By Charlie Brigden
I was really disappointed with James Newton Howard earlier in the year. While his work recently hasn’t been amazing on the whole, his score for AFTER EARTH was pretty tedious and uninspiring on the whole. So it’s with trepidation that I approach his music for CATCHING FIRE, the second movie in the HUNGER GAMES trilogy, especially as I was not a big fan of the first.
Well, that’ll do pig. While it still has some issues that I’ll elaborate on shortly, CATCHING FIRE is a few notches up from AFTER EARTH, and while not a return to form for JNH as such it’s certainly a step in the right direction. What immediately strikes me about the score is its desolation – it feels suitably dystopian at times and has elements of fascism and quasi-religious tones that give the work a sense of environment and atmosphere.
Indeed, much of the album is dedicated to surprisingly dark material. ‘We Have Visitors’ has a foreboding edge with an isolated solo piano that feels, well, alone. ‘Mockingjay Graffiti’ features some menacing synthwork and the kind of militaristic percussion you’d probably expect to crop up, while ‘Fireworks’ has a dangerous quality with its four-note motif that ratchets up the tension while it repeats.
But amongst this, there’s some lighter and more melodic material that provides an emotional anchor. ‘A Quarter Quell’ and ‘Just Friends’ share similar warm strings that have a sense of familiarity of Newton Howard’s talent for writing tunes, while a female solo voice features often (understandably given the lead). A sense of optimism and hope pervades ‘I Had To Do That’ with its sweet humming, and ‘Katniss Is Chosen’ conveys both apprehension and determination with its haunting vocal and high strings that signal a sense of change.
The action setpieces is perhaps where the score falls down a bit. I heard a friend say the best part of THE HUNGER GAMES was the part before the games, and that is perhaps true here (although I’m only going by track titles so I don’t know exactly how accurate that is). Nevertheless, some of the electronics are a bit too much and it feels like JNH either learned too much from working with Hans Zimmer on BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT or the director had some serious temp track love with those scores, at least going from ‘The Games Begin’.
But it comes back for a strong end, and the penultimate track – ‘Arena Crumbles’ – is one of the best cues on the album. A female solo voice again takes centre stage, but here it feels funereal and transitional – as Newton Howard creates the feeling that while something big is ending, something bigger is also beginning with a wonderful string melody that ends the track. And really it’s the emotional finale as ‘Good Morning Sweetheart’ closes the album with a sinister feel and a sense of foreboding.
What’s interesting here is an absolute lack of resolution – and what could be considered a musical spoiler, although probably not as just about everyone either watching this film or listening to this album knows this is part of a trilogy. I’ve heard people compare the picture to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (as the darker parts of a story usually are), but at least that score had a musical finale and subsequent resolution via the end titles, the same with another middle-parter, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS. But this shares more in common with Alexandre Desplat’s HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1 where ‘Farewell To Dobby’ provided an emotional climax before ‘The Elder Wand’ acted almost as a prologue to the final part, complete with slightly abrupt ending.
It’s a brave way to end the album, and it’ll be curious to see what music the film uses for its end titles that presumably follow that. It’ll also be interesting to see how James Newton Howard’s music for the final part – MOCKINGJAY – comes out. After CATCHING FIRE, I can honestly say that while it doesn’t match many of his spectacular scores from the past, it’s making me look to the next score with a great deal more optimism.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is out now from Republic Records