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Soundtrack review: King Kong (James Newton Howard, 2014)

JNH Thursday

Soundtrack review: King Kong (James Newton Howard, 2014)


After all his monstrous success with the “Lord of the rings” trilogy, Peter Jackson tackled the subject of King Kong. He wanted to get a chance to express his vision on the story. Of course, Howard Shore was hired to write the score. It was unimaginable to have anyone else, after the glorious scores he wrote for the trilogy. There were three hours of music to write, he knew the process, the director, everything. But something happened and the two suddenly parted ways over “creative differences” 2 months before the release of the film.

James Newton Howard was quickly approached for the job, with only 5 weeks at his disposal to write, edit and complete this immense task. With limited time and resources, the director and the composer watched together the recording sessions from different parts of the world. Newton Howard wrote in one part of LA while the recordings were being done in another. Three locations simultaneously, a very short time frame and three hours of music to record… The two didn’t actually meet until after the premiere of the movie… What could possibly come out of this?

Well, it’s James Newton Howard we’re talking about, so what came out was one of his best scores ever, his only true orchestral score actually, a beautiful masterpiece that echoes both the size and violence of Kong and the tenderness of his unusual feelings for Anne…

If I always mention how Patrick Doyle nails the ending of his scores, the same can be said by Newton Howard and prologues. The first cues from his scores are always amazing themes that gently pull you into the story the composer wants to tell. Things aren’t different here. In 1 minute, “King Kong” slowly appears from the fog, calling the listener through a distant echo… a beautiful siren song to which you cannot resist. It’s only one minute long, but this tune is forever stuck in my soul.

The theme is developed even more beautifully in the first 6 star cue of the score, “It’s in the subtext”. It’s all in the subtext of this track actually… it’s a rich, complex, carefully crafted cue that you get immersed in, a gentle mist that you cannot escape. “The venture departs” is a true James Newton Howard track: sweeping in parts, scary in others, I recognize his sharp notes and his subtle motifs.

All of his work on M. Night Shyamalan movies came in handy once he had to make us aware of the frightening nature of Skull Island. “Last blank space on the map” is the first truly scary cue of the score.

Nothing misses from “King Kong”. Nothing that should be there isn’t, it’s a complete work of art.

This particular track sounds exactly how a “King Kong” track should, echoing through the ages with all the previous movies and scores. “It’s deserted”, a 7 minutes cue that doesn’t stop playing with our emotions for its entire duration, completes this grandiose part of the score, the discovery of the island. We are part of the journey, we are there on Skull Island, and we are scared and amazed in the same time. There are things lurking in every corner of this track, there are voices and whispers, but we can’t stop listening and exploring because we are intrigued about what comes next.

“Beauty” is my favorite track from this score. It is so tender, so fragile, so beautiful and calm in the madness that surrounds it that I simply can’t get over this cue. It’s James Newton Howard at his sensitive best… Sometimes I feel like many of his previous tear inducing wonder cues were just training for this one. It makes you instantly care for the best and feel sorry for how misunderstood it is.

After this break we jump straight into some of the best action cues James Newton Howard has ever written: engaging, powerful, full of brass and percussion. “Tooth and claw” and “Captured” provide nonstop thrills and make for a very exciting listen.

“Central park” is a reprise of the beauty theme and it breaks our hearts all over again. How can James Newton Howard write such haunting pieces…? He has sensitiveness like no other. Beauty truly stayed its hand, a cue like this can make anyone just stop and listen to it, and be amazed… The seeds of “Sanctuary ”from“ Snow white and the Huntsman” are right here. “Empire State building” is another beautiful love theme.

“King Kong” ends with the 5 part suite “Beauty killed the beast”. If you want to know what this score is about, listen to those 16 minutes, because they concentrate everything that’s great about King Kong. It’s a reverse buildup that ends beautifully, tragically and immensely beautiful with part V. You will be touched. You will be moved. After that you’ll surely want to listen to the other hour of the normal release, and to the full three hours of the complete score. I guarantee you. James Newton Howard managed to write, in 5 weeks, one of his masterpieces and one of the most amazing scores of our times. Imagine if he had had more time…

Cue rating: 92/100

Total minutes of excellence: 69 / 75

Album excellence: 93%


Cues to listen to:

King Kong

A Fateful Meeting

It’s In The Subtext

The Venture Departs

Last Blank Space On The Map

It’s Deserted

Something Monstrous…Neither Beast Nor Man

Head Towards The Animals


Tooth And Claw

That’s All There Is…


Central Park

The Empire State Building

Beauty Killed The Beast, Pt. 1

Beauty Killed The Beast, Pt. 2

Beauty Killed The Beast, Pt. 3

Beauty Killed The Beast, Pt. 4

Beauty Killed The Beast, Pt. 5







Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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