The arrival of a new James Bond movie and its subsequent score has long been an event of major anticipation and, of course, frantic discussion. Thomas Newman, a complete newcomer to the franchise and somebody that many fans thought of as being left-field, performs the scoring duties on Daniel Craig’s third and pivotal mission. The following dissection would not have been possible in such detail without the aid of several viewings at the fabulous Light Cinema in New Brighton.
WARNING. Do not read this review if you haven’t seen the film. As usual, I’m going quite in-depth, so the whole thing is shot through with a great many spoilers.
Cinematic Bond turned 50 in terrific style with Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. For me, personally, the film was a rollercoaster ride of modern-day heroics, bravado, patriotism and, somewhat unexpectedly, high emotion. Daniel Craig was reunited with Sam Mendes after their collaboration on Road to Perdition and the resulting movie was a concerted effort to get 007 both back to basics and on course for a more traditional and decidedly classic approach. Quantum of Solace had been fun, but the poor editing and lack of interesting villainy had destabilised the emphasis for many. Skyfall, on the other hand, worked around a far more vital plot that sought to break down both Craig’s now craggier Bond and Dame Judy Dench’s M, as well as bringing the threat back to home turf and, more specifically, MI6, itself. If Bond was going it alone last time around in his own ruthless vendetta to avenge Vesper Lynd, the premise here was no less personal and probably considerably more imperative. The film acts as a purposeful deconstruction of who and what James Bond is with a view to his eventual resurrection in the form of the secret agent that we all know and love from the earlier franchise. This is literally done, given Bond’s apparent death during the pre-credits sequence and then rebirth as MI6 saviour, and also figuratively, given that the film seeks to eradicate some of the reboot’s elements in favour of the more traditional tropes – such as bringing back Moneypenny, Q, a male M and a resurgence of 007’s sense of humour. Plus, to aid in this quite audacious masterplan, the film even goes as far as to play role-reversal with the Straw Dogs-like siege that dominates the final act, in which Bond and M become the veritable henchman and villain holed-up in a secret lair whilst Javier Bardem’s bad-boy, Silva, a former MI6 agent, himself, becomes what amounts to the Bondian infiltrator coming to take them down with his legion (a la Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, OHMSS, Spy Who Loved Me) and blow everything up.
It is all very clever stuff that works with the standard equipment of a Bond plot, but twists and subverts them in line with a bigger picture for the future of the franchise and the main character.
What I find so marvellously fascinating is that Silva is the Monster to M’s Frankenstein, a thing created not for idealistic, but empirical purposes, and then betrayed and left abandoned to fester resentment like gangrene. Thus, now a masterless renegade, he embarks upon a crusade that has been fiendishly structured to destroy M from the inside, commencing with her closest associations, as the Monster does with Victor’s friends and family, before zeroing-in on the creator, herself. He even displays his horrid deformity at one point and reveals the wretched scars, psychological as well as physical, that his association with MI6 and M has led to. He seeks to meet his creator and to find some level of understanding, the semblance of a connection between them both … before putting them both out of his misery. This is altogether darker territory for Bond to enter, and I think that what story, from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan may lack in actual terms of plot, it more than makes up for with emotional sophistication and character-dissecting maturity. Plus, it is final part of the transition from reboot to traditional Bond.
Third time lucky for Daniel Craig’s 007. First time lucky for Thomas Newman’s.
If this was a reunion for Craig and Mendes, then composer Thomas Newman wasn’t late for the party. Having supplied the quirky melancholy for Road to Perdition, American Beauty and Jarhead for the filmmaker, as well providing some unusual depth and texture to Finding Nemo, The Horse Whisperer, Lemony Snickert and The Green Mile, he would then be tasked with the mission of finding the pulse and the soul for Bond 23. Whilst a very talented and highly stylised composer, Newman was certainly an offbeat choice, and not someone who was known for creating large-scale, sizzling action scores. David Arnold had assumed the coveted role of 007’s tunesmith from Tomorrow Never Dies to Quantum, with several of his ballsy, brash and bombastic attempts to bolt modern-day technology to Barryesque themes actually working very well indeed – Casino Royale especially – but, on the whole, he had become boring. His music over-produced and often littered with generic action beats. His faster, more dynamic approach was also too crowded with electronics and lacked the sweeping, organic vibe of Barry. Newman, on the other hand, is hugely symphonic and prefers a much more subtle and complexly written approach as opposed to just an all-out wall of sound. His use of the flute and the ethnic woodwind played by Phil Todd is simply delicious, with little flourishes that can sound eerily mischievous and playful, yet also very reminiscent of 70’s bands like Jethro Tull, which is a nice retro touch when you consider that Mendes’ film actually has the tone of 60’s spy films like the Harry Palmer series. And yet, in a terrific surprise, he proves that he is equally adept at creating adrenalized action set-pieces that pulsate and pound with energy and high suspense. Detractors for this score – and there have been a few – cite him as delivering not much more than a John Powell type Bourne-clone. Well, it is true that some of his cues have that ultra-modern beat that arrives amidst glowering, electrified textures, the sort of catchy, techno(ish) slant that sounds hip and modern, but I found his manner of presenting such chase themes and pounding fight coverage actually refreshing and quite addictive in an altogether new kind of way.
