Home > Reviews > THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART I – James Newton Howard


November 29, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

hungergamesmockingjay1Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The third movie in the massively popular Hunger Games franchise based on the novels by Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay is the first part of the epic finale to the story of Katniss Everdeen and her efforts to overthrow the cruel and corrupt government of Panem. It picks up immediately after the events of the second film, Catching Fire, and finds Katniss, having destroyed the hunger games dome built to stage the ‘quarter quell’, being rescued by the rebels and taken to District 13, the stronghold previously thought to be in ruins, but which is actually under the control of rebel leader Alma Coin. Katniss’s actions have instigated an uprising in the other districts, inspiring the ruthless President Snow to retaliate with sadistic military action; not only that, Snow has taken Katniss’s friend Peeta Mullark prisoner, and is using him to spread propaganda against Katniss. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland, is directed by Francis Lawrence, and sees composer James Newton Howard returning for the third time.

From my point of view, the Hunger Games films are getting better and better with each subsequent installment. The political aspect of the story, the shadowy motivations of characters on both sides of the conflict, the satirical observations about media and propaganda, and the increasingly complicated love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, are all as satisfying as the numerous action sequences, while the emotional depth of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in the lead role is growing as Katniss herself moves from childhood to adulthood. The same can be said of James Newton Howard’s scores; as a fairly late replacement for Danny Elfman on the first film, he didn’t really have the time to create the necessary thematic identity for the film as he would have had he been on the film from day one. He increased the score’s size and scope for the second film, finally developing the various thematic identities into richer versions of themselves, and he has improved yet again for number three, which is for me the most satisfying musical entry into the series yet.

Let’s get the most important aspect of the score out of the way first: the song “The Hanging Tree,” which was not written by James Newton Howard at all, but instead features music by Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites from the Colorado-based folk rock band The Lumineers, and lyrics by the novel’s author Suzanne Collins. The song underscores a critical turning point in the film – Katniss is filmed singing it by her ‘propaganda film crew’, and it subsequently becomes a rallying cry for the downtrodden of Panem. Inspired by Katniss, it is sung during one of the film’s most memorable sequences, in which members of a rebel group successfully attack and destroy a hydroelectric dam. When the sung vocals eventually give way to an enormous orchestra-and-chorus rendition of the melody in the cue’s second half, the effect is spine-tingling.

Apparently, in the book, it has even more significance; mirroring the censorship exhibited by all authoritarian dictatorships, the song is a ‘banned song’ dating from the previous Panem rebellion, and is officially outlawed by the government. Katniss was secretly taught the song by her late father, and for her to sing it out loud for the first time in generations is seen by the other districts as a massive act of furious defiance.

It’s also interesting, from a musical point of view, to compare it to “Horn of Plenty,” Panem’s national anthem. Whereas “The Hanging Tree” is folksy, soulful, nostalgic, and intimate, and even has a hint of a cotton field work song or a ‘negro spiritual’, “Horn of Plenty” is all about arrogant pageantry, with all the garish flamboyance and empty heraldry the Capital stands for. As a musical illustration of the juxtaposition between the haves and the have-nots, it’s perfect, but it’s interesting to note also that the Hanging Tree melody appears just once in the entire score, while the “Horn of Plenty” theme, written by the French-Canadian band Arcade Fire, is absent from the soundtrack entirely, despite appearing numerous times in the movie.

The rest of the score, understandably, pales slightly in comparison to this masterstroke cue, but it still manages to impress on numerous levels. The subtle country music arrangements of the primary identity for Katniss and her rural district, District 12, are still apparent in cues such as the opening “The Mockingjay,” and parts of “Remind Her Who the Enemy Is”. Howard’s use of fiddles, open-sounding flutes, guitars, and other regional specialty instruments continue to root the score in a wash of familiar Americana, while Sunna Wehrmeijer’s lovely vocal performances in “District 12” and “District 8 Hospital” retain the sense of melancholy that permeates Katniss’s entire persona, and really give a sense of the devastation and loss experienced by its inhabitants.

