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No Time to Die
  • Composed by Hans Zimmer

The Daniel Craig set of Bond films reaches its conclusion in the long-awaited No Time to Die, originally scheduled for release during the Neolithic period (or at least, it feels that way). There won’t be any spoilers for the film in this piece – but I will say I found it to be a satisfying entry in the series, clearly neither the best nor the worst of the Craig movies. It does some things very well (a couple of really good action sequences, Bond’s relationship with Madeleine, continuing from Spectre), some things not so well (the main villain is a disappointment, the convoluted villainous material which drives the film’s pivotal moment makes no sense at all).

Musically, the Craig era began very much as a reboot, with David Arnold continuing from the Brosnan movies but deliberately going for a different sound, avoiding throwbacks – even the Bond theme’s use kept to a bare minimum – and that continued through the next three, even when Thomas Newman took over. Well, for No Time to Die that has been entirely abandoned and we are not just in Throwback City, we’re in probably the most throwback-ridden James Bond score of all (with not all of those throwbacks being to previous James Bond scores – we’ll come to that). While it’s hardly a crime for the music for the 25th (!) film in a series to reference those that have gone before, it’s interesting how different an approach it is to the previous four scores, which even though they’re by two different composers still seem to belong together in the same musical universe.

Hans Zimmer

What’s also different is how much the main title song is incorporated into the score – something that hasn’t really happened, save for a perfunctory orchestral arrangement shoehorned-in, in the last three movies (but was very much the case in Casino Royale, the only Bond film of the last twenty years where the score’s composer also got to write the song). While this film’s composer didn’t write the song, he (and his team) were involved in its arrangement and it is to the score and film’s benefit that the melody is used throughout. I like the song – Billie Eilish’s vocals are inevitably full of angst (she sounds like she’s just been told she can’t watch tv until she’s tidied her room) but the melody sticks, the words actually make sense in the context of the film, the orchestral backing makes it sound like a Bond song (and I love Johnny Marr’s James Bond Chord at the end) – these are not revolutionary ideas but it’s surprising how often they’ve been missed since John Barry hung up his hat.

The score opens with the “Gunbarrel” which does exactly what it always does – throwback number one is no surprise. Throwback number two is, though – “Matera” features a full-blown romantic orchestral arrangement of the most beautiful of Bond melodies, “We Have All the Time in the World”. It’s done really well – and clearly the message is “this isn’t going to end well” – but it does seem odd that, having so carefully tried to make clear that this Bond is this Bond and not any of the previous Bonds, for his swansong there is this signal which only makes sense in the context of a previous Bond. (Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. I don’t suppose more than a tiny proportion of people seeing this movie will even know that “We Have All the Time in the World” was even written for a James Bond movie, and the number who know what its use signals dramatically will be lower still.)

There is an immediate contrast on the album in “Message from an Old Friend”, with growling, dissonant orchestra beefed up by considerable electronics creating some real musical violence. The Bond theme’s vamp (the rising-and-falling figure) emerges from the violence, then a nice little variant on its riff (the bit that Monty Norman always sings when he’s telling his story of how he came up with it). The vamp is absolutely all over the score, by the way, in a way it never has been before. It turns into a nice enough action track, with the score’s main original action theme (itself based somewhat on the Bond vamp) getting its first airing.

The variant on the Bond theme which forms the basis of the heavy-duty action opening of “Square Escape” brings us to throwback number three, this time leading back to John Barry’s “Chateau Fight” from Thunderball, which is probably the one track that had the most influence on David Arnold’s action style, with the blaring brass and so on (heard far less commonly in the Barry scores than you’d think). Indeed, it was probably Arnold’s appropriation of that cue for Tomorrow Never Dies that was the real direct influence here. Later in the piece we hear the score’s main “emotional” theme (I don’t know what else to call it without spoiling things), which is throwback four to various previous Hans Zimmer scores but best discussed when we arrive at the finale.

“Someone Was Here” is the first cue in the film after the song and it opens with its melody, playing around with that and the Bond vamp again for a while before a real sense of forward motion arrives – action material driven by Marr’s guitar and the orchestra’s brass section – but this gets dialled back again in the gentle “Not What I Expected”, which actually gets quite close to Thomas Newman’s more ethereal music from the previous two films. It continues into the early part of “What Have You Done?” but we get a blast of the Bond theme to jolt things back into life. “Shouldn’t We Get to Know Each Other First?” has a dash of romance to it but then comes the Bond vamp again.

I’m sure the score’s action highlight for many people will be “Cuba Chase”. It’s a shame the dissonant passage which opens the cue (and removes its playlist appeal) wasn’t dialled out on the album as it was in the film – what follows is very corny but entertaining, with trademark Hollywood “Latin American” music (just like David Arnold’s “Welcome to Cuba” from Die Another Day) interspersed with some very entertaining “straight” action and another reprise of the Thunderball action motif. In terms of pure fun, it’s definitely the album’s highpoint.

