Quick Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Music composed by James Newton Howard
Executive Produced by T-Bone Burnett
Conducted by: Gavin Greenaway
Orchestrated by: Jeff Atmajian, Jon Kull, Pete Anthony
Score Recorded at: Air Lyndhurst Studios, London
Album time: 44 minutes
Available on Universal Republic

Success is what The Hunger Games does well.  The novels by Suzanne Collins have been bestsellers and the film adaptation is no different.  The film seems to be breaking lots of box office records. 

The film’s music has had a few interesting additions over time.  Danny Elfman was first slated to score the film as reported this past summer.  Elfman left the talks due to scheduling, and was replaced by James Newton Howard.  Around January, conductor/orchestrator Pete Anthony made headlines about the scoring location of the film.  Read the story here.  Also added to the mix was music impresario T-Bone Burnett.  Burnett composed some additional music, including Deep in the Meadow (Lullaby).  And after all that....here we are with the final score.

Here is my rundown and review of the score album.

The score opens quietly setting up the poor area in District 12.  It seems folksy but ominous at the same time.  The first 20 minutes of the film really set up all the information about the life they live in that District, and introducing us to Katniss.  I really like the orchestration in Katniss Afoot.  It’s a combination of bluegrass and traditional film scoring.  The sounds of the dulcimer/cimbalom and Celtic fiddle add to the ambience of the score.  Unfortunately, this track was not included in the film.  Reaping Day features mostly strings, which remind me of the Wayne theme from Batman Begins.  It’s a shame these tracks are so short and seem so quiet in the film, because they feature some nice writing. 

The Train is a great track.  Featuring some of Howard’s lyrical talents, it is beautiful and a bit foreboding at the same time.  Entering the Capitol starts with a wordless choir.  The music sets up the scene nicely, slowly building the score up.  Preparing the Chariots gives us little hints of the Capitol Anthem, and the overlay beats aren’t irritating at all.  The track leads into the full statement of the Capitol Anthem in Horn of Plenty.  This is the song written by Arcade Fire and arranged by James Newton Howard.  This is a great moment in the film, and a standout on the album.  And yes, there are lyrics to the song which I had to look up to understand. 

The next part of the film (and score) is about the various teams training for and going into the Hunger Games.  Penthouse/Training starts with strings and ethnic solos by Greg Knowles which transitions into a percussion heavy section.  The electronic overlay continues in Learning the Skills, a pseudo montage section of the film.  The Countdown is another track on the album that is not in the film.  Again, with the last unused cue, it is nice music that is welcome on the album.  It certainly fits with the countdown to the Games, as it crescendos to the end of the track.  Booby Trap features an odd set of orchestrations and various ethnic instruments.  As it is supposed to be strange, it works very well in the film to heighten the tension.  We also get a bit of the motifs heard earlier in the film. 

Healing Katniss has an excellent fiddle solo and more guitars in a track that works well outside the film.  The longest track on the album is Rue’s Farewell.  This is a turning point in the film, and director Gary Ross really let Howard’s music shine through.  It features a prominent guitar solo, and the beautiful string writing James Newton Howard is great at.  This is the stand out track by far.  We Could Go Home again repeats some of the earlier motifs on cimbalom.  Again, nice underscoring and blossoming melodic ideas cut off too short.  Searching for Peeta combines the ethnic instruments with the electronic overlay.  Music for The Cave is lyrical and sweet.  Featuring more solos including a piano solo and it seems to be reprising some past melodies, but it’s hard to tell.  Another long track is Muttations.  It quickly turns into the only ‘action’ cue in the film.  It features the writing similar to The Tourist (2010), lots of heavy percussion, electronic elements and even an electric guitar.  I guess it’s not bad.  It switches over to a dramatic section featuring some past melodies.  The end of the album is Tenuous Winners/Returning Home.  As the music seems slightly uplifting, we get a reprise of the melody in Rue’s Farewell.  And with that, the score album ends.  

The three songs in the end credits appear on the soundtrack album:  Abraham’s Daughter by Arcade Fire, Safe & Sound by Taylor Swift, Kingdom Come by The Civil Wars.  Note – the rest of the songs on the soundtrack are not included anywhere in the film.  But members of The Punch Brothers (who appear on the soundtrack) played in some parts of the score.  Also strangely not appearing on either album is some tracked music by Evgueni Galperine titled Farewell for the beginning of the film.  A bit of Steve Reich’s Three Movements for Orchestra is in the film as well as a track from Hanna (2011) by The Chemical Brothers.           

At an impressive 44 minutes, the album is certainly short - but not necessarily sweet.  I should clarify: it’s not bad music.  It overall doesn’t leave an impression on you either in the film or on the album.  Besides the Horn of Plenty and Rue’s Farewell, you might have to scratch your head to remember other music in the film besides mandolin strumming.  The folksy nature did work well in the film.  Even with frantic editing and jarring camera moves in parts of the film, the score never follows suit.  For such a high-stakes scenario, the score rarely gets too frenetic.  It grounds the film with our characters although none of the main characters have notable motifs or themes.

There are some nice moments on the album that might grow on you, especially if you’re a fan of James Newton Howard.  If he continues with the following sequels - all I want is more.

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