Cutthroat Island (John Debney)

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There have been cinematic shipwrecks since the first films set sail for the commercial waters, but few have run aground as sharply or as deadly as Cutthroat Island. It seemed like a surefire treasure cruise at the time: Renny Harlin, who had helmed the profitable galleons Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger was directing, his then-wife Geena Davis of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own was in the wheelhouse, and they sailed under the banner of Carolco Pictures, a studio that had underwritten such voyages as Rambo and Terminator 2. But an old-fashioned swashbuckling pirate tale was out of fashion in 1995, and the film’s marketing push failed to sell it to audiences. The movie cost up to $150 million doubloons to make but returned less than $20 million pieces of eight worldwide, a flop the likes of which would not be seen again until the wreck of the good ship Pluto Nash in 2002. Among the drowned: director Harlin’s blockbuster career, star Davis’s career as a leading lady, and studio Carolco’s very existence.

Renny Harlin had originally sought to engage rising young British corsair David Arnold to score his pirate extravaganza. Arnold was a sound choice, with his Stargate score from the year before having plenty of buckle and swash. Scheduling conflicts forced Arnold to back out of the voyage, though, and on the strength of a swashbucking synthesizer suite, Harlin brought Cap’n John Debney aboard as scoremaster. Debney’s career was, like Arnold’s, on the upswing in the early 1990s, having done yeoman’s work on modest hits like Hocus Pocus as a late replacement for James Horner. Cap’n Debney threw himself into the score for Cutthroat Island with a singular destination in his spyglass: to make the most of his scurvy crew from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices to craft a modern homage to Admiral Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose scores for classic swashbucklers like The Sea Hwak and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While Admiral Korngold is the one given a 21-gun salute by Cap’n Debney, he happily plunders the very best of modern orchestral scoring for Cutthroat Island, taking inspiration for some of the orchestrations from the flourishes used by David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd in Stargate, John Williams in Hook, and James Horner in The Rocketeer. That’s not to say that the score is a cut and paste job, but rather that Cap’n Debney is able to load his guns with the best powder that modern film music has to offer, powering up Korngold’s piratey ideas with flourishes both orchestral and choral that the old admiral would never have had the budget or the equipment to match.

The themes and motifs Debney blasts out with a double-powder charge are almost too numerous to name, with a soaring main theme for the piratess heroine (“Morgan’s Ride”), a tender love theme (“Discovery of the Treasure”), and supporting musical ideas for the evil Uncle Dawg and the Morning Star pirate ship. The music is anchored by towering and rambunctious statements of these themes, with the “Carriage Chase” cue being perhaps the finest example of piratey swashbuckling ever recorded, a 7-minute tour-de-force of rollicking, thematic brass and percussion that builds a ferocious head of steam as is progresses. “Setting Sail” is one big rousing love letter to The Sea Hawk, while the massive concluding suite of “Dawg’s Demise” and “It’s Only Gold” is almost breathless in its intensity.

Cap’n Debney brings all of his Golden Age influences squarely into the modern era, with a crisp recording and none of the Hollywood treacle that Korngold was occasionally forced to write in between his magnificent statements of theme. The only real drawback to any listener looking for a piratey good time is the film’s breakneck (or cutthroat) pace: the moments of softer music are few and far between, making the lengthy score at times a bit of an endurance test in its unflaggingly adventurous pace. Pirate scores of the 2000s often suffered from the same problems, but the clarity and sheer overwhelming piratey spirit of Debney’s work makes this more forgivable than in some of his fellow Cap’n Zimmer’s less-inspired voyages.

The foundering of Cutthroat Island put an end to pirate movies, whatever flag they sailed under, for over a decade until the genre was refloated and salvaged by Pirates of the Caribbean. But Cap’n Debney was the last scoremaster to attempt to bring aboard the classic Golden Age Erich Wolfgang Korngold sound in a modern guise; future pirate movies would sail under the flag of Cap’n Zimmer and his Remote Control crew, whose very different ideas of piratey music would come to dominate the genre. Debney, though, was perhaps the only crewmember of the doomed vessel to escape unharmed: his score continued to be respected as a modern swashbuckling classic independent of the disastrous foundering of the film to which it was chained. A very generous album 70-minute album bubbled to the surface from the hold of the wreck in 1995, while the complete 150-minute score was brought into port 10 years later by Prometheus Records. Either release is highly recommended to all scurvy dogs that ply the seven seas; while Cap’n Debney has had many successful voyages since then, many still wait for his opportunity to sail under the Jolly Roger once more.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Skyfall (Thomas Newman)

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James Bond has had a rough 21st century. After three enjoyable outings with Pierce Brosnan, the series imploded in on itself with the ludicrous Die Another Day in 2002 to the extent that the producers decided to give the franchise the full Batman Begins treatment. The resulting 2006 Casino Royale, which dumped Brosnan for Daniel Craig, was a critical and commercial success (provided one could overlook its casual discarding of 45 years of Bond heritage). But its risible followup, Quantum of Solace, was a nearly-incoherent return to the histrionics of Die Another Day that was not only a box office and critical disappointment but also diminished Casino (to which it served as an extended, and unnecessary, epilogue). Into this breach stepped filmmaker Sam Mendes, best known to audiences for brooding hits like American Beauty and Road to Perdition. While some feared that his arty style would have the same negative impact as Ang Lee on Hulk, Mendes rose to the challenge, picking and choosing elements from the Bond novels, the pre- and post- “reboot” films, and his own personal playbook to produce a dark, action-packed, and tense thriller. His Skyfall managed to please nearly everyone, becoming the top-grossing Bond film of all time (dropping only to third place if inflation-adjusted) with five Oscar nominations and two wins to its name–the first Bond nominations since For Your Eyes Only in 1981 and the first Bond wins since Thunderball in 1965.

