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The Monkey King
  • Composed by Christopher Young
  • Intrada / 2015 / 73m

Based on parts of the 16th century Chinese literary classic Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, The Monkey King is a very expensive 2014 Chinese movie directed by Cheang Pou-soi and starring Donnie Yen as the monkey king himself, telling the story of his rebellion against the Jade Emperor, played by Chow Yun-fat.  Reviews from western critics were generally damning, but that didn’t stop the film being a runaway success in its homeland and the sequel is due to be released shortly.

I’m not sure what led the filmmakers to composer Christopher Young rather than a Chinese composer (well, apart from his great talent) but they certainly made a wise decision because he delivered one of his best scores in years, a gigantic action spectacular praised to the hilt by those few in the west who saw the film or heard the promo of the score, but frustratingly unreleased on album for nearly two years before it finally saw the light of day courtesy of Intrada.  Young has been scoring generally lower-profile films for a while now, sometimes with dazzlingly creative results (and The Killing Season, also released by Intrada, is brilliant); but this one serves as a reminder if one were needed that when he gets the right project and has the wherewithal, there are few who can touch him.

Christopher Young

Christopher Young

The score is split into ten suites representing different characters (Young has always been one of the best album creators out of all film composers, knowing how best to utilise the core material to produce a listening experience to treasure – I’m not sure how much editing has gone into crafting these generally large cues or if they’re actually written like this, but in any case it’s very impressive).  The first is “Yu Huang Da Di, The Jade Emperor”, a colossus of an action track, with large orchestra and choir (recorded in Bratislava under the batons of Nic Raine and Allan Wilson respectively, with some soloists recorded in the US) coming together in epic fashion.  It’s rhythm-based action, Goldsmith style, heavy emphasis on the brass and percussion, and it’s so satisfying, especially when the heroic theme comes into the equation.

“Tieshan Gongzhu, The Princess Iron Fan” by contrast is an achingly beautiful piece highlighting some wonderful ethnic elements, in particular the Chinese flute the dizi.  “Ao Kuang, The Dragon King Of The East Sea” gets through a lot of ground, including some more huge action (with a hint of The Lord of the Rings about it, but Young’s been writing music like it since Hellraiser) but most notably a couple of wonderful themes, the first given a heavenly glint thanks to an ethereal choir, the latter a kind of determined heroism (and it’s one of the few melodies that recurs between the suites and could probably be considered the score’s “main theme”).

Its thunderous opening suggests that “Nüwa, The Goddess Of Works” is going to be another action piece but it actually develops another of those beautiful melodies – very big and powerful for sure, the full orchestra employed under female choir, but really rather soaring and majestic; the melody that closes the suite employs a prominent female vocal solo on top of the orchestra and choir and is spine-tingling.  A sequence of more playful cues begins with “Ruxue, The Silver Fox” which features a lovely erhu solo at its heart along with strings (at one point taking on a distinctly John Barry flavour) and particularly intricate percussion.  This is followed by “Erlang Shen, The Three-Eyed Warrior” which continues in a similar vein, taking a bit of inspiration from traditional Chinese opera (sans singing) – there’s a deftness of touch which gives the piece such a sprightly feel.  The female vocalist (ten-year-old Julie Chae) returns to lend her talents to “Guan Yin, The Goddess of Mercy” which features yet another lovely theme, a waltz this time that eases its way along with great style, then the percussion comes back in the brief “Subhūti, The Old Master” which alternates it with some stirring orchestral flourishes.

After softening the listener up with that sequence of beautiful pieces, you can hear Young’s cackle (not literally) as he then goes for the jugular in the gargantuan, 17-minute “Niu Mo Wang, The Bull Demon King” which is simply spectacular and features everything but the kitchen sink, reprising the score’s main theme and the action theme of the opening cue, adding in a spectacular secondary theme for erhu which is rapturously romantic – and seemingly out of nowhere, electric guitar and full drum kit, bringing a bit of Ghost Rider to proceedings that sounds like it shouldn’t work but really, really does.  That Young sustains such big music over such a sustained period without once pausing for breath is genuinely impressive.  The score’s still not done though, with the ten-minute “Sun Wukong, The Monkey King” bringing things to a predictably rousing close, another juggernaut of a cue, including reprises of the main theme and the more romantic one from the previous cue, along with yet more fresh melodic material and a soaring climax.  It’s actually followed on the album by a song, “Just Dreams”, loosely based on the romantic theme of the last two cues and given an Enya-style arrangement and performance, but I’m not really sure it’s strong enough to warrant following such a gigantic score.

Intrada’s release notes for the album include the comment “If epic film scores are your bag, it doesn’t get any better than this today,” and it’s hard to disagree.  It’s been nearly a decade since John Debney’s Lair and while The Monkey King is a whisker under that level, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Perhaps the only thing it’s really lacking is a truly memorable main theme to take away (there are numerous excellent melodies but nothing you’re going to be humming in the shower) but there is so much .  Young’s back for the imminent sequel and I for one can’t wait.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. mastadge (Reply) on Sunday 24 January, 2016 at 21:58

    “Nüwa, The Goddess Of Works . . . develops another of those beautiful melodies – very big and powerful for sure, the full orchestra employed under female choir, but really rather soaring and majestic”

    And yet you had nothing nice to say about it when it was the Decepticon theme in Jablonsky’s Transformers. 😉

  2. S (Reply) on Monday 25 January, 2016 at 16:09

    No mention of how the opening track is essentially Holst’s Mars?

  3. James Southall (Reply) on Monday 25 January, 2016 at 20:13


  4. J.B. (Reply) on Monday 25 January, 2016 at 23:04

    There are definite rhythmic similarities but the opening track sounds too much like Young for me to really associate it with Holst.

  5. OPMac (Reply) on Monday 25 January, 2016 at 23:06

    To be fair, I don’t think a memorable main identity would have really added to the score. It would’ve been nice, but not too necessary. The real highlights here are the action suites.

    I’ve heard elsewhere that there is something of a five note idea for the main character. Is that true? I haven’t listened to the whole thing. Any confirmation on this?

  6. André, Cape Town. (Reply) on Saturday 26 March, 2016 at 14:07

    James, it’s inconceivable that only 4 readers responded to one of this decades finest examples of the crafting of a film score…and one that you graced with 5 stars. Maybe the title ‘The Monkey King’ or the CD’s lurid cover picture [reminiscent of a silly comedy] switched buyers off. The storyline, set in the realm of China’s ancient Gods, triggered a score of Epic dimensions – massive symphonic orchestra & choir, embelished with an array of ethnic instruments {including the EHRU, a Chinese violin} percussion & female vocalise. In the liner notes, YOUNG states that “what holds the score together — in a way that differentiates it from a lot of contemporary orchestral scores — is the ever-presence of MELODY…and by the permutation of themes….I can’t imagine writing a cue that doesn’t have that sense of direction”. YOUNG also acknowledges the inspiration he received from the late DAVID RASKIN, who taught him the art of film scoring. A criticism is that the sensational theme for ‘The Monkey King’ (Track 10) should have introduced the CD’s selections, rather than the massive action/war cue on Track 1. Another score that was included in the parcel, was MAURICE JARRE’S ‘The Setting Sun’ – also Chinese themed, but sounding harsh and tired compared to YOUNG’S triumphant music. JAMES HORNER’S ‘The 33’ also arrived last week – what he does with MELODY and ethnic instruments is just stunning. And then there were the GEORGE DELERUE CDs – recent releases with AUDIO quality so advanced, that his very beautiful music sounded as if it had just been recorded. Lots to listen to this Easter weekend.

  7. tiago (Reply) on Thursday 28 July, 2016 at 04:09

    James, have you heard Young’s score for the sequel, The Monkey King 2? It is as good, and perhaps even better than the first one. You should really check it out.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Friday 29 July, 2016 at 12:09

      Yes I have and it’s great! I don’t think I like it quite as much as the first one but some individual tracks are stunning.