Sunday, 23 November 2014

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 Score Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you're a fan of the prior scores in the series and their thematic intentions, for Mockingjay Part 1 seems to take everything exceptional about the previous two albums and combine them for a satisfying, highly entertaining and emotionally resonant third inclusion into the series

Skip it... if you weren't a fan of either of the previous efforts for The Hunger Games series, didn't enjoy the flourishing and colourful instrumentation and writing for Maleficent; a score which boasts of many of the same positives that Mockingjay Part 1 possesses 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             


"It hasn't been until this year that Howard has seemed to truly get himself back on his feet and provide a number of consistently evocative and affecting scores, Mockingjay Part 1 being one of such."

In terms of young-adult cinematic adaptation franchises, there are few which are as popular or well received as the highly acclaimed Hunger Games series. Originally penned and released by author Suzanne Collins, Color Forces and Lionsgate were quick to approach the writer for the rights to a cinematic adaptation of the series. And despite stumbles and directorial issues, The Hunger Games franchise has quickly blossomed into one of the biggest and most popular young adult book adaptations in recent memory. By contrasting the success of this array of films against other films of the same genre, such as the much berated Twilight series, one will find that both critically and commercially, the franchise has done remarkably well. The first film in the series, directed by Gary Ross and often considered the weakest of the now three films, grossed nearly $700 million, instantaneously sparking interest from all crowds, and not just the general adolescent teenage girl audience, which is oft-times the target audience for distributors, directors and production studios developing films within this genre. The sequel, released just last year, Catching Fire, grossed an even higher amount, securing $865 million over its entire theatrical run. This time, though, with Gary Ross having been replaced in favour of I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence, the second film in the series was not only an immense critical and commercial success, but a success in the eyes of audience members everywhere; I myself, whilst finding numerous major faults with the first installment, appreciated Catching Fire's slow and methodical pacing, powerful performances, underlying political themes and strong action, and can most certainly say I am now eagerly anticipating seeing the next film in this highly coveted series; Mockingjay Part 1 (because Hollywood needs to leech every penny from the overly enthusiastic teenage audience, hence the 'Part 1' portion of the title).

Often considered a key component in the success of these films in regards to the critical consensus, James Newton Howard's scores for the prior two films have both generally received pleasing reviews and reactions from both critics and casual listeners alike. The first score is regarded as a much more tolerable listen, fit with emotional versatility and character-driven drama, whilst the second installment is seen as the more technically advanced piece of the puzzle, equipped with far better action, intrigue and thematic material, and providing darker and more turbulent thrills and spills. Whilst not entirely perfect, the first part struggling from a lack of memorable primary motifs and action, and the second partially falling down due to its often jarring and sharp string and synth uses, both scores have been categorized as emotionally-resonant pieces, full of strong and unflinching instrumentation. Mockingjay Part 1 both fits into this description whilst also transcending it, due to a number of new thematic implementations which are both emotionally potent and thoroughly enjoyable, as well as instrumentation which is far more epic, boisterous and energetic, despite the scope of the film seemingly scaling down from the prior installments (based on the trailers). Perhaps this new found vigour is due to Howard having recently released his score for the film Maleficent just this year, another highly enjoyable and immensely well constructed piece of music, filled with all the liveliness and orchestral elegance and grace that Howard has failed to fully exhibit for a number of years. What many would consider his most recent score displaying such key components (part Maleficent) was released in 2010, that being The Last Airbender. Since then, his musical output has become slowly less satisfying, with scores like The Bourne Legacy, After Earth and Green Lantern failing to elicit the kinds of emotions that Howard is so very capable of exposing. Whilst The Hunger Games and its subsequent sequel were both solid inclusions into his discography, it hasn't been until this year that Howard has seemed to truly get himself back on his feet and provide a number of consistently evocative and affecting scores, Mockingjay Part 1 being one of such.

Utilizing combinations of tone and instrumentation from both the prior scores, Mockingjay Part 1 gratifyingly incorporates everything that has previously allowed for the success of this franchise's music, whether it be the strong and well defined thematic material of Catching Fire, the soothing and bustling choral components implemented within various stages throughout both preceding installments, or the smooth and easily accessible instrumentation and construction of the original score. Howard seeks to provide both an outwards semblance of political intrigue, scope and action, whilst maintaining that the heart and core of the score is the central relationship between Katniss and Peeta, the two protagonists of the film, whose bond, whilst strained due to a number of outside influences and events, is still influential in the outcome of this series of films. The different ways Howard manipulates the orchestra into performances which feature acute grandeur, whilst also accenting a highly emotional state is blisteringly effective and instantaneously reminiscent of a number of key moments within Maleficent; moments which showed the conflictions within the titular character and the internal dispute occurring inside her. Katniss' delight at finding Peeta alive after the last film's tragic final minutes is contrasted with her inner anguish at discovering he is not the person she both fell in love with or once knew. The usually triumphant Capitol theme, played previously as a traditional trumpet fanfare, is less jubilant than in prior usages, and is presented within Mockingjay Part 1 as more sinister, threatening and evil, all thanks to deep and dank cello undercurrents, all underneath harrowing and sly instrumentation that at times seems reminiscent of the 'Scar' theme from The Lion King. The false facade of the previous films and scores, that of the Capitol's supposed willingness to be 'peaceful', is now absent; Howard heavily accents the destructive power of the President and his cronies, and finally uncovers what the Capitol really is, that being a corrupt and depraved institution. 

