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CD Review: Skyfall

Only having recently watched all the Eon-sanctioned Bond films (most of them for the first time) and discovering their scores (also for the first time), I didn’t go into the new Bond film/score with any particular expectations other than being an admirer of Thomas Newman and director Sam Mendes. SKYFALL as a film is a thrilling entry in the franchise and a major return to (the new) form after the disappointing QUATUM OF SOLACE. In addition, Mendes and his screenwriters have raised the bar for future entries by creating an exciting thriller with particularly compelling performances and an unexpected emotional core. For film music fans, the question becomes whether or not Newman was able to honor the Bond musical tradition and yet still retain enough of his own distinctive voice.

skyfallcd 150x150 CD Review: SkyfallFrom the startling opening two-note brass motif, Newman makes it clear that he will be handling the traditional Bond musical elements in a different fashion from his predecessors. Newman forgoes outright quotes of the classic themes, dissecting them instead for rhythmic/melodic motifs and chord progression.

The wailing trumpets of “Grand Bazaar, Instanbul,” the alto flute quote of the classic James Bond theme at the beginning of “Brave New World,” the majestic “Goldfinger” chord progressions of “The Chimera” and the first four notes of the Bond theme in “Enquiry” showcase Newman’s subtle use of the franchise’s traditional musical elements and give the score the proper Bond feel.

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Click Track: The Chimera

Thankfully, Newman didn’t have to supplant his distinctive style. “New Digs” has a faint Middle Eastern aura and the syncopated rhythms and unorthodox orchestrations reminiscent of scores like AMERICAN BEAUTY. The pizzicato strings and vibraphone of “Close Shave” and the furious sixteenth notes of “Health & Safety” also bear the hallmarks of his unique musical voice. Though for legal reasons, Adele’s theme song is not included on the album (a sore point with many fans), Newman works it into the score in “Komodo Dragon,” underscored by the four notes of the classic guitar riff, while the “Sky-fall” notes makes their way into “The Bloody Shot”.

What is perhaps most impressive is how the score—both in the film and in its album arrangement (which is not precisely in film order)—creates a nail-biting sense of drive as the story propels to its inevitably violent and surprisingly emotional conclusion. From the Turkish strains in the Grand Bazaar to the furious sixteenth notes that welcome Silva (Javier Bardem) to Scotland and shrieking violence that accompany his deadly trek across the moors, the score is a musical thrill ride.

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Click Track: The Bloody Shot

But not everything is action-oriented. The brass chorale at the heart of M’s “Voluntary Retirement” and “Mother” gives the score gravitas, while a heartbreaking theme for the doomed “Severine” and the haunting musical mists of “Skyfall” allow the score room to breathe.

For those of you missing more quotes of the quintessential “James Bond Theme” on the album, don’t worry. David Arnold’s arrangement of the theme (“Breadcrumbs”) is used sparingly in a couple key spots in the film for maximum effect and incorporated no doubt at the behest of the powers that be.

Unless the film is going for camp, no Bond score will ever sound like John Barry again, nor should it. To place those expectations—and restrictions—on the composer, even from a fan perspective, does him (or potentially her) a great disservice. Thomas Newman has honored the Bond musical traditionals while creating a thrilling contemporary action score on its own. And that is as it should be.

About Jim Lochner

Jim has been writing about film music for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Music from The University of Texas at Arlington and a Master of Music from The University of Texas (Austin), both in Clarinet Performance. He has written soundtrack CD liner notes for Intrada, Varèse Sarabande Records, Film Score Monthly, La-La Land Records and Disques Cinemusique. Jim has been a bimonthly guest on BBC-Kent’s Drive Home at the Movies radio program and has been interviewed by a number of online and print outlets, including The Toronto Globe and Mail and the Los Angeles Times. Jim served as the managing editor of Film Score Monthly Online (FSMOnlineMag.com) and is currently writing a book on Charlie Chaplin's film music. For more information, visit JimLochner.com.

4 comments

  1. I saw the movie at our IMAX opening morning and enjoyed it, but thought the score and the song only reached satisfactory levels. There actually was some room for the John Barry treatment in the first half of the picture (komodo dragons in a casino; the stench of bad luck?), while the second half certainly gave Newman enough of a chance to express himself.
    I ended up with a wonderful, double-CD bootleg of Arnold’s complete CASINO ROYALE score, and I’ll be happy to take that route again every time they can’t figure out a way to license the title song for the movie score CD.

  2. I love Thomas Newman, but as you recently watched the EON Bond films, my problem with Skyfall is that David Arnold took John Barry’s seminal approach and brought it forward in time and continued to use the title song in the score in surprising ways. Newman takes a non-standard Bond film and made for me a total disconnect with all the prior films. The blame is on Mendes who bought Newman as they are brilliant together, just not at Bond. And to call Barry’s score camp is a very broad generalization that really applies to making these films work for Roger Moore — listen to the Connery and OHMSS and the actions cues are amazing. The next Bond is Mendes/Newman again so we will see what happens…

    • I think that Newman just took a different approach to the score than Arnold. He still works in Adele’s song, though not as obviously as other composers have done. I think both are valid approaches. For those who hated the Adele song, they probably were glad. And those who liked it probably wanted more of it in the score. I think it was just right.

      I listened to SKYFALL probably more than any other score last year and I’ve seen the film three times now. I think the score works brilliantly in the movie, but that’s just me.

      And as for the word “camp,” it didn’t apply to Barry himself. I meant it as going back to the Barry sound for today’s Bond scores. Barry’s style—or some poor imitation of it—would sound completely wrong with the way Bond films are shot now and their more realistic stories. I don’t see the franchise reverting back, but who knows.

      I for one can’t wait for the next Bond…primarily because Newman is scoring it.

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