The gentle, romantic love theme for Katniss and Peeta gets a subtle allusion on soft strings in “Please Welcome Peeta,” and a lovely, warm performance in “Katniss’s Nightmare,” but is largely absent for most of the rest of the score, as Peeta and Katniss spent most of the movie apart. Beyond these thematic statements, a large part of the score is given over to small-scale tension-building, with low-key orchestral lines that occasionally build to large, dramatic crescendos, often emphasizing brass. There are some really lovely textures in some of these cues: the slightly sinister woodwind lines in “Snow’s Speech,” eerie glass bowls in “The Arsenal,” and the sonorous oboe and solo violin in “Taunting the Cat” (mis-labeled “Taunting the Car” on the CD).

The score contains a couple of knockout action sequences and moments of militaristic drama, including the second half of “The Arsenal,” the densely clustered “Incoming Bombers,” and the wonderful “Air Raid Drill,” which throbs to cello ostinatos, soaring voices, searching violin lines, and powerful brass calls, and will definitely appeal to anyone who enjoyed Howard’s action music in scores like Waterworld or The Postman. It’s interesting how these action sequences are much tighter, much more precise, in comparison to things like “Monkey Mutts” from Catching Fire; here, the music has a rigid, martial undercurrent, that stands at odds with the more free-wheeling and frantic action writing in the previous scores.

There are also several other moments of beauty-juxtaposing-horror, with Howard creating solemn string laments that mournfully remember the victims of Snow’s ruthless crushing of the rebellion. The second half of “Incoming Bombers,” the hollow-sounding “District 12 Ruins,” “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night,” the brooding, threatening “White Roses,” and especially the aforementioned “District 8 Hospital” feature searing, hyper-emotional cello lines and occasional vocal performances that capture the anguish and powerlessness Katniss feels in the face of the carnage. When Howard also blends Katniss’s Appalachia instrumentation into this mix, the effect is very powerful indeed.

The score ends with a couple of more electronically enhanced action and suspense sequences in the synth-heavy “Jamming the Capitol” and “Inside the Tribute Center,” before finishing on a downbeat note with the pretty but relief-laden “They’re Back” and the strangely ironic and non-triumphant “Victory,” which tries hard to be a celebration of the successful recovery of the Capitol’s hostages, but in reality is anything but, as Katniss knows all too well. That final Lady in the Water-style brass and chorus crescendo sets up Mockingjay Part II perfectly, and leaves me anxious to see where the film – and music – will go next.

I feel that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I is the strongest of the three Hunger Games scores to date, and really caps off a tremendous year for James Newton Howard, who returned to his fan-pleasing best with this score and the stunning Maleficent, but also found time to explore other musical avenues through scores like Nightcrawler. Although some may find its restrained nature a little too subtle, and although others may find its lack of truly significant thematic statements disappointingly anonymous, there is enough emotion inherent in Howard’s quieter moments to make up for the lack of overt melodic ideas. Not only that, but a couple of the action sequences are really genuinely exciting, and of course there is “The Hanging Tree”, which for me is one of the standout single moments of the entire year in film music.

Buy the Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Mockingjay (2:39)
  • Remind Her Who the Enemy Is (2:30)
  • District 12 (3:24)
  • Snow’s Speech (3:32)
  • Please Welcome Peeta (3:53)
  • Katniss’ Nightmare (2:06)
  • The Arsenal (3:55)
  • Incoming Bombers (4:34)
  • Don’t Be a Fool Katniss (1:40)
  • District 12 Ruins (4:05)
  • The Hanging Tree (written by Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites and Suzanne Collins, performed by Jennifer Lawrence) (3:38)
  • Peeta’s Broadcast (1:45)
  • Air Raid Drill (4:32)
  • It’s Gonna Be a Long Night (2:27)
  • Taunting the Car (2:09)
  • White Roses (3:26)
  • District 8 Hospital (2:07)
  • The Broadcast (1:12)
  • Jamming the Capitol (3:28)
  • Inside the Tribute Center (3:45)
  • Put Me On the Air (3:10)
  • They’re Back (2:47)
  • Victory (2:54)

Running Time: 69 minutes 48 seconds

Motown/Universal 002222502 (2014)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Peter Bateman and John Ashton Thomas. Special vocal performances by Sunna Wehrmeijer. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by David Olson. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

  1. Victor
    November 29, 2014 at 12:39 am

    You may have heard that “The Hanging Tree” is in the midweek charts in the UK (hopefully it’ll be an official Top 40 track tomorrow, thus making Jennifer Lawrence one of the few Oscar-winning actresses to have a hit single*). Ironically, it’s listed under James Newton Howard’s name, or at least it was last time I checked.

    *Nicole Kidman actually had a #1, but a) it was before she won the Oscar, b) it was a duet, and c) it was a duet with Robbie Williams.

  2. Holly
    November 29, 2014 at 2:50 am

    Nice review! I completely agree with your sentiments and analysis of The Hanging Tree song. I really thought it was an old slave song from years ago when I first heard it in the movie and it was the one part of the movie where I actually felt moved. I’m happy to see that the studio is using the song now to market the movie. I hope it (the song) really takes off!

  3. November 29, 2014 at 5:59 am

    Excellent review, James. I personally missed the lack of thematic material for District 13 or President Alma Coin. I was really hoping that JNH (one of my favorite composers ever) develop and enhances the music, like, for example, Howard Shore or John Williams did on Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. But, anyway, his score have a lot of good moments, especially, like you said, The Hanging Tree.

    • December 1, 2014 at 1:29 pm

      I think District 13 does have a theme. It can be heard at the beginning of the film when you first see the facilities, right after the flute. I remember to hear it in the last movie when the drug addict sacrifices herself for Peeta and on the tour scene, right when some rebels do the hand sign. It is always related to the rebels somehow.

      • December 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm

        This theme is my favorite on the franchise. I like it even more than Rue’s Farewell. However, I don’t think it acts as a theme for District 13 itself. Considering the scenes where it appears (Katniss’ nightmare being interrupted by Peeta, Peeta saved by the drug addict, introduction of D13) I think it’s more like a theme for when the rebels are in a dramatic situation

      • David
        December 5, 2014 at 7:33 am

        Actually, it’s a variation of the Hunger Games theme. The one used in the first score on The Reaping and The Countdown.

        It’s used as a action rendition on Peacekeepers on Catching Fire, but it becomes a emotional theme for choir and orchestra in The Tour and Monkey Mutts.

        Given it’s roots to the Hunger Games, the theme becomes more like a lament for the victims of the Games and the Capitol.

  4. Edmund Meinerts
    December 1, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Good review, Jon. I don’t like the score quite as much as you do…like its predecessors, it feels like there’s isolated highlights floating in a sea of interestingly-textured but ultimately dull brooding with little to no thematic or motivic base to tie things together. Still, when it’s good, it’s good.

    However, the instrument playing against the clarinet in “Taunting the Cat” is definitely a cello, not a violin. On that note, in your review of The Imitation Game you misidentify an English horn as a clarinet in the cue “The Apple”. Just thought you ought to know. 😉

    • David
      December 5, 2014 at 7:35 am

      There’s thematic references all over the score. Not only from the original themes, but some cues that gets reworked on the score (the first minute of The Arsenal is actually an unusued cue from the first score). Plus a string and choir lament (Resembling one from Salt) that gets used in a couple of cues.

  5. Scott W. Williams
    December 4, 2014 at 6:19 am

    Hello sir! Great review. I will point out that you mentioned “The Hanging Tree” doesn’t appear in the rest of the score; in fact, it is quoted briefly on woodwind in “Taunting the Cat.” 🙂

    • December 4, 2014 at 8:58 am

      I thought I was the only one who noticed it!

  6. Madison
    February 2, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    Are you ever going to review the mockingjay part 2 score

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