King Kong

The following notes come from FSM’s 2005 CD release of John Barry’s King Kong album.

Unleashed in America
The Composer of King Kong

For John Barry, decamping to the United States in 1976 was initially intended to be a temporary measure, a convenient way of scoring the American television production Eleanor and Franklin. Once on American soil, however, he soon became swamped with an array of job offers and, as such, found it more practical to take up residency in Beverly Hills after living the hotel life during the first few weeks of his stay. As it transpired, basing himself in Hollywood turned out to be a stepping-stone toward permanent residency. By 1980 John and his wife, Laurie, had settled down in Oyster Bay, a few miles from New York, where they live, with son Jonpatrick, to this day.

It was never Barry’s intention to leave his native shores indefinitely. During the previous 12 months he had been living in Majorca (at a remote villa he was having built), where he was busily composing the music for his jazz concept LP, Americans. The decision to move abroad had been largely influenced by the British Labour government’s punitive taxation system, which forced many of the United Kingdom’s highest earners to protect their income by seeking refuge elsewhere, albeit temporarily. Almost inevitably, Barry found himself drawn to where the work was, and with little incentive to return to the U.K. at the time, took to the L.A. lifestyle as a matter of expediency.

By the mid-1970s, John Barry was very much one of the film industry’s most sought-after composers. Such was his reputation, gained spectacularly in the 1960s by an incredibly eclectic, prolific and successful body of work, that he was now in the enviable position of being able to choose rather than chase projects. His name on a film’s credits added to its kudos, which was why the burgeoning TV-movie industry was keen to secure his services in the first place. What was intended merely as a six-week sojourn for an Englishman abroad marked the dawn of an exciting new era for him from both a professional and personal perspective.

The first score Barry was offered after completing Eleanor and Franklin was King Kong, a hugely ambitious attempt at updating and remaking the 1933 classic. Producer Dino De Laurentiis had discussed the idea of reviving the “monster movie” genre with Paramount’s new chief, Barry Diller, during the initial weeks of 1975, having hit on the idea of tackling King Kong by dint of a poster of the original film emblazoned upon his daughter’s bedroom wall.

Litigation problems almost scuttled production from the start, following Universal’s decision to make a rival film of its own, on the grounds that rights to the 1933 film had now entered the public domain. Both parties issued lawsuits against each other, with Universal also suing RKO for initially selling the rights to De Laurentiis. Common sense eventually prevailed by way of an amicable settlement, whereby Universal agreed to delay any planned remake for at least 18 months, until after the release of Paramount’s production. (It was also widely assumed that De Laurentiis had also agreed to pay them a percentage of the film’s profits.)

With these troubles resolved, De Laurentiis quickly secured the services of Lorenzo Semple Jr. to write the screenplay. He had hoped to persuade Roman Polanski to direct, but failed to convince him to take on the challenge, so he opted for John Guillermin, who was renowned for specializing in action movies—and already working for him on a remake of The Hurricane. To enable Guillermin to concentrate all his energies on King Kong, The Hurricane was immediately shelved. The director insisted on only two specifications for Kong: a full-sized ape’s head and a mechanical hand able to pick up the girl—two things notably absent from the original version. The design team duly obliged and proceeded to give him much more besides. The finished model of Kong stood a colossal 40 feet tall and weighed an incredible six-and-a-half tons. Its chest span alone was 20 feet and inside its body was 3,000 feet of hydraulic hose, together with 4,500 feet of wiring.

Publicity for the film started a full 12 months before its anticipated release date, when Paramount placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on November 30, 1975, featuring the same image that was to be eventually used for the cover of the soundtrack album. Contained within the advertisement was an offer stating that the reader could request a full-color copy of the ad. Within days, the studio had been inundated with no fewer than 60,000 applications. Judging by this public reaction alone, chances for the film’s success looked very good indeed.

On January 14, 1976, Paramount staged a press conference to formally introduce the film, its stars and key members of the production team. The major surprise (and arguably the biggest gamble) was in selecting then-unproven Jessica Lange for the role played so memorably by Fay Wray in the original. Lange had been chosen on the strength of a recommendation from the Wilhelmina modeling agency as well as a screen test that greatly impressed Guillermin. The fact that Barbra Streisand, Valerie Perrine, Bette Midler and Cher had all been mentioned for the part demonstrated just how much faith Guillermin had in his protégé. Less of a surprise was the announcement of Jeff Bridges for the male lead.

