Soundtrack Review #2: King Kong (2005)
Director: Peter Jackson
Composer: James Newton Howard
The score for King Kong is an interesting story, since it is not the first. Peter Jackson previously had maintained a professional partnership with composer Howard Shore, with whom he had produced the three Lord of the Rings films. Shore was initially hired for King Kong, and most of the score was actually recorded. At some point Jackson realized that Shore’s vision for the film did not match his own, and after much deliberation, decided to sever their creative partnership and seek out a new composer.
It was then that James Newton Howard was brought in, with only 5 weeks until the film’s release date. Howard would have less than a quarter of the time granted most composers to score the film. And with three-hour epics like Jackson’s, this made the task all the more daunting.
But James Newton Howard succeeded. He worked tirelessly to bring King Kong to life, often upwards of 20 hours a day in his Los Angeles studio, while the Jackson team finished up post production in Wellington, New Zealand. Howard and Jackson communicated via video conference, and the two never even met until the premiere.
From what little information we have, gleamed from web diary documentaries produced by Jackson leading up to the premiere, we know that Howard Shore’s original score contained a wider variety of unique indigenous instruments to give the film an exotic flavor. It was even recorded in a state-of-the-art facility, an oddly-shaped symphony hall in New Zealand. No one knows if those recordings will ever be made available for purchase—they would certainly make great collector’s items.
In the final soundtrack we identify a number of elements and motifs. The main theme, played by cellos and low brass at the very beginning of the film, takes several other forms as the film progresses. It is brought back at any mention or implication of the journey to Skull Island. Next we have music involving the female lead, Anne Darrow, played by Naomi Watts. Her theme music is gentle and tender, utilizing piano and strings. When we see the beast, we are bombarded by full brass, an homage to the original 1933 version.
What Jackson brought to the story was an intimate connection between Anne and the beast, not a love story per se, but an attachment, showing us that King Kong is neither as vicious nor as blood thirsty as he is believed to be. This is reflected in the track entitled “Beautiful,” a theme for piano, harp, and flute which is just that. It reveals a protective, affectionate side of the so-called monster, as well as Anne’s desire to prevent his capture and imprisonment. The two form a bond of friendship, a bit like a dog and its master, and through the music we as the audience are drawn into that sentiment. We feel for the beast and do not fear him as his captors do.
This is evidenced in the end of the film, when Anne waves the airplanes away from the Empire State building, begging them not to harm Kong. The music turns from intense brass and percussion to mournful choir and fervent strings, placing us emotionally into the heart of the scene. Our perceptions of fear have been transformed by a score that gave King Kong a fresh, unconventional angle.
Links to explore:
(1) The Venture Departs (reprise of main theme) :
The Venture Departs
(2) Central Park (love theme) :
(3) Beauty Killed the Beast (Kong’s death) :
Beauty Killed the Beast
(4) Web documentary on scoring King Kong: