CD Review: Skyfall

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 QUANTUM 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 Newman honored the Bond musical tradition while retaining his distinctive voice.

From 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.

Newman honors the franchise’s traditional musical elements and gives the score the proper Bond feel. Bond trumpets wail in “Grand Bazaar, Instanbul.” The majestic GOLDFINGER chord progressions populate “The Chimera.” And the Bond theme signals a “Brave New World.”

Skyfall soundtrack
“The Chimera”
“The Body Shot”

Thankfully, Newman didn’t have to supplant his distinctive style. The Middle Eastern aura of “New Digs” has 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 his hallmarks sound. Adele’s theme song was not included on the album (a sore point with many fans). But Newman works the melody into “Komodo Dragon,” underscored by the four notes of the classic guitar riff. The two “Sky-fall” notes make their way into “The Bloody Shot”.

As the story propels to its inevitably violent and surprisingly emotional conclusion, the score creates a nail-biting sense of drive. From the Turkish strains in the Grand Bazaar to the shrieking that accompanies Silva’s (Javier Bardem) trek across the moors, it’s a thrilling musical ride.

But there is more to the score than action cues. The brass chorale at the heart of M’s “Voluntary Retirement” and “Mother” gives the score gravitas. 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”) appears sparingly in a couple key spots in the film for maximum effect. No doubt, Newman incorporated it 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 tradition while creating a thrilling contemporary action score on its own. And that is as it should be.

  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…

    1. 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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