Review: King Kong (2005)

Composer: James Newton Howard

Label: Decca Records

Catalogue Nr.: 4765224


He is the most famous primate in film history and a true symbol of Hollywood. The original film from 1933 broke new cinematic ground especially in terms of special effects and actually featured the first real film score composed by Max Steiner. It was the biggest hit of the early days of Hollywood and generated several sequels, re-releases as well as remakes and crossovers that were trying to 'ape' the original. Today, 72 years later, Peter Jackson took the chance to create his own version of King Kong. The project seems like a piece of cake for the director compared with Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings. Jackson was reportedly rewarded with the highest payment ever for a director when he signed on while the production as a whole can be described as superlative. But everything has a downside: As soon as it was clear that King Kong would become an incredibly expensive affair and that at the same time Jackson insisted on having a horrendous running time, the studio executives suddenly having nervous fingers...

The score:

What usually happens when producers are having nervous fingers is that they are trying to make changes to the film wherever it is possible. In most cases that means trashing the score and hiring a new composer. It happened before and it happened yet again. No one expected that composer Howard Shore would have to face the same fate as Gabriel Yared (who composed the rejected score for Wolfgang Petersen's epic flop Troy (2004)) because his working relationship with Peter Jackson was considered as one of the strongest in the business especially after their success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everyone assumed that any of their future collaborations would stand above any criticism from studio executives. Then, In late 2005, the entire film music community responded with pure disbelieve when Emile Brinkman, the webmaster of, broke the news of Shore's King Kong score being replaced by a new score from James Newton Howard. What had been a worst-case scenario for many score fans slowly turned out to be reality. Panic was building up when the films running time of 180 minutes was made public and James Newton Howard had a little more than 4 weeks left to compose and record more than 3 hours of music. There are people who create their best work under extreme pressure and James Newton Howard must be one of them: King Kong belongs to his best scores.

While it was clear from the very beginning that the score CD had to leave out a lot of material, it is still a nice presentation of the most important themes and musical plot points. There are several major themes in this score but the most consistent thematic development is focused on Kong and his relationship to Ann. The mysterious theme for the Island (or the venture, depends on how you interpret it) and the powerful yet grim rising 4-note motif for the ape are introduced in the cue "King Kong" in best monster-movie fashion. "A Fateful Meeting" is a combination of different cues from the score which are focused on Ann Darrow, including the music from the theater closing scene and the sunset scene on the ship (though the musical signatures are sometimes re-used for other scenes). A subtle and simple tune for piano swells up to lush strings accompanied by guitar to set the romantic tone for the sunset scene which almost feels like a nod to James Horner's romanticism from Titanic (1998). Between some hectic and frenetic tones for New York and a slight jazz sound, there is a new theme introduced in "Defeat Is Always Momentary". It can be seen as a theme for Carl Denham but the heroic variation of this theme at the end of "It's Deserted" is also used for the crew of the venture.

The Island theme with its mysterious tone is featured very extensive and mainly performed by strings in "It's In The Subtext" which is heard during the journey montage and the first kiss of Ann and Jack Driscoll. A cue with a comedy tone is "Two Grand" which is a variation on the frenetic New York material with some statements of the Island theme thrown in as Jack Driscoll is trying to escape from the venture. "The Venture Departs" starts with a statement of the Island theme for the departure of the ship from New York and contains an old-fashioned jazzy tune for the superficial and self-centred actor Bruce Baxter which fits the character perfectly (and jazz in that classic fashion is something which we barely heard from Howard yet). Howard hits more familiar tones in "Last Blank Space On The Map" with big arrays of drums and percussion that could come right off his score for Outbreak (1995) though everything is just much bigger in his score for King Kong.

"It's Deserted" is one of my favourite cues mainly because it is a nice suite of my favourite themes from the score. The Island theme which goes right into Kong's theme is heard at the beginning when Denham and his crew are setting foot on Skull Island. Action music ala Howard which is slightly reminiscent of his orchestral action moments in Waterworld (1994) sets in during the second half of the cue with the heroic variation of Denham's theme mentioned earlier (this moment of heroism was also tracked-in for the rescue scene from the bug pit). A powerful statement of Kong's theme is heard in "Something Monstrous... Neither Beast Nor Man" when the big ape appears for the first time and action music ala Dinosaur (2000) follows. "Head Towards The Animals" is an insane action cue for the stampede scene with lots of percussion and clusters of brass. Time to breath comes with the gentle and romantic "Beautiful" which describes perfectly what the cue is about. It is a soft and subtle composition for harp, woodwinds, strings and piano while the second half of the cue is introducing a melody played by flute which can be seen as a sort of love theme for Kong and Ann.

