Godzilla and King Kong are not characters one approaches lightly. As two of the most iconic monsters in cinema, the big ape and even bigger lizard carry plenty of history on their shoulders as they march into Godzilla vs. Kong, the new monster mash-up from Warner Bros. and HBO Max. Composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) is of course keenly aware of this since he had the task of updating their sounds for 2021.
Holkenborg, a lifelong aficionado of nearly every style of music, cites the composer for the original King Kong (1933), Max Steiner, as a personal inspiration and influence. And of course Akira Ifukube’s legendary themes from 1954’s Godzilla (also known as Gojira) are nothing to sneeze at either. Yet, in a decision reminiscent of his and Hans Zimmer’s past choices with iconic DC superheroes, Holkenborg elected to go another way with the music in Godzilla vs. Kong by writing original themes for each of the big guys.
“The score is hyper-modern and the thematic material is also original, but it’s written in respect of the history of Kong and Godzilla,” Holkenborg tells me over a Zoom call. “When it comes to movies, Superman only dates back to ’78? While King Kong goes back to  as a feature film. So I thought it was great to be mindful of that.” The composer, who worked as an assistant to Zimmer on Man of Steel (2013) before graduating to co-composer on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and then becoming the lone musical mind behind Zack Snyder’s Justice League, notes that using Steiner’s King Kong theme or Ifukube’s exact Godzilla march would be no more appropriate here than putting John Williams’ beloved Superman music over Henry Cavill.
“John Williams’ Superman theme would not necessarily, in its original form, work in Man of Steel,” Holkenborg says, “because Man of Steel is a more melancholic, emotional storytelling instead of being so tongue in cheek. It’s not that type of Superman. It’s very similar with Godzilla … That music would not 1:1 work in a modern Godzilla movie. But it’s the idea that counts.”
Hence when crafting the new music for Godzilla and Kong, Holkenborg remained acutely appreciative of the past. The new movie does not directly use Ifukube’s Godzilla score, however Holkenborg unmistakably recreates the sound of a tuba and brass trombone crashing in quick succession, which created the musical signature of Godzilla’s lumbering presence more than 60 years ago. It’s familiar but unique, and fits in nicely with Holkenborg’s other more electronic stylizations.
Says Holkenborg, “So Godzilla and Kong always had slow themes, and the reason why they’re slow is because when the two are fighting, you’re not looking at a ninja fight. It’s more like a bar fight between two drunken Irish guys who just came back from fishing boats and they get into a fight…. So that’s what this fight is. So you have to be mindful of what has worked in the past, a slow theme instead of [something faster paced]. That’s not Godzilla. It’s one step and then another step.” After a small laugh, he notes that it “takes like four seconds” for the big lizard to move a single foot.
That might be so for Godzilla’s gait, but the music he leaves in his wake is immense. Fans can find out for themselves when Godzilla vs. Kong opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Wednesday, March 31.