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SPECTRE – Thomas Newman

November 13, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

spectreOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 24th official James Bond film, the fourth starring Daniel Craig, and the second directed by Sam Mendes, Spectre apparently concludes a four-movie storyline, bringing together the plots of the three preceding films – Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall – and re-introducing Bond to his greatest nemesis. As he globe-trots around the world from Mexico to Rome, to Austria, and beyond, Bond gradually discovers the existence of a shadowy organization which appears to be orchestrating a series of terrorist events, including the ones Bond investigated in the previous films, and whose leader may be a figure from his own past. The film co-stars Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, and Ralph Fiennes, and in many ways is a love letter to the entire James Bond franchise. Not only is this Bond a touch more light-hearted, with a little more emphasis on the gadgets and the girls than the previous films, there are innumerable nods and winks and in-jokes for the Bond connoisseur: the mountaintop clinic is straight out of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the “hollowed out volcano” in the desert is from You Only Live Twice, the car from Goldfinger makes a spectacular return, the fight on the train has echoes of both From Russia With Love and Live and Let Die, the “funhouse” in the remains of the MI6 building recalls The Man With the Golden Gun, and the monosyllabic henchman Hinx is clearly modeled after the similarly taciturn Jaws. The whole film is a loving homage to everything preceding it, and delighted this long-time fan of the genre, although of course you have to overlook the contrivances and plot holes that always come with this territory.

After his successful Oscar-nominated turn on Skyfall, Thomas Newman again returns to score this film, and by and large he is successful. But, as always, we must start with the song, which this time is an effort called “Writing’s On the Wall,” co-written and performed by British singer-songwriter Sam Smith. Disgustingly, Spectre continues the trend whereby the song is not included on the standard soundtrack album, gypping the public of a true representation of the movie’s musical content, and forcing them to purchase it as a separate single in order to complete the listening experience. I don’t care whether it was behind-the-scenes legalities, or some other financial decision which led to this happening again, but it feels like a money grab on the part of the record company, and it has to stop. In purely musical terms, the song is a 50-50 split: the melody and lyrics are fine, and at times the music has a really lovely romantic sweep, but Sam Smith’s exaggerated falsetto delivery quickly become nasal and annoying, making it for me one of the least enjoyable Bond songs in the series’s 53-year history.

The score, however, is a different matter entirely. On Skyfall, conscious of his place in the Bond franchise history, Thomas Newman intentionally blended his personal style with David Arnold’s contemporary action riffs and some of John Barry’s jazzy instrumental touches, resulting in a score that felt fresh and exciting, even if it disappointed some traditionalists. Spectre is very much a continuation of that style, but sounds much more like a Thomas Newman score in its own right, clearly showing that Newman is more comfortable and confident and has grown into his role. Many of Newman’s signature instrumental ideas and compositional techniques are evident in Spectre, and the innovation Newman always brings to the table is obvious, but the energy levels are higher than one usually hears in a Newman score, as one would expect in a film of this type.

As was the case with Skyfall, recurring themes are not Spectre’s strong point. The main melody from “Writing’s On the Wall” does play in the film once or twice, but it is not the film’s main identifying factor. Instead, Newman uses a series of location-specific instrumental textures to anchor the score wherever Bond happens to be, and wraps these instrumental ideas around different performances of the James Bond theme, as well as a very distinctive 17-note action motif that occurs at several key points throughout the score.

For geographic purposes, the opening “Los Muertos Vivos Estan” sees Newman endowing the James Bond theme with a cache of bass flutes, Vic Flick-style guitars, and ethnic percussion courtesy of the Mexican ensemble Tambuco. Later, “The Eternal City” endows the beautiful city of Rome with an angelic chorus to give the thing an appropriately ecclesiastical feel, while both “L’Americain” and “Secret Room” have a subtle North African influence through the more pronounced use of what sounds like could be a lira Moroccan flute.

The first action sequence of note is A “Place Without Mercy,” which leads into “Backfire,” a breakneck sports car chase through the streets of Rome, in which the 17-note action motif is driven along by rampaging strings, a host of heroically throbbing brass writing, relentless percussion, and a return of the choir to remind the listener where they are. The action motif returns later, in the thrilling “Snow Plane,” in “Tempus Fugit,” and especially during the trio of exhilarating climactic cues, “Careless,” “Detonation,” and “Westminster Bridge,” with Bond frantically trying to escape from the ruins of the MI6 building in central London, and where the motif transfers to a pulsating electric guitar. All of these are bolstered by several strong, prominent performances of the James Bond theme, both in full and in deconstructed form, which is now very much a part of the fabric of the score. Newman uses the undulating two-note motif, the muted brass pulses, and overt statements of the theme throughout these pieces, flying in the face of those who criticize him for not using it enough. The screaming, wailing trumpets for which John Barry was best known make regular, welcome guest appearances.

