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The Man from UNCLE
  • Composed by Daniel Pemberton
  • WaterTower Music / 2015 / 74m (digital 81m)

A film version of The Man from UNCLE has been in development for a long time, going through countless scripts and directors along the way.  It looked very much like Steven Soderbergh was going to direct it but after he pulled out, Guy Ritchie signed on and (after a failed attempt to get Tom Cruise) Henry Cavill was signed to play Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer for Illya Kuryakin.  It’s set at the same time as the tv series and tells the story of how the two agents came together.  I’ve read two early reviews of the film, one saying it’s dull and flat and missed everything that made Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes so good, the other saying it’s cool and stylish and succeeds where Sherlock Holmes failed.

The original series (and its spin-off movies) in the 60s featured a classic theme by Jerry Goldsmith and a roster of composers including him as well as Lalo Schifrin, Gerald Fried and others.  Given that Ritchie’s last two films were scored by Hans Zimmer one might have expected him to tackle another franchise, but instead he turned to a composer whose star is on the rise, Daniel Pemberton, who did The Counselor for Ridley Scott and is slated to do Danny Boyle’s forthcoming Steve Jobs.

Daniel Pemberton

Daniel Pemberton

Slightly disappointingly, Jerry Goldsmith’s theme isn’t used for the new film at all.  Granted it probably doesn’t have quite the public recognition of Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme (which is used all over the modern movies in that series) but, well, it’s a good theme and I’m sure could have been tarted up.  Having said that, I’m sure the great man would have approved of the approach Pemberton did take, with his exceptional, über-cool score a perfect blend of 1963 and 2015 – it’s an absolute blast, hints of all the great 60s spy music all over the place.

From the opening score track “Out of the Garage” with its bass flute, cimbalom, bass and percussion this is clearly going to be a fun ride.  It exudes so much style and panache, which is pushed even further in the fantastic “His Name is Napoleon Solo”, guitars added to the ensemble and the ghost of John Barry floating around the main theme, what Harry Palmer might have got in The Ipcress File if he’d gelled his hair and worn a tux.  In “Escape from East Berlin” there’s action – really off the wall action, the brilliant ensemble used to great effect.  I love the way the bass flute is used almost percussively, adding rhythm and tension.

Speaking of tension, “Mission: Rome” with its delightful little harpsichord phrases (pure Morricone) and that breathy flute mixed in with the Barry-style cimbalom is another treat.  “The Vinciguerra Affair” has a great bass riff running through it, percussion with a mission and for the first time really, just a flash or two from strings.  There’s such a sexy swagger to “Bugs, Beats and Bowties”, you expect it to pour you a single malt when it’s finished.  “Signori Toileto Italiano” is pure 60s Euro-cool, sun and shades and a girl on the arm.  It’s back to the fluttering base flute-driven action in “Breaking In (Searching the Factory)” before the next Morricone hint, “Breaking Out (The Cowboy Escapes)” which would sit comfortably in a spaghetti western.

James Bond strings introduce “Into the Lair”, the most conventional orchestral piece in the score, and while it’s an outlier in terms of style in no way does it fail to fit in; but things are back to normal in “Laced Drinks”, a swirling harpsichord motif having a hypnotic effect, approaching fever pitch at times.  “Circular Story” is perhaps the best piece of all, sounding more like a four-minute pop instrumental than a film music cue, the melody attractive and memorable, the arrangement first-rate.  Then we go back to spaghetti western territory at the start of “The Drums of War”, perfectly-judged again, before it goes a bit more modern (a kind of ultra-hip David Holmes-type sound).  The drums of war themselves are notable by their absence for a couple of minutes before they put in an appearance and the music takes a rare detour into less melodic territory.  The director evidently likes Ennio Morricone (well, who doesn’t!?) because Zimmer also took inspiration from him for the Sherlock Holmes scores; and perhaps the most blatant homage comes in “Take You Down”, with a dialed-down version of the shrieking vocals of Navajo Joe, again with a modern beat put over it.

The lovely chilled-out feel is back in “We Have Location”, which builds up to a dynamic conclusion leading into “A Last Drink”, a track tinged with sadness.  The last track on the CD, “The Unfinished Kiss” does exactly what its title implies – it’s beautiful but there’s a strangely satisfying feeling of wanting a bit more.  And if you buy the download instead of the CD, you do get that bit more, with four short bonus cues, only seven minutes between them and they’re essentially more of the same, but that’s good enough for me (and “Warhead” is a great action cue).

The Man from UNCLE is a textbook example of how to do homage/pastiche just right – respectful nods, no direct copying, and Pemberton’s own musical personality is certainly on display too.  Along with his score the album features some great songs, which blend stylistically very well indeed.  It’s a great package and I can tell that I’m going to be playing this one for years to come – it sounds effortlessly stylish and cool, though of course in reality an awful lot of effort went into making it sound so effortless.  It’s brilliant!

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. Cindylover1969 (Reply) on Thursday 13 August, 2015 at 03:32

    “The original series (and its spin-off movies)”

    I’d hardly call movies made from edited-together or expanded episodes “spin-offs.” Not to mention we never got a movie of its actual spin-off “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.”…

  2. RRL (Reply) on Monday 24 August, 2015 at 12:29

    Mate, I’m so glad you reviewed this. I’ve been on a “spy movie” music kick lately; lots of Schfrin, ancient Goldsmith, the “U.N.C.L.E. TV” set, and “Secret Agent Radio” over at SOMA FM… Lately, that kind of music has been my go-to “lift your spirits” recipe.
    I’m gonna pick this up today based solely on your review. Thanks.

    ps) Anyone who’s in the mood for such things, I also recommend the group “Jonny and the Shamans”. And the already mentioned internet radio station.

  3. Rob (Reply) on Tuesday 8 September, 2015 at 22:37

    Thanks RRL for the “Secret Agent Radio” tip ! Currently diggin’ it !

  4. Robert (Reply) on Saturday 2 January, 2016 at 20:53

    “Circular Story” is one of the kind, but i found some differences between the soundtrack version and the music in the movie scene (while Solo is being tortured, the evil mistress takes a boat and being followed by a helicopter). The later version is better, including the choir, but i can’t find it anywhere.