Shooting began the following day, with much of the studio work filmed on the MGM lot at Culver City, California; production wrapped on August 27.

John Barry found himself reunited with John Guillermin for the first time since Barry’s second film, Never Let Go, some 16 years earlier. As Hollywood productions go, King Kong’s budget was as gigantic as the ape itself and one of the most expensive films ever made at that time, costing an astonishing $24 million. The sheer scale of the production was exemplified by a 47-foot-high by 500-foot-long wall, employing 100 construction workers over an eight-week period at a cost of $800,000. The Susanne Onstand, a Norwegian supertanker used to depict the transportation of King Kong to America, was hired for just three days at a cost of $125,000!

Such extravagance was a far cry from the more humble, shoestring, black-and-white approach to filmmaking employed at Beaconsfield Studios, London, where composer and director first met during the production of Never Let Go. In fact, both Barry and Guillermin had come a long way since 1960. By 1976, Barry had already won three Oscars (for Born Free’s song and score and for The Lion in Winter’s score), and had provided the musical DNA for the hugely successful James Bond series. Guillermin’s list of credits included Guns at Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), The Bridge at Remagen (1969) and, most recently, The Towering Inferno (1974).

Following in the footsteps of Max Steiner may have intimidated many a composer but not John Barry, who decided from the outset against revisiting the original score. “No, I didn’t go back and listen to it,” he later remarked to Martyn Crosthwaite in a rare interview. “I only remembered the original King Kong from my earlier viewings. Every film has its own life, its own specifics, its own period of time, so that was never a problem. What I did was a reaction to what was on the screen.” Barry, whose own compositional approach was invariably driven by the emotional impulses drawn from the main characters, saw no reason to alter his modus operandi for King Kong and through the principal players—Dwan (Lange), Jack (Bridges) and the beast itself—there was much to draw upon.

The one strain facing Barry constantly while scoring, however, was time. Knowing the film was pre-sold as a Christmas release, Guillermin was under constant pressure to meet tight shooting deadlines, which was not helped by recurring technical problems relating to the beast’s gigantic head. This time constraint necessitated Barry having to score the film reel by reel as it was shot in sequence, the first—and, to date, only—time he has scored a film in such fashion. Given that the final cut was only made available a mere two weeks before the film’s actual release meant that there was no margin for error. Despite being unable to see the completed film until after the score was finished, Barry was satisfied with his contribution, although he was quick to point out later just how tough this assignment was.

“We scored the first three reels and then waited another four weeks,” he later explained. “As each scene came off the editing benches, I’d write for it and I did this for about eight months, scoring as they were shooting. I would say King Kong was maybe the most difficult score I had done to date, because structurally you didn’t have the complete film to know where you were heading. Normally, you have the whole movie to enable you to reflect on the shape of the entire score—where the highs are going to be, where the lows are, how you’re going to build in the music; you sense how to use it, melodically and rhythmically, etc. So to work reel by reel is the most difficult, because you’re kind of guessing.”

Barry composed the main theme before filming started, recording a piano demo so that De Laurentiis and Guillermin could hear it. From day one they had tacitly agreed on the film being a romantic one based on the attraction of beauty and beast, which Barry accepted, although not before putting his own spin on it. “Although a romantic theme had been requested,” he added, “I thought it should not be too saccharine; it needed an inner strength to it, a certain strangeness, which I think was accomplished. This is where a conflict can ensue between what is commercial and what is right for the picture. You needed to see that the ape’s romantic inclination towards Dwan was plausible so as not to lose the audience—it’s a fine line to hit on. So I started out with that theme and developed the rest of the score from there.” Unusually, part of the score (including “Sacrifice—Hail to the King”) was composed and recorded in advance of filming, so that the cues could be played through loudspeakers as the scene was being shot.

This reel-by-reel approach rendered necessary a drawn-out, piecemeal recording schedule split into two distinct phases. The first, consisting of four sessions between March 29 and April 12, 1976, was completed at the MGM studios, where much of the source music was recorded. Percussionists of the caliber of Joe Porcaro, Emil Richards, Larry Bunker and Kenneth Watson were hired to perform the music accompanying the jungle scenes, alongside Mike Lang on keyboards. The full orchestral score was recorded during the second phase, consisting of nine sessions spread out over a four-month period between July 22 and November 5 at the Burbank Studios (Warner Bros.) scoring stage. Depending upon the requirements of the score, Barry conducted orchestras ranging in size from 58 to 67 players.

