WHAT THE World Trade Center is to the Empire State Building, what Jessica Lange is to Fay Wray, and what Dino De Laurentiis' man-in-a-monkey-suit is to the 1933 mechanical wonder that gave a nation the heebie-jeebies, the music for the new "King Kong" is to the music for the old.
In other words, it isn't so bad when considered in a vacuum, but compared to the original, it's a paltry and lifeless substitute. The "Kong" soundtrack album, conveniently or embarrassingly enough, has been issued almost concurrently with a new recording of the score for the original 1933 version of "King Kong" on Entr' Acte records, a small but important movie music label headquartered in Chicago.
The new "Kong" music lacks just what the new "Kong" movie lacks - pizzazz, theatrics and a sense of larger-than-lifeness. Of course it isn't the worst new soundtrack album around. It isn't as bad as "A Star is Born," for instance, but then, King Kong does not sing. For that we can wait until the next remake.
John Barry, best known for the James Bond scores and for the music for "Born Free," wrote the new song of "Kong." The music for the original was composed by the father of movie music, the man who proved audiences wouldn't wonder "where the music was coming from" even during scenes set in the middle of a foggy ocean, the late Max Steiner.
Perhaps the key fact to know about the brilliant and heroically prolific Steiner is that in 1939, when he wrote the three-hour score for "Gone With the Wind," he also worked on the music for no less than 11 other films.
When we compare the new "Kong" music with the old "Kong" music, it's hardly a challenge to pick the superior score. It's Steiner by a mile - just as the new Kong can't really hold a torch to the old. But in addition, we can hear a great deal about the periods in which the films were produced by listening to the albums of the scores. Each, for better or worse, seems well suited to its age.
Steiner's music, conducted on this flabbergasting and spectacular recording by musicologist Fred Steiner (composer of, among other works, the "Perry Mason" theme and not related to Max), is frenzied, dramatic, romantic, operatic, melodic, bombastic, threnodist. It is quintessential Hollywood sturm und drang, with captivating and lyrical lulls between the sturms.
The principal theme is three descending notes that have in fact become nothing less than a musical icon, like the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth. They're the first three notes of music heard in the film; they establish the aura of ominousness at once, with no lost energy or wasted time. Steiner is sometimes accused of overkill, but this music had to be big enough to match the subject of the film, and it was, it was. It was colossal. It was music fit for a "King Kong."
Barry's main theme for Dino's soft-hearted monster movie boils down to about four notes that are somewhat reminiscent of the old Wayne Newton hit, "Danke Schoen!" It's a pleasant enough theme - currently being popularized with a disco version not on the LP - but it doesn't suggest anything in particular. It isn't exactly terrifying but then neither is De Laurentiis' monkey. On the other hand, perhaps we've been unfair to Dino and his pet project. The movie doesn't seem quite so deflatingly dumb if we think of it not as a remake of "King Kong" but as a remake of "Marty" - another sad story about a homely palooka who has trouble getting a date on Saturday night.
The problem with this approach is that the ending to the new "Kong" appears to have been stolen from either "The Strawberry Statement," "The Trial of Billy Jack" or "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Oh, well. That's entertainment.
The De Laurentiis "Kong" is a symptomatically cold and impersonal creation, especially as compared to the rip-roaring, florid and faintly Freudian fantasy fashioned by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. It's not being too harsh to say that the first "King Kong" was made by men with a love of adventure and the second by men with a love of money.
Steiner's contribution is inestimable. His ornate and unrelenting music supports the illusions at every turn and helps give believable physcial weight to the monster itself, from the moment when plodding chords signal his nearing footsteps. It's ironic then that "Kong" was almost released without Steiner's music. In "Music for the Movies" by Tony Thomas, Steiner recalled in an interview:
"When the picture was completed, the studio bosses were very skeptical about it and doubtful the public would take to it. They thought the big gorilla looked too unreal and too mechanical. In fact, they didn't want to waste any more money on it and told me to use old tracks. Merian C. Cooper, the producer, then came to me and asked me to score it to the best of my ability and said that he would pay the cost of the orchestra."
The cost eventually proved to be $50,000.
"Kong King" helped establish the importance of the symphonic score in motion pictures. In coming years there would be some films scored by Steiner and others in which the music was so conspicuous and/or sublime that the movie turned out to be accompaniment for its score, rather than vice versa. Then, in the '50s and '60s, this kind of flamboyant musical dramaturgy fell out of fashion, and it wasn't really until the John Williams score for Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" that it came back into vogue.
Steiner's "Kong King," then, was tremendously influential, and part of the value of this new recording is symbolic. It's also historic; this is the first faithful full-length commercial recording of the score. LeRoy Holmes' quickie on United Artists last year was a heretical travesty. Others have recorded medleys or portions of the score, including Charles Gerhardt on RCA's "Classic Film Scores" series, composer Steiner himself on "Max Steiner: The RKO Years" (available from The Max Steiner Music Society, P.O. Box 45713, Los Angeles, Calif. 90045), and Jack Shaindlin on Decca's out-of-print "50 Years of Movie Music," recently reissued on, of all things, MCA's Japanese label. It's not exactly easy to find.
For the producers of the Entr'Acte album, the original Steiner score also involved something of a treasure hunt. Weeks of searching produced all the original sheet music for the score except for the first page, which was considered to be on the crucial side. Finally the missing page was discovered - framed and hanging on Mrs. Max Steiner's living room wall.
Though most of Steiner's music is the sound of fury - and of peril and menace - one cut on the album is a neglected charmer that has the effect of seeming to sum up an entire epoch before one's very ears: "The King Kong Theater March," only 90 seconds long.
In the film itself, this music is played while members of the audience are being seated on the night of Mr. Kong's theatrical debut in Manhattan. While it plays, members of the audience contemplate the spectre waiting behind the curtain. One blonde tootsie is informed she's about to see a "big ape," and as a man getting to his seat stumbles rudely over her feet she gripes, "Gee, ain't we got enough of those in New York already?"
The Steiner march marches on, sounding a little like the theme for a talkie newsreel, and just listening to this piece now, you can hear uncountable echoes of old values and old treasures. This is art deco music: Music Deco.
"March" ends in a fanfare, to signal the start of the show, with the mighty Kong, who was actually only about 16 inches high, waiting in chains behind the giant curtain. Now this was a fanfare. This was a movie. This, indeed, was an ape. The music for the original "King Kong" takes us back to a time when the dreams splattered across the silver screen were somehow bigger, better and dreamier. In fact, even the screen itself was more silvery. No matter what the ads for the remake may claim, it's quite clear that King Kong is dead.
It wasn't the planes that got him, and it wasn't beauty killed the beast, either. It was time.