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

27 Dresses (Randy Edelman)

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The 2008 romantic comedy 27 Dresses wound up following every cliché in the rom-com handbook with its tale of someone who is literally always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It nevertheless did decent business during its release, though it was certainly a step down for the film’s writer (who had adapted the much sharper The Devil Wears Prada two years earlier). More than anything it showed once again that, by filming a film cheaply and using the rom-com stars du jour at the time, there was profit to be had in even the most inane formula.

Veteran composer Randy Edelman was tapped for the film’s score. Edelman has a solid track record in the genre, with scores like While You Were Sleeping, and Head over Heels on his resume, but by 2008 the composer had not written anything in the genre for several years, with most rom-com assignments going instead to younger composers like Theodore Shapiro or Rolfe Kent. Edelman’s output in general had declined in the 2000s with relatively few assignments compared to his salad days of the mid-1990s, with 2008 being the last year to date the composer had more than one major assignment.

Much like the movie itself, you know exactly what you’re going to get with the score. Edelman’s music is gentle and melodic, the sort of “sensitive piano music” with an ensemble backup that has become de rigueur for romantic comedies. It’s sunny when it needs to be, twinkling and introverted when it needs to be, and contains absolutely no surprises. It’s the sort of thing Rachel Portman or the aforementioned Shapiro or Kent could pull off in their sleep. Save for a few passages that adopt a more percussive quirky sound akin to watered-down Thomas Newman, the entire album is a highly consistent listen.

If this seems like damning with faint praise, keep in mind that Edelman is always professional about the sound and that he has a songwriter’s natural gift for attractive melody and harmony. The music may not be the most complex, and it may adhere to almost as many romantic comedy clichés as the film itself, but it is always highly pleasant and highly listenable. Just don’t expect themes as strong as Edelman’s defining work in Gettysburg or Dragonheart, which were strong enough to overcome a sound that was at times almost unbearably cheap. 27 Dresses never sounds cheap, but it never ascends the same melodic heights as those other scores.

While Edelman would have another rom-com hit two years later with the very similar Leap Year, the next few years would see him diminish his output even further, with only three scores in the subsequent five years. The 27 Dresses album suffered from low demand thanks to its score-only nature, with none of the needledropped rom-com songs found in the movie, and was eventually remaindered to Family Dollar stores in the 2010s, with copies often only $3-$4 each.

Rating: * * *

White Oleander (Thomas Newman)

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A best-selling novel turned arthouse film, White Oleander attracted an impressive cast of female stars but ultimately failed to make much of an impression at the box office or award shows. After his resounding success with Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, Thomas Newman was for a time the composer of choice for arthouse Oscar-bait (which led to his record-setting streak of failed Oscar nominations) and it was no surprise to see his name on the marquee. Newman put together an unusual ensemble for the project, combining a few specialty instrument soloists with only a handful of studio players, in an extreme version of the quirky ensemble and quirkier instruments that he had assembled for Beauty and its ilk.

The result is, somewhat predictably, a continuation of the style found in scores like American Beauty and In the Bedroom with far less rhythm,  motion, and interest in the music. White Oleander never rises above a whisper, and without a theme or Newman’s trademark quirky rhythms, there’s nothing to sustain the music. Instead, it becomes a dull, monotonous drone, firmly backgrounded both on screen and on album. More than anything, the album resembles a New Age relaxation tape, designed to wick away stress and induce slumber. Nothing of the troubled or contentious nature of the film is reflected in the underscore, which is essentially reduced to sonic wallpaper. There is some admittedly attractive piano work at the beginning and end of the disc, but even this seems like it’s building toward a climax that never arrives.

In many ways, White Oleander represents the nadir of Newman’s post-American Beauty experiments with strange instruments and minimalism. Beauty was one of the most-aped sounds of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and as a result of its success (and perhaps of Newman’s own changing tastes) he hewed strongly toward that style for many of his scores in the following years at the expense of the orchestral sound of scores like The Shawshank Redemption which had won him many of his most passionate fans. The Oleander score was the culmination of a three-year period of similar music and diminishing returns for the composer, who shortly thereafter began blending his quirky minimalism with a more traditional orchestral palette. It was this latter approach that led to later scores with a much better balance to their Newmanisms, acclaimed works as Finding Nemo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and even the Mendes-helmed Bond score Skyfall.

As the most extreme example of a style that doesn’t resonate strongly with many fans outside of the context of its film, White Oleander is therefore recommended only for extreme fans of Newman’s minimalism, or people who enjoyed the score as cut to picture. To be fair, there are Newman fans who thoroughly embrace the composer’s scores of this ilk, and there are certainly  those who can appreciate the composer at his most minimalistic, even when he is producing themeless, meandering music that wouldn’t be out of place on a New Age relaxation disc.

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