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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 by James Newton Howard (Review)

posted Dec 2, 2014, 9:50 PM by Koray Savas

The Hunger Games is special for James Newton Howard because it is the composer's first trilogy. Well, considering that the third film has been split into two parts sort of negates that... but the point is these are the most films Howard has ever written music for in a single franchise. It is unfortunate that it took the first two movies to reach the level of emotional maturity embedded in Mockingjay, but the time spent tinkering with the musical soundscape was worth the payoff.

The lingering issue with Howard's music for these films is the absence of a larger sense of scale. Particularly with The Hunger Games, the music there served more as atmospheric accents to the film's setting, without ever achieving a grand structure. Much of that was rectified in Catching Fire, but it more or less amounted to a lot of groundwork that should have been done previously. So because of this lag in musical structure, Mockingjay becomes the first great score in the series while simultaneously being its last one. For clarification, I view the future release of Part 2 as a continuation of the same film/score. In a way, the shortcomings of the previous scores match the growing sense of dread within the film's universe. A lot of groundwork is happening there story-wise too, so with all that being said, this score allows Howard to open up and deliver a dramatic musical arc in a satisfying way.

Though these films never really had a big musical motif other than the "Horn Of Plenty" tune or the mockingjay whistle, Howard does build upon his own small theme in a few spots that help form a cohesiveness to the narrative. Overall, the music here is working on a very high tense and interestingly subtle level. It's a different kind of understatement as the score retains an expansive scale, as previously mentioned. Howard is able to evoke a mournful and gutted feeling while imbuing a spark of victorious hope. It is very much in line with the plot of the film, and cues like "Remind Her Who The Enemy Is" do this tremendously well. The action material is classic Howard, "Incoming Bombers" and "Air Raid Drill" are particularly fantastic, though that synthetic rhythmic sound from Catching Fire returns briefly in "Jamming The Capitol." Some of the bluegrass stylings associated with District 12 from the first film return to express that sense of loss, with Howard's homely theme closing out the album in "Victory." The real standout tune on the album, however, is "The Hanging Tree." It starts with Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss singing a repeating set of lyrics, but Howard's music slowly kicks in and continuously builds as it turns into this massive choral chant that ultimately fades away for choir, brass, and strings to takeover. It sends chills down your spine, and also happens to be the #3 song on iTunes at the time of writing. One could argue that this is undoubtedly due to the immense success and popularity of the franchise, but even Twilight's original music never breached public conscious like that. It doesn't account for much of anything, but it's a nice reminder that you don't have to be John Williams or Hans Zimmer to make an impact.

The tone of Mockingjay is easy to connect with emotionally, allowing Howard's melodic lyricism to finally form a solid structural foundation for the narrative. Even in its most tender and quiet moments, the music here establishes a great sense of scale and meaning. It's not perfect, but with Part 2 on the way, Howard still has time to make everything that already works even better.