Rediscovered: John Barry’s score for King Kong (1976 version)

I was 13 when I saw the Dino De Laurentiis version of King Kong. That’s how it was promoted, and how it’s remembered: few people recall the actual director (John Guillermin), or the cast besides then-newcomer Jessica Lange (Jeff Bridges played the hippie hero and Charles Grodin the comic villain). Instead of the Empire State Building, the poster showed Kong astride the towers of the then-new World Trade Center:

I didn’t really like the movie–too much goofy romance, not enough monster-on-monster fighting–but I recognized the musical score as something special. Composed by John Barry, it had the majesty and scale entirely missing from the expensive but cheap-looking film. I bought the soundtrack album, one of the few ways in the pre-VHS era to take a movie “home” with you, and played it over and over. But as music delivery systems changed from vinyl to digital, a few gems were lost, among them Barry’s score for King Kong.

John Barry wields a big baton in the movie music world. He essentially created the James Bond theme, though legal maneuvers kept it credited to Monty Norman. He scored most of the classic Bond films, as well as Born Free, Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves. He also scored some dogs: Raise the Titanic, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and Howard the Duck. But even when working with utter drek, his scores never pandered: his music for Disney’s dire The Black Hole captures more of the wonder and mystery of space than anything since the solar system lined up to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

And his music for King Kong–briefly released on CD back in 2005, and now commanding collector’s prices on Amazon–is even better. His opening theme hammers home Kong’s stature, then shifts into a spooky section that promises suspense and danger. In his detailed liner notes for the CD, Stephen Woolston refers to this track as “a cloud of doom,” but I’d call it a shroud of mystery: what I’ve always heard, in every track on the album, is storybook magic as opposed to monster-movie bombast. Barry’s innovation–considering the girl Dwan as the main character, and her emotional relationship with Kong the true subject–was so brilliant that James Newton Howard also used it when scoring the recent Peter Jackson remake.

Above: Cover of the original vinyl soundtrack album circa 1976. Below: the main title music.

When I spoke to Woolston about the album he said, “I became a huge film music and John Barry fan when I was a teenager, largely due to my love for James Bond films. So, I started collected Barry’s albums and seeing films scored by him whenever I could. I first came across Barry’s Kong score on the original Arista LP, which I bought from ‘Movie Boulevard’ in Leeds in the ’80s, probably back when it was still called ‘Discount Soundtracks.’

“I actually like Barry’s score more than the classic Max Steiner score for the original. I know that’s heretical in soundtrack circles, but I feel Barry brought a real majesty, mystery, romanticism and tragedy to that score.”

I agree. Steiner’s original score is rightly regarded a classic for its Wagnerian use of leitmotivs and orchestrations. Perhaps Howard’s score for the Jackson version will someday be as highly regarded, but I doubt it. I don’t recall a single moment when that music gave me chills, or opened up a sense of wonder, or brought an unexpected tear to my eye. Barry’s score did, and still does, all those things, in spite of accompanying a rather dire version of the story.

Buy the soundtrack here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *