Let’s kick off 2017 with the first step towards finishing a project I first began back in 2015. We’ll ignore SPECTRE for now as I’m also going off the same list I created way back before that came out. Intriguingly, this middle area of the list seems to consist largely of good scores to average films. Perhaps it’s me trying to find a redeeming feature for these sometimes terrible movies.
I’ve provided samples where I can find them, but for anything else, watch the movie!
15. The World Is Not Enough
The world definitely was not enough to save this movie, but fortunately David Arnold’s second outing as composer does a lot to improve it.
The longest pre-titles sequence in Bond history takes us to Bilbao, Spain, and some flamenco guitar to establish that fact. This rather obvious local flavour is greatly improved upon when James Bond receives some of the punchiest fanfares ever when jumping out of the bank window to the street below.
The excellence continues as Bond pursues the Cigar Girl down the Thames in a thrilling speedboat chase to the exciting strains of “Come In, 007, Your Time Is Up”. I get the feeling Arnold was just asked to compose an action cue which was six and a half minutes long, because it largely doesn’t link up to the action on screen.
Other notable cues include “Welcome To Baku” in which we hear the wonderfully exotic sounds of Natascha Atlas’s Middle Eastern vocalisation; a much more original and actually quite beautiful way of establishing a local setting.
Throughout, Arnold proves himself wonderfully competent at 1990s action scoring, but is more orchestral in his approach than in other contemporary scores. Sometimes he is a little heavy handed on the brass, and a little liberal in his use of the Bond theme (though to be fair he does put some fun new life into it). By and large, though, it’s an enjoyable score which breathes well on its own, apart from the terrible movie it accompanies.
14. You Only Live Twice
When I ranked the Bond films in 2014, this came in at #21, very close to the bottom. It is a really, really bad film. But the score is actually marvellous.
John Barry, in his continuing quest to try new things, obviously discovered picked bass guitar just before writing for this film; it’s everywhere, but of course he manages to make it work. The score broadly is full of new ideas for him; it’s his most lushly orchestral work up to that time, even more so than Thunderball. The fat brass sounds he resurrects in Diamonds Are Forever found their birth here, as do some of the more cheeky wink-wink moments. There’s some electric harpsichord, a staple of instrumental music by this time, and plenty of pseudo-oriental flute.
At times, especially during “Meeting Henderson”, the music does take on the sound of Nelson Riddle’s work for the Adam West Batman series, but then again TV music at the time all sounded like that. It doesn’t detract from the action on screen, anyway, which is just as shiny and tacky as a TV production. To redeem the score there are just as many moments of true, unrestrained glory though – “Fight At The Kobe Dock” accompanies what I have often referred to as my favourite shot in the series, as Bond battles streams of Kendo-pole wielding harbourside thugs as the helicopter carrying the camera pans further and further out and up from the sequence – it’s breathtaking.
There are also moments of melancholy beauty to be found here – “Funeral At Sea” and “The Submarine” are full of sadness and mystery, as Bond’s death is played out to its full effect. “The Death Of Aki” is probably my favourite cue in the film, as it expresses the sorry and disgust Bond feels at his foes’ ruthless tactics, especially as Aki had saved his life