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NO TIME TO DIE – Hans Zimmer

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

After what feels like an eternity, wherein the film suffered delay after delay after delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 25th James Bond film No Time To Die has finally reached cinemas. It marks the end of the journey for Daniel Craig as 007 – he will be replaced by a new actor before the next film is released, whenever that may be – and also marks the climax to the arc of a series of films that began with Casino Royale in 2006 and which actually presents a fairly linear narrative across multiple films, something the Bond franchise had never attempted to do before. The film picks up the story almost immediately after the events shown in Spectre, and sees Bond travelling in Italy with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the psychiatrist who helped him capture his arch-nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). However, an apparent betrayal sends Bond into a tailspin and into retirement – he’s leaving MI6 and the spy game for good. Years later, Bond is coaxed out of retirement by his old CIA colleague Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) after a top secret scientist goes missing, and before long Bond is facing off against a new adversary in the shape of terrorist Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), while teaming up with a new Double-0 agent (Lashana Lynch) who views Bond as a broken, misogynistic relic from the past. The film is directed by Cary Fukunaga, and was written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Fukunaga, and the great Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was brought in to give the screenplay a contemporary edge.

I’m not going to go into any more plot details or thoughts about the film itself – there are plenty of other places to do that online – because the score for No Time to Die is by Hans Zimmer, and there’s enough conversation to be had there. Interestingly, Zimmer was not the first composer attached to the film. Originally, composer Dan Romer was hired, on the back of him having worked with Cary Fukunaga on the movie Beasts of No Nation in 2015, and the TV miniseries Maniac in 2018, but he left the project during production due to ‘creative differences,’ with Zimmer coming into replace him in January 2020. This was the first time in Bond series history that a composer had been replaced during post-production, and while it’s interesting to speculate on what Romer’s score may have sounded like, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it would have probably been very different from what Zimmer ultimately wrote. However, what’s also true is that both men were also likely haunted by the spectre of John Barry, whose legacy of James Bond music looms large over the entire franchise, and whose stylistics have been incorporated into all previous non-Barry Bond scores, including those written by David Arnold and Thomas Newman earlier in the Daniel Craig era.

It’s always a bit of a double-edged sword when a new composer comes into a franchise with such a well-established and beloved sound as James Bond has. On the one hand, no-one is ever going to replicate what John Barry did; that was lightning in a bottle. But on the other hand, there are ideas and touchstones that he established that cannot be absent from a Bond score – those wonderfully raspy jazzy brasses, the lush and romantic love themes, the quotations of the famous main title, and so on. Then when you add someone like Hans Zimmer to the equation, who has such a distinctive style and sound of his own, you almost have a personality clash, where one composer’s sound may end up being subservient to the other, often to the detriment of both. Thankfully, Zimmer found away to avoid that, and ultimately wrote a score which successfully pays homage to everything that John Barry did, and also acknowledges the things that David Arnold brought to the table, but is also clearly a Hans Zimmer score, and will appeal to fans of his modern style.

But before we get into all that, we have to start where all Bond soundtracks start, and that’s with the song. All Bond movies try to bring in one of the most popular artists of the day to sing the title song, and No Time to Die certainly did that by getting its song to be written and performed by Billie Eilish. 19-year-old Eilish is one of the most successful young singer-songwriters of her generation; she won six Grammys in 2020 for her debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go’ and it’s lead song “Bad Guy,” so she’s clearly popular, but she’s also controversial. Her songs are very minimalist and understated, instrumentally, and she sings about quite dark subjects in a sort of whispery mumble, which resulted in a lot of head-scratching when she was first announced for Bond. She’s no Shirley Bassey, that’s for sure. However, I really, really like what she does, and I think the “No Time to Die” song is terrific. It has a much more classic Bond sound than one might have expected, thanks to the string and brass arrangements by Matt Dunkley, and the lyrics are drenched in the same sort of anguish that Bond feels in previous films, and throughout much of this one, so they feel right. Eilish still sings the song mostly in her quietly vulnerable tone, but when she is asked to belt she really belts, and has the vocal power to do it. The melody itself has a wistfulness that is really attractive, and some of Dunkley’s little John Barry touches are perfect – a muted trumpet here, a string flutter there, a moody electric guitar, a familiar chord. The song won the award for Best Song Written for Visual Media at the 2020 Grammy Awards (because the song was released during the 2019–20 eligibility period, in anticipation of the film’s original April 2020 release date) and I think it’s likely to win an Oscar too.

As I mentioned before, Zimmer’s score is a blend between his own sound and that of John Barry, David Arnold, and Billie Eilish, and it sounds terrific. The opening “Gun Barrel” is a contemporary take on the familiar Monty Norman melody, but then it leads into the superb “Matera,” which is where the surprises start. A mass of sweeping and lush strings emerge, sounding wholly unlike Hans Zimmer, and then you realize that the melody is John Barry’s song “We Have All the Time in the World” from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – trust me, it makes perfect sense in context – and it was at this point that I realized that Zimmer had fully understood the needs of the score, had invested in the musical history of the franchise, and that we were in safe hands.

The rest of the cue is a delight, being full of cascading woodwinds, gorgeous string harmonies, and effortless sparkling romance. What’s also terrific about this is how Zimmer works in numerous deconstructed allusions to the main title song – not just the main melody, but parts of the verse, and even the counterpoint to the main melody. For example, the three-note cello texture at 1:37 is a direct quote from the song (“was I stupid… was I reckless…”), and this is just one of many such examples of this dotted throughout the score.

The direct Barry quotes continue in “Back to MI6” and “Good to Have You Back,” the former of which emerges from a bed of eerie electronica into a strident statement of the James Bond theme for a robust electric guitar, before segueing into an unexpectedly emotional, defiant, and purposeful statement of the entire main title theme from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for low, brooding strings. Bond may be back, serving queen and country, but he certainly doesn’t appear to be happy about it.

The action and suspense music, which was always David Arnold’s forte, has echoes of some of his stylistics, but Zimmer has never been a slouch in this department either, and fans of his contemporary action sound will find much to like. Cues like “Message from an Old Friend,” parts of “Someone Was Here,” and “Poison Garden” can be a little abstract and dissonant, and feature a fair amount of electronic distortion, ticking and rumbling percussion, and incessant buzzing, but even here there are constant references to John Barry’s themes, as well as some of that magnificently throaty Barry brass. Despite this, I have a feeling that some people will quite violently dislike what Zimmer has done to them in tone and texture – it’s Goldfinger by way of Inception and The Dark Knight – but the sense of high stakes drama is palpable. Also of note are cues like “Not What I Expected,” the seductive “Shouldn’t We Get to Know Each Other First,” and “Gearing up,” which contain a great deal of exotic location-specific color from their use of various ethnic woodwinds and acoustic guitars.

However, when Zimmer lets rip, he really lets rip. The score’s standout action cues include “Square Escape,” which takes the rhythmic part of the James Bond theme and turns it into a thunderous Zimmer action motif. Later, “Cuba Chase” simply explodes when Zimmer injects the flashy, flamboyant sound of a Spanish guitar and an Arturo Sandoval Latin trumpet solo on top of his immense percussive rhythms and bold, relentless cello ostinatos. The sequence beginning at 2:55 is just sensational and, with the exception of Wonder Woman 1984, is for me one of the most fun and satisfying action sequences Zimmer has written since The Lone Ranger. Meanwhile, “Norway Chase” is masculine and dominant, full of punchy staccato brass backed by a gruff male voice choir, and some vivid rhythmic ideas for the entire orchestra.

Running through a great deal of this is a recurring idea that appears to be for the hidden danger that Lyutsifer Safin represents in the grand scheme of things. Zimmer provides Lyutsifer with a slithering drone motif for brass and electronics, the sound of which is not far removed from the motif he wrote for Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. You can hear it lurking at the periphery of “Square Escape,” around the 1:00 mark, and then later in cues like “What Have You Done,” “Lovely to See You Again,” the aforementioned “Norway Chase,” and “Poison Garden,” some of which are sinister and calculating and sometimes feature a malevolent sounding choir.

“Lovely to See You Again” also references the main title song again, this time bringing its slow four-note piano motif to bear on the score in scenes where Bond re-connects with people from his past in ways that he really did not want to experience. Related to this, there’s also a searing cello idea which appears to represent ‘Bond’s Anguish,’ and which re-occurs during all the most poignant or emotionally overwhelming moments in Bond’s story; it actually reminds me of the love theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, albeit with more suffering. It first appears towards the end of “Square Escape” too, and comes back later in the superb “Home,” where it combines with the four-note motif from the song re-orchestrated for strings, and a pensive statement of the song chorus melody complete with wordless vocals, which packs a significant emotional wallop as a result.

The finale of the score is a 15-minute action sequence comprising the cues “The Factory,” “I’ll Be Right Back,” and “Opening the Doors,” and then the conclusive “Final Ascent,” which will likely be the score’s most talked-about moment in context. The three-part action sequence contains the most ‘modern Zimmer’ music in the score, and this is where it might lose some Bond traditionalists. A lot of these cues are steeped in the keening, groaning, mechanical, fluttering textures from scores like Dunkirk and the Dark Knight trilogy – we even get the return of the vowel choir from The Peacemaker at one point – and as much as Zimmer regularly seeks to remind us what we are watching by throwing in a Barry brass rasp, a hint of the Bond theme, or a thematic allusion to the song, this is all clearly music from his current playbook, and a lot of people just don’t have that in their taste. Having said that, there are some moments I really like, such as the reprise of the rhythmic action motif from “Square Escape” in “Opening the Doors,” and how that all descends into violent orchestral chaos towards its conclusion.

In “Final Ascent” Zimmer presents yet another variation on “Journey to the Line” from The Thin Red Line, via “Time” from Inception, and all its other incarnations, in what is essentially a 7-minute string adagio for Bond. Zimmer brings back both the “No Time to Die” song melody and the ‘Bond’s Anguish’ theme very prominently here, essentially taking them and re-arranging them for Journey to the Line’s orchestrations and style. As I mentioned earlier, this cue is likely to be incredibly controversial in context considering what it underscores, but you can’t deny its emotional content; when Zimmer is on top form like this, he’s as good as anyone.

I think, at the end of the day, the thing I like the most about No Time to Die is how successfully Hans Zimmer has pulled off that difficult balancing act between staying true to himself as a composer with his own voice, and acknowledging the musical heritage of John Barry as it exists in the James Bond world. Many of the people who grew up listening to scores like Goldfinger and Thunderball will probably be aghast at what Zimmer is doing here; it’s not a traditional Bond score in any way shape or form, because Zimmer is Zimmer and he’s always going to sound like himself. But, even though I am one of those Bond traditionalists, I actually really like what Zimmer has done here. His action music is genuinely thrilling in places, the emotional content is strong and effective, his use of John Barry’s OHMSS themes give the score a terrific nostalgia bomb, his interpolation of Billie Eilish’s song is excellent, and the way he blends his own style with numerous acknowledgments of Barry’s orchestrations is respectful and appropriate. With the exception of David Arnold, and perhaps Michael Kamen on Licence to Kill, Hans Zimmer has come closest to maintaining those timeless John Barry traditions post-Living Daylights, while allowing his own voice to remain prominent, and that should be commended.

Buy the No Time to Die soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Gun Barrel (0:56)
  • Matera (1:59)
  • Message from an Old Friend (6:35)
  • Square Escape (2:06)
  • Someone Was Here (2:56)
  • Not What I Expected (1:24)
  • What Have You Done? (2:14)
  • Shouldn’t We Get to Know Each Other First (1:21)
  • Cuba Chase (5:40)
  • Back to MI6 (1:30)
  • Good to Have You Back (1:17)
  • Lovely to See You Again (1:25)
  • Home (3:45)
  • Norway Chase (5:06)
  • Gearing Up (2:53)
  • Poison Garden (3:58)
  • The Factory (6:42)
  • I’ll Be Right Back (4:59)
  • Opening the Doors (2:44)
  • Final Ascent (7:25)
  • No Time to Die (written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, performed by Billie Eilish) (4:04)

Running Time: 71 minutes 00 seconds

Decca Records (2021)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Oscar Senen, Joan Martorell, Vicente Ortiz Gimeno, Pedro Osuna and Rob Westwood. Additional music by Steve Mazzaro. James Bond theme by Monty Norman. Additional James Bond music by John Barry. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Chris Benstead. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro.

  1. Leandro Cerqueira
    October 5, 2021 at 6:50 pm

    Probably it will get an Oscar nomination

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