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

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Mercury Rising (John Barry)

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A relatively anonymous high-concept thriller, Mercury Rising concerned the plight of an autistic child who can read top-secret government codes, and the efforts of a disgraced cop to protect him. The film attracted a high level of talent despite its flaws, including Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and composer John Barry of James Bond fame. Despite his retirement from the superspy franchise in 1987, Barry continued scoring genre thrillers and action movies like The Specialist, but Mercury Rising was sadly unique in that it was the composer’s last action/suspense work before his death in 2011. In fact, Barry would only finish work on two films of any kind after Mercury Rising, 1998’s Playing be Heart and 2000’s Enigma.

Barry’s work combines a number of earlier elements from his scores, but primarily has two modes: a theme for the young Simon reminiscent of Barry’s lush, orchestral style, and suspense music that builds on the composer’s Bond work. Both are familiar elements in many Barry scores, and they don’t mesh particularly well in Mercury Rising. “Simon’s Theme,” which is repeated for tender scenes and occasionally used as counterpoint throughout the score, is the album highlight, combining as it does Barry’s Dances With Wolves style with a definite Bond influence. In fact, the tune sounds like nothing more than a love theme, which is probably appropriate, given that the film features a developing bond between Simon and Willis’ character. In his last years as an active composer, Barry showed a clear preference for this sort of slow, deliberate, romantic music to the point that much of it began to run together–there is, luckily, enough inherent Bondian darkness in “Simon’s Theme” to keep it from this.

The action and suspense material that fills out the balance of the album is far weaker, and despite the inclusion of several action setpieces in the film, remains at a level of simmering tension throughout. Menacing brass strokes and percussion comprise most of the material, which features occasional sultry sax interludes but still feels like a recycling of elements from Barry’s earlier music. The material never lets the tension explode into action–the murder of Simon’s family and the climactic gun battle, for example, are scored in essentially the same way: slow, troubled, and churning. In fact, Barry’s work was so low-key that some of it wound up being replaced with cues by Carter Burwell in the finished product–the sort of score rejection that was a hallmark of Barry’s late career, which found the composer unwilling or unable to step outside of his comfort zone.

As sad as it is given its place as the last tense thriller in his filmography, the irony is that with Mercury Rising John Barry produced a thriller score that is neither thrilling nor tense. “Simon’s Theme” and its variations are enjoyable, but the rest of the material drags the album down somewhat. Mercury Rising, despite its significance as Barry’s last action music, isn’t an essential album, and would probably be best suited to fans of Barry’s earlier, similar works and the film itself. If an attractive, lyrical theme in the John Barry tradition is enough of an attraction to overlook the composer’s subpar suspense and action music, replete with borrowings from earlier efforts, though, the brief album is relatively easy to find.

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The Black Hole (John Barry)

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After the monumental success of Fox’s Star Wars in 1977, other Hollywood studios rushed their own space operas into production. Disney’s entry also was its first PG-rated film, The Black Hole. Despite a strong marketing push, the film failed to find an audience, with ponderous pacing, ridiculous scientific impossibilities such as humans breathing in space, and a nonsensical ending overwhelming the picture’s excellent special effects and decent cast. It’s a mostly-forgotten curiosity today, though occasional rumblings of a remake surface every now and again.

For the score, Disney chose John Barry, clearly hoping to create a best-selling score album to match John Williams’ Star Wars and Barry’s own James Bond works. While few soundtrack fans would automatically associate Barry with sci-fi, the composer had experience in the field, with Starcrash (an earlier Star Wars wannabe) and Howard the Duck (which saw Barry teaming with George Lucas) to his credit over the years. With his languid and often somnambulant 1980s romance pictures still ahead of him, Barry was as often thought of as an action composer as anything else.

There was clearly a push for Barry to write in the Star Wars mode for The Black Hole, and he responded by writing an overture consisting of a heroic, major-key march. It’s very clearly derivative of Williams’ work, and is completely unsuited to the film’s dark tone, but the overture is still listenable and enjoyable. It’s not the strongest post-Star Wars sci-fi bombast, but by no means the worst, and Barry minimizes its inclusion in the score proper, with only a single up-tempo reprise in “Laser.” Incidentally, The Black Hole, along with the concurrent Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was the last major American film to include an overture before the film during its roadshow release. Barry’s overture only resurfaces again during the combat scenes in the film’s endgame, accompanying the most triumphant parts of laser battles in which maintenance robots inexplicably outmaneuver and blast military models.

The score’s true main theme is presented in the “Main Title,” and is a delight–menacing, pulsating, and dark. It captures the swirling, implacable nature of the titular black hole perfectly, and is a superb match to the computer-generated effects shots overlaying the title (incidentally, another industry first). This theme is reprised and given an extended performance in “Zero Gravity,” the “End Title,” and is worked into the rest of the underscore, often rather subtly.

Those parts of the score that don’t feature either theme are reminiscent of Barry’s work on the James Bond series, with percussion and brass overlaid on a bed of swirling strings. There’s little of Barry’s trademark lush romanticism save for a burst near the end of “Into the Hole,” where it accompanies what passes for the film’s ending, a series of increasingly abstract images that tried (and failed) to approximate the thought-provoking coda of 2001.

Barry gives the entire score a further sci-fi feel by incorporating electronics in performances of the main title and the action music in “Laser.” This takes the form of a synthetic whooshing effect and the distinctive metallic clang of the Blaster Beam instrument that punctuates portions of the main title and provides a strong, propulsive opening to the “Laser” track. In the frantic closing portions of the score’s action music, “Hot and Heavy” and “Hotter and Heavier,” the Bond-style music and Blaster Beam are layered together in a dark motif that perfectly compliments the scenes of devastation in a spacecraft torn apart by meteors and a black hole (if one can ignore the humans breathing comfortably in the decompressed craft’s hull!).

For many years, The Black Hole had one major flaw: lack of availability on CD. It was only issued as an LP with 30 minutes of highlights in conjunction with the film, was not legitimately released on CD as many of the Disney properties eventually were. LP-to-CD rips proliferated before a belated digital release of the LP program to iTunes, but it wasn’t until 2011 when Intrada finally came to the rescue, issuing the complete score in theoretically unlimited lumbers as part of their Disney-branded line. Hopefully, this will allow the music to connect with a new generation of fans, as The Black Hole has many qualities that distinguish it from standard Barry fare–the main title theme in particular is like nothing else the man has ever written, and it remains the very best of Barry’s limited space opera music available in any form. Highly recommended, if you think you’d enjoy hearing John Barry’s take on the post-Star Wars space opera genre, complete with a bold if derivitive main title march and ominous, pulsating underscore.

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