With the film also drawing parallels with Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight - some intentional and some not so much – it is perhaps not all that surprising that Newman also pays homage to the Bat with a seemingly conscious nod to Hans Zimmer’s score in the brooding swell of Track 7’s Jellyfish. In his orchestrations elsewhere there are also string/percussion moments that sound similar to Zimmer’s first Sherlock Holmes outing. This has the effect of allowing Newman’s score to fit right in with the modern vernacular of action-writing whilst also giving it a certain exotic versatility. To some ears, his efforts may well and probably do sound generic … but this is certainly ignoring the many eccentricities that he, typically, peppers his work with.
So, I can see why some score-fans aren’t as happy – at least initially – with his endeavours here as I am.
But what he nails so damn well, and becomes something so different and highly distinctive for a Bond score is his capacity for creating a sense of mystery and deep foreboding. Once the action shifts to Scotland, for when Bond retreats to his family’s ancestral home in the highlands to lure Silva into a final showdown that will not endanger anybody else in MI6, or any other “innocent” collateral, he is determined to alternate between furious mayhem and an ethereal, almost Vangelis/Blade Runner sort of feel. As we shall see, this element becomes quite spellbinding and something that truly sets this score apart from the rest of Her Majesty’s Secret Service symphonies.
The album, which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and mixed by Simon Rhodes, jumbles-up the running order, yet adheres to the main momentum of the film and keeps the story burning. Having seen the film three times now, I would say that most of tracks flow chronologically, though cues such as Severine, Enjoying Death and Close Shave seem to have been arranged to provide stopgaps or breathers in the action. This is no bad thing, to be honest, as it gives the album something of its own ebb and flow.
It is important to note that the CD available in-store does not have the title song by Adele on it. Casino Royale did not feature Chris Cornell’s phenomenal opening rock song, You Know My Name, either, so this is not something all that unusual. If you really must have her warbling ballad, then the iTunes download contains it.
But for now, let’s pause for a moment to discuss this title track because this element of a 007 score is always important. The big Bond-song has a long and very distinguished history, of course, with some absolute classics, a good clutch of popular commercial hits, and a couple of total howlers too. Adele, working with Paul Epworth, with a song that has not been arranged or written in collaboration with the film’s composer as was usually the case with John Barry, George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti, Michael Kamen and David Arnold, tries her damnedest to deliver her crooning and creaking track, Skyfall, with a Shirley Bassey-esque power and all the elegant sweep of John Barry. She fails, I’m afraid. And she fails big time. Although I love the score, itself, and rate it very highly – as you will see – and I like the way that Newman weaves the theme carrying the title track into one of his own compositions, Track 13’s Komodo Dragon, I find the song to be a lamentable dirge that drones on and on with a repetitive lethargy that makes me want to stab myself in both ears. Adele may have been the most likely of candidates – what Amy Winehouse could have come up, we will sadly never know – but she has neither the class nor the vocal talent to pull off the stunt that she is very surely attempting to strike such a coup with. The chorus is of funereal excess and, quite frankly a chore to listen to. The word “Crumbles” stretched out to tonsil-waggling extremes is a deplorable and even comically naff lyrical decision that drags the whole thing down into the mire. And the use of the Bond theme to slowly unfold behind it all is a total cop-out. The Bond-songs that Adele is most trying to emulate – Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker from Bassey, and The World Is Not Enough from Garbage – have melodies that are designed to become the essence that fuels the score which follows, and even if Thomas Newman actually does inveigle this slow and churning theme into his score quite successfully, there is no excuse for Adele’s track incorporating the standard Bond signature-tune into her song. This smacks of both laziness and overkill. In a film that has been routinely, and quite justifiably lambasted for its product placement, this spot of self-referencing comes across as being just as risibly overt. It is almost as though there is a need to remind us that this tedious bore is actually attached to a James Bond adventure, and not just some tragedian mumbling that has strayed in by accident.