A number of individual thematic ideas return to play within this here score, including the high-pitched woodwind Katniss theme from Catching Fire, effectively used at the start of the initial offering, 'The Mockingjay'. As it did in that aforementioned score, the cue immediately sets the tone and the atmosphere of the album to come, before becoming more hopeful, uplifting and ethereal. The love theme from the previous film also returns to great effect within the cue 'Katniss' Nightmare', reflecting a mood that seems oddly contradictory of the cue's title, due to the theme's highly relaxed and elegant instrumentation and construction. A Katniss choral theme that has been directly taken from the closing minutes of Catching Fire reappears here within 'District 12', 'Victory' and 'District 8 Hospital', another fantastic reincorporation of a thematic concept for this here score. A number of less noticeable and highly obscure, original thematic ideas are also introduced within Mockingjay Part 1, the most immediate and obvious being the Mockingjay theme from the aforementioned initial cue, 'The Mockingjay'. 3 notes in length, the leitmotif is highly triumphant, and demonstrates a fantastic contrast to the vulnerable, less-euphoric Katniss theme from the beginning of the cue. This theme comes into play numerous times into the score, and forms the primary motif for the album. An emotional 3 note strings theme full of regret and sadness, supposedly to represent Peeta, appears within the opening to 'Please Welcome Peeta', before the previously mentioned Capitol theme interposes itself. A fiddle represents the prior home of Katniss, Peeta, Gale and their families in the cue 'District 12', the theme played highly similar to that of the rustic tone used for the original Hunger Games score. This same theme is played with heart, soul and emotion later on during the sensational 'District 12 Ruins', another huge highlight for the album. A two note ostinato builds to a heroic trumpet and brass theme within 'Remind Her Who The Enemy Is', the instrumentation and build heavily reminding me of a number of Horner's dazzling themes for his exquisite Avatar score; high praise indeed. This same Horner-esque motif returns in 'District 8 Hospital', again to great effect.

Outside of the thematic material, the rest of the album is composed with a grace and elegance seen little of Howard within this here franchise, part his uses of the love theme in the previous installments. The instrumentation is all fluid, the orchestra blossoming with energy, vigour and heightened emotion. Moments of suspense are rightfully tension-filled, the action justly composed with vitality and scope, the drama composed with sincere conflictions between good and evil. Katniss' inner tribulations are well versed, with dark cello and timpanis intentionally contrasting against a heightened scope and primary theme for herself, her new role fully realised, though she is most certainly unwilling to inhabit it at first. Her immense pain at discovering the fate of Peeta and his capture at the hands of the Capitol is filled with regret, sadness and desperation, the choir and strings swelling to give sweeping and beautiful representations of their love theme and their own individual themes, before they're whisked away for a darker and more sinister tone and atmosphere. The heroism is far more robust and highly uplifting, the best moments in the score occurring as the brass comes up to pump angry and resistant themes that represent the colony that exist within the desolate District 13; the colony desperately trying to thwart the oppressive government currently at hand. The emotional potency that the prior scores have often lacked is finally here, and for fans of the franchise who have desired music which seems to properly correlate with the resonant and heart-wrenching performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, you needn't fear; Howard's emotional bravura is, at times, unmatched by any scores released within the present year. His writing is still of the standard that was reached with Maleficent, with flourishing melodies intermingling with varied instrumentation often, and the thematic material and tone being easily listened to. Whether it be high-pitched string phrases, brass fanfares, woodwind flutters or deep and dangerous percussion, Howard expresses his full range of emotional capacity and depth within this outstanding release.

What is undeniably going to appeal to mainstream audiences and casual fans of the films most though is the sung rendition of 'The Hanging Tree', a song originally penned within the Mockingjay novel, adapted for the film and then performed by Jennifer Lawrence, who surprisingly contains enough vocal range to perform this wondrous song to its highest standard. Both harrowing and disheartening at the same time, the song soars to great heights as Howard's instrumentation begins to waver in and provide accompaniment for Lawrence and a chorus of vocalists, all of whom are sublime. This is by far one of the best cues of the year, even if a good majority of the piece is sung, so expect this to be on my shortlist for Cue of the Year come award season. If one has the score digitally and is able to add other tracks to the album, I would also heavily recommend adding the Lorde track 'Yellow Flicker Beat', a track which is being included on the soundtrack to the film, to your playlist, as it fits the tone of the rest of the score quite well and I personally love the range and pitch of Lorde's vocals, especially in this context. A surprising quantity of great vocal material is always a good thing for a score!

The score possesses very few negatives, such as two cues within the final third of the album which lack the emotional gravity and dense grandeur of the rest of the score; these tracks being 'Jamming The Capitol' and 'Inside The Tribute Center', both tracks utilizing electronic action music to less than pleasing effect. There are also brief periods of lackluster music, scattered across the score. Fortunately, they generally aren't lasting, and cause little detriment for the rating I'm to assign. Despite numerous flaws throughout the running time, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is still one of my favourite scores of the present year, furthering Howard's bid for a Best Composer award (though it seems the award is all but won for Desplat at this point) and expanding my love for this highly talented composer, one who is often under-appreciated by the mainstream audience considerably in comparison to the likes of Zimmer, Williams, Horner and Morricone. His composition here is near-faultless, and the thematic concepts and executions are all handled magnificently, all recurring leitmotifs implemented with expertise. Incorporating elements from the prior Hunger Games scores to spectacular consequence, Howard's attempts at fleshing out the already vibrant and highly detailed musical identity of Panem are all admirable and well-conceived. Soaring to new heights unforeseen within this series before, Mockingjay Part 1 is a triumph for Howard fans, The Hunger Games film fans and Howard himself. Whether you're a fan of the prior scores or not, I emplore you to seek this fantastic score out immediately; it shan't be a waste of your time. You can purchase The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 on Amazon or iTunes, here and here

8.9