King Kong eventually opened on December 17, 1976, in 1,000 theaters across America (and another 1,200 throughout the rest of the world). Thanks to this blanket premiere and the massive publicity that accompanied it, the film thoroughly justified its huge outlay by grossing a staggering $80 million. It also received several prestigious accolades, including two Academy Award nominations (for Best Cinematography and Best Sound) and a Special Achievement Oscar (for visual effects). Jessica Lange won a Golden Globe for Best Female Acting Debut in a Motion Picture.

As for critical reaction, Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker, was particularly taken with Barry’s romantic approach toward scoring the film, describing it (in comparison to Steiner’s) as “more of a love poem—a great big swatch of mood music sweeping you along.” She was impressed by how its broad strokes and grandness of scale complemented Guillermin’s “big, bright-colored storybook imagery.” Likewise, Art Murphy in Variety enthused about Barry striking a delicate balance between “romanticism and virility,” describing the film in general as “one of the most fabulously successful remakes in the brief history of motion pictures.”

Before production on King Kong had begun, Marvin Cane, head of Famous Music (the music publishing arm of Paramount Pictures), met with Dino De Laurentiis and Barry Diller. “We all had the same guy in mind,” Cane recalled in a 1977 newspaper interview, “and that was John Barry. I always felt John Barry was a very hip composer, contemporary, terribly tasty, a dynamite guy.” For the most part Barry was left to his own devices to score the film as a love story, as De Laurentiis had requested, but Cane did call Barry to discuss ways in which the music could be marketed. “We need the best,” Cane told the composer, “but we need to have something commercial, something I can sell…give Dino what he wants, but someplace we’ve got to have something people can hum.”

That turned out to be Dwan’s theme, and rather than choosing a single performer to record it, Cane opted for three. To highlight its versatility, Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra worked from a characteristic disco blueprint, whereas pianist Roger Williams took a more stately and serene approach. With lyrics added by David Pomeranz, singer Andy Williams recorded “Are You in There?” in both ballad and disco form and found a sizeable audience for this single in Italy and Japan. Evidently, Barry’s score not only served the needs of the film outstandingly, but also managed to succeed on its own merits beyond its original frame of reference, an achievement that makes this reissue—King Kong’s first official release on CD—even more warranted, welcome and worthwhile. — 

Mad About the Girl
The King Kong Soundtrack Album

Given its scale, King Kong was never going to rely on background music subservient to images and dialogue. Music is one of the film’s main ingredients. Accordingly, the soundtrack LP, originally on Reprise Records MS 2260, was a fairly substantial one. While by no means the complete score, the album ran a generous 42:30 and has been remastered from the ¼″ stereo album masters for this premiere CD release. (Because the album is controlled by a different corporate family—Reprise is today a part of Warner Bros. Records—than that which distributed the film—Paramount—we are unable to expand and remix it as is customary for FSM releases.)

For a composer, the great thing about a myth like Kong (beside the pro-music set pieces) is that there is more than one way to approach the subject. It could be treated as the tragic story of the monster—the Frankenstein style, if you like. It could be treated as a ripping yarn for the boys. It could be treated as the fantastic story of the girl. Or it could be separated from all personal perspectives and treated simply as a spectacle. Any good film or musical interpretation will flit between all four but its overall identity would be rooted in one of these paradigms. Max Steiner’s score for the 1933 original seems mostly rooted in the spectacle. John Barry’s score for the 1976 version is rooted in the characters—principally the girl.

Putting the girl at the center of the score is what gives Barry’s Kong a marvelous sense of identity as well as a strong emotional foundation. It is also exactly what you would expect from Barry. Rarely has he scored a movie as a spectacle rather than a journey of people. The Black Hole and The Deep, perhaps. Maybe even Goldfinger (the theme scores the scenario, not the character himself). But even the other James Bond scores, which make substantial use of spectacle cues, are usually rooted in a love theme: Think of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and “We Have All the Time in the World” or The Living Daylights and “Kara’s Theme.”

The movie opens with an unscored pre-title sequence in which Princeton paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) stows away on an oil tanker, the Petrox Explorer. Under the command of Captain Ross (John Randolph), the ship prepares to disembark from Surabaya, Indonesia in search of a little-known island hidden by a fog bank. There, egotistical corporate adventurer Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) and his geologist sidekick Roy Bagley (Rene Auberjonois) expect to make the biggest oil strike since…well, ever.