Action returns in "Tooth And Claw" with a heroic variation on Kong's 4-note theme when Kong is revealing himself as the mighty protector of Anne and fights the V-Rex. The end of the fight is scored with a magnificent choral statement and a kind of downbeat variation of Kong's theme with the 4-notes descending instead of rising which gives the victory a tragic note and foreshadows Kong's fate as tragic hero. "That's All There Is" opens grim with choir and Kong's theme as the ape is catching Ann during an escape attempt. Jazzy notes return as Ann is playing some of her acrobatic tricks for Kong to soothe the furious ape. The cue goes right into furious action music in "Captured" without a break. As Anne is taken away from Kong by Driscoll, there is a big statement of the descending variation of Kong's theme for choir to signal the actual beginning of Kong's death when he is going after her. The CD skips a lot of source material from the New York scenes and goes right into the reprise of the Kong-Anne love theme for piano as both are reunited in the snowy streets of the city. The music swells beautifully when the beauty and the beast are playing in the snow and share some brief moments of piece with each other.

"Empire State Building" offers a very moving, emotional variation on the tragic side of the Kong theme for cello which will take the breath away. It's emotionally involving cues like that which make James Newton Howard's score the winner of the year. The music is becoming more tragic in the following five "Beauty Killed The Beast"-cues, starting with sad string tones backed up with harsh militaristic drums as fighter planes are attacking Kong. The music swells with heroism as Kong makes a last stand and is trying to fight the planes though dramatic tones for choir between the pounding action keep telling the listener that the ape is only delaying the inevitable. Howard musically described Kong's last breath of life with a gentle and ethereal boy soprano and an incredibly moving sad theme for strings with a choir reminiscent of Shore's Lord Of The Rings (temp-track?) signals Kong's end.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg



Score as heard in the film: 93%

Score as heard on CD: 86%

TOTAL: 90%


The presentation:

The CD is arranged like a big symphonic suite of the score's highlights and hardly leaves any wishes even though it leaves out nearly two hours of score from the film. But every important musical plot point is there and all themes of the score are featured at some point of the album. It is a joy to have 77 minutes of score instead of useless enhanced content. The poster is the only thing that leaves me scratching my head because I can't imagine anyone would glue an unfolded CD cover on a wall to have a poster which is way too small ('What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!'). But the overall presentation of the score is still one of the better for a regular score release in recent years.

Presentation by the Label: 69%



James Newton Howard really delivered on King Kong and it is not primarily the action but the tender emotional moments that make it a winner. There are moments of heroism but everything always seems to have a heavy and tragic touch to it and thus the music hardly ever rises to insane adventurous heights like in so many other scores. Instead, Howard recognized Kong as the tragic hero of the film and made the ape's feelings for the beauty believable by writing music right to his heart. People complained that there are not enough references to Max Steiner or the period of the early 30's but that is not what the score is supposed to achieve in this film (at least not primarily). The entire relationship between Kong and Ann is much more important and can only work due to the beautifully moving and powerful score. The finale music belongs to the most involving emotional scoring in recent years. Admittedly, it all works wonders in the film but it takes a while until the magic fully unfolds when listening to the CD. Nevertheless, James Newton Howard's score for King Kong still remains his most competent adventure score in terms of emotions and is clearly the best score of 2005 which comes highly recommended.



01. King Kong (01:09)
02. A Fateful Meeting (04:16)
03. Defeat Is Always Momentary (02:48)
04. It's In The Subtext (03:19)
05. Two Grand (02:34)
06. The Venture Departs (04:03)
07. Last Blank Space On The Map (04:43)
08. It's Deserted (07:08)
09. Something Monstrous... Neither Beast Nor Man (02:38)
10. Head Towards The Animals (02:28)
11. Beautiful (04:08)
12. Tooth And Claw (06:17)
13. That's All There Is... (03:26)
14. Captured (02:25)
15. Central Park (04:36)
16. The Empire State Building (02:36)
17. Beauty Killed The Beast I (01:59)
18. Beauty Killed The Beast II (02:22)
19. Beauty Killed The Beast III (02:14)
20. Beauty Killed The Beast IV (04:45)
21. Beauty Killed The Beast V (04:13)


King Kong - A Monstrous Score

Now, in case you haven't had your dose of Kong with the review of the CD then be my guest and enjoy the analysis of the complete score as heard in the film. If a score runs almost three hours something's gotta give on CD and the following article will guide you through the score, reveal the missing material and comment on outstanding cues.