The actual title sequence of Bond navigating his way through a metaphorical landscape of tombstones and gothic mansions, and blasting away at mirror-images of himself beneath a blood-red sky is terrific. I just wish it hadn’t been smothered with this self-pitying exercise in generic pop ego-slathering.
“You both know what’s at stake here. We can’t afford to lose that disc!”
Things naturally commence with style and gusto. As Bond and Agent Eve (Naomi Harris) discover that the hard disc with the identities of MI6 agents embedded in terrorist organisations around the world has been stolen, and gives pursuit via car, motorbike and train-rooftop during the intense pre-title sequence, Newman enters the world of 007 with accomplished fury and untethered machismo. Interestingly, the very first things that we hear in the opening track, Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, are the initial two notes of the traditional Bond theme. Newman blurts these out with a couple of deep raucous trombone blasts, but delivers nothing more of the famous theme. We know it. We get it. I like the way that he teases us with this ridiculously well-known aspect and resists the temptation to just blast the theme out and be done with it.
To evoke the setting of Turkey, we have ethnic drums and percussion, curvaceous horns and brass that weave and curl as adroitly as the vehicles crashing through the streets, the bikes racing over the rooftops and the train hurtling through tunnels and getting steadily chopped-up by gunfire and Bond’s use of a mounted crane on the bed of one carriage. Anvils are stuck in syncopation with the assassin Patrice (played by Noomi Rapace’s husband Ola) unloading a seemingly inexhaustible supply of magazines at Bond and Eve. Lots of ethnic instruments stream in and out of the cue, jangling metal shakers and searing brass, almost like the shocked locals diving out of the way of the violence. Sizzling strings then lash out with stretched suspense as Bond rams his stolen police motorbike into the wall of a bridge, catapulting himself over the edge and onto the roof of the train to a little bit more of the Bond theme.
And then, surprisingly, the album then breaks away from this hectic, bruising chase, and doesn’t pick up again until Track 14’s The Bloody Shot. We’ll come to that in due course.
There is a mournful spell of reflection in the next cue, Voluntary Retirement. M has been informed that new Secret Service minister Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) is to oversee her transition from head of MI6 to ignominious private life. This has been spurred-on by her loss of the hard-disc and of Bond, who has been accidentally shot (presumed dead) by Agent Eve under M's own split-second judgement call, but the clues are there that Mallory, himself, may well have ambitions of assuming M’s role in her wake. Low, morose tones darken M's horizon as she looks out of the window into a rainy London, but tetchy and tense electronics and percussion soon add impetus to a new threat roaring her way from a haunted corner of her past.
As far as White Hall, the Citadel and Britain’s government is concerned, Newman had already encountered its hallowed, traditional and deeply suspicious ways before, when he scored Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady but there’s no doubting that he found its environs and activities far more exciting this time around. Track 3 highlights a more vibrant and coolly administered arena in which MI6 operates. Having had to move to New Digs after their headquarters gets an explosive message from Silva, Bond, now back from the dead, finds himself in a warren of subterranean passages and chambers that lattice the underworld beneath the capitol. Plucked strings, and a prepared dulcimer strike up an infectious, no-time-to-waste sort of beat, delicately insisting that it is business as usual. Even though this is hardly an action cue, the pace is quick and steady and the sense of movement is superb.
By contrast, Severine, which, in the movie, appears much later as it depicts Bond’s seduction and bedding of his enemy’s tragic muse, is slower, more sensual and blended with smooth but undeniable doom. The ethnic flute sussurates like a breeze through the trees, and then lush strings blanket the cue with a romantic, shower-dripping, steamy allure.
Brave New World is a brief piece that accompanies 007’s first meeting with Ben Wishaw’s young-but-savvy MI6 quartermaster, Q. Whilst trading quips regarding one another’s age and relevance in the espionage game, Q passes Bond his new personalised palm-assigned Walther PPK and the cutest little radio-tracking-beacon imaginable. “A gun … and a radio. It’s hardly Christmas, is it?” remarks Bond. A quiet, understated rendition of the James Bond theme wavers through this small Q cue before the pace quickens with deliberate cello thrusts and a blast of brass and ethnic reeds serenade our arrival in the neon-gorged cityscape of Shanghai. Newman pivots from whimsical nostalgia to raring glitz almost seamlessly.
Track 6’s Shanghai Driveis a smooth, lugubrious techno-burst that is highlighted by a furnished radar-blip. The cue is repeated in the final track, albeit with a little modification, but this is fanciful piece that sort of re-routes the resonant thematic fuzz of 80’s throwback synth anthems like those heard in the hit movie Drive.
