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KING KONG – James Newton Howard

December 16, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

kingkongOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

There was much controversy surrounding Peter Jackson’s new version of King Kong from the get-go. Initially, there was surprise that the Oscar-winning director would choose this film as his follow up to the massively successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Then, there were stories of unrest amongst the cast and crew, the need for re-shoots, and the film not playing well with test audiences. Finally, almost as a final insult, original composer Howard Shore had his score rejected at the eleventh hour, officially as a result of “differing creative aspirations”. This left new composer James Newton Howard with less than six weeks to write a replacement score. Many in the industry were worried as to whether Newton Howard could pull it off – but the truth of the matter is that composers often write their best music when under enormous pressure, and King Kong is very much an example of that. The score is, in my opinion, a qualified success.

The film is, of course, a remake of Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s classic 1933 monster movie, in which a film crew travel to a remote tropical island and discover a colossal giant gorilla, who takes a shine to the film’s beautiful blonde female lead. After eventually subduing and capturing beast, the crew transport the Kong back to New York city, where it escapes and runs amok – concluding with a final showdown on top of the Empire State Building. This version of the story stars Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis, and features state of the art special effects by WETA, the team behind the ground-breaking visuals of Lord of the Rings.

Newton Howard’s approach to scoring King Kong is to have a central theme for Kong himself, and then running it through its paces in a variety of styles, from tender romance to comedy capers, mysterious wonderment, and ferocious action. The theme itself is a half noble-half savage four note motif for brass, first heard in the opening “King Kong”, and thereafter whenever the enormous primate does anything of significance, or his shadow looms large over the protagonists (as in the finale of “Tooth and Claw”, during the cool and jazzy “That’s All There Is”, and the majestic “Captured”).

The first part of the album is a combination of romance and comedy. “A Fateful Meeting” is led by tender pianos and soft, cooing woodwinds. The frenetic and Herrmannesque capers “Defeat is Always Momentary” and “Two Grand” are flashy scherzos which highlight the dexterity of the orchestra’s string section, and keep things from getting to dark and heavy. However, once the action relocates from the urban jungle of 1930s America to the more dark and ominous one on Skull Island, the score changes tack, and never lets up.

“It’s Deserted” plays up to the sense of awe inherent in the discovery of a new and savage land, with mysterious string lines and moody performances of the Kong theme accentuated by subtle electronics and a wondrous-sounding choir. “Something Monstrous… Neither Beast Nor Man” contains an appropriate tip of the hat to Max Steiner’s classic music for the 1933 original, before the score explodes into “Head Towards the Animals”, the first of several powerfully dramatic action sequences which recall the composer’s excellent work for Dinosaur back in 2000, and The Postman before that. In this cue, and subsequent tracks such as “Tooth and Claw”, Newton Howard lets his orchestra fly, engaging in fast, dense passages for throaty – almost Goldenthalian – brasses, slashing strings, heavy percussion, lots of bass, and even an occasional choir. The end result is, at times, breathtakingly good.

Two cues – “Beautiful” and “Central Park” – temper the simian onslaught somewhat, the former a simple, yet effective woodwind and harp melody which captures the innocent infatuation the gorilla has for Ann Darrow, the latter a delicate and romantic piano piece performed with tenderness and restraint by Jon Kull.

The finale – which comprises “The Empire State Building” through the five “Beauty Killed the Beast” cues – is quite thrilling, beginning with a gigantic, spine-tingling performance of the Kong theme with all the power and reverence the orchestra can muster, and building to a monumental choral climax in Parts III and IV as the tragic anti-hero is finally overcome. The beautiful boy soprano elegy in Part IV and the superb string-and-chorus writing in Part V brings the score to powerful and emotionally poignant close.

It’s quite amazing what can be done when the heat is on. James Newton Howard reportedly has “never worked so hard on a score”, and despite the scurrilous rumours of teams of ghost-writers being hired to help, the quality of the end result is there for all to see, irrespective of who wrote what. There are times when you have to do what you have to do just to get the job done. King Kong is inarguably one of the finest action-adventure scores of the year, and even though it would have been interesting to hear Howard Shore’s approach to scoring this film, I seriously doubt whether his efforts would have surpassed what James Newton Howard has written here.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • King Kong (1:09)
  • A Fateful Meeting (4:16)
  • Defeat Is Always Momentary (2:48)
  • It’s In the Subtext (3:19)
  • Two Grand (2:34)
  • The Venture Departs (4:03)
  • Last Blank Space on the Map (4:43)
  • It’s Deserted (7:08)
  • Something Monstrous… Neither Beast Nor Man (2:38)
  • Head Towards the Animals (2:28)
  • Beautiful (4:08)
  • Tooth and Claw (6:17)
  • That’s All There Is… (3:26)
  • Captured (2:25)
  • Central Park (4:36)
  • The Empire State Building (2:36)
  • Beauty Killed The Beast I (1:59)
  • Beauty Killed The Beast II (2:22)
  • Beauty Killed The Beast III (2:14)
  • Beauty Killed The Beast IV (4:45)
  • Beauty Killed The Beast V (4:13)

Running Time: 74 minutes 42 seconds

Decca/Universal B0005715-02 (2005)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter, Jon Kull and Patrick Russ. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

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  1. August 29, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Don’t get me wrong, I still love Jurassic Park, but the technology there is now twelve years old. Peter Jackson’s KING KONG is the experience for which movies were invented. The CGI was incredible, the casting appropriate (this wasn’t supposed to be an actor-driven, big-star film, after all), and the flow was satisfying. Even the somewhat slow build-up had a huge payoff once you see Kong running through the jungle with Ann in his giant hand. Is it a flawless movie? Probably not. But it Is a perfect example of why we go to movies in the first place– to see things that we will never see in our real lives. When I walked out of the theater and was making my way through the deserted lobby, I had an odd feeling. Every poster I saw for an upcoming film kind of made me feel like all those movies were probably just going to be a waste of film next to KING KONG.

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