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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King Kong (2005)  
Music composed by James Newton Howard
  Available on Decca Records (476 5224DH)
Running Time: 74:28
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Should the Amalgamated Union of Film Composers (if there isn’t such a body there should be) impose a minimum time limit on scoring pictures? Say three weeks composing time for every hour of music required? I only ask because expecting James Newton Howard to write almost three hours of music in five weeks seems to me patently unreasonable. Original composer Howard Shore apparently thought so too, since he and Peter Jackson parted company on Kong after working so fruitfully together on Lord of the Rings.

As it is, Howard should at least be congratulated for completing such a gargantuan assignment in such a punishingly short time, especially given that he never even met the director, who was in New Zealand editing the movie while the composer was in LA, and that the scoring sessions were disrupted by lack of soundstage space in Hollywood, necessitating frequent moves to different venues (five in all) and the use of different musicians. The result is a technical triumph if not necessarily a musical one. Howard was helped across the finishing line by no less than eight orchestrators. And that in a nutshell is the trouble with this score. Howard Shore’s insistence on orchestrating his own music might have meant he lost the Kong job, but on the plus side it guarantees that each of his scores is distinctive and possessed of a strong musical identity. By contrast, this Kong is impressively slick, impressively professional – but overall it lacks personality.

I hate to seem reactionary, but what this movie cries out for is a good old-fashioned symphonic film score, one that is constructed as an organic whole with strong identifiable themes that grow, develop and intertwine as the drama progresses. The kind of thing John Williams writes every time, even, dare I say it, the kind of thing Howard Shore did with LOTR and presumably could have done again given the time. We need a bold ‘Kong theme’, a wistful ‘Ann theme’, a minor-key love theme that cues our ears to expect tragedy. Throw in a declamatory fanfare or two, plus some well-choreographed action set-pieces that playfully toss the main themes around the orchestra and the result should have been a cross between the unabashed romance of E.T. and the noble majesty of Jurassic Park – you get the idea.

Instead, we have 75 minutes on CD of generally very good music, with one or two outstanding moments, but the overall impression that nothing sticks together as a whole. There’s an ominous minor-key motif that opens Track 1 and returns again as the fateful voyage begins but is then dropped. There’s a bona fide love theme, led by piano and solo oboe over strings, heard first in “Beautiful” then again in “Central Park”, but mysteriously absent from the finale. There’s a four-note stomping ‘Kong’ motif (presumably a deliberate echo of Steiner’s similar three-note motif) which gets blasted out on the brass occasionally but doesn’t build to anything. None of these are really striking enough, particularly given that they remain underdeveloped throughout. That finale, “Beauty Killed the Beast” (Tracks 17-21), is a real curiosity, introducing meandering new themes complete with ethereal strings and voices in the manner of Shore’s Return of the King instead of giving us what we really need: a full-blooded recapitulation of the love theme in the grandest, most tragic manner imaginable (again, recall what Williams does with the final reel of E.T.). These are the highlights. Elsewhere, the enjoyment levels fade during the frenetic action scenes, which sound like they were the bits handed over to the orchestrators with the vague instruction: “do something noisy here”.

Back in 1933 it took Max Steiner eight weeks to write his Kong music (with the help of one orchestrator, Bernard Kaun). Although not immediately recognised as such by contemporary audiences and critics, Steiner’s lasting achievement was to demonstrate just how powerful specially composed music synchronised to the screen could be in communicating emotion, both drama and – especially with Kong – pathos. The problem of getting the audience to empathise with a giant gorilla (and a model one to boot) was largely solved by Steiner’s music, which is by turns expressively romantic and grandiloquent, and comes complete with easily identifiable leitmotifs after the Wagnerian operatic model. With Kong, Steiner set the template that is still by and large being adhered to in Hollywood. (John Williams paid deliberate homage to it in 1996’s Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World.)

Steiner’s Kong is a film music classic, but mostly for the extra-musical reasons outlined above. Arguably it’s not his best score, not even in the Top Five best Steiner scores. Still, it remains (in John Morgan’s reconstruction on the Marco Polo label) a genuinely satisfying listening experience that can be enjoyed for its intrinsic musical merits. Even the 1977 remake, otherwise an entirely lacklustre affair, elicited from John Barry a memorable score, suffused with languid strings in that characteristically Barryesque manner – in other words, another score with some genuine personality.

Overall this new Kong is less immediately striking than either Steiner’s original or Barry’s effort, nor is there anything here to compare with the majesty of Williams’s Jurassic Park theme (have CG beasties ever been more gracefully depicted than that?). The relentless progress of realistic special effects has also, apparently, obviated the need for music to help audience empathy: in Jackson’s movie, Andy Serkis provides the facial expressions for the gorilla so convincingly that we hardly need to hear the piano tinkling gently in the background to gather that some inter-species romance is in the air. I say ‘apparently’ because an FX-heavy movie doesn’t necessarily mean that the music gets squeezed out – take LOTR or Revenge of the Sith as good examples of how a sympathetic composer can ‘add value’ musically to a picture even though it is crammed full of FX.

The trouble with this Kong is that, although he provides an awful lot of scoring, Howard fails to provide musical ears with anything strong enough to hang on to. This is a shame, since he has managed to do just that with worse movies in the past, notably Waterworld, which owes what little dramatic and emotional impact it has to his striking contribution.  Oddly, perhaps, it’s a score that sounds better on CD than in the movie. The disc’s selection is less than half the music written, and it’s assuredly the better half. The rest of the score sounded functional but little more on screen and I for one am not sorry that it has been omitted here.

If I’ve been excessively harsh it’s because, I confess, I have an axe to grind: this was one of the most expensive movies ever made, with lavish and unprecedented attention paid to all aspects of its production – except one. The music got neglected, as so often happens, and it was left to James Newton Howard to do the best he could in very trying circumstances. The result is not bad at all, just not great when it really should have been. The Amalgamated Union of Film Composers need to take action now: strike, work to rule, do whatever it takes to get some proper composing time for your members and stop the movie moguls short-changing us film music fans. Solidarity, brothers.

Mark Walker


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