Quartermaster brings back the subtle drum-machine and louche techno-beat from Shanghai Drive, making this soft, yet pulsating motif one of the score’s main components. However, about halfway through, things become far more insistent, much heavier and more pronounced with a deeper, swifter beat. The echoing radar-blip is a gorgeous constant, though. At the end of the track, strings rise energetically towards a tense crescendo capped by suspended cymbals.
Newman moves into that Zimmer/Bat mode in the introductory phase of Track 7’s Jellyfish. Not only does the film’s action shift to a neon dreamscape of glitzy Shanghai – visually echoing TDK’s trip to Hong Kong – but the music becomes big, grand and imposing, surging with the tense dread of twitchy trigger fingers. Bond has followed his old foe, Patrice, who is about to make another hit. Hitching a ride underneath the glass elevator that the assassin is taking all the way to the top of a gleaming steel and neon super-tower, Bond enters a world that seems to have been birthed from the joint fathers of Ridley Scott and Michael Mann. The music is glassy, watery and lilting. Ethnic wooden percussion adds a layer of menace to the gently tapped dulcimer. A jabbering motif for bass and strings gathers momentum as Patrice acquires his target and carves a hole in the window to take his shot. Bond slowly moves in amidst a dreamland of shimmering blue shadows. And, in Silhouette, takes the hit-man on in savage hand-to-hand combat. Newman scores this mesmerising scrap with fierce tribal percussion and pounding drums. It’s not exactly new for such a sequence, but it sounds nicely hyper and violently charged, just the same.
In Modigliani Bond spies Severine for the first time. She was complicit in the hit that Patrice just made, and the dark-haired temptress now stands looking out of the bullet-shattered window. Newman wastes no time illustrating her magical beauty and the almost mystically dark splendour of encountering such a rare treasure amidst such carnage. Severine’s theme slides into the neon-shadows like an enigma. And in Day Wasted, we go back to when Bond probes the bullet wound he’s been carrying from the slug that Patrice put there, worming out the evidence that both reveals who is quarry really is, and just why he’s not been quite himself lately. It is a subtle cue, with a faint pulse that gradually picks up as Bond begins to feel his MI6 Mojo coming back after making a hash of various tests that M has put him through before allowing him back out on active duty.
Quartermaster comes next on the album, but really it is better described later on, in its appropriately film-chronological order.
Moody layers and the delicately malletted strings of the dulcimer in Track 12’s Someone Usually Dies lend gravity and unease as Bond decrypts the dangerous and sad background to the enigmatic Severine after making his presence known to the enemy in an incandescent floating casino in Macao. Sitting at a bar under the impassive watch of her unapologetically sinister goon-squad, Berenice Marlohe looks simply exquisite, and her desperate plight as one of the franchise’s shorter-living Bond girls is essayed by Newman’s melancholic music, with wistful tones hinting at a darker destiny.
The most overtly and traditional Bondian piece of music arrives in Komodo Dragon. But when I say “traditional” I mean the sort of lavish, sweeping, long-line melody that David Arnold would deliver when trying his best to evoke memories of Barry. What we have from Newman is a languid orchestral interpolation of the Skyfall theme from Adele. Other than in the title ballad, this is the only time we hear the motif in the film. It is gorgeous and swooning, keen with sea-rolling strings. Naysayers won’t like the addition of electronics to gently sparkle within the cue as it progresses, but their inclusion does ensure that the heaving romanticism – and it does sound romantic here, as opposed to the snooze-inducing lament from Adele. Later on, the track is flavoured with chimes, flute and glissandi, a warmly exotic slant. Newman seems able to conjure many subtle meanderings on a whim, giving certain tracks a diverse, multicoloured flow. Incidentally, the music for the fight that Bond has in the pit of the komodo dragons is not heard in this track, or even as a separate cue in its own right, as it appears to be a combination of Silhouette, a portion of Quartermaster and the ethnic flute from Adrenaline. I loved the little homage to Roger Moore with this section as Bond first amusingly draws his opponent's attention to the approaching reptile, and then skips across a dragon’s back to affect his escape.