(PLEASE NOTE... that this complete cue breakdown and the analysis are based on the film and NOT on a CD release of the complete score! Beware of Spoilers!)

01. Main Title (01:04)

The same cue as "King Kong" on the CD. It features the Island theme for strings and the grim 4-note motif for Kong as the film's title appears on the screen.

02. Ann Darrow / Theatre Closed / Use What You Got (02:41)

"Ann Darrow" and "Theatre Closed" are on the CD as a part of "A Fateful Meeting". The cue continues in the film with the jazzy entertainment theme reflecting on the hectic New York of the early 30's. The theme appears again later on when Ann is playing tricks for Kong while the flute motif for Ann from the first part of the cue receives an extended statement when the starving Ann sees people eating in a restaurant.

03. Carl Denham / The Map (01:44)

The cue follows the screening of Carl Denham's safari-film. A slow solo clarinet along with pizzicato strings is creating a comic tone for the funny introduction of Denham's character before the first statement of the Island theme appears as Denham reveals the map to the movie producers.

04. Scrab The Picture (00:38)

The comic sound returns as Denham is eavesdropping on the producers and finds out that his picture is scrabbed.

05. Defeat Is Always Momentary / A Fateful Meeting (03:32)

The first part of this cue can be found on the CD but in the film, another statement of Ann's theme for piano follows as Denham sees the girl in the reflection of a window and is amazed by her beautiful and innocent appearance.

06. I Make People Laugh (01:57)

The cue is entirely unreleased and starts with a slightly comic sound as  Denham is asking questions to Ann and explains the plot of his film to her. She perfectly understands the story and the score responds to that with subtle and innocent music for woodwinds.

07. The Venture / Captain Englehorn / The First Step (03:17)

The entertainment-theme is featured at the beginning of the cue though lost the jazzy sound and is instead performed by the string section as Ann and Denham drive to the harbour. The Island theme swells when the Venture appears on screen. A slightly suspenseful variation of the entertainment-theme for strings is heard when Ann meets the strange Captain Englehorn. Her first step on the venture which also marks the beginning of the adventure is scored with a sudden swelling of the island theme.

 08. Two Grand / Jack On The Run (2:44)

Almost the entire cue is featured on the CD except for the beginning with suspenseful strings when Jack Driscoll shows Denham the script with only 15 pages.

09. Leaving New York (00:19), 10. Chlorophorm (00:42) and 11. Bruce Baxter / Jimmy (02:33)

All of these cues are featured on the CD in the track "The Venture Departs" which even contains some unused music between "Leaving New York" and "Chlorophorm" when a crew member is showing Driscoll his 'cabin'.

12. The Film Crew / Ann And Driscoll Meet (01:59)

Gentle strings are heard in this entirely unreleased cue when Ann is mistaking the sound engineer for Jack Driscoll. The strings rise and fall to a comic woodwind solo as the real Driscoll arrives. A funny variation of Bruce Baxter's jazzy theme is heard when he finds his movie posters 'raped'.

13. The Island / ...and Action! / Good Legs / Sunset Scene (04:34)

Suspense music and the Island theme are featured prominently in this cue as Denham mentions the scary name of the Island to Driscoll. A funny nod to Golden Age film scores with lush strings is heard when the crew is shooting a romantic scene with Ann and Baxter. The second half of the cue, namely "Good Legs" and the "Sunset Scene" are all on the CD and can be found at 1:24 into "A Fateful Meeting".

14. Going For Skull Island / Journey Montage / The Kiss (05:44)

Strings and piano are creating a mood of tension when Captain Englehorn's worries about the journey are growing and the crew confronts Denham and forces him to be honest about the journey's goal. When Lumpy the cook is telling a spooky story about the island and a man-eater, the island theme is heard yet again. While the first half of the cue is unreleased, the second half with "Journey Montage" and "The Kiss" is featured on the CD in "It's In The Subtext".

