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THE MONKEY KING – Christopher Young

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

monkeykingOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In Chinese folklore and mythology, the story of The Monkey King is as important and well known as The Iliad and The Odyssey are to the Greeks, or as The Wizard of Oz is to Americans. Technically, The Monkey King is part of “Journey to the West,” one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, which was written in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty by Wu Cheng En. It tells the story of Sun Wukong, a monkey born from a magical stone who acquires supernatural powers. After rebelling against heaven and being imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, he later accompanies a monk named Xuanzang on a journey to India, and subsequently brings Buddhism to ancient China. The story his been told in film and on TV several times, but never so lavishly as in this big-budget 3D Chinese film (Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong in its native language), which is directed by Pou-Soi Cheang and stars Donnie Yen and Chow-Yun Fat. It is the first of three planned movies, and is essentially the origin story – beginning with the birth of Sun Wukong and ending with his imprisonment for his crimes under the Five-Peaked Mountain. Along the way he acquires incredible powers, battling the armies of the gods and the armies of the demons to find his rightful place in the heavens.

The score for The Monkey King is by an unlikely composer; Christopher Young. Quite how Young became attached to this project is unclear – he doesn’t appear to have worked with the director or any of the producers before – but I’m absolutely delighted that this improbable union took place, as even amongst his stellar filmography, The Monkey King is one of the most impressive scores of his entire career to date. To match the scope of the film, Young wrote a score which is absolutely enormous, filled to the brim with sweeping themes, throbbing action sequences, and rich regional color. It was recorded in Bratislava with the Slovak National Orchestra and the Lucnica Chorus, features various vocal soloists, and has extended sequences for a number of solo instruments ranging from traditional Chinese erhus to electric guitars.

The soundtrack is structured into 10 distinct suites, each representing a particular character featured within the classic story. There is a main theme, a 5-note idea which is introduced towards the end of “Ao Kuang, the Dragon King of the East Sea” for contrapuntal horns and strings, and recurs majestically during “Niu Mo Wang, the Buffalo Demon King” and in the conclusive “Sun Wukong, the Monkey King,” and a couple of other minor themes, but recurring thematic ideas are not the driving force of the score. Instead, Young writes his music as a series of vignettes that focus on the situational specificity of each scene, and concentrates on making the melodic, textural, and rhythmic elements of the score as bold, dynamic and interesting as possible. It’s clear that Young was encouraged to be unashamedly emotionally expressive throughout his score, and he rose to that challenge admirably, because the results are superb.

Action music also plays a large part in the score, and young sets his cards on the table right from the opening cue, “Yu Huang Da Di, the Jade Emperor.” The cue highlights staccato string rhythms, a juggernaut percussion section, ominous chanting male voice choirs, and huge brass clusters that will make Elliot Goldenthal fans leap from their chairs in delight, before bursting into the first performance of a bold, heroic theme for trumpets that is simply superb, and reminds me of a more triumphant version of the theme from The Core. “Ao Kuang, the Dragon King of the East Sea” is an equally significant action cue, which emerges from a moody, oppressive opening, featuring prominent drums and a male voice choir, into a more hopeful and optimistic string-led theme that has a strident, purposeful quality. The midsection of the cue is huge, with great, guttural growling brasses and massive percussion hits straight from the bowels of Hellraiser, before it finally gives way to the first significant statement of the aforementioned recurring 5-note theme.

The more romantic pieces include “Tieshan Gongzhu, the Princess Iron Fan,” a longing, haunting string melody accompanied by what sounds like a yangqin Chinese hammered dulcimer and a dizi Chinese flute, intoning beautifully and providing tender harmonies. Later, “Nuwa, the Goddess of Works” begins with as much thunderous intent as its predecessors, but features a gorgeous middle section showcasing a heavenly female choir, and a majestic brass theme. Once in a while Young also makes use of the tender vocal performances of ten-year-old Julie Chae, a Los Angeles-based singer who was chosen out of hundreds of applicants, and is a member of the Heart of Los Angeles Youth Orchestra choir. Her contribution to the waltz-like “Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy’ gives the cue a sense of child-like innocence and a soothing, lullabyish quality that is very appealing, if a little raw.

