THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE – James Newton Howard
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Catching Fire is the second film based on the bestselling Hunger Games trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, following on from the smash hit Hunger Games movie last year. Jennifer Lawrence returns to the starring role as Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from a post-apocalyptic America who, along with her compatriot Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), survived their participation in the eponymous games – a gladiatorial-style combat tournament involving children from various impoverished ‘districts’, who fight to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy and decadent inhabitants of the Capital, organized as penance for a popular uprising generations previously. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta have drawn the ire of the corrupt and sadistic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) for defying the Government and for possibly inciting a potential second uprising within the districts; in response, Snow orders a second, special games called the “quarter quell” in which former winners of the games must compete again, in a nightmarish new battle arena designed to look like the jungle.
Returning to write Catching Fire’s score is composer James Newton Howard. He was originally a late replacement for the first film’s original composer, Danny Elfman, and as such didn’t have a great deal of time to develop many themes or recurring motifs – the resulting first score was disappointingly anonymous, without much individual personality. Thankfully, Catching Fire redresses most of those issues; Howard was on board from the beginning, working with director Francis Lawrence from the outset, and being given more time to develop his sound palette and thematic identity for the film. As a result, Catching Fire is a much more rounded score, which builds on the instrumental ideas established in the first film, but seems much more of a well-constructed score than the original.
One thing listeners who have seen the film will notice immediately is the almost complete absence of “Horn of Plenty”, the glorious choral anthem for Panem written by the French-Canadian band Arcade Fire, which appears numerous times in the movie but gets just one 40 second burst on CD. It’s interesting how this piece, rather than anything James Newton Howard wrote, has become the film series’ defining musical identity, and its lack of multiple performances on the soundtrack may disappoint those who expected it to be more prominent. Instead, Newton Howard’s score mixes soft, regional textures and contemporary electronics with some blistering action music, especially in the score’s second half.
Katniss’s musical identity, and that of her district, is rooted in the music of Appalachia: haunting woodwind solos, fiddles, guitars, dulcimers, and so on. Cues such as “Katniss”, parts of “I Had To Do That”, “Prim” and the lovely, intimate “We’re a Team” have a slight sense of melancholy about them that really gets into Katniss’s mindset as she starts to truly recognize the injustices in her society. The soft, cooing performances of Dutch composer/vocalist Sunna Wehrmeijer add a sense of heartrending reflection to the aforementioned “I Had To Do That” the desperately tragic “Katniss is Chosen”, and the quasi-religious “Arena Crumbles”, while the hesitantly romantic theme for Katniss and Peeta in “Just Friends” brings back welcome memories of the idyllic parts of his underrated score for The Postman. Elsewhere, “The Tour” revisits the emotional music that accompanied the Rue character from the first film with a great deal of poignancy, while the hammered dulcimer makes an important return during the finale of “Peacekeepers”, where the brutality of the capital’s forces meet face-to-face with District 12’s residents.
The more contemporary electronic and synthetic aspects tend to accompany President Snow, the Peacekeepers, and the general societal malaise prevalent in the Capital. “We Have Visitors”, “Fireworks” and “Let’s Start” have an overwhelming sense of barely contained malice and resentment, while the music for the vicious “Peacekeepers” is as violent and abrasive as the stormtrooper-like minions it represents, with its menacing clanging metallic percussion and harsh, in-your-face aggressiveness. Contrary to this is the opulent renaissance-style “Daffodil Waltz”, which is clearly meant to represent the overly-lavish musical tastes of the Capital’s overdressed elite, who are either oblivious or willfully indifferent to the hardships that exist outside their borders.
However, once the film moves from the outside world and into the battle arena itself, Newton Howard’s music switches gears entirely, becoming a more straightforward action-adventure score that is very entertaining indeed. “Bow and Arrow”, for example, uses high, searching strings and call-and-response brass writing to create a sense of tension and anticipation, while later cues like “The Games Begin”, “The Fog”, “Monkey Mutts”, “Jabberjays” and “Broken Wire” are vicious, rampaging, full-orchestral assaults which bring to mind the outstanding dinosaur attack cues from King Kong. The vivid string writing, monstrous brass calls, and dramatic choral performances in “The Fog” especially make it one of the standout cues on the album for me. This action music also leads directly into the score’s big emotional moment, “I Need You”, a pretty recapitulation of the Katniss and Peeta love theme which rises to previously unexplored heights of delicate beauty towards its climax.
Perhaps the main drawback of the score is that, with the exception of Horn of Plenty, there is still no single defining musical element of the entire Hunger Games franchise which earmarks itself as its calling card, and for the second time Newton Howard has failed to give it one. The love theme for Katniss and Peeta is lovely but unlikely to catch on with the general public, and other than the theme for Rue, and the basic instrumentation palette for Katniss’s District, there are no recurring thematic ideas that transition from one score to the next. As a result it’s all a little anonymous and safe, which is especially disappointing considering we know what James Newton Howard is capable of bringing to the films he scores. The music is never anything less than competent, the action music is generally excellent, and occasionally it rises to quite exceptional emotional highs, but there is still this nagging feeling that the score is less than it could be.
Note: Not included on the score album are Coldplay’s popular original song “Atlas”, Of Monsters and Men’s “Silhouettes” or The Lumineers’ “Gale Song”, all of which feature prominently in the film, and can instead be sound on the accompanying soundtrack compilation.
Buy the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Katniss (1:42)
- I Had To Do That (2:22)
- We Have Visitors (3:01)
- Just Friends (1:29)
- Mockingjay Grafitti (1:44)
- The Tour (5:56)
- Daffodil Waltz (0:26)
- Waltz in A, Op.39, No.15 (written by Johannes Brahms) (0:43)
- Fireworks (3:05)
- Horn of Plenty (written by Win Butler and Régine Chassagne) (0:36)
- Peacekeepers (5:55)
- Prim (2:08)
- A Quarter Quell (2:06)
- Katniss is Chosen (3:18)
- Introducing the Tributes (1:29)
- There’s Always a Flaw (1:47)
- Bow and Arrow (1:07)
- We’re a Team (1:52)
- Let’s Start (2:02)
- The Games Begin (4:43)
- Peeta’s Heart Stops (2:10)
- Treetops (1:22)
- The Fog (4:58)
- Monkey Mutts (4:45)
- Jabberjays (1:33)
- I Need You (3:58)
- Broken Wire (3:53)
- Arena Crumbles (1:44)
- Good Morning Sweetheart (3:04)
Running Time: 75 minutes 14 seconds
Republic Records B0019638-02 (2013)
Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony and Peter Bateman. Special vocal performances by Sunna Wehrmeijer. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by James Newton Howard.