Track 14’s The Bloody Shot takes us right back to that electrifying moment when Bond landed on the roof of the speeding train in hot pursuit of Patrice. Remember that bit? Drums and horns and woods immediately galvanise into one pell-mell stream of sweaty, bloodied testosterone. A great three-note motif cracks in with a briefly recurring flurry of cavalier valour. Bond uses his latent building-site affections, first seen in the pre-credit sequence for Casino Royale, decimating part of the train with a crane/JCB combo and to another tease of his own main theme, crashes after his quarry, with just a quick adjustment of his cuffs. Brass, drums and percussion emphasise each new precarious position that he finds himself in. A rooftop tussle with Patrice flinging a chain about – there’s always one of these lying on the roof of a train-carriage, I find – and a jittery Eve on a mountain road with a sniper-rifle results in the moment of truth for Bond, M and the fledgling field agent. Ordered to take the shot that she knows is not clear, Eve pings 007 and blows him off the train and into surreal watery oblivion. Newman’s incredibly dynamic track combines drum-machine, sliding strings, barging brass and dazzling percussion to great effect, endlessly driving the sequence onwards and rising to a knife-edge crescendo as the fateful order is given. Generic action fluff? Nope. Not from Thomas Newman.
Following on from this, we have Track 16’s Enjoying Death, a two-minute slice of exotic lolling as Bond savours three months of wound-nursing on a sun-kissed beach, slurping bottles of a well-known beer and indulging in scorpion-baiting drinking games. The ethnic flute plays slow and woozy, electronics and unusual percussion help the sense of free-falling intoxication.
Jumping ahead again, and having survived the battle with Severine’s pack of guards Bond is able to get aboard Silva’s luxury yacht, The Chimera, in time for a quick shower with Marlohe’s seductive femme fatale before his arrival at the ghostly and desolated ruin of the Dead City, the villain’s island base of operations. Sweeps from brass and suspended cymbals herald the sudden view of the almost deserted enclave, Bond standing strong on the bow. Worrying little nudges from the woods signify that although he wants to meet with Silva, the odds are still stacked against him. The track ends with disconcerting sounds and nervous gusts as Bond and Severine are escorted onto the island.
We move backwards in film chronology now, as Close Shave simmers and flirts over the scene when Eve appears at Bond’s door in Macao and he allows her to shave him with his cutthroat razor, the chemistry between the two relaxed but naughty, 007 giving the failed field agent another opportunity to play with his life. Newman matches this mood with the flute, perhaps even a panpipe, caressing the cue, and undulating strings and bass creating their own rhythm. This seductive cue is actually very much in his trademark style of precocious subtlety – easygoing yet quite coy, akin to his Wall-E and Lemony Snickert scores.
With Severine executed by Silva, Bond regaining his skills with a gun and his unique reflexes in a whirlwind of baddie-takedown, Silva is caught in a show of British might – big helicopters appearing with the Union Jack emblazoned on their sides tipping another nod to the Roger Moore days – and spirited back to the new MI6. But before she can really get to bottom of this wildly off-the-cuff vendetta, M must face up to her lax security in a board of enquiry, and as Q attempts to unravel the devious web of cyber-traps that Silva has woven, it becomes horribly clear that the renegade agent has been fiendishly clever. In a trick that reminds us of how Heath Ledger’s Joker had purposely gotten himself caught in TDK, it appears that his incarceration downstairs has been deliberate, and is only intended to be temporary. Q inadvertently trips a code that frees Silva, allowing him to go after M on his vengeful crusade. This is actually the earlier track Quartermaster that depicts this bout of techno-babble and amusing large-screen graphics. When Bond’s usually Cro-Magnon brain deciphers some letters of code, he realises where Silva, who has broken free, is headed. Filled with padded techno rhythms that drift and pulse and link-up and then dissipate, Quartermaster moves from lush plinky-plink electronics at the halfway point and plunges into a strenuous, high-octane pursuit mix as Bond charges down to the holding area and finds nothing but slain guards. Combining electronics and percussion with fleeting scurries of agitated strings, Newman spikes the adrenal gland, gradually building into a nonstop series of anxious set-pieces following Bond around London as he careers like a pit-bull in a suit after Silva.
“He’s in a real hurry to get home.”
Q tips off Bond that Silva has got on the train and Bond, being Bond, is forced to leap onto the back of it and demand the stunned guard to let him come aboard. Health & Safety is his excuse, and Newman injects the spirited spontaneity of Quartermaster to return. Electronic percussion rattles along with droning strings rubbing-up alongside, somewhat reminiscent of the industrial rush that Zimmer crafted for Sherlock Holmes. When Silva, now dressed as copper, spots Bond, the chase motors off the train and through the crowded passageways and tunnels of commuter-engorged rush-hour. Granborough Roadhurtles through much of the same blend of chaotic electronics, percussion and pounding drums. The flute sifts its way through the madness and, like Silva, keeps just a beat away from the blundering Bond. Violins cut like crazy against the tide of clattering drums. The film then ditches music in favour of crashing metal and masonry as Silva brings a tube-train down on Bond’s head. Well … almost.