“Back to MI6” brings us a straightforward reprise of the Bond theme before the next throwback arrives in “Good to Have You Back” where we hear a slow orchestral take on Barry’s theme from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I listened to the album many times before seeing the film and was looking forward to finding out the context for its use – having seen it, I’m none the wiser. I’ve no idea why it’s there, other than to provide a bit of fan service. I’m sure wiser people than me will let me know. Things take a far darker turn in “Lovely to See You Again”, with some industrial electronics leading into a very downbeat burst of the piano motif that opens the song.

The song forms the basis of “Home” too, but in a different way this time, with a romantic orchestral take on it sandwiching some more anguished, remorseful emotions. Then comes “Norway Chase” which is action as you’d expect – not as full-on or entertaining as the Cuban equivalent, but still decent stuff. I like the suspenseful passage that opens the cue, the tension ratcheting up notch-by-notch, before the action material itself kicks off, with the Bond vamp again used as the starting point, this time mixed in with a hint of The Dark Knight Rises (and this is indeed a hint of things to come) and “Chateau Fight” again.

The next couple of cues have a bit of a transitional feel as we build up to the sequence of music for the film’s final act. “Gearing Up” opens with some guitar noodling, more Bond vamp providing an injection of energy; “Poison Garden” is perhaps the album’s least interesting track, removing some flow from proceedings in the process – essentially a long suspense sequence with some broader dramatic strokes being painted now and again, and (with a caveat that it was made very forcefully clear to me that I don’t know what I’m talking about by the composer of this music himself) I’d have left it off the album.

In “The Factory” we begin the music accompanying the dramatic finale of the movie. Again we start in suspense mode, but it’s suspense with a purpose this time, and before long the tension is relieved with some pounding action music. It’s good action music, but it’s another throwback – the famous “Molossus” from Batman Begins reprised here (and it was itself a throwback to the score that essentially started it all for the composer, Black Rain) – it doesn’t last too long in this cue, but does return more prominently later on, leading into more suspense on this occasion. A lot of effective tricks are pulled out of the bag, with the rasping low brass and pulsing electronic heartbeat being very familiar devices (and part of the reason they’re familiar is that they work).

The briefest moment of calm opens “I’ll Be Right Back” before it explodes into life and this time there is no getting away from the Batman Begins (or Black Rain if you prefer) – it’s literally the same music. As someone who has written so admiringly about James Horner so often, it would hardly be credible for me to complain about that – while it may seem a little odd to put pretty famous music from one big film franchise into another, again the most important thing is does it work – and it does. I really like the dynamic horn section right at the end of the cue. The final piece of action comes in “Opening the Doors”, which reprises “Chateau Fight” one last time, and is generally dynamic and exciting (and pleasingly offers a good rendition of this score’s own main action theme).

To this point – with only one cue remaining, and ignoring any potential marketing considerations – it’s perhaps not entirely clear why the producers would have gone to the expense of bringing in the world’s most famous film composer to essentially craft a score that David Arnold could have written – but then all becomes clear as we reach “Final Ascent”. Of all the Hans Zimmer tropes and trademarks, perhaps the one that will provide him with his most enduring legacy is the series of cues he has written which follow the template of The Thin Red Line‘s “Journey to the Line” – the most famous example is Inception‘s “Time” but there are absolutely loads of them now. The reason he keeps doing them is presumably because people keep asking him to, and the reason they keep asking him to is that clearly they really connect with the audience. On the album we heard a little preview of it right at the end of “Square Fight” – in the film it is also heard in another prominent emotional moment midway through, though that piece didn’t make the album – it goes absolutely all-out for the big emotional musical payoff. If you like any of the earlier variants then you will like it – added to the formula is a bit of the song melody and a bit of (of all things) the extremely similar emotional theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – and as familiar as it might all be, it certainly does work to bring closure to the film.

I’m not sure that all the throwbacks make perfect musical (or even dramatic) sense, but all in all No Time to Die is essentially the score that lots of Bond fans have wanted for a while – combining all the traditional musical elements you’d expect, giving them a modern twist, along with the oft-requested deep interpolation of the song into the score. Add to this its composer’s huge and devoted fanbase and it will probably prove to be extremely popular. I find it to be an entertaining album from start to finish – but it doesn’t really have an “African Rundown” or a “Bloody Shot” if you know what I mean, or any really distinctive element to elevate it towards the top tier of these things. Given its likely success it would seem very probable that whatever direction the James Bond series takes going forward, it’s going to be accompanied by the music of Hans Zimmer (and/or Steve Mazzaro, who receives a prominent “score producer” credit in the movie and has been mentioned as a key contributor by the credited composer in many interviews).

Rating: *** 1/2

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  1. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Sunday 10 October, 2021 at 17:50

    About what I thought. Good stuff, but just a tad below Newman’s work.