Hardcore and casual Bond fans alike have sung Daniel Craig’s praise as loud as they can. Even with regards to the most recent outing, Spectre, whatever faults were laid at its feet, the star of the show was not one of them. It seems as though the Daniel Craig era can almost do no wrong, with praise coming left, right and center. Perusing the fan forums, Twitter chatter, and Facebook page posts, there is one ingredient regularly brought up as being a dark spot. It doesn’t concern director Sam Mendes (who has received a level of criticism, but whose work is generally appreciated), or the films’ lengths (which has been cited as a negative, but not overwhelmingly so). Nay, the fly in people’s ointment seems to be the contributions of music composer Thomas Newman in SF and SP.
Several possible reasons can be deduced as to why Newman’s music has failed to impress large swaths of the fanbase. For one, it is be fair to tag the 007 fanbase as being somewhat conservative, insofar as many bristle at the prospect of change. Remember the aforementioned praise awarded to Daniel Craig? Well, remember the early, remarkably silly comments about Craig not being a good choice because of his hair colour? Right. There are still people who, to this day, consider Sean Connery the only true James Bond, in turn either only casually enjoy the other actors or shunning them entirely. In a nutshell, there are large portions of the fanbase that know exactly how they like their Bond and don’t care much for interpretations that don’t reflect said vision.
Coupled with the film opinion conservatism is the intimidatingly long shadow cast by composer John Barry, who worked on no less than 11 of the scores, 12 if one counts his collaboration on DN to make the iconic James Bond theme what it is known as today. Several other extremely fine composers worked intermittently for the series, each imprinting their own very distinct stamp (George Martin’s funky LALD music, Marvin Hamlisch’s aquatic, 70s-infused TSWLM score, Bill Conte’s unmistakably late 70s-early 80s synthesized FYEO effort), and then came David Arnold, the latter whom worked on 5 scores, each of which either paid beautiful homage to Barry, embraced late 90s techno drum and bass, and reinvented Bond for Craig’s first two outings.
Enter Thomas Newman in 2012 for SF. From the get go, fans and music critics were not particularly enthusiastic towards the effort. Few outright lambasted it, but conversely few were those that truly embraced it. Likewise for 2015’s SP, which received additional criticisms for reusing cues (with slight rearrangements) from the previous score. What were the problems? A little too generic, not especially Bondian, not enough instrumental versions of the theme songs.
Before going any further, I should point out that I have no musical training, therefore in-depth, academic music analysis will be entirely absent from this article. That being said, as a listener of many film scores, and especially the Bonds, I am a strong supporter of Newman’s two entries. Far be it from me to tell anyone what to like and what not to. I’m a firm believer in the practice of the ‘to each their own’ temperament. Even so, it seems curious that the TSWLM and FYEO (which I love) are fondly looked back on whereas neither the SF or SP scores were very warmly received, the latter two consistently being downplayed due to a lack of ‘Bondian quality’. Pardon me, but the work put in by Hamlisch and Conte don’t sound at all like that of John Barry. There are several cues from both soundtracks that, if put to the ears of a causal or non-Bond fan, would almost certainly produce a comment along the lines of “That’s from a James Bond film?!?” I ask readers to forgive for being a bit judgemental, but the criticism about the Newman scores lacking a Bondian aesthetic does not hold much water in my opinion, for precisely the same has been attempted before with, at least in some cases, success (notice I’ve not paid lip service to GE!).
Bond adventures are sleek, sexy, action-packed escapades. Die Hard is action packed, but certainly not sleek. Jason Bourne is sleek, but not sexy. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are fantastical and heroic, and their scores brilliantly reflect those qualities. A Bond film requires a very specific type of music, the sort that is, I imagine, far more difficult to achieve than most would believe. Newman, for all the criticisms aimed at him, produced two handsome scores that feature all the familiar Bondian qualities, only he did it in his personal, Newman-esque fashion. Are his soundtracks utter perfection from start to finish? No, they aren’t. Even I would agree that some tracks fall into the ‘generic action beat’ routine, what with popular rhythmic percussions pounding away to suggest Bond in motion at great speed or under great peril. The tracks definitely do not echo any of the sounds we’ve grown accustomed to from 00 music in decades past.
On the flip side, there are beautiful, evocative cues on both albums that fit perfectly into context of a 007 movie. Severine, from SF, is one such piece: powerful, alluring, sensitive, all qualities embodied by the titular character. Brave New World, also from SF, exudes the excitement and sexiness associated with traveling to a new, modern and hip location for the first time ever. Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, the track that opens the SF album (and film) is fantastic, atmospheric action sequence material that perfectly juggles 007 flair whilst alluding to the local culture of legendary Istanbul. There is also, what I am tempted to admit, my favourite track on the entire album: Skyfall. Yes, it’s very, very different from much of what has been heard before in Bond films, but as 007 and M drive through the misty, Scottish Highlands, back into the protagonist’s staunchly protected past, I struggle to imagine a piece of music that better fits the moment. Haunting, melancholic, ethereal.
Forced to select between the SF and SP, my vote would indeed go to the former, but I still very much enjoy SP. The opening Los Muertos Vivos Estan, The Eternal City, Donna Lucia, Snow Plane, Out of Bullets, Tempus Fugit, each of these is beautifully woven into the scenes they accompany and enhance. It is admittedly a bit odd that certain tracks seem to be recycled from SF, although having revisited both soundtracks recently, there are subtle distinctions regarding the arrangements. This, one reckons, has more to do with Newman’s stamp on the series than any laziness with respect to the effort invested into creating the music for SP. He created some great tracks for SF, they became highlights of that album, and he therefore slightly rearranged them for SP for similar moments. Does anybody call for Michael Kamen’s head for using the James Bond theme 15,000 times in the LTK score?
Writing this blog post, I am well aware that more will disagree than those that agree with me. That’s the beauty of talking about movies and music. Nevertheless, I will stand my ground and continue supporting Thomas Newman’s two soundtracks. They embody many of the qualities asked of a 007 score, all the while emanating from the composer’s personal, very talented perspective. This blog salutes Thomas Newman’s contributions, even though not many others have.