Home > Reviews > JOHNNY ENGLISH – Edward Shearmur

JOHNNY ENGLISH – Edward Shearmur

johnnyenglishOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Every now and again, a score of such life and energy and surprising brilliance comes out of left field and restores your faith in modern film music. Emerging out of the predictable banality of the early months of 2003 is Johnny English, the latest score from British composer Edward Shearmur, hitherto best known for his work on the Charlie’s Angels series and for raising a few eyebrows in 2002 following his scores for The Count of Monte Cristo and Reign of Fire. Basically, Johnny English is a James Bond John Barry knockoff score, in much the same way as David Arnold’s latest 007 scores have been Barry wannabes. The brilliance of Johnny English, however, lies in the fact that whereas Arnold’s works are mere pastiche, Shearmur somehow has managed to recapture the life and energy and panache and humor Barry brought to his works, while at the same time giving it a modern spin and making it musically relevant for millennium audiences.

Johnny English, directed by Peter Howitt, is a big-screen spin-off based on a series of credit card commercials from the early 1990s, which starred Rowan Atkinson as an inept secret agent named Richard Latham, who thought he was the best thing since sliced bread but was continually being bailed out of trouble by his trusty assistant, Bough. For the movie, Latham is re-named Johnny English, an MI5 pencil pusher who is suddenly plunged headlong into the world of espionage when he inadvertently causes the death of every secret agent above him in the chain of command. His mission is to safeguard the British crown jewels, which have been restored by oily French businessman Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich). However, when the jewels are stolen from under everyone’s nose at a party in the Tower of London, English, Bough (Ben Miller), and the lovely but mysterious Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia) team up to retrieve them – and uncovering a plot that seems to link Sauvage with an attempt to usurp the British monarchy.

The two words which spring to mind when describing the Johnny English score are “fun” and “energy”. It’s just so relentlessly lively and upbeat, it’s virtually impossible not to fall in love with this score upon first hearing it. Shearmur was a comparative late-comer to the production, with the score originally slated to be a Media Ventures effort, but the clearly relished the opportunity: the main theme, co-written with Bean composer Howard Goodall, is insanely catchy and tuneful, and appears in virtually every track. Flashy guitars, crisp and powerful brass performances, searching strings lead the melody, while a propulsive, percussive synthesized beat keeps things moving forward. The conclusive ‘Agent No.1’ is a marvelous rock-based rendition, and even Bond get in on the act with a catchy Salsa version in track 10, complete with gruff vocals.

The action music, in cues such as ‘Truck Chase’, ‘Parachute Drop’ and ‘Into Pascal’s Lair’, is wholly superb, mixing massive performances of the main theme with appropriately modern electronic overlays, inventive orchestral dissonance that occasionally recalls the less savage moments of Reign of Fire, and occasionally even a choir – the opening moments of ‘For England’, with the swirling strings and Monte Cristo-style brass clusters, are quite memorable for the tension they build, before they explode into wonderful thematic triumph.

There are quieter moments of introspection too: the secondary melody of the main theme forms basic for the romantic elements, taking center stage towards the end of ‘Russian Affairs’ and ‘A Man of Sophistication’, the former replete with jazzy brushed snares and a plaintive trumpet refrain, while ‘Off the Case’ and ‘Café Conversation’ both underplay the heroic elements by scoring English’s moments of self-doubt with subtle string and piano variations of the main theme. The romantic finale in ‘Riviera Hideaway’ gives Johnny the ladies’ man touch. And, don’t switch off your CD player after the end of track 17: after nine minutes of silence, an 18th “hidden” track appears, a For Your Eyes Only tribute to the main theme with a rolling piano accompaniment and lonely trumpet refrain.

Even the songs are great: two tracks from all-girl classical quartet Bond which sit perfectly with the style of Shearmur’s work, a laid-back summer cruise by Moloko, a classic crowd pleaser from Swedish super-group Abba, and the title song penned by Robbie Williams and Hans Zimmer (when was the last time Zimmer wrote an original song? Video Killed The Radio Star?) ‘A Man For All Seasons’ is a perfect Bond pastiche in the way Williams’s own ‘Millennium’ was, with subtly ironic and amusing lyrics and a killer chorus (“Queen and country safe and sound/With villains six feet underground/And no-one knows ’cause no-one’s found/Any trace of a man for all seasons/Loves them and leaves them alone”). I can seriously see this being nominated for a Best Song Oscar next year – I’d vote for it.

I know it’s been said by other critics, but I must agree by saying that this is the kind of music David Arnold should be writing for the Bond series: the generally lamentable Die Another Day would have benefited immeasurably from a score as good as this. Elmer Bernstein had it right by saying that the best way to score a parody is to approach it as though it was a completely serious drama (see National Lampoon’s Animal House and Airplane!), and Shearmur has followed this edict to the letter, resulting in a score which is easily one of the best of 2003 to date. My plea to the people at Eon: if David Arnold doesn’t get his act together, please give Ed Shearmur the next Bond movie!

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • A Man for All Seasons (written by Hans Zimmer and Robbie Williams, performed by Robbie Williams) (4:01)
  • Theme from Johnny English (2:25)
  • Russian Affairs (1:27)
  • A Man of Sophistication (1:36)
  • Kismet (written by Gay-Yee Westerhoff, performed by Bond) (5:14)
  • Truck Chase (4:53)
  • The Only Ones (written by Mark Brydon and Roisin Murphy, performed by Moloko) (4:13)
  • Parachute Drop (2:48)
  • Pascal’s Evil Plan (2:33)
  • Theme from Johnny English (Salsa Version) (performed by Bond) (3:22)
  • Off the Case (2:00)
  • Café Conversation (2:12)
  • Into Pascal’s Lair (1:43)
  • Does Your Mother Know (written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus, performed by Abba) (3:15)
  • For England (2:23)
  • Riviera Hideaway (1:18)
  • Agent No.1 (3:59)

Running Time: 60 minutes 31 seconds

Decca 475-016-2 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by Edward Shearmur. Performed by The London Metropolitan Orchestra. Orchestrations by Robert Elhai. Theme from Johnny English co-written by Howard Goodall. Featured musical soloists Guy Pratt, Chester Kamen, Mark Wood, Wix Wickens and Guy Chambers. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Mastered by Mike Higham. Album produced by Edward Shearmur and Steve McLaughlin.

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