1. The Opening
The music opens like a cloud of doom hanging over the proceedings as the Explorer inches its way out of dock. Bagley and Wilson, with comic double meaning, drink to “the big one.” A hulking brass statement greets the King Kong title card, after which Barry’s main title walks the tightrope between tranquility and muted anxiety against visuals of the Explorer sailing past a red sunset.
Barry establishes three of the motives that he will use in the remainder of the score. The first (which, for the purposes of these notes, we will call Kong theme one) is a repeating motive of six evenly spaced notes. Used in the film as a premonition, it is scored for the orchestra’s lowest instruments and synthetically augmented to add otherworldly bass and reverb. In the main title it is decorated by Kong theme two—a glistening descender much like the lush accompaniment from the later Moonraker score. The final motive is one of a handful of sluggish fanfares that Barry will use as a calling card for Kong’s brutish might.
2. Maybe My Luck Has Changed
Much narrative ground is covered between the album’s first and second tracks: expositions by Wilson, Bagley and Jack; Jack’s arrest, release and eventual acceptance by the Petrox employees; and the rescue of a drifting lifeboat containing the film’s heroine, Dwan (Jessica Lange).
“Maybe My Luck Has Changed” is Dwan’s theme. It is also the score’s anchor and Barry’s first big musical set piece in the movie. The cue accompanies a passage-of-time montage that establishes the warmth Dwan brings to the expedition team, featuring signs of an embryonic relationship between Dwan and Jack as well as some sun-drenched glamour shots of actress Lange. This is the kind of sequence a composer loves—a chance for the music to carry the movie all by itself for a while without competing with dialogue or sound effects.
Dwan’s theme is a buoyant one and it uses a much-loved, classic Barryism—a lush, lyrical melody passed between sections of the orchestra and augmented by horn counterstatements. This is the signature style of Barry’s late ’70s and early ’80s period and can be heard in many of his most popular themes from that time.
3. Arrival on the Island
A reconnaissance boat comes ashore on the island and Dwan runs off to a beautiful waterfall, chased and chastised by Jack for her lack of caution. The scene provides Jack and Dwan a few moments alone to develop a romantic bond.
Dwan’s theme might have been the predictable choice for this scene, but Barry uses a unique theme—a lovely melody passed between strings and horns and decorated with Kong theme two.
In the film, we hear only one full repetition of the theme before the cue introduces Kong theme three (which on the album has not yet made an appearance). For the album, Barry carries on with a second repetition to finish with a swelling horn fanfare.
4. Sacrifice—Hail to the King
The reconnaissance party returns to the Petrox Explorer after disturbing a native ceremony that symbolizes the gift of a woman to an ape. Fascinated by Dwan, the natives kidnap her from the ship, then prepare her as a sacrifice to Kong.
The sacrifice presents another significant opportunity for music in the film. The cue starts as source music with complex layers of rhythms for an array of exotic drums supplemented by chants of “Kong!” The source music gradually melds with underscore as the orchestra builds tension in anticipation of Kong’s dramatic appearance. This album track was supplemented by sound effects from the movie.
5. Arthusa
Kong takes Dwan to a waterfall, to wash her and allow her to swim. (In Greek mythology, Arethusa is a wood nymph who is changed into a spring while fleeing the advances of the river-god Alpheus.) Yet another scene that seems to be spaciously edited with music in mind, Barry scores it with a stately version of Dwan’s theme under the umbrella of an echoing piano. As Kong adoringly dries his prize, the music escalates to broad, dreamy strokes of mystical eroticism.
6. Full Moon Domain—Beauty Is a Beast
A rescue party searches for Dwan but most of its members are massacred by Kong in a horrific attack. The only survivors are Jack and a laborer, Boan (Julius Harris), each stranded at opposite sides of a ravine. Jack, on the far side, follows Kong; Boan heads back to camp.
The music begins grimly as an exhausted Boan reaches base camp and makes a simple hand- across-the-neck gesture indicating that everyone is dead. A deep brass statement yields to strings as the film dissolves to the mysterious beauty of Kong’s domain—two rocky towers under a bright full moon. Barry’s music lends an ethereal quality to this scene, with a hypnotic bass and flute repeater underpinning broken segments of Dwan’s theme. It develops into Dwan’s theme proper as Kong erotically pets her, but turns violent when Kong kills an intruding giant snake. The complex percussion heard here is another part of Barry’s stylistic lexicon. Amid the violence a swelling string phrase matches Dwan’s escape to Jack’s arms.