British composer David Arnold had been the musical voice of James Bond since 1997, writing more scores in the franchise than anyone save the beloved John Barry, and initial media reports suggested that he would return for Skyfall at the producers’ request. However, Mendes had insisted on his usual collaborator Thomas Newman as a condition of his hire, and the American composer was ultimately the one to land the job–the first Yank to tackle Bond since Bill Conti in 1981. Fans were concerned: Newman was a critical darling known for his unconventional instrumental choices and bizarrely propulsive sense of rhythm, with no real blockbuster action scores to his credit. The closest analogues in his filmography were misfires like Red Corner and The Debt–did Newman have the chops to write an action score, much less a James Bond score? Or would he be another Nicholas Hooper, a composer competent in the softer aspects of the music but completely out of his element when it came to large-scale action? The world wondered.

In retrospect, it seems like a silly concern. Thomas Newman provided an excellent score for Skyfall, and like Mendes he did so by expertly merging his own unique style with the best that Bond had to offer. As James Southall noted, the most considerable achievement that Newman brings to the table is that the music always sounds like James Bond and yet always sounds like Thomas Newman while still providing all the requisite action, adventure, and romance beats the picture required. Unlike Arnold, Newman did not write his own main theme for the score: instead, he uses the original Norman/Barry James Bond Theme as the connective tissue that (along with his personal style) holds the score together. The great strength of Newman’s Skyfall score is that the James Bond theme is so expertly broken down and integrated on almost the molecular level into the music. So deeply, in fact, that the album producers couldn’t point out specific tracks featuring the theme in the insert, opting instead for a blanket disclaimer.

Thomas Newman expertly deconstructs the entire James Bond Theme into its basic parts and spreads it liberally through the score. For instance, starting at 0:14 in the propulsive and climactic “She’s Mine,” the string section plays two notes of the Bond theme, with a third note added at 0:32. It’s deeply woven into the overall track, subtly enough that listeners aren’t slammed over the head with it (at least not until 3:05) but enough to constantly keep the theme in mind. Newman repeats this trick across many of the album highlights, twisting the Bond theme into stunning action crescendos in “The Bloody Shot” and “Deep Water” while integrating its more jazzy aspects into places like “Brave New World.” Newman follows Arnold’s methodology of saving the full unadulterated theme for pivotal moments, unleashing it in full at the end of “She’s Mine” and giving it a full swinging outing in “Breadcrumbs,” but due to his canny deconstruction of the tune and its deep integration into the music, the James Bond Theme never seems far away.

The composer does provide some supplementary themes and motifs as well. A dark, mournful brass figure for the character of M, far more tragic and three-dimensional in this film than in any other, is heard prominently in “Voluntary Retirement” and “Mother.” It’s also broken up and integrated alongside the Bond theme in several action cues, notably the intense, volcanic “Enquiry.” The film’s closest analogue to a Bond girl, the mysterious and tragic Severine, is given a lovely and lush Barry-esque theme in “Modigliani” and “Severine,” though it never approaches the presence of Bond love themes from movies past. And while the film’s magnetic villain Silva is given a motif of sorts in the snarling “The Chimera,” it never really returns elsewhere in the score save perhaps for extremely minor, subtle hints elsewhere.

Despite the above, the score abounds with Newmanisms as well. His trademark quirky rhythms, albeit suffused with fragments of the Bond theme, are in evidence in “New Digs,” and “Health & Safety” has his trademark nervous string and dulcimer rhythms straight out of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Newman also gets to bring the electronic and guitar rhythms he’s sometimes been known to use along for the ride too; “Shanghai Drive,” “The Moors,” and the concluding “Adrenaline” are suffused with them. He also takes the opportunity, in “Komodo Dragon,” to deliver his own lush, if brief, take on the Skyfall theme song by Adele.

That Oscar-winning song highlights the problems with the existing Skyfall album–in fact, virtually all the problems the score demonstrates are album production and music rights problems rather than flaws in Newman’s music. As was the case with Casino Royale, the Skyfall album from Sony Classical doesn’t have the movie’s theme song on it, which is a shame: Adele’s sultry delivery and the song’s frequent interpolation of Bond elements not only make it mesh well with Newman’s score (despite his total lack of involvement in its production aside from adapting it into “Komodo Dragon”) but help make up for some of the awful Bond songs to curse listeners over the last decades. It’s too bad that the song’s production timeline didn’t allow Newman to be involved with it, or even to integrate it better into his score, but the fact that “Skyfall” the song is only available as a separate album single is inexcusable. The Skyfall album also ends on an extremely weak note with “Adrenaline,” essentially an extended version of the earlier “Shanghai Drive.” In the film, David Arnold’s stylish rerecording of the James Bond Theme from Casino Royale closed out the picture, and that would have been an ideal way to close out the album as well, either by licensing Arnold’s music or placing Newman’s own “Breadcrumbs” in its place (replacing “Shanghai Drive” with “Adrenaline” while they were at it). Bond fans will probably find themselves assembling their own album cut, perhaps resorting the songs to their original film order to boot.

Still, even with those negatives, Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall is a success, and proves once and for all that his style is versatile enough to handle large-scale action scoring and to integrate themes written by others in an incredibly detailed, intelligent way. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the composer adding a few more such movies to his future docket, given the commercial and critical success: Newman was nominated for his 11th Oscar for Skyfall, losing to Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi in the 2013 ceremony. Even if there are no more large-scale action scores in his future, Newman is still set to score the Mendes-directed Bond 24, becoming the third composer alongside Barry and Arnold to score more than one Bond. Like the superspy himself, Thomas Newman will return.

Rating: starstarstarstar