SOUNDTRACK REVIEW by Andrew Klay: The Nativity Story (2006)

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Composer: Mychael Danna

Whether you’re Christian or not, The Nativity Story is a powerful film with even more powerful music to accompany it. We experience a grittier, more painfully realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, amid political turmoil and family struggle.

This film, strangely enough, shares the same director as Twilight, but couldn’t be more opposite in look and feel. The composer, Mychael Danna, has a few familiar films under his belt, but in general is not widely known. What this partnership delivered was an emotional masterpiece.

The film opens with King Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” in which he orders the death of every male child under the age of two, in an attempt to thwart the rise of a new foretold leader. We then flash back one year and are placed in Nazareth, where we are introduced to the teenage Mary, who would soon become the mother of Jesus. Danna uses a harp, recorder, and a middle-eastern vocalist for Mary’s theme, which is contemplative and wistful. In the track entitled “Nazareth,” we are taken into the mind and heart of Mary, learning of her inner struggles regarding her predetermined future, in addition to the fears involved in living under political tyranny. We get to know her on an intimate level and share her deep concerns. The score reflects Mary’s yearning for a better life, as well as her desires to honor her family.

After being betrothed to Joseph, she is visited by an angel and told she will bear the son of God. She takes a journey to visit her much older cousin, Elizabeth, who is also with child, where her theme is reprised. Upon Mary’s return, her family is horrified and ashamed to find her pregnant. Joseph, bitterly disappointed, is prepared to divorce her quietly, when he, too, is visited by an angel. He and Mary then make preparations for a voyage to Bethlehem, to be taxed in the land of his birth.

One of the defining characteristics of this film is its realistic portrayal of their strenuous journey. We normally don’t give it much thought, but 90 miles on a donkey across rugged terrain with a meager food supply would prove life-threatening. It is by no means a pleasant trip. Danna gives us this sense of desperate urgency as they approach Bethlehem, and it is obvious that Mary could deliver at any time. In the track “Is there a Place for Us?”, Danna incorporates elements from the familiar Christmas tune, “Carol of the Bells,” but this time in a dangerous, jarring way. Joseph carries Mary from inn to inn but all are full.

The piece transitions us to the scene of Jesus’ birth in a limestone-cave stable. Christ’s birth is not shown in the typical peaceful way, but rather, we are exposed to the extreme desperation of this young couple’s circumstances. As the baby is delivered, glorious light pours through an opening in the cave ceiling, a sign to the Magi of the Christ child’s birth. This music encompasses two tracks, which deserve to be heard together seamlessly. They are “A Star Shall Come Forth” and “I Bring You Good Tidings,” respectively. This is some of the most powerfully emotive music ever to grace the screen. It certainly underscores the significance of the moment and does justice to the subject matter. The piece is marked by heavenly choir that shifts from ominous to passionate to an almost Gregorian Chant-like style. In the middle of the piece, heavy strings complement the choir to form the climactic scene of the film. When Mary holds her newborn son, the mood shifts back to relief and awe.

The film ends with a traditional rendition of Silens Nox, or “Silent Night.” Danna is able to transform a European carol into a tastefully-crafted, traditional piece of music. It seems familiar and appropriate, yet not obvious. By combining Medieval and Middle-eastern styles of music, he paints a beautiful picture with stunning textures that place the viewer in the time period, the setting, and the story. The Nativity Story has a richly unique score that will definitely stand the test of time.

Music links
Is There a Place for Us?
A Star Shall Come Forth
Silens Nox

SOUNDTRACK REVIEW by Andrew Klay: King Kong (2005)

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) :
Central Park

(3) Beauty Killed the Beast (Kong’s death) :
Beauty Killed the Beast

(4) Web documentary on scoring King Kong:
View Doc