Film Score Friday: ‘The Hunger Games’ by James Newton Howard

Last week saw the release of the first 2012 mega blockbuster, The Hunger Games. The film was eagerly anticipated and delivered the majority of it’s promise for a sweeping, epic tale of love, death and the games.

Being the first of 2012’s big boys I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time on it’s score. Especially considering it comes from one of the best composers working today, James Newton Howard.

The score is rather strait forward, if maybe a little uninspired. I am not saying it is bad persay, but while watching the movie I really only had one moment where I felt like the score was connecting with me. Once I had the chance to sit down with the actual album I realized why. Most of the music just ins’t particularly gripping.

Again, there is a difference between bad and not gripping. I truly think Howard made quality music, I just think very little of it stands above the whole proceedings and make’s itself known. Of course there are exceptions to this, a couple of the tracks are actually really fantastic. I just don’t think the score spends enough time with the best stuff, and the majority of the rest feels flat.

James Newton Howard has a strong history of writing excellent themes. I was very excited when I heard he was taking on this project after Danny Elfman was unable to stay on. In retrospect I feel like we might have lost out on something far more interesting.

Howard’s music is clearly being lead by the music director, T-Bone Burnett. Burnett is an excellent musical mind, his work on O Brother Where Art Thou? alone earns him permanent high marks. However, he has a very strong style, and one that definatly works for this source material. The problem is that I am not sure it works with James Newton Howard.

Much of the music feels restrained, opting for a very country twang, which makes sense in the context of the film, but doesn’t connect very well later in the film.

In contrast to that style, my favorite track comes from the introduction of the tributes to the Capitol City. This theme is classic Howard, and it works in a majestic sort of way. Most of the film takes place in the Capitol city, so it is a shame more of that musical sensibility didn’t come through.

I also wanted to touch upon the soundtrack album, which is a separate release from the score itself. This is where T-Bone Burnett really soars. It would have been so easy for the producers to shove 12 tweenie bopper tracks on the album, hoping to get a huge hit. Instead we get a very eclectic album that feels very much in line tonally with the film. I wanted to give some kudos to that creative choice.

Three Favorite Tracks:

Horn Of Plenty by James Newton Howard – I already alluded to this track previously. My favorite theme from the movie, and it doesn’t really get as much play as it should. It works so well because it really gives you a sense of scope. The Capitol district is defined by it’s opulence and grandeur, and this is a perfect musical representation of that. It doesn’t hurt that it also plays like really awesome entrance music, which is why it works so perfectly in the movie. This track was the one time watching the film that the score demanded attention.

Rue’s Farewell by James Newton Howard – While not as overt as Qui-Gon’s Nobel End, this track title is indeed a spoiler. Although shame on anyone who is offended by it. Hardly a shock that a character dies when the movie itself is about an every man for themselves fight to the death. I give a thousand pounds of credit to Howard on this track, and this moment as a whole. I have spoken a lot about how much I felt the music is flat in the movie. Not here, not during this scene. Easily one of the most poignant moments in the film, and thankfully done brilliantly by all involved. This music is sweet and tragic, it is powerful and moving. When Katniss breaks down after Rue dies, you feel it. Credit of course to Jennifer Lawrence, but credit also to this music, which nails it.

Tenuous Winners/ Returning Home by James Newton Howard – The last track on the album, and the last of the movie. It doesn’t have the same push that other big franchises have at the end of their movies, but it does have a tenderness that doesn’t betray the tone of the rest of the score. The score as a whole as it’s issues, but in all fairness those issues do make it possible for the album to end on such a beautiful note. Had Howard gone for a more bombastic approach, he wouldn’t have had the ability to end the movie on such sweet terms. This closing track actually reminds me a bit of how Joe Hisaishi ends his Miyazaki film scores. With a contemplative soft touch, not a grandiose spectacle.

Least Favorite Track:

Reaping Day by James Newton Howard – This is my least favorite track, not because it is the worst music, but because it is the biggest missed opportunity. The track should have been one of the cornerstone moments of the whole album. Instead it is a slight and utterly forgettable track that, thankfully, only takes up a minute and a half of my time. I really do wish moments like these were given the same weight and impact as other powerful moments like Rue’s Farewell. Alas it just ranks as another of the misses on this score.

At the end of the day, The Hunger Games is a serviceable soundtrack with a few highlights. The movie made some interesting and brave musical choices, and while I can respect that, I don’t think they served to make the score the best it could have been. One or two of the tracks will find their way into my regular playlist, so the album is far from a total miss.

Final Score for The Hunger Games

3 out of 5

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