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Volume #1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006
If the wealth hasn't been spread your way, find what you need on Ebay.

Music Criticism

Peter Jackson's King Kong Original Motion Picture soundtrack
Review by Ryan Brennan

Last year eyebrows were raised when, late in post-production of King Kong (2005), Peter Jackson announced that his Lord of the Rings musical collaborator, Howard Shore, had been dismissed. Jackson stated that they had mutually agreed to disagree but that both felt it would be better to bring in another composer. That composer was James Newton Howard.

At first, some thought this spelled "troubled production" and did not augur well for the final film. But this changing of composers, even throwing out entire scores, is a well known phenomenon in Hollywood, even if not spoken of much outside of the industry.

Secondly, though, wondered those who always want to find a dark cloud, would Howard have enough time to finish a score for a film of this size? Again, many composers have worked under extreme time limitations. Max Steiner's Herculean efforts to complete the music for Gone With the Wind is well known.

James Newton Howard completed the impossible and scored the three hour plus epic in a matter of weeks. So, how does the music size up, taking everything into consideration? Generally, we can't take everything into consideration. We are meant to judge the music solely on its own merits. And to compare when that option is available. In this case that option exists.

In 1933, when film scoring was still in its infancy, Max Steiner wrote a spectacular score for the original King Kong. Contrary to what some think of the silent film era, many films had scores. These were not always original scores, but were instead cobbled together collections of various existing music that generically captured a mood. However, as early as 1908 Camille Saint-Saens wrote an original score for The Assassination of the Duke de Guise. And there were others before Steiner had his chance. Regardless, Steiner was at least the first, certainly in the sound era in a film other than a musical, to fully take advantage of scoring to dramatic action. Not only that, he created one of the truly great film scores of all time.

1. King Kong
2. A Fateful Meeting
3. Defeat Is Always Momentary
4. It's In The Subtext
5. Two Grand
6. The Venture Departs
ten 7. Last Blank Space On The Map
8. It's Deserted
9. Something Monsterous...
10. Head Towards The Animals
11. Beautiful
12. Tooth And Claw
13. That's All There Is...
14. Captured
15. Central Park
16. The Empire State Building
17. Beauty Killed The Beast I
18. Beauty Killed The Beast II
19. Beauty Killed The Beast III
20. Beauty Killed The Beast IV
21. Beauty Killed The Beast V

Now that's a tough act to follow. So how did Howard do? Well, he provided a serviceable musical accompaniment to Peter Jackson's film. But it certainly falls far short of the Steiner benchmark. In fact, of all the major aspects of Jackson's film, even overriding the controversy regarding the casting of Jack Black, the score is the weakest element.

It is necessary to listen to it apart from the film. For much of the film's length the score is drowned under a massive sound effects tsunami, only occasionally is it allowed to come up for air. And when it does, it's not anything that sticks or takes hold in our memory. Another noisy film that Howard scored was the Harrison Ford thriller The Fugitive. Yet in that film the music stood out, clearly and plainly to be heard. A film music lover knew before leaving the theater that this score was a must have.

Listening to King Kong in isolation one may note that it gets the job done. There are the mysterioso cues that hint at the arcane wonders to come. The music meant to evoke a sense of the 1930s is perhaps too much a 21st century idea of 1930s music. The action cues are there, the orchestra thundering away, the necessary "mickey mousing" to punctuate specific actions on screen. But where are the melodies? Howard has produced them in the past. However, this may be merely a comment on the current state of film scoring brought on by composers like Hans Zimmer and his followers. That is to say, melodies have become less important than music that merely suggests a mood. Howard doesn't go quite that far here but is dangerously close. His love theme, if it can fairly be called that, "Beautiful (track 11)," is one such cue that just barely suggests a melody, instead creating a mood of tenderness. It is developed further in track 15, "Central Park," and is nice but no standout. The last.5 cues, which are all 1 - 5 numbered versions of "Beauty Killed the Beast," are all sound and fury signifying very little. (No time to even name the cues?)

The two primary themes are introduced in track 1, "King Kong." One is the mysterioso cue that will be heard throughout the picture, generally in somewhat longer versions, and followed by the Kong theme, four notes instead of Steiner's three notes. There's a bit of a further homage to Steiner in track 3, "Defeat Is Always Momentary," when a brief quote from Steiner is used, one that looks ahead in the picture to when the airplanes are deployed against Kong.

In fact, the best music in the film is actually Steiner's original music. It can be heard in the theater where Kong appears. In the orchestra pit Howard Shore (in an in-joke cameo quite common in films) conducts the theater musicians in renditions of Steiner's theater music. The surprise is when the stage act begins and Steiner's music from the Skull Island bride ritual is here heard as source music.

It has been said that the music in a film can contribute as much as 50% of the value of a film.

To test that theory try watching a movie with the sound off. There can be no doubt that the music of James Horner made a major contribution to the success of Titanic.

It may be seen in hindsight that Jackson's King Kong might have tacked on another $20 million or so in box office sales had the score been more memorable. That's not to say that it should have had a Celine Dion type vocal but, given the nature of the film, the love theme in King Kong should have been given special attention with this aspect in mind.

James Newton Howard is fine composer and perhaps no one else could have done any better in the time allotted. It certainly would have been interesting to hear what Basil Poledouris, Alan Silvestri, John Debney, Bruce Broughton, Christopher Young, John Barry (who scored the 1976 version), Maurice Jarre or even Ennio Morricone might have conjured up. No matter, what we have is on film, and what we wanted, but didn't get, was a score as memorable as its images.

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