A brief blast of the James Bond theme heralds the start of Thomas Newman's Skyfall score. Just as the opening shot of the 50th anniversary film in the franchise plays with formula by featuring a silhouetted Daniel Craig rather than the iconic gun barrel, so Newman tinkers with our musical expectations. By drip-feeding the classic theme to the listeners, Newman continues the approach laid down by David Arnold, saving the musical heroism for key moments, but in his own idiosyncratic way. In hiring Newman for Skyfall, director Sam Mendes announces his intentions for the Bond franchise as a whole: this is the time to shake things up a bit. The brilliant Craig returns as 007, whose latest mission is deeply personal and strikes close to home. When vengeful cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (a wonderfully unhinged Javier Bardem) targets M (Judi Dench), Bond is forced to re-assess his relationship with the MI6 leader, who is the closest thing he has to a mother figure.
The result is an exciting Bond thriller that delivers the core ingredients (locations; girls; villains) whilst adding a dramatic sense of Oedipal drama that is quite unexpected in a series long-defined by predictable formula. Mendes' ability to both continue the long-standing appeal of the series and critique the position of James Bond in the post-Jason Bourne era has seen Skyfall justly acclaimed.
Skyfall is the latest collaboration between Newman and Mendes, who have in the past worked on American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, yielding two Oscar nominations in the process. Newman has one of the most distinctive musical voices in modern cinema, gliding between pastoral beauty, calm ambience and challenging percussive textures, making him a controversial successor to David Arnold's crowd-pleasing efforts on the previous movies. That's not to suggest that Arnold doesn't have his own, unique style; rather that Newman is simply an unusual choice for Bond, given most of his work has been in the field of classy adult drama.
Yet this is exactly why Newman is right for this particular Bond film. Skyfall introduces grace notes of pathos and drama that have been lost in many of the recent movies (bar Casino Royale), which means Newman's somewhat introverted approach is ideal in underscoring Mendes' psychological examination of the iconic Bond character. Yet at the same time, Newman recognises the importance of action to the franchise and also the rich heritage set down by John Barry and Arnold. In short, Newman expertly walks the tightrope between honouring his own musical voice and continuing the more flamboyant traditions of the earlier scores.
Hiring the composer is a risky move given that the guest composers who have stood in over the history of the franchise have yielded mixed results. Eric Serra's clanking, metallic score for Goldeneye was badly misjudged, as were the pop-infused efforts of Marvin Hamlisch and Bill Conti on The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, respectively. Although Newman's approach is unlikely to appease fans of either Barry or Arnold, his score works brilliantly well in the film and makes for a compelling, if demanding, listen away from it.
After the brassy start to the aforementioned opening track, "Grand Bazaar, Istanbul", Newman's familiar ethnic tropes (percussion and woodwind) then take the track in the direction of Jarhead as the music charges into the first half of the terrific opening chase through the Turkish city. Eventually the track explodes into a terrific action piece subtly underpinned by the Bond theme (which also closes the piece in less subtle but even more exciting fashion). As is so often the case with Newman's scores, the music benefits from an outstanding, rich recording (thanks to Simon Rhodes), which keeps the orchestral and electronic elements firmly in balance.
Strangely enough, Adele's powerfully evocative title song is absent from the album, although Newman rarely quotes from it anyway (presumably because he wasn't involved in its creation). In fact what Newman does instead is quote the Bond theme far more regularly than Arnold did in either of his previous two scores. It rarely appears to its fullest extent but this isn't a problem as the theme is so familiar by now that tweaking it and subverting expectation is the right way to go. The Bond theme itself is one of three central ideas in the score, alongside a solemn brass theme representing M (first introduced in "Voluntary Retirement") and a "harbinger of doom" piece for the baddie, Silva. The composer's intention is to represent the three-way struggle between the characters in the film, although it takes a few listens for the score to reveal these dynamics. "New Digs" and "Day Wasted" are symptomatic of Newman's more understated approach to film music, with an almost Middle-Eastern beat mixing effortlessly with pulsating electronics.
What is readily enjoyable is the more romantic approach taken to tracks like "Severine" and "Modigliani", swooningly beautiful, string-led pieces for Berenice Marlohe's Bond girl (one of few in the film). "Brave New World" begins with a sly woodwind intonation of the Bond theme in the manner of Barry's classic works before erupting in a wonderful location setting piece full of thunderous Oriental percussion and lavish strings. "Shanghai Drive" is another track led by electronics and percussion, Newman adding classy aplomb to what could be tiresome cliché. "Jellyfish" begins with dynamic, soaring strings and brass in the manner of Danny Elfman's Batman before "Silhouette" ushers in a striking piece of percussion-laden action music.
"Quartermaster" again adds layers of electronics that create a real sense of atmosphere. The understated, brooding tension of "Someone Usually Dies" introduces the first strains of Silva's ominous theme, Newman again getting great mileage out of the interplay between the soloists, electronics and full orchestra. Once again, the Bond theme is in there beneath the layers, hinting at the battle to come between the two characters. The brilliant "Komodo Dragon" is the only track to fully show-off the Adele song melody, combining it with the Bond theme to lush effect as 007 arrives at the Macau casino in the film (Roger Deakins' cinematography proving especially stunning at this moment). The fluttering woodwinds later in the track are another welcome hallmark of Newman's style, mixing with the looming tension of the Silva theme as Bond comes one step closer to tracking down his quarry.