15. I Want You Off My Ship / Into The Fog / Wall Ahead! (07:35)

Low strings and a howling sound effect are heard when Denham and Driscoll discover a grimface on the map before the venture enters the fog and suspense music with gloomy synthesized sounds takes over. Clashes of percussion and tension builds up as the ship makes its way through the thick fog. The thrlling second half of the cue, namely "Wall Ahead!", appears on the CD as "Last Blank Space On The Map".

16. The Venture Stranded (00:37)

As the venture is coming to rest and the fog reveals the island, woodwinds are rising to the island theme which goes into a statement of Kong's theme.

17. Skull Cave / It's Deserted / Natives (04:30)

The first half of the cue "Skull Cave" featuring Kong's theme and the mighty choral statement actually appears on the CD in "It's Deserted" but the entire "Natives" sequence with its subtle suspense strings, percussion and synthetic sounds remains unreleased.

18. The Scream / Natives Attack / Kidnapping Ann (07:18)

The music turns into sound design during the attack of the natives with percussion and gloomy synthetic effects and returns to its orchestral body when the captain and his crew are coming to the rescue. The material heard from that moment on appears on the CD at 3:04 into "It's Deserted".

19. Tribal Drums (source) / The Wall (03:40)

Many people questioned the involvment of additional music composers but it is very likely that they just did all the druming source cues for the native's ritual. This source music is interrupted by powerful brass fanfares as the crew of the venture is preparing a rescue mission for Ann and thrilling orchestral action music is heard when they make their way through the stormy sea.

20. Something Monstrous... Neither Beast Nor Man (02:34)

The cue heard when Kong is taking Anne is featured in its entirety on the CD.

21. The Rescue Mission / 24 Hours / Kong-Napped (03:36)

The Island theme is taking center-stage yet again, this time performed by strings and choir as the rescue team is heading out into the jungle to search Ann. The music for the "Kong-Napped" scene when Kong is shaking Ann is barely noticeable due to all the screaming of the ape but it seems like the heavy jungle drums heard in "Last Blank Space On The Map" have either been tracked-in or slightly variated for this scene.

22. Footprint / Brontosaura Herd / Raptors / Stampede (06:10)

The cue starts subtle with Kong's theme shining through suspenseful strings as the rescue team is finding Kong's big "Footprint" while Denham abandoned the others to continue filming with Baxter. The music swells to the magical melody heard before in "It's Deserted" though this time without choir as they approach a herd of Brontosaura. The music continues suspenseful as Denham instructs Baxter to move towards the animals. The music becomes bigger and the brass becomes more prominent when the herd is becoming nervous due to nearby predators... "Raptors". All hell breaks loose when the animals are running in panic which results in thrilling action music during the last third of the cue. This "Stampede" action music appears on the CD as "Head Towards The Animals".

23. Herb's Death (00:50)

The music stops when the Dino mountains of flesh start falling over each other. It continues when the survivors of the rescue team are trying to escape the remaining raptors with terrifying atonal music heard when they kill Herbert the camera man.

24. He Died For What He Believed In / Just An Actor With A Gun (01:45)

Creepy dark tones played by strings appear when Denham's obsession with his film is growing due to Herbert's death. French horns and the island theme comment musically on the breaking of the rescue team.

25. Escape Attempt / That's All There Is (03:28)

The cue is featured on the CD in its entirety.

26. Cave Encounter / Log (04:01)

As Kong calms down a gentle line for harp starts playing which builds up as Kong disappears and Ann is running away. Suspenseful music for strings and horns return as the few remaining members of the rescue team approach a dark cave and menacing fanfares start screaming when Hayes is facing Kong and his end. Grim action music and Kong's theme is heard when the ape is furiously shaking a log with the rescuers on it while the music is rising to another grim statement of Kong's theme as the log is falling into the pit.

27. Carnivors (01:03)

A short cue of suspense and scary music when Ann is running into two nasty carnivors.

28. V-Rex Attack (01:10)

The carnivors end up as V-Rex snack and Ann is chased by the Rex. A big grim motif for the beast is featured among the action and frenetic scary music.

29. Tooth And Claw (06:17)

The entire cue is featured on the CD though in the film it is interrupted during the cliff scene.

