You’ve probably heard the story many, many times, by now, but let’s tell it again. In a situation that seems quite similar to Gabriel Yared’s experience with scoring Troy, Howard Shore had spent many months composing, and recording parts of, the score for Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic King Kong when it was announced that the composer and director had decided to end their collaboration, due to "creative differences", leaving James Newton Howard the stressful and difficult task to compose and record a replacement score in just over a month. We will probably never learn exactly why Shore and Jackson decided to walk their separate ways - creative differences can mean a lot of things - and we will probably never get the chance to hear what Shore spent many months composing, and that's disappointing, of course. However, and luckily for us, James Newton Howard's score is everything but disappointing. Considering the short amount of time Howard was allowed to invest in the project, his music for King Kong is an impressive and entertaining collection of action, drama and humor.
With only five weeks to write over two hours of music, Howard simultaneosly composed and recorded music, using live video and audio feeds to communicate with the recording studio and director Peter Jackson, who he actually never met until the premiere of the film.
Even if the score is a nice mix of drama and action, it is dominated by the latter. Using plenty of brass, percussion and choir Howard creates some very exciting action music, at times aggressive, with a fair share of adventure, horror and suspense as well. "It's deserted" and "Tooth and Claw" are two really impressive, kick ass action cues, which both gives the brass and percussive sections of the orchestra some serious work. It's big. It's bold. And it's beautiful. There's a great deal of massive, awe-inspiring brass fanfares, choral outbursts and grand music in general.
The upbeat, comedy elements, with hints of jazz, give the music some much needed light. “Defeat if Always Momentary” is a nice scherzo sounding cue, dominated by staccato strings, muted horns and upbeat trumpets. There are also some beautiful passages, where Howard lets the scores' lush, but perhaps not that memorable, love theme stretch its legs. "Central Park" is a highlight, with parts reminiscent of Rachel Portman's "The Cider House Rules", with broad strings, woodwinds and soft piano. The boy soprano solo in “Beauty Killed the Beast IV” - which also includes some great choral moments - is a nice touch and actually sounds a lot like something Howard Shore could, and perhaps did, write for the film.
Howard’s King Kong is one of the strongest scores of 2005, no doubt about it, but what I tend to miss is some stronger themes. Sure, the theme, or motif, for Kong is there, but could have been given a little more attention and room. Also, even if the action music certainly is exciting, adventurous and dissonant I would have welcomed some even more aggressive, dissonant and atonal music. Something like John Williams’s action music for War of the Worlds, perhaps? Something meaner and more dirty. But let’s not be overly picky - King Kong is a great score.