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Reconciling a Golden Age

by Jason Comerford

The following is an Opinion piece which does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Film Score Monthly or its editors. Thank you for not slaying us personally if you love King Kong.

When you're confronted with something from an elder era, your first instinct might be to respect it, regardless of its quality or value. We all have that instinct inbued in us; it's a reaction, an ingrained, direct response to the normalcy of the everyday. But when you scratch the surface, when you really start to look at it, sometimes you are disappointed, let down; you are so used to being shown "classical" works of art, literature, what have you, that when you examine them more closely and find their flaws, you feel let down and almost cheated. You almost feel like you shouldn't have been given the chance to examine it in the first place, and rather let the idea of a perfect past carry through rather than be confronted with the cold hard facts. On the other hand, sometimes such an examination may yield far better results than you initially thought possible, and you feel almost blessed that you've been privy to a rarefied discovery.

Such is how I felt about two recent film music releases, the rerecording of Max Steiner's King Kong by William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and also the latest Varese Sarabande Fox Classics restoration of David Raksin's Forever Amber. King Kong struck me as a deconstruction of a myth, almost, while Forever Amber came across more successfully.

Updating a score from a forgotten era, a time before computer graphics, MTV editing, and progressively louder sound mixes, has its advantages and disadvantages. My quarrels with King Kong certainly don't rest in the work of conductor Stromberg and reconstructionist John Morgan; their work on Steiner's score is nothing short of brilliant, with careful, lavish attention spent on Steiner's meticulous orchestrations and melodies. Rather, my problems with the score lie more in the music itself, and less in its presentation. King Kong is one of the earliest scores Steiner wrote for RKO, and it proved to be the beginning of a long and prolific career. Arguably, King Kong is also the score that gives Steiner a bad name amongst the more modernistic musicians of the later decades; its lush string passages, pounding jungle music, and overall sense of bombastic adventure. The new recording of King Kong brings the music away from the film's lousy prehistoric mono sound mix and gives it a more dynamic and far-ranging reading, and that might just be the problem.

Scores from the thirties and forties and fifties and such, to me, seem to have a timeless feel, and bringing an element away from them and modernizing them can at times be like, for instance, colorizing an old black-and-white movie. The film was shot in black-and-white, projected in black-and-white, and initially viewed in black-and-white; what makes anyone think that it will be a "better" movie if it is colorized? My point (and I do have one) is that the validity of rerecordings is something that will always be called into question. King Kong, for me, has always been a fusion of that very same "old fashioned" craftsmanship; dated special effects, even more dated dialogue ("Say, I guess I love you!" ten minutes into the film), and a one-channel soundtrack that's about as far from dynamic as it gets. Still, it works, and it works because of its flaws. It's a relic from a begotten era, and pure magic at that.

The music is very much the same way. It's a pounding panache of Romantic melodies and savage tropical ambience; it's "Bacchanale" times ten, plus a bit of, say, Chopin-styled lyricism thrown in for good measure. You could argue the musical validity of early film music for decades, calling it a mere imitation of classical music, or call it a form all to itself, inspired by but not steepled in the processes of classical composition. Steiner's approach to King Kong was purely "Beauty and the Beast", and he goes after this idea seemingly without thinking about variation or introspect.

Granted, my perspective is from one accustomed to contemporary film music stylings and from an interest in understated thematic and orchestrational variation. But King Kong, the score? Frankly, it bored me, when it wasn't blasting my ears out with strident brass passages for Kong and gagging me with stridently swoony love themes. I've not a problem with bombast, but King Kong is such an all-out assault on the senses that it's very hard not to keep skipping from track to track in a vain attempt to find something new and different. Of course, this was more than likely precisely the point all along; King Kong is not a psychoanalysis of a monster; it's a full-speed-ahead adventure that isn't interested in anything except providing a grand helping of entertainment, and then some.

There's a lot to the score that I enjoy, mind you: Kong's theme, the descending three-note brass-based motif, is one of the all-time great monster themes (it gets a gorgeously elegiac reading in the "Main Title" and "Finale" cues); "Jungle Dance" is a wonderfully helter-skelter piece of Saint-Saens-inspired madness; and even the love theme ("Stolen Love") gets points for wistful nostalgia in the face of such rampantly overwrought surroundings. But, to me, King Kong's parts are better than its whole, and the myth is somewhat sullied because of it.

You'd think, then, that I'd have also disliked David Raksin's Forever Amber, yet another breathtaking Nick Redman-produced restoration job. No one was more surprised than I when I found myself loving it. Forever Amber is an unashamedly lush romantic-adventure score, but, unlike King Kong, its stylings are far less obviously contrived. Raksin's love theme is given several different variations throughout the new Varese CD's five ten- to twenty-minute suites, something that Steiner's Kong music couldn't seem to do. And his action/chase scherzos are some of the best I've heard from a period romantic adventure; damned if they aren't exciting without being condescendingly mickey-mousey.

What I find most interesting and entertaining about Forever Amber is the way that it consistently modulates and develops as it goes along, without sacrificing its form or content. The suites on the Varese disc are extremely well-chosen and organized (64-odd minutes from a 110-minute score, according to Jon Burlingame's liner notes), and allow the listener to hear its progressions in a more natural sense. Amber's theme, the crux to the score, goes through so many consistently intriguing variations throughout the score that when it finally returns to its original orchestration in the score's climactic passages, it's enough to give you chills.

Less interesting in the score are its frequent "Royal Court" cues, which are tiresome and overlong, but serve well enough to remind you exactly what kind of genre the music resides in. The canon-style composing is often too prevalent in the music, almost enough to overshadow its more effective thematics and instrumentations. Not quite, however; the "music of the court", as it's called, is, under Raksin's skilled hand, saved from monotony through his talent for progessing modification.

All in all, Forever Amber's presentation on disc preserves its status as a reminder of a forgotten time, far more effectively than the new King Kong recording. Rerecordings can work, mind you (the McNeely-Herrmann series, for instance, or any of the Goldsmith-North series as well), but in the rare instance of King Kong, it might be better to let well enough alone. William Stromberg and John Morgan's work on the restoration and rerecording of King Kong is certainly something to be savored and enjoyed, but too often the final product magnifies its flaws. The case is different with Forever Amber, which comes across as a much more coherent and intruiging effort. Still... it's up to you to decide what's better.

Bring on the debate! Jason Comerford can be reached at

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