30. Mournings (01:19)

Gentle but sad music sets in when the survivors of the rescue mission are bemourning the deaths of their companions.

31. Bug Pit / Englehorn To The Rescue (02:43)

An example of truly effective and yet innovative scoring: Approaching the nasty and slimy bugs with whirling flutes or atonal sounds seems natural but James Newton Howard scored the scene with a calm, slow and ethereal choir singing very high notes. That made the scene very uneasy to watch (even more so if you are sensitive about bugs). The heroic music heard when Englehorn is rescuing the men from the bugs is tracked-in and appears at the end of "It's Deserted" on the CD.

32. Beautiful (03:56)

Featured entirely on the CD.

33. Driscoll Searching Anne / Sleeping Beauty (02:40)

Dreary music for strings starts playing as Jack Driscoll decides to look for Ann on his own and Denham is talking the captain into a crazy plan to trap the ape. The island theme is played very fast and dramatically by the string section when Driscoll starts searching Ann. Gentle music for harps and woodwinds is reprising the material from "Beautiful" as we see Ann sleeping in Kong's hand. A sad theme for cello is heard for the first time here when Ann is awaking and sees Jack.

34. Escape From Kong's Mountain / Captured (11:05)

The first third of this lengthy cue appears on the CD as "Captured" even though the lengthy action music for the scene in which Kong is actually captured does not appear in the album track. When Jack and Anne make it through the gate there is a first statement of the boy soprano to notify the beginning of King Kong's fall. Fanfares and the tragic theme are featured as well. Music from "Last Blank Space On The Map" is tracked-in when Kong is chasing the crew of the venture through the skull cave. When the crew manages to capture him, cello and strings are performing the melody from Kong's fall which appears at the end of the film with choir.

35. Kong Exhibition / Cry Havoc (03:38)

Bouncy jazz tones resemble the music for New York from the beginning as we are back in the city and Denham arranged a broadway show to present Kong to the world. Brief notes of sadness interrupt the fun of the jazz when we see a sad Ann and when Preston is punishing Carl with a reproachful look. Gentle piano playing sets in when Jack Driscoll is watching the theater play 'Cry Havoc' while suffering from his desire and his memories of Anne.

36. The Show Begins (source - 00:29)

Re-recorded selections of Max Steiner's classic original score from the 1933's film make various appearances throughout the broadway show which is opened by the triumphant sound of Steiner's 'Fanfare Nr. 2' and the first few bars of "King Kong March" as Carl Denham walks on the stage. Keep an eye open for a cameo appearance of composer Howard Shore, who conducts the orchestra.

 37. ...And From That Day Forward He Was As One Dead (00:19)

A brief sad note is heard when Carl Denham says this famous line from the prologue of the 1933's film to his audience.

38. The Eight Wonder Of The World (source - 00:45)

Steiner's "Fanfare Nr. 1" and a brief part of "Entrance of Kong" is played when Kong is revealed to the audience.

39. Touching The Beast (source - 00:42)

Steiner's "Log Sequence" is played when Denham is touching Kong.

40. Dancing Number (source - 01:08)

Bruce Baxter's appearance on the stage is accompanied by Steiner's "Fanfare Nr. 3" which goes into "Jungle Dance" as the dancing number starts.

41. Faked Beauty (source - 00:59)

"Entrance Of Kong" is reprised when the fake Ann Darrow appears to Kong's surprise and "Aboriginal Sacrifice Dance" takes over when the dancing number continues. That broadway orchestra is really steadfast because they even continue playing when Kong breaks his chains.

42. Kong's Escape (01:05)

Tremolo strings and grim brass clusters are heard when Kong sees Driscoll and is furiously trying to get him.

43. Kong Chasing Driscoll (02:39)

An action variation of the tragic theme from "Empire State Building" is used when Jack gets into a cab and Kong is chasing him which results in more frenzy action music with a wild firework for timpani.

44. Beauty Returns / Central Park (04:15)

The entire cue appears on the CD.

45. Fire! / Empire State Building (03:28)

A variation of the heroic theme from the end of "It's Deserted" explodes along with the artillery fire of the military which is now chasing Kong through the snowy streets of New York. The last part of the cue is released.

46. Beauty Killed The Beast (15:42)

The entire score from the finale appears on the CD.