“Ruxue, the Silver Fox” is Young’s version of traditional Chinese classical music, featuring a beautiful erhu solo as its centerpiece. “Erlangshen, the Three-Eyed Warrior” is light and expressive, with more traditional Chinese instruments that dance effortlessly around the orchestra, while “Subhūti, the Old Master” uses playful pizzicato performances to convey a sense of mischief that makes a nice change from all the bombast surrounding it, and gives the album some balance.

The first part of the score’s finale is the gargantuan 17-minute masterpiece cue, “Niu Mo Wang, the Buffalo Demon King,” which for me is one of the most impressive individual tracks of Young’s entire career. He gets out all his big guns here; the might of the orchestra, the full-throated choir, and massive percussion rhythms, including the unusual chain-like rattling that features in a number of cues throughout the score. There are several performances of the 5-note main theme on powerful horns, recapitulations of the heroic Jade Emperor theme from the opening cue, a brand new lyrical theme for gorgeous woodwinds and sweeping strings, and an erhu performance towards the end of the cue which will melt your heart. Listen also for the completely bizarre, but somehow perfect, squeaking kazoos that emerge from the belly of the piece around the 11:00 mark.

The most interesting thing, however, is the way Young builds in a stunning electric guitar element that, in description, sounds like it would be out of place, but actually isn’t. Young’s guitars, simply put, sound cool, adding a sort of spaghetti western vibe to the proceedings that perfectly captures the essence of this final battle. Around the 4-minute mark a full rock drum kit comes in, kicking the drama up a further notch; the swaggering rhythms instantly earmark the Buffalo Demon King as a powerful adversary, and the way Young counterpoints his musical identity with the Monkey King’s 5-note theme is superb. The best way I can describe the cue is as a combination of the best action music from Priest, combined with the best action music from Ghost Rider, with the intensity turned up to 11.

The second part of the score’s finale is “Sun Wukong, the Monkey King,” which performs the most stirring versions of the Jade Emperor theme yet heard; inspiring heroism, bold statements for brass, more tender erhu solos, and rousing choral outbursts are the order of the day, ending the score with an appropriate flourish. The final performance of the main theme, which sees the entire orchestra, erhu and choir in glorious unison, is simply breathtaking. The album itself is topped off by an original song in English, “Just Dreams,” which is also lovely, and appears to be based around a soft, breathy variation of the Jade Emperor theme.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the score for The Monkey King has not been released commercially in any format, with the exception of this promo release which Young prepared for consideration by awards committees; this lack of availability is one of the biggest oversights in recent film music memory, and needs to be rectified immediately. I honestly believe, without any trace of hyperbole, that The Monkey King is one of the greatest musical achievements of Christopher Young’s career – which is some feat, considering that he has scores like Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Murder in the First, Bless the Child, The Shipping News and Drag Me to Hell in his canon. Needless to say, it’s also one of the most impressive scores of 2014; I urge you to watch the film to experience the majesty of Young’s accomplishment in context, and then pick the score up without delay, if and when it is released.

Track Listing:

  • Yu Huang Da Di, the Jade Emperor (7:10))
  • Tieshan Gongzhu, the Princess Iron Fan (3:25)
  • Ao Kuang, the Dragon King of the East Sea (9:51)
  • Nuwa, the Goddess of Works (8:01)
  • Ruxue, the Silver Fox (5:40)
  • Erlangshen, the Three-Eyed Warrior (3:17)
  • Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy (3:29)
  • Subhūti, the Old Master (2:33)
  • Niu Mo Wang, the Buffalo Demon King (16:53)
  • Sun Wukong, the Monkey King (8:47)
  • Just Dreams (4:26)

Running Time: 73 minutes 30 seconds

Promo (2014)

Music composed by Christopher Young. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by Slovak National Orchestra and the Lucnica Chorus. Orchestrations by Peter Bateman, Sebastian Cano-Besquet, Pantawit Kiangsiri, Sean McMahon, Joohyun Park, Patrick Russ, Megumi Sasano, David Shephard and Laurent Ziliani. Special vocal performances by Julie Chae. Recorded and mixed by Peter Fuchs. Edited by Ben Schor. Album produced by Christopher Young.

  1. MarkusW
    November 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Fine review, as always!

  2. Scott
    November 23, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    Really wish this would get a release.

  3. November 29, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    Jonathan, what star rating would you give The Monkey King?

  1. December 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm
  2. December 3, 2015 at 11:39 pm

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