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CD Review: King Kong

By David Coscina

King Kong ***



21 tracks - 74:28

When it was announced that Howard Shore would be supplying the score for Peter Jackson's version of King Kong, a long time dream project of his, most film score fans weren't surprised. The two had collaborated on one of the most critically and commercially successful film trilogies in cinematic history. Both director and composer have the Oscars to show for their vision and hard work. Shore has long been known to begin on film projects very early into production to immerse himself into the world of the narrative and Kong was no different. The composer began sketching out ideas in early 2005.

What came as a major surprise was the news that Shore's name wasn't attached to the project any longer mere weeks before the release of the film. Rumors circulated throughout the industry as to why. Needless to say, considering the amount of music that needed to be composed and recorded, the task for the replacement composer was daunting to say the least. Enter James Newton Howard. Longtime workhorse composer and fan favorite, Howard (James Newton, not Shore) came in at the 11th hour and was expected to produce a Wagnerian length score that would inject the right amount of excitement, pathos and emotion into the film. Let's remember that Howard isn't a stranger to tight deadlines and last-minute replacement score assignments. Scores to Falling Down (1993) and Waterworld (1995) are two notable examples that yielded some truly great results. But the former was comprised largely of textural, modernist writing with a sparing running time. The latter had wall-to-wall music and encompassed a breadth of styles including a cogent Korngoldian adventure theme, pulse-pounding action cues, and some New Age electronic work for the more placid moments.

But Kong is a different beast altogether, and one of the many questions that has arisen around Howard's effort is whether a score written in four weeks is comparable in quality and effectiveness to music written over the course of five months (as was the case for Shore). In the website diary, James Newton Howard exclaimed "I'm having a ball," although the reports from various music editors, conductors, arrangers, suggested that the time line was a little insane and left much of the crew bereft of sleep.

So how does King Kong sound? Well, it's James Newton Howard in fast-forward mode. Time does play a factor in large scale orchestral compositions and while the music in this score has plenty of bombast, emotion and excitement, it sounds like patchwork in places. Being a very big James Newton Howard fan works against this listener because there are so many quotes or evocations from other scores, most notably the aforementioned Waterworld (big action cues), emotive string work from Unbreakable, odd meter changes The Fugitive, a flute line from Hildago, and brass writing from Dinosaur. But probably the most puzzling aspect of Howard's score is the penultimate track "Beauty Killed the Beast IV" that features a flat IV-i progression for strings in unison with horns and mixed chorus that sounds a little too much like Shore's "Prophecy" cue from Lord of the Rings. This is most distressing since it was reported that Shore's dismissal was due to differing musical ideologies with Jackson. If that was the case, why have Howard replicate Shore's sound for the most important scene in the film? In addition, the boy falsetto accompanying the big climax smacks of Shore's style as opposed to James Newton Howard's.

The other problem I have with the overall sound of Howard's Kong, is that Howard's style is very contemporary sounding. His harmonic framework is rooted in a late-20th century pop/jazz/film score idiom and this rails against the setting of the narrative. The "Heroic Kong Theme" as I call it has got more than just a misplaced sense of character. It's basically an ascending harmonic minor scale that's been fleshed out with triadic chords. It's very heroic sounding but has the quality of a modern superhero rather than a primordial 25 foot gorilla.

John Barry's 1976 score sounded like the '70s because it was set in that decade, but even he knew that he had to imbue Kong with a sense of portent and thus chose a bi-tonal horn chord to underscore his ferocity. Howard's music take on Kong is sympathetic and rather benign, much like Williams' benevolent Jurassic Park string theme. The problem is, when you see Kong messily dispose a trio of T-Rexes with his bare hands and revel in it by pounding his chest, or else killing sacrificial offerings from the indigenous island populace, it's a little hard to swallow that he's on par with E.T..

The "tragic theme," a longer line that features a root-minor 3rd-root-octave motif as its primary figure, is subject to much better development and re-capitulation, especially when it's played by celli at the beginning of the track "The Empire State Building." This theme captures the essence of what has made Kong the iconic film figure he is -- a misunderstood beast who is ultimately doomed because of the nature of his being. There's a brass statement of this intermingled with the heroic theme amidst some violent and frankly overly noisy action music on "Tooth and Claw." Juxtaposing the two themes in this track serves to further create a cognitive dissonance between the effectiveness of the two themes. The tragic theme works, the heroic one doesn't.

Most of the action cues in King Kong suffer from this same fate. The ubiquitous horn trills, and other ornaments along with endless sequencing (not MIDI computer programs, the technique of modulating a short phrase through different keys thereby creating tension or excitement) all capture the physical action, the immediacy of the moment, but don't really embellish upon Kong's character or narrative.

Then there are tracks that contain humor, is as the case with "That's All there Is," which approaches Gershwin styled jazz complete with a Micky Mouse scoring ideology. In the film it might be effective but it sounds contrived as a pure listening experience. The jazz in of itself is not the problem though; it's more the approach toward the narrative. But this knee-jerk style scoring is what accompanies a composer who's throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix to meet a crazy deadline.

The most effective and satisfying music material on the soundtrack can be found in the placid tracks featuring a plaintive string theme, something Howard excels at writing. First heard on "Beautiful" this theme runs through strings and piano, symbolizing the bond between Kong and Ann. Both are lonely, almost disenfranchised beings who don't quite fit into their world. The scene in which this cue accompanies is quite poetic, as Kong takes Ann to his mountain-top solitude to simply watch the world around him from afar. It is this point where the two transcend their species and connect as beings in their loneliness. Because this is an allegorical moment, the music doesn't have to sound of the time as it too transcends its bonds or obligations towards period continuity. This theme is re-counted on "Central Park" where Kong and Ann are re-united with slight variations lending a sense of cohesion and dramatic build.

There are a couple other notable themes, such as the alternating four-note "skull island theme" and the descending major scale (perhaps Howard thought, "hey the ascending harmonic minor scale worked, let's use a retrograde version of it"), which lends a sense of finality to the story arc.

In the end, after listening to this score several times, I can honestly say that, given the tone of the film, the period of the narrative, and general atmosphere, then weighing the compositional styles of Howard Shore against James Newton Howard, along with the time each took to work on their respective versions, Peter Jackson's Kong would have been better served by sticking with Shore's music.

James Newton Howard is a solid composer who's proven he can write beautiful, powerful music, but even someone like John Williams would have likely passed on this offer because of the lack of time to effectively write a score befitting of this film icon. Also, Howard Shore's stylistic sensibilities seem better suited to this project as he's demonstrated the ability to effectively mirror a plethora of time settings as heard in The Aviator, Ed Wood, Looking for Richard and of course The Lord of the Rings. James Newton Howard's style is just not the right fit for this project in this listener's humble opinion. Obviously opinions vary, but the disparity in all the factors mentioned results in the difference between a modern classic score and one that is a awkward fit with its film as well as a slightly schizoid listening experience.

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