Much of the rest of the score, when none of these elements are in play, is more about rhythm and texture, with bubbling electronic pulses and slightly industrial metallic sounds receiving prominence. Echoes of earlier Thomas Newman works are evident here too – the playful little zings on a dulcimer, the pizzicato effects, the fluttering woodwind textures – giving cues like “Vauxhall Bridge,” “Crows Klinik,” and “Secret Room,” a sound which, unusually, plays a little like a more real-world version of something like Finding Nemo or Saving Mr. Banks. Meanwhile, the second half of “The Eternal City,” and subsequent cues like “The Pale King,” “Kite in a Hurricane,” “Silver Wraith,” and “A Reunion,” feature a much more moody, understated style, with abstract flute lines and electronic ambiences that gradually reveal themselves to be a recurring idea involving Mr. White, the Quantum and Spectre organizations, and the mysterious identity of the master manipulator behind the scenes.

The more romantic sequences are in the classic Thomas Newman style, for gentle woodwinds, harp glissandi, and glorious cascading strings that recall earlier scores like Whispers in the Dark and Meet Joe Black. “Donna Lucia” is a gorgeous piece for the seduction scene involving Bond and Lucia Sciarra, the recently-widowed wife of a SPECTRE operative, while “Madeleine” has a more hesitant feel, which cleverly takes the moody Mr. White/Quantum/Spectre ideas and wraps them around a lush string wash. The bittersweet swell of Madeleine’s theme during “Out of Bullets” is especially poignant, and its conclusive statement in the end title piece, “Spectre,” ends the score on an unexpectedly upbeat note.

I have a feeling that many of the criticisms leveled at Skyfall will return here. It’s not “Bond” enough. It doesn’t have the swagger or panache previous Bond scores had. There’s no identifying thematic marker to make it stand out from the crowd of other similar espionage-action movies. The music for the antagonists is under-defined, and too much of the score is ambient and droney. And, to be fair, each of these criticisms has merit. If you grew up listening to John Barry’s scores for Goldfinger or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then Newman’s take on the sound will likely feel wrong. On some levels I agree with the criticisms: for me, John Barry and David Arnold have been the only composers to capture the true Bond flavor through their music. But, then again, people have criticized Daniel Craig for being ‘wrong’ as Bond, so perhaps people simply don’t want a grittier, damaged 007 in a modern world – they want the escapism, the girls, the gadgets, and the vodka martinis. If that’s the case, then nothing I can say about how cleverly constructed Spectre is, or how instrumentally fascinating it is, will make any difference. Personally, I thought Skyfall was an interesting step in a different direction for Bond, and Spectre – rightly – continues down that path to its logical conclusion.

Buy the Spectre soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Los Muertos Vivos Estan (2:48)
  • Vauxhall Bridge (2:19)
  • The Eternal City (4:34)
  • Donna Lucia (2:03)
  • A Place Without Mercy (1:04)
  • Backfire (4:54)
  • Crows Klinik (1:41)
  • The Pale King (2:55)
  • Madeleine (2:58)
  • Kite in a Hurricane (2:09)
  • Snow Plane (5:24)
  • L’Americain (1:42)
  • Secret Room (5:22)
  • Hinx (1:21)
  • Writing’s on the Wall – Instrumental Version (written by Sam Smith and James Napier) (2:10)
  • Silver Wraith (2:15)
  • A Reunion (5:36)
  • Day of the Dead (1:26)
  • Tempus Fugit (1:21)
  • Safe House (3:55)
  • Blindfold (1:28)
  • Careless (4:39)
  • Detonation (3:53)
  • Westminster Bridge (4:14)
  • Out of Bullets (1:51)
  • Spectre (End Titles) (5:40)

Running Time: 79 minutes 42 seconds

Decca 002408402 (2015)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford. James Bond Theme written by Monty Norman. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.

  1. November 13, 2015 at 11:11 am

    Totally agree Jon. I do miss more specific themes, but overall it’s a fantastic score with some amazing action music. I was glad to hear some of the motifs from Skyfall brought into Spectre. Shame that the overall movie isn’t as good as Skyfall, but it certainly feels the most old school Bond.

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