But Newman breaks back in with a scorching couplet of cues in retaliation.
M makes a defiant stand at the Enquiry, referencing her late husband’s love of poetry and quoting Tennyson with a rousing and earnest speech about what amounts to our need for diligence and fortitude in times of high risk and global suspicion, basically serenading our need for hard-hearted heroes in a time of vital necessity, and this is intercut with menacing shots of Silva and his goons bearing down on her location, and exciting images of Bond racing down London streets to save her. The film and the score have turned a corner at this stage, alongside the distinctive heroism and valour inherent to both, there is a much more ominous strain, a sort of destiny-bound inevitability that is achingly effective. As M’s words ring around the chamber, Newman conveys a sense of desperate patriotism that truly sounds like a musical last stand. Violins slice and slide, brass lays down a suppressing fire. Jabbing two-note bleats give way to a growing mass of brassy pride, the cymbals shivering in anticipation.
The music then turns on a dime and belts out a furious accompaniment to Bond’s split-second rescue, Tennyson segueing directly into Enquiry without a pause for breath. Drums rattle out a staccato benediction of lead as 007 charges into the chamber, high strings strain the seams of the soul as Silva gets M in his sights … pausing just a second too long and his retributional bullet thudding into Mallory’s arm instead. Eve gets in on the act and soon the circle of MI6 closes-in to protect its own, driving an exasperated Silva away. Newman hits targets as assuredly as Bond, double-tapping each gun-blast and bouncing the track with agility around the confined battlefield. It is good practice for him … because he’s got a lot more of this to come.
“And I suppose that’s completely inconspicuous?”
Resigning himself to one last drastic strategy to ensnare Silva on ground that he can finally control, Bond whisks M away and gets Q to leave a trail of communication Breadcrumbs for Silva to follow. This track is memorable for bringing the full James Bond Theme into play. We’ve been teased with titbits of it so far – or breadcrumbs if you will – and now Thomas Newman gets his shot at the title. The immortal theme appears when Bond swaps cars for the famed Aston Martin and roars away with M moaning about how uncomfortable a ride it is. Slightly different than we’ve heard it before – sans the really snorting, brazen, sweltering brass – this version is short and stunningly effective. The use of tom-toms gives it the sort of jazzy vibe that perfectly captures the spirit of John Barry and Monty Norman (Barry Norman, anyone?) and the sequence, topped-off with the splendid gag involving the ejector-seat, is a bonafide classic that received cheers and applause on each occasion that I saw the film.
“Welcome to Scotland.”
Newman’s signature cue for the score comes, appropriately enough in Track 20’s haunting Skyfall. This plays as Bond surveys the glens and then drives M to his family estate in the middle of nowhere. The gothic structure, which is called Skyfall, has its own ghostly ambience that swirls with 007’s own memories of the place and of a half-buried and tragic upbringing that he spent there. Newman creates a desolate, windswept cadence that seems to hover in preternatural stillness, trembling like the mist rolling across the moors. Notes from the dulcimer echo in the distance. Shivering strings send out a chill of destiny, the ethnic woodwind trilling like some lost birdcall carried on the wind. I love the space that this track creates. It is evocative of the barren glen that Skyfall sits in, yet it also describes the acres of history and guilt and remorse that reside within the oak-panelled building, itself. Listen to the steady undercurrent that murmurs beneath, like the smothered moaning of a thousand drowned angels. There’s been nothing like this in Bond before … and it is a sublime and wonderful touch. This movement is a breach that wordlessly opens up the wound that is James Bond. Somehow this echoes back to Fleming and Connery and reveals the hidden ghost of the orphaned child that would become 007. It is a touch of genius. And it is singularly courageous in a franchise as demanding as this.
There is action aplenty in the next few tracks, as the album assembly pretty much marries-up with the onscreen sequences as Bond, M and Albert Finney’s Skyfall retainer, Kincade, bedeck the mansion with booby-traps, battle waves of Silva’s attackers, and then make their final confrontation with the blonde-bouffanted avenger, himself. It is a tour de force grounded by drum-machine and synth but enlarged magnificently by the orchestra, who issue magazine after magazine of high-velocity firepower, punctuated by rousing surges of incendiary brass and guttural bass to signify the impacts of the shotgun-blasts of Bond’s defence and the multiple explosions that make Skyfall one of the most startlingly rife inferno frenzies.
