The monumental task of scoring -- in rapid succession -- three of history's most anticipated films has done little to temper the fire that fuels composer Howard Shore's vision and enthusiasm. With each installment of New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings trilogy, his seemingly bottomless cauldron of memorable motifs and affecting character themes washes over Peter Jackson's Middle Earth like a coat of varnish, bending each frame to its will. If The Fellowship of the Ring was its heart and The Two Towers its body, then The Return of the King is the series' soul. Opening with a Brahms-like veil of strings that deftly segues into a solo violin variation on the main melody, Shore begins by re-revisiting themes from the previous films. By the time he reaches the devastating "Steward of Gondor" -- featuring a heartbreaking tune sung by Hobbit (Billy Boyd) -- the mood has shifted from nostalgia to urgency, channeling the protagonists' desperation to complete their harrowing journey. "Twilight and Shadow" uses the gorgeous voice of soloist Renee Fleming to add weight to Arwen's (Liv Tyler) decision on whether or not to choose love over immortality, and "Shelob's Lair," with its dissonant bursts of percussive brass, cements Shore as this generation's Bernard Herrmann. The real magic begins with "The Black Gate Opens," a nervous breath and the calm before the storm, anchored by James Galway's tin whistle. That breath is needed, as what follows is the culmination of nearly five years of work. "The End of All Things" explodes with a variation on the choral arrangement that normally accompanies the Ringwraiths, and inter-cuts it with the voice of the ring -- a boy soprano -- before launching into the ten-minute "Return of the King." Like a Wagner opera, Shore methodically places familiar themes within the context of emotional turmoil, avoiding the forgettable nonstop dissonance that others apply to battle scenes with sweeping, often nightmarish melodies that linger for days. It's this dedication to memorable composition that makes "The Grey Havens" -- the film's epilogue -- so compelling. With its soft, bittersweet strings, it packs an emotional impact that would have resonated only on the surface had he taken a by the book approach to scoring the action sequences. Shore and Jackson are visionaries for whom this was a labor of love, and these films are a testament to their nearly inhuman resolve and tenacity. Despite the inclusion of a lovely yet unnecessary song by Annie Lennox, The Return of the King marks the end of an extraordinary collaboration that's destined to be celebrated and studied for generations to come.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Original Soundtrack] Review
by James Christopher Monger