- Composed by Thomas Newman
- Sony Classical / 2012 / 77:05
Four years after Quantum of Solace comes the twenty-third James Bond film, Skyfall, released around the fiftieth anniversary of the first. Sam Mendes was first approached to direct it shortly after its predecessor was released but after development was halted because of MGM’s financial woes, it seemed likely that the rather unconventional choice of director would probably drop out – but when production resumed a couple of years later, he was still on board. Early reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly positive – even more so than for Casino Royale, which launched the Daniel Craig reboot of the series (and was one of its very finest entries).
As soon as Mendes was mentioned in connection with the film, film music messageboards were full of people speculating about the music – he wouldn’t bring Thomas Newman along, surely… would he? It seemed hugely unlikely – Newman, the classiest of film composers, almost invariably associated with serious, Oscar-fodder dramas, would be an extremely unorthodox choice; and anyway, musical choices in this series have traditionally been made by the producers, with David Arnold firmly entrenched as the in-house Bond composer and looking to equal John Barry’s streak of scoring six consecutive Bond films (Barry’s going from From Russia With Love through to Diamonds are Forever). But the unlikely really did happen, with Newman being announced as composer – reportedly Mendes making it a condition of him directing the film that he be allowed to choose the composer.
Thomas Newman is one of the leading film composers of his generation, but it was hard to imagine how Skyfall would turn out – action thrillers are not things that figure remotely prominently in his filmography. Something like The Debt perhaps comes closest, but its subtle musical accompaniment would surely not be appropriate for a Bond film. Would he be able to pull this off? You bet – and he’s done it with real aplomb. Aside from a couple of tips of the hat here and there, it doesn’t sound like David Arnold – it doesn’t sound like John Barry – and while it’s not like anything he’s done before, it most certainly does sound like Thomas Newman, and most certainly does sound like a James Bond score.
Anyone doubting the composer’s action credentials will find their fears dissipating very quickly, with the brassy, exciting opening track, “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul”. There are exotic elements suggestive of the locale, some of Newman’s usual soloists on board to provide the ethnic touches, but as soon as Derek Watkins’s trumpet solo appears, you know this is a Bond score. In fact the sheer amount of action music here is a big surprise – this is nothing like The Debt, Newman instead taking many opportunities to go all-out with the action music. But the wall-of-sound approach favoured by Arnold (which he did very well – especially in his last two Bond scores, which were both fabulous) is left well behind, Newman instead building layers of music allowed to shine thanks to a demonstration-quality recording by Simon Rhodes, with extra layers being added when needed for the action and excitement. There is extensive use of percussion, both real and sampled, adding an ever-pulsing heartbeat to the score (similar to what John Powell has done so successfully so often – but if you look back, Newman did it long before Powell) and this forms the bedrock to everything; a layer of fluttering winds often adds an exotic touch, sweeping strings the requisite drama, explosive brass the thrills.
The other big surprise here is just how extensively Newman quotes the classic James Bond Theme. It’s everywhere – sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly – and the composer manages to incorporate it seamlessly into his own unmistakable style, whether hanging back in the distance in the basses or right at the foreground in a couple of classic-style electric guitar performances. There’s one track too (“Komodo Dragon”) which adds in a full interpolation of the main title song. Adele’s song is frustratingly absent from the soundtrack album – it’s no Diamonds Are Forever, but is at least a step up from its predecessor – so you need to buy it separately to custom-make the best Skyfall soundtrack.
It doesn’t give the most obvious thrills on the album, but a track like “Quartermaster” demonstrates just how successful it is – a cosant pulse of tension thanks to the percussion, exotic flavour (and Newman’s handprint) thanks to the unusual soloists, always interest as the layers are added and taken away. Highlights of the more upfront action segments include the fantastic five-minute piece “The Bloody Shot”, with the full orchestra given a frantic workout, including some incredibly ballsy brass writing. “Health and Safety” sees Newman building up those little cells he likes using for a piece of exciting string music that serves as a prelude to a fantastic sequence of tracks including the frenetic “Granborough Road”, the sweepingly dramatic “Tennyson” and the score’s most David Arnold-like piece, “Enquiry”, which offers real crowd-pleasing Bondian thrills; the sequence ends as “Breadcrumbs” includes the fullest presentation of the Bond theme, this time with added Newman percussion. He makes wonderful use of the theme too in the terrific “She’s Mine”. There’s another great sequence of thrills as the album reaches its conclusion – “The Moors” pulsating, “Deep Water” combining action with suspense in fine fashion.
Romantic moments are few and far between (Daniel Craig’s Bond is not like the Bonds that went before). The early “Severine” includes an exquisite melody, but is over almost as quickly as it begins; the aforementioned “Komodo Dragon” includes a wash of strings in its arrangement of the title song that is the score’s most obvious tip of the hat to the great John Barry (this is the first Bond film released since the death of the composer who defined the sound of the series). “Close Shave” provides a nice lighter moment, the trademark Newman pizzicato strings playing underneath a beautiful flute melody. The album ends with Newman closing the circle in some ways, “Adrenaline” seeing a return of some of the ethnic features of the opening track.
The album is in fact notably well-produced. Not only is the recording absolute dynamite, showcasing the music wonderfully, but Newman is one of the last film composers left who puts real thought into album production – he doesn’t just throw on as much music as possible, in film sequence, he carefully puts things together for the best listening experience. As a result, lengthy action sequences are punctuated with more restrained sequences, giving breathing room but also meaning the thrills really do feel earned. Even though the album is extremely long, it never outstays its welcome and unlike most modern soundtrack albums that approach the 80-minute capacity of a CD, at no point does it begin to drag.
I don’t suppose Newman will return to the series (unless Mendes does), but he’s made a fine impression on it, writing a score that is not just a vibrant, very modern action thriller score – it’s also one that fits perfectly into this series – and one that is resolutely his own, completely undiluted by any desire to sound like someone else. It’s firmly planted at the high end of the non-Barry scores that have accompanied James Bond – and one of the most refreshing, entertaining film score albums of the year. ****