Hey Hey, He's A (Lovesick) Monkey
King Kong. Never has an ape been the centre of attention so frequently and yet it always ends in tragedy. But, whilst said tragedy means a blood-spattered pavement and a whole mess of primate to be swept off the sidewalk, it also means opportunities for some great music - in fact, some of the greatest music ever written for the cinema.
You see, King Kong is considered to be the first ever film score, at least to the point where the music was actually composed to specifically underscore the action on screen instead of opening and closing suites. Max Steiner's score is a thrilling element of the film, importantly helping to bridge the gap between realism and fantasy and give a subconscious grounding to what - at the time - was an outrageous concept.*
And what a score it is, considering its groundbreaking stature. The film is obviously full of cinematic iconography, indelible images recreated a thousand times over via posters, T-shirts and model kits. Yet these images seem married to Steiner's music to the point where their DNA is merged; the main title and those bellowing three notes; the jungle dance and the pounding brass with that signature motif; the evocative strings as the Venture arrives at the island; and the thrilling music for the climactic battle, with the multiple uses of Kong's theme to reflect the emotions of the ape and the audience climaxing in the poignant finale.
Despite the importance of the score, it took a while for a commercial release of the score to become available - forty years to be exact - with a seven-minute suite from the film being specially recorded for RCA's legendary Classic Film Scores LP series. Recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the great Charles Gerhardt, Now Voyager: The Classic Film Music of Max Steiner placed Kong amongst other Steiner scores like The Fountain-head. While it didn't get its own release in that series (another Steiner score did, Gone With The Wind) it would eventually have many records, tapes and CDs to itself.
To cut to the chase, there are three recordings of King Kong that are really worth considering. The first is a forty-six minute suite conducted by Fred Steiner (no relation) released originally on the Entr'acte label in 1976. The recording has subsequently been reissued a few times, notably on LP and CD by the Australian label Southern Cross. Following that is a recording of the complete score released by the Marco Polo label in 1997. Conducted by William Stromberg leading the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, with the score reconstruction by John W. Morgan, this is a beautiful recording that showcases the true power of Steiner's music. Running seventy-two minutes, it's a great deal longer than any other recording and is worth picking up whether you're a fan of Kong, the Golden Age or just plain old great film music. It was reissued by Naxos in 2005 so it's easy to find and is usually pretty cheap as well.
And finally, we have the film recording itself. Sadly, there's not much left to it, however Rhino Records released an album in 1999 that contained a unique presentation of the score to King Kong. Given the relatively short amount of actual recordings from the score available, Rhino made the decision to split the CD into two halves; the first half features a radio play-esque audio presentation of the film's dialogue, effects and music tracks. Condensed into forty-eight minutes, it was taken from a laserdisc of the film and while it works pretty well, you miss seeing Willis O'Brien's animation, although it highlights the excellent sound effects work by Murray Spivack. Following that is a twenty-five minute presentation of the film score itself, or at least what survives. Taken from 78rpm records and nitrate film, Rhino has done a remarkable job of restoring the score and it's a joy to listen to the score on its own, preserved as it should have been.
But despite falling from the top of the world's tallest building, that wasn't the end for Kong, and he was soon resurrected by diminutive Italian shlockmeister Dino de Laurentiis for 1976's much-maligned modern reimagining, also titled King Kong. Notable for Rick Baker's expressive ape suit and an equally-hairy Jeff Bridges, it's not a great film but isn't really worthy of the flak it's received in the past, some of it from myself. I'm still disappointed Dino didn't follow through on his promise (threat?) of a sequel pitting Kong against the title animal from Orca: Killer Whale.
However, irregardless of the quality of the film, the music score is a fantastic piece of work. Composed and conducted by John Barry, the score provides a sense of scale that the film can't always reach, as well as a mythical and poignant quality to Kong. And then there's the love theme, which of course is beautiful as all of Barry's love themes are. Played as usual via the lush, thick strings Barry always favoured, it provides much more of an emotional underpinning to the monkey-girl relationship than Jessica Lange ever did.
Kong '76 was released on LP by Reprise Records at the time of the film's release. Sporting the gorgeous poster art (and including a free poster by the same artist, John Berkey) it ran just over forty minutes, giving a pretty decent representation of the score (with a couple of sound effects thrown in for good measure). The LP program was reissued on CD in 2005 by Film Score Monthly, although this has recently gone out of print. FSM head honcho Lukas Kendall has provided hints that seem to indicate a release of the full score is forthcoming, so that's possibly something to look out for.
But of course you can't keep a good primate down and in 2005 the ape roared back to life under the tutelage of real-life hobbit Peter Jackson, who was given a jillion dollars by Universal to do whatever he want after winning thirty-six Oscars for The Lord of the Rings. So he remade King Kong, which he'd wanted to do since he was about twelve. The only problem is that it ended up about three hours long, and has been come to be known as "Jackson's Folly" (not really: I just made that up, but people are not massive fans). While it certainly needs a few more hours in the editing bay, I'm quite a fan.
Unfortunately not everything went particularly smoothly during production, especially where the music was concerned. Composer Howard Shore began work on the film after his monumentally successful stint in Middle-earth, only to catch the next boat away from Skull Island due to the dreaded "creative differences". The only bit of music anyone has heard from the project was in one of the film's online production diaries, although once Shore left it was removed pretty sharpish. Shore has said it may see the light of day via Howe Records, his own record label, but until then the only evidence of Shore's involvement is his role in the film where he plays the leader of the pit orchestra at Kong's unveiling, conducting pieces from Max Steiner's original score.
Taking up the baton from Shore was James Newton Howard, who literally had weeks to write and record the replacement score, with the end result surprisingly effective. Howard's music really gives the movie an emotional base with its treatment of Kong in a more heroic role, with Howard providing two themes for the ape; a four-note descending motif clearly influenced by Steiner and used in the more mysterious and aggressive scenes; and a more heroic motif for his action sequences and emotional scenes with Ann.
A good example of this is when Kong climbs the Empire State Building and allows Ann to compare the beauty of New York City from the skyscraper with the view of Skull Island from Kong's lair, where Howard uses the heroic theme as an emotional crescendo. The action writing is very good, and somewhat Shore-like at times (not sure if he went from a temp-track with some of Shore's earlier music), with the tour-de-force being the final climactic airplane scene.
The score was released at the time of the film's release by Decca Records, with a generous seventy-four minute CD. Given the relative unpopularity of the film and its young age, it's unlikely we'll see any more of the film's music for a while but stranger things have happened. In any case, given that the score was recorded in America, the cost of releasing the complete score is likely to be prohibitive. It wasn't the airplanes, it was reuse fees that killed the beast.
*not that the idea of giant rampaging gorillas is commonplace today, but back then it was akin to putting peanut butter on your Kit-Kat.
Well, like a fifty-foot gorilla rampaging through downtown New York, this is something no one saw coming: the complete score for 1996 SF actioner Star Trek: First Contact as composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith, with additional cues by Joel Goldsmith, the composer's son. Coming at us at warp speed from long-thought-dead label GNP/Crescendo - who released the original album - this presents the full score plus three alternate tracks, remastered by Mike Matessino and longtime Goldsmith engineer Bruce Botnick, edited by Star Trek 2009 star Neil S. Bulk, and produced by Lukas Kendall, with full liner notes by Jeff Bond and John Takis. It's out now and can be ordered direct from GNP. It's a limited edition, but at 10000 units expect it to be around for a while.
Following that up from La La Land is the oft-requested score to a gentle parody of the whole Star Trek phenomena. Yep, David Newman's score to 1999's Galaxy Quest is finally here, but act fast - it's limited to 3000 units. Also coming from LLL is the score to obscure thriller Broke Sky, as composed by DC animated composer triumverate of Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmans & Kristopher Carter. Limited to 1000 units, both it and Galaxy Quest can be found at La La Land's website.
Intrada's latest brings us another highly-sought-after score, this time from one of the lesser-known Disney classics as they present Elmer Bernstein's music to 1985's The Black Cauldron. Previously available as a re-recording only, this presents the complete score to the film and, like all of Intrada's recent releases, will remain in print for as long as it's in demand and is available at their website. Rumour also has it that Intrada will be releasing Alan Silvestri's score to upcoming superhero jamboree The Avengers (known in UK as Marvel's Avengers Assemble) so we'll let you know as soon as we find out about that.
Finally, from Varese Sarabande comes a showcase for the best music to score tits and beheading as they bring us HBO's Game of Thrones: Season 2. Heading up the Kingsroad towards us for a late May release, Ramin Djwadi's great main title and pretty average score will underscore more tales of dwarfs, bastards and sexposition as winter draws nearer to the land of Westeros. Did I mention it has tits in it?
Is there a severe lack of zombie music in your life? Do you have a hankering for vinyl releases that can't be cured by weekly trips down the charity shop? Do you know who Graham Humphreys is? If so, you are in luck as your needy holes will soon be filled by nascent soundtrack label Death Waltz Recording Co. Not content with just putting out a few CDs at outrageous prices justified because they're "specialist", Death Waltz will be working exclusively on specially produced blood-spattered vinyl (as well as your standard black), bringing us scores from the best horror and cult films around with exclusively-commissioned artwork (by people like Graham Humpreys, who painted the infamous and awesome Palace Pictures poster for The Evil Dead).
The releases announced so far are certainly all killer and no filler, starting with the legendary score to John Carpenter's classic dystopian SF thriller Escape From New York, and following on with Fabio Frizzi's infamous score to notorious Lucio Fulci gorefest Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters). Release dates are still tentative, but you can sign up for their newsletter at their website (and check out the amazing Zombi 2 artwork featuring the legendary zombie vs shark scene!).
In honour of our tribute to Monsieur Kong, here is a selection of delectable treats from the world of movie monster music. As usual, if you have Spotify you can play along at home here.
1. Main Title from King Kong (1933)
Exactly what it says, the wonderful opening credit music from Max Steiner's classic score, setting the tone for the power of Kong with aggressive tones before using beautiful yet foreboding strings for the Arabian proverb. This is taken from the excellent Marco Polo rerecording.
2. Main Title from Godzilla (1954)
Surely the only giant monster to rival Kong, Akira Ifukube's jaunty march has been etched into legend as the theme for the rampaging lizard. Monster music rarely gets this fun.
3. Tooth and Claw from King Kong (2005)
If you have an insane action setpiece (three dinosaurs versus Kong'll do it) you need a great score for the sequence, and here James Newton Howard pulls out all the stops to bring us one of the action cues of the 00s. Listen for the wonderful statement of Kong's heroic theme at 5:03.
4. Blown To Bits from Jaws (1975)
From one of the action cues of the 00s to one of the action cues of the 1970s, as John Williams scores the climactic battle between Roy Scheider's Chief Brody and twenty-five feet of great white shark, with explosive results, both filmically and orchestrally. Smile, you son of a bitch!
5. End Credits from Jurassic Park (1993)
A modern classic, I've never been terribly fond of the gentle main theme, but that is a small price to pay when you have something as great as the "Island" theme, as played out here. But while it all seems very upbeat and triumphant, a surprising cynicism comes in at the climax as we're reminded by Williams that we probably shouldn't try and play god, especially with massive lizards that can eat us.
6. Suite from The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Hans Salter has unfortunately never been a household name, but his magnificent music for Jack Arnold's SF masterpieces gives us a poignant look at the life of the ever-shrinking Scott Carey, puncuated by the terror he must face from what was once to him a tiny spider.
7. Suite from Tarantula (1955)
Speaking of spiders, Steiner's influence is obvious from the get-go in Henry Mancini's music for Jack Arnold's other giant spider picture. Mancini's giant notes help us believe that there really is a house-sized tarantula out there, and his urgent strings remind us that we should probably stop worrying about believing and run.
8. Roar! from Cloverfield (2008)
Fittingly, the main influence on Michael Giacchino's end title suite for found footage monster movie Cloverfield - the only score in the picture - is Akira Ifukube's Godzilla music. Giacchino effortlessly homages Ifukube whilst simultaneously giving his music a contemporary freshness. This piece is a rerecording by the City of Prague Philharmonic, cut down from the original track's running time, which is over ten minutes.
9. Going After Newt from Aliens (1986)
Seeing how her newfound friend (and clumsily surrogate daughter in the special edition) has been kidnapped and taken to the lair of the monster queen alien, it's unsurprising that Ripley needs some mood music to give her some urgency. As luck would have it, Bishop had some James Horner lying around and threw it on the Dropship's MP3 player (it's the future, right?) to help his comrade out. The percussion alone on this cue is amazing, but the brass really makes it.
10. Finale ('It Was Beauty Killed The Beast') from King Kong (1933)
Where else to finish than with Steiner's incredible finale, again taken from the Marco Polo rerecording. Hankies at the ready...
Until next time...