Kill Them First is the siege-preparation cue, full of grit and resolve, arcs of strings and brass against a taut legion of percussive snaps and drum barrages. Welcome To Scotland tackles the first offensive as a squad of disposable villains become outwitted by Bond, who has hidden himself in the Aston Martin, turns its secreted machineguns upon them and catches them from behind. All three defenders take on the goons with shotgun, nail-bombs (crafty one, Ma’am) and booby-trapped floorboards. Newman gets heads down with hefty onslaughts of percussion and rifled squalls of strings. The brass leans in like a grabbing hand and flattens unwary baddies, the orchestra involved in the fight every shrapnel-blasted step of the way.
She’s Mine directs more of a string-led assault as a vast transport helicopter arrives with a payload of more stooges and some heavy artillery. The old family home takes a fearful pummelling, and Bond gets the OAPs out through that handy escape tunnel that leads out to the moors. Jangling brass and tribal percussion rocket all around the shredded husk of the building as Bond bounces and evades grenade after grenade tossed in by Silva. When the gunship blows up the Aston Martin, Bond naturally gets even angrier and rigs-up something that will make an even bigger explosion. The score is just as energised as ever, rolling and rattling from side to side with each shuddering impact, matching the ferocity of the battle without the more typically rousing of statements that a Bond battle would usually thrust our way. Somehow, this all feels more real and potent, that there is more at stake. When the entire mansion goes up in one of the biggest fireballs and concussive subwoofer moments in cinematic history, Newman politely lets the sound-effects crew take over, but he has certainly not the side down with his kinetic concerto of warfare.
The Moors finds Bond charging across the flame-ravaged landscape to intercept Silva, who has gone after M. That waggling flashlight was a bloody big giveaway, Ma’am! This is a terrific cue, full of urgent percussion and committed to strength and determination, running right alongside Bond as he thunders over the gorse, rising up in power and insistence as he hoofs an unwitting baddie and breaks his neck without losing his stride. Part of the beauty of this is that it sounds like some pneumatic drill carving through diamond, the electric guitar and the yabbering electro-percussion cutting ever deeper and more ruthlessly. Daniel Craig does his Robert Patrick T1000 run across a frozen lake until a bullet that claws through the ice stops him dead.
Silva corners 007 right out in the open, and when the last surviving henchman looms up behind him, Bond grabs his gun and has him chew out a circle of ice, dropping the pair of them into freezing Deep Water. Newman describes their violent underwater struggle with raucous brass and clawed strings, the sequence playing like the portent of watery demise we witnessed in the title montage. To many, these last few tracks will have been a confused and repetitive barrage, but there is actually far more going on than first meets the ear. The driving rhythms are hectic and addictive, and the combination of pulse-pounding orchestral dexterity blends perfectly with the use of electronics to add detail and finesse to the solid meat of the ceaseless machine-like attack.
And, after these gasping, lurching extremes, Deep Water switches tactics as the Vangelis-like dream-fugue returns with glacial transparency, shimmering with a floating voice that exists just between the borders of life and death. Silva has caught up with M and Kincade at the old chapel-house. A warning shot makes the old caretaker surrender, and then Silva approaches his former commander with an air of twisted devotion and agonised compassion. Sam Mendes creates a weird atmosphere of scornful reverie between the two, and Thomas Newman makes the heart stop and the breath freeze in the air with his sweetly agonised cue. I am hugely reminded of the scenes in Blade Runner when Rutger Hauer’s replicant Roy Batty meets his creator – and kills him – and then saves Harrison Ford’s Deckard and delivers that famous speech about seeing “things you people wouldn’t believe.” In the universe of Bond, this is a totally avant-garde moment, and one that makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, given the resonance and importance of what we see taking place.
The Oedipal implications of this finale, as Silva becomes concerned over the bloody wound that M has been trying to hide, and struggles with his scarred devotion to her, is paramount – magnified by this churning, almost hypnotic refrain. Newman somehow gives voice to that moment of finality, almost as though he has discovered the single, lingering note of the very last breath … and slowed its angel-buoyed flight right down so that we can almost touch it. Beautiful. Just beautiful.
“Last rat standing.”
The movie does not give Newman an opportunity to score a frantic one-on-one duel between hero and villain, with Mendes allowing Bond to make his move with off-camera reserve and the death of Silva to be swept up within the glorious eeriness of this gothic triangle. The story has been about death and rebirth all along, about the old making way for the new. And, of course, how Bond can surmount these boundaries and reinvent himself in the line of duty. Newman honours this by simply not breaking this icy, dream-like spell.
Track 29’s sombre but affecting Mother offers up a tender eulogy to the queen of MI6 as she dies in Bond’s arms, a gentle brass fanfare signing-off her tenure with dignity and resolve, the moving sequence drifting into a sturdy shot of 007 on the roof of headquarters, overseeing the drab grey world he has fought so hard to defend, the Union Jack fluttering in the background. Newman’s ode does not last long, but its genteel yearning is perfectly fitting, turning softly from grief to duty. The “score” ends with that modern, jazzed-up snap fused with a techno beat from Track 6’s Shanghai Drive. With a slight twist. No final ballad, no Monty Norman/John Barry combo. The “film”, however, has Bond appear at the end of the gun-barrel, now fully equipped as the 007 that we all grew up with, together with the famous tune. After the violence and chaos and the sinuous surrealism of the last few tracks, this final cue, Adrenaline, takes us on a measured and super-cool ride that is perfectly evocative of the new funky cosmopolitan world in which Bond operates. There are hints of the Far East, a vague Russian twang, and some Middle Eastern essences. But the real difference that this version of the cue offers is the appearance of that ethnic flute, which goes soaring for a spell, but the beat remains just as relaxed and thick and catchy. It is club-it Bond, as derived from the trendier night-spots.
As a devoted disciple of all things Bondian, and a confirmed collector and connoisseur of 007 scores, it seems a bit odd that this, the 23rd instalment, is the first that I’ve actually sat down to review. Then again, maybe this is only fitting. As Bond music ages alongside the films, it is great to discover that there is life in the old dog yet, and a zest that defies his pedigree. Which is precisely how I feel too. Thomas Newman’s Skyfall is not vintage Bond, of course, but it is a tremendously cool and exciting spy-score in its own right. Plus, the little traditional flourishes of the main theme are extremely welcome and handled with enough swagger and suavity to please most fans of Fleming’s finest.
The soundtrack album for Skyfall comes very highly recommended ... especially without Adele’s lousy contribution.
Full Track Listing for in-store CD
1. Grand Bazaar, Istanbul (5:14)
2. Voluntary Retirement (2:22)
3. New Digs (2:32)
4. Severine (1:18)
5. Brave New World (1:50)
6. Shanghai Drive (1:26)
7. Jellyfish (3:22)
8. Silhouette (0:56)
9. Modigliani (1:04)
10. Day Wasted (1:31)
11. Quartermaster (4:58)
12. Someone Usually Dies (2:29)
13. Komodo Dragon (3:20)
14. The Bloody Shot (4:46)
15. Enjoying Death (1:13)
16. The Chimera (1:58)
17. Close Shave (1:32)
18. Health And Safety (1:29)
19. Granborough Road(2:32)
20. Tennyson (2:14)
21. Enquiry (2:49)
22. Breadcrumbs (2:02)
23. Skyfall (2:32)
24. Kill Them First (2:22)
25. Welcome To Scotland (3:21)
26. She's Mine (3:53)
27. The Moors (2:39)
28. Deep Water (5:11)
29. Mother (1:48)
30. Adrenaline (2:18)
I recently wrote up my top ten score releases of the year for the site … but I fear I jumped the gun, somewhat. This should definitely have been in that line-up.
Thomas Newman’s work for Skyfall is simply fantastic and leagues ahead of what David Arnold had been churning out. If Arnold had written for this, we would definitely have had the generic, all-too-obvious bombast without a voice or a personality of its own that some detractors cite as being the case with this score. Although Newman had no part in the title song – something which we and he should be thankful for – this is a terrific Bond score that dares to add something new and refreshing and quite distinctive to the franchise pot.
The score is smooth and cool … very much from the same mindset as John Barry, but tackled from a different and much more modern perspective. Where Barry was lush with orchestral richness, Newman is more threadbare and minimalist, but a second, closer listening reveals many hidden layers and textures that add character, eccentricity and the sort of unique flourish that elevates it.
Awesome action licks propel tracks like Grand Bazaar, Istanbul and the two trios of Granborough Road, Tennyson andEnquiry, and Welcome To Scotland, She’s Mine and The Moors, whilst the ethnic flute, synth and electric violin deliver a spine-tingling spectral beauty to Quartermaster, Skyfall and Mother.
There are many influences at work here, and Thomas Newman knew that he was entering an arena that was not his chosen province, but it is to his credit that he used those influences wisely whilst still paying homage and respect to the tropes of the Bond score, yet managed to maintain his own distinctive voice all along. He keeps the adrenaline flowing for prolonged periods of high suspense and action, and also takes us to places that we never expected to find in Bond’s universe.
Skyfall is a barnstorming Bond movie … and, for my money, this 50th anniversary spectacular got a vibrant, exciting and marvellously unusual and haunting score to go with it.
Skip the awful Adele song and stick with Newman’s impressive score.
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