7. Breakout to Captivity
Jack and Dwan run to base camp with Kong in pursuit. The cue opens with agitated low notes as Wilson’s team hurries to booby-trap Kong’s perimeter wall with knockout gas, then develops into the album’s first appearance of Kong theme four—a climbing six-note motive. Another classic Barryism is on display here. Many composers would escalate the tension by accelerating the rhythm. Barry does it by adding layers of sound, culminating in a wailing sustain with movement underneath. The tension climaxes just before Kong is knocked out by the chloroform. The album track closes with sound effects from the movie before segueing to a soft, sad coda as the film dissolves to the Explorer, now heading back to New York. (This track concluded side one of the LP.)
8. Incomprehensible Captivity
Kong is imprisoned, pathetic and depressed in the tanks of the Explorer. When Dwan embraces Jack above decks, her scarf drifts away and falls through a grille toward Kong. This enrages him and he threatens the ship with a violent outburst. Dwan pacifies him with her voice. Kong shakes the ship, causing her to fall into his hands.
The music begins with Dwan’s fall and introduces Kong theme five, a harsh but melancholy theme for heavy brass and troubled strings. Nothing really happens in this scene—just a long stare between Kong and Dwan as he puts her down and, defeated, lets her walk away.
9. Kong Hits the Big Apple
Wilson has arranged a grotesquely commercial publicity stunt that will make a circus out of Kong and the native ceremony. This track is the second of two source cues that Barry wrote for the New York jamboree. Another classic Barryism can be heard here: the gradual crossover between source music and underscore—here the appearance of Kong theme two, preceding the unveiling of Kong to the crowd.
10. Blackout in New York/How About Buying Me a Drink
Kong breaks out of his cage and rampages in search of Dwan. The broody opening of this track is the album’s first use of Kong theme three (yet another six-note motive) and appears after a desperate race across New York, as Dwan pleads with Jack to rest in a bar. (The titles of this track are actually the wrong way round—“How About Buying Me a Drink” comes first, then “Blackout in New York.”) As they enter the bar, Jack catches sight of the full moon behind the twin World Trade Center towers. Barry scores the revelation with one of his characteristic tools—the “lightbulb” moment: a pause in the theme showcasing one distinct phrase in a different timbre to indicate a narrative epiphany on screen (in this case, that the twin towers look like Kong’s domain). Jack fails to realize it immediately, but he knows something about the scene is significant. The lightbulb moment repeats when Kong sees the same sight.
The second half of this cue takes place after Kong smashes power generators, causing a blackout. It is a sad, late-night jazz arrangement of Dwan’s theme—used as the tired lovers contemplate the future. The distant piano adds to the sleepy haze. The track closes with a short burst of Kong theme three as Jack realizes the link between the World Trade Center and Kong’s domain. This short burst is repeated moments later when Kong grabs Dwan from inside the bar.
The film has two discrete sections of the jazzy Dwan theme; neither are quite the same as what is on the album.
11. Climb to Skull Island
This track is a near-verbatim reprise of “Incomprehensible Captivity,” used as Kong ascends one of the WTC towers, featuring a nice example of another Barry trademark—the soft post-climax phrase in the strings.
12. The End Is at Hand
Jack races to the top of the WTC and hurries to a position where he can view what happens next. Snare drums enter as soldiers ascend the tower to attack Kong with flamethrowers. The music persists as Kong and the soldiers continue their battle and Kong is injured. The music swells for a moment as Kong leaps to the second tower. Yet another element of the Barry stylebook is on display here—the steady escalation of strings to keep adding to the tension. The cue concludes with the soldiers’ fiery death. The final battle between Kong and three helicopters is unscored.
13. The End
The helicopter battle has ended and Kong has fallen to the ground. The closing music begins with an elegy for strings, akin to that which scored the Aborigine boy’s post-apocalypse in 1971’s Walkabout. We hear the slowing heartbeat of Kong and he dies. A brief, anguished cry of Kong theme five precedes an emotionally charged sweep of strings as the camera pulls back, revealing Dwan’s grief-stricken separation from Jack. The music comes to a full stop before a warm rendition of Dwan’s theme plays for the closing titles. —