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SKYFALL – Thomas Newman

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Coming in to write the music for your first James Bond movie must be a massively daunting task. In composing the score for Skyfall, Thomas Newman – the multi-Oscar nominated composer of such seminal scores as American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption – not only had to cope with 50 years of cinematic history after Ursula Andress first slinked out of the Caribbean sea in Dr. No in 1962, but legions of fans who treat the movie franchise as sacred property, and the legacy of the legendary music of John Barry and his heir-apparent, David Arnold. The ‘James Bond sound’ is so iconic and so well-established that it presents a composer as unique as Newman with a dilemma: does he abandon his own sound in an attempt to fit in with the overall sound of the series, risking giving up the very thing that makes him him, or does he compose music in his own inimitable way, establishment be damned, risking the wrath of those who would then surely accuse him of not being ‘Bond’ enough? It’s a challenging tightrope, and one which Newman had to skillfully navigate.

Skyfall is the 23rd film based on Ian Fleming’s legendary character James Bond, and the third starring Daniel Craig in the iconic title role, after Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. The film is directed by Sam Mendes – who worked with Newman previously on the films American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road – and sees Bond trotting across the globe from Britain to Turkey, Shanghai, Macau, and back again, on the trail of the megalomaniacal Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a brilliant cyber-terrorist who has a personal vendetta against “M” (Judi Dench), the head of Britain’s elite secret spy agency, MI6. It’s an exciting film, with some superb visual touches courtesy of the brilliant director of photography Roger Deakins, and a terrific supporting performance from Bardem, who makes his character the most flamboyant and archetypal ‘Bond villain’ in quite some time. However, the film is hampered somewhat by a series of glaring logical lapses in its second half, and a disappointing over-reliance on convenient contrivances to drive the plot along. This does not seem to have affected box office takings for the film, though; at the time of writing the film has grossed $161 million in the United States, and almost $700 million world-wide.

Thomas Newman has never written an all-out action score before. Scores such as The Adjustment Bureau and, to a lesser extent, Angels in America, The Debt, and Cinderella Man, had action elements, but this is the first time that the primary thrust of a Newman score has been action – and, it must be said, he’s pretty good at it. The action cues, of which there are a great number, are a more conventionally orchestral extension of the contemporary action sound composers like John Powell and James Newton Howard created for films such as The Bourne Identity, although Newman’s music has a much richer orchestral and instrumental palette than Powell’s, and relies less on synthesized and electronic enhancements.

Cues such as the opening “Grand Bazaar Istanbul”, “Jellyfish”, “The Bloody Shot”, “Enquiry”, “She’s Mine” and “Deep Water” are tremendously exciting, often incorporating syncopated percussion rhythms, electric guitar chords, flashing string writing and thrilling trumpet blasts within a large and powerful orchestra. Unlike his brother David, who often excels in this arena, Thomas Newman had never shown any evidence that his action music could be this good, but his aptitude in creating a series of thrilling, musically interesting action set-pieces is encouraging, albeit tinged with a certain sense of relief that he could actually pull it off.

Occasionally, the precision of the orchestrations in these cues reminds me of the music Alexandre Desplat wrote for his action scores, such as Firewall and Hostage, and Newman isn’t afraid to play around with unusual instrumentation to carry the thrust of the cue: the bass flute sections of “Enquiry” are excellent, as is the vaguely Indian-inflected string writing in the conclusive “Adrenaline”.

There are few overt statements of John Barry’s legendary James Bond theme; it usually appears subtly, either deconstructed as part of a string ostinato or a countermelody to the main action, or in short, but recognizable bursts whenever Bond does something especially cool. Notable moments include the opening two-note salvo at the beginning of “Grand Bazaar Istanbul”, the almost subliminal performance deep down in the mix of “Someone Usually Dies”, the fanfare-like abridged versions in “The Bloody Shot” and “Enquiry”, the heraldic deconstructed performance in “The Chimera”, and the last few moments of “Granborough Road” before it eventually bursts out during the old-school and defiantly nostalgic “Breadcrumbs”.

In the finale, especially in the aforementioned action set-pieces “She’s Mine” and “Deep Water”, the chord structures and instrumental flavors of the Bond theme are everywhere, although Newman still refuses to outwardly play the theme in full, even during these pivotal moments. You get four notes here, a little allusion there, a hint of the countermelody there. It’s clear what Newman is doing – bringing the flavor of Bond to his own sound – but it’s still a frustrating experience when you hear all these hints and echoes, and are waiting for a full-on statement of a theme which never comes.

Even more elusive is the melody from the main song, “Skyfall”, which was written by Adele and Paul Epworth, and is performed over the opening credits by Adele, but does not appear on the soundtrack CD. A big, ballsy ballad in the classic Shirley Bassey tradition, the only appearance of its theme in the score itself is during the lovely “Komodo Dragon” cue, an establishing scene of Bond’s moonlit arrival at a Macanese casino via a pontoon surrounded by candles and floating lotus flowers.

The rest of the score is a little less interesting, but at least manages to maintain a sense of itself throughout its running time, keeping much to the same palette of instruments, and driving the film forward adequately. It is in these moments that the more familiar Thomas Newman comes to the fore; the tapped percussion, intertwining rhythmic ideas, and unusual instrumental colors that have defined a great deal of his career, and the way he applies them to this setting is at times quite fascinating. There are echoes of scores as wide and varied as Wall-E (listen to “Health & Safety”), The Debt, and even Lemony Snicket, leaving you in no doubt that this is definitely a Thomas Newman score to its bones.

However, having said all that, the one thing missing from Skyfall is a distinct identity of its own. With just one single performance of Adele’s new song melody, and only subtle allusions to John Barry’s famous theme, you can only rely on interesting orchestrations and action set-pieces for so long before it starts to get a little samey, with little to distinguish it from other action scores of its ilk. There’s no great romantic theme for a Bond girl, no recognizable central point that you can look at and identify as being distinctly Skyfall. Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and all the other classic Bond scores have an identifiable element to them that instantly introduce themselves as being both unique scores in the own right while clearly maintaining their place in a bigger musical scheme of things. Skyfall doesn’t have that; it’s well composed, interesting, exciting, and true to both Thomas Newman’s own sound and that of the Bond series, but it’s frustratingly anonymous.

I wouldn’t exactly say that Newman has played it safe, but Skyfall seems to inhabit a world between worlds that’s trying to satisfy everyone at once: it’s like John Barry, but not quite like John Barry; it’s like David Arnold, but not quite like David Arnold; and it’s like Thomas Newman, but not quite in a way that we’ve ever heard before. I liked a lot of it a great deal, and found the depth of the actual musical construction fascinating. Similarly, the action sequences are where it excels the most, and Newman completely dispels the myth that he wouldn’t be capable of handling the propulsive music requires for them. However, it’s unfortunate lack of a truly distinct identity is likely to hold it back from being a truly beloved entry into the series, and will likely alienate the vast majority of casual mainstream listeners who don’t listen to the score as deeply and intently as I did.

Rating: ***½

Buy the Skyfall soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Grand Bazaar, Istanbul (5:14)
  • Voluntary Retirement (2:22)
  • New Digs (2:32)
  • Severine (1:18)
  • Brave New World (1:50)
  • Shanghai Drive (1:26)
  • Jellyfish (3:22)
  • Silhouette (0:56)
  • Modigliani (1:04)
  • Day Wasted (1:31)
  • Quartermaster (4:58)
  • Someone Usually Dies (2:29)
  • Komodo Dragon (3:20)
  • The Bloody Shot (4:46)
  • Enjoying Death (1:13)
  • The Chimera (1:58)
  • Close Shave (1:32)
  • Health & Safety (1:29)
  • Granborough Road (2:32)
  • Tennyson (2:14)
  • Enquiry (2:49)
  • Breadcrumbs (2:02)
  • Skyfall (2:32)
  • Kill Them First (2:22)
  • Welcome to Scotland (3:21)
  • She’s Mine (3:53)
  • The Moors (2:39)
  • Deep Water (5:11)
  • Mother (1:48)
  • Adrenaline (2:18)

Running Time: 77 minutes 17 seconds

Sony Classical 887654104021 (2012)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Newman, JAC Redford, Steven Bernstein, Peter Boyer and Carl Johnson. James Bond Theme by Monty Norman and John Barry. “Skyfall” theme by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Bill Bernstein and Tony Lewis. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein

  1. November 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    A tough but fair review. It seems that you, like me, are somewhere in the middle on this one, between Clemmensen’s two stars and Southall’s five. They say Newman might get the next gig as well; I hope they let him help write the song if that’s the case.

    • Edmund Meinerts
      November 30, 2012 at 5:46 am

      What reviews are you reading? Clemmensen gave it three stars and Southall gave it four.

      • November 30, 2012 at 6:59 am

        Clem gave it three overall, perhaps, but his review read like a two-star and he gave it two stars “as heard on the album.” And Southall’s definitely reads like a five-star too: it’s by far the most enthusiastic review of the score out there to the point that it was quoted to Newman himself!

  2. Josh
    November 20, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I’d say this is fair. I find myself enjoying the album much more when I cut down on the length of the album. There’s a lot of music here and not all of it maintains the same level of interest.

    I love your reviews, btw. Very thorough, very intelligent and always worth reading. Keep writing!

  3. November 21, 2012 at 1:40 am

    Like I said before, great review. You were very meticulous. I gather you just loved the film or at the very least was very much admr’d by this expat reviewer? No worries, as a fan of the series, I welcome this with open arms.

    I think one of the weaknesses of the score as a film score itself instead of an album is the lack of what Newman does best: a sorrowful theme representing the film’s “the old ways are best” theme that is hammered on the audience throughout the course of the film. He did it somewhat, though, as can be heard when Bond falls in the water right before Adele’s song (which, despite its obvious Shirley Bassey influence, disappears the moment the credits stop, ending a tradition followed by Barry and Arnold of expanding the song in their scores, as a sort of mark that represents the movie as a whole) and in the finale, the epilogue, I suppose, when Bond looks upon London on the roof of MI6. It’s a very brief motif that I feel needed to become a full-fledged theme. I think you nailed it by saying:

    “you can only rely on interesting orchestrations and action set-pieces for so long before it starts to get a little samey, with little to distinguish it from other action scores of its ilk”

    A small correction, though: had this review been promoted by EON Productions, you would’ve been sued already. The “Bond Theme” is Monty Norman’s, legally, even though it’s actually Norman’s and Barry’s, the latter who gave it life by jazzying it up and orchestrating accordingly.

    Otherwise, fantastic review.

  4. Dirk Franchoo
    December 10, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Thomas Newman has made two excellent soundtracks: Road to Perdition and Shawshank Redemption. There he develops beautiful melodies. The rest of his soundtracks: filled air, Skyfall is a perfect example of it.

    • December 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      Mmm, I love unsubstantiated generalizations.

  5. March 11, 2013 at 12:43 am

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  1. January 10, 2013 at 7:09 pm

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