Even better is the following track, "The Bloody Shot", underscoring the second, even more spectacular, half of the opening chase sequence aboard a moving train. To hear Newman compose music this forceful, this dynamic, this exciting is a wonderful surprise, the composer forcing the brass and string sections to their limits as it builds to a fantastic climax. When the Bond theme is again woven in, the music hits new heights. He's composed dribs and drabs of aggressive music in his past scores (The Green Mile; Finding Nemo) but Newman surpasses himself here.
It's then back to the exotic woodwinds in "Enjoying Death" before Silva's theme gets a stunning statement of encroaching dread in "The Chimera", completing with resonant gong clashes, rising strings and deep brass tones that evoke John Barry in all the right ways. "Close Shave" changes tack again with plucked strings evoking an almost comical atmosphere in the manner of Arnold's "Dinner Jackets" cue from Casino Royale, not to mention Newman's jaunty work on the likes of American Beauty.
"Health and Safety" is another piece of dynamic, orchestral-electronic action music and initiates the generally action-packed final third to the album. "Granborough Road" is even more exciting, generating a real sense of urgency as Silva attempts to bring his diabolical plan to fruition. More fluttering winds mingle with the racing strings and layered percussion in the manner of classic spy scores, another indicator of Newman's thorough research on the film. "Tennyson" is one of the most dramatic tracks on the album, Newman working with Mendes to really drive home the danger faced by M and the establishment in the film, M's theme getting a defiant rendition as she speaks out in the face of evil. Said danger then turns up in "Enquiry" as Silva's theme makes a darkly resplendent appearance and fights with the Bond theme amid the frantic action music. The superb little action motif that appeared in the first track of the score re-emerges here, a kind of Bond saving-the-day piece.
Listeners will get a massive kick out of the full statement of the Bond theme in "Breadcrumbs", the only piece on the album to feature the theme to a lengthy extent. Of course, Newman adds his own touches such as tapping bongos to keep it fresh. "Skyfall" then takes the score in a desolate, haunting direction as the film moves to Bond's ancestral home in the Highlands of Scotland for the climax; the eerie oboe lines and wash of strings will be immediately recognisable to Newman fans. Once again, the composer makes a conscious effort to get inside Bond's head and reflect his emotions, an intellectual approach that is refreshing if somewhat alienating to casual listeners.
The final stretch of the album is essentially one long thrilling slice of action music, starting with the battle between defiant action and Silva's theme in "Kill Them First". The outstanding run from "Welcome to Scotland" to "Deep Water" really is superb, Newman again pulling out all the stops when it comes to the action music, and heightening the tension immensely both in the film and on album. Charging strings, percussion and booming brass add a real sense of danger to Bond's struggle to protect M, the music again revolving around the Bond saves the day motif. Of particular note is the brilliant blast of the Bond theme at the end of "She's Mine", a response to a particularly wicked act undertaken by Bardem's lip-smacking villain!
The score's most poignant moment then occurs in "Mother", with a dignified, moving reprise of M's theme before the score concludes with a return to ethnic percussion in "Adrenaline". In fact, this is one the score's missteps, ending the album on a somewhat anonymous note when a full rendition of the Bond theme would round it off properly. The arrangement appears in the film so presumably a licencing issue prevented it from appearing on CD. Nevertheless, it's a minor quibble with what is, on the whole, a very impressive action thriller score. As with so much of Newman's work, it's easy to make the mistake of thinking there's not much going on (this is especially true in the wake of David Arnold's brasher efforts). In fact, there's so much going on in each track that multiple listenings pay dividends, whether it's the intricately composed electronic pulses or the rich tapestry of percussion keeping pace behind the score as a whole.
Skyfall is a score that, whilst appearing to wallow in textural ambience for a great deal of its running time, is in fact constructed of distinct thematic building blocks and musical colours, whilst also serving the psychological dynamic of the film's narrative and respecting the musical heritage of the series. Thomas Newman's respect for the Bond heritage is readily apparent through both the instrumental flourishes and the regular deployment of the Bond theme in all its overt and covert guises.
Skyfall is, in short, dramatically appropriate for the film it accompanies and a compelling, multi-layered listen when taken on its own terms. That's not to say that Newman's score will be easily embraced by everyone. He's always been a composer who is often content to add a heartbeat to the background of a given scene, and long sections of Skyfall do little to assuage the situation. The key is in how Newman melds his introverted approach with the more readily identifiable ingredients of past Bond music. He manages it terrifically well, constructing a score that reflects the darker impulses of Mendes' movie whilst delivering the action sequences and exotic influences one expects. It's a thinking-person's Bond score: demanding and more subtle than many will expect but lavished with care and an attention to detail that is characteristic of this brilliant composer.
The score is available as both a CD release on Amazon and a download release on iTunes, complete with an additional track. Adele's title song has been released separately. This album is available at the these links: Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
CD track listing
Bonus iTunes Track: