Given how much of a technical marvel, for 1933, the original King Kong was, the 1976 version's often hilariously inept effects are a fairly embarrassing. Reviews at the time were surprisingly favourable and it did reasonable business, especially considering its then record breaking production costs (much of which doesn't appear to have ended up on screen, notably Carlo Rambaldi's full size Kong), but time has not treated it well and it's now viewed as a campy experiment to update a classic which really didn't work. The album liner notes suggest that, although the composer's sensibilities are just about as far from those of Max Steiner as one could imagine, John Barry was the surprisingly first choice to score the picture. Evidently, the narrative as a tragic love story sold the producers on hiring Barry and the composer, not always the most discerning when it comes to some of his choices, clearly felt the same.
The notes also mention that Barry scored the film as the film was being made, reel at a time, so effectively was making up the music along with the film, with no clear view as to how the overall shape and momentum of the movie would pan out. Of course, Barry is too consistent a composer for the tone to vary that wildly and this unusual method of scoring is not obvious from listening to it on disc. The Opening introduces the three ideas Barry uses to delineate Kong's personality, but they are not the imposing brute of Steiner's three note motif, but rather more subtle and esoteric. Maybe My Luck Has Changed introduces the love theme which was turned into three singles in varying pop styles at the time of the film's release (although none of these are included here). If not quite top of the composer's list of fine melodies, it's still pleasingly serious and lacking in sentiment or melodrama. nicely in keeping with the unusual nature of the relationship between beauty and beast.
Of course a Kong score can't go by without some more barbaric writing and this reaches its apex in the lengthy Sacrifice which contains the kind of tribal percussion one more readily associates with Skull Island. For a composer whose writing occasionally sounds uncomfortable outside of his usual idiom, Sacrifice works extremely well, with a brutal climax that segues into underscore, but not after a few of Kong's roars. Breakout to Captivity also contains some more exciting passages and a couple more sound effects. Fortunately, while such things are not ideal, legal reasons prevented Film Score Monthly from removing them (or, indeed, releasing an expanded edition), but they are brief and a tolerable intrusion. The album has one notable tonal misstep in the swinging Kong Hits the Big Apple, a piece of source music employed for the unveiling of the beast to the unsuspecting New York crowd. In isolation, an enjoyable pop instrumental, albeit one that's more 60s than 70s (probably a blessing), but in the context quite a mood killer.
The final few reels are scored with typical restraint, Barry giving the film the emotional kick it would severely have lacked otherwise. For a film that, in retrospect, is rather risible, Barry's score is a dignified and well wrought piece of work. As noted, FSM were unable to present anything beyond that contained on the original LP, but the selection here is ample, containing all the major highlights. Sound quality is fine, although a couple of passages seem to have some curious mixing choices, but these seems likely to have been ones made at the time of recording than any problem with the masters. The liner notes are detailed and extensive. Well worth hearing, even if not an essential Barry album, but equally fascinating as a study in how two composer of differing sensibilities and eras approach similar material with hugely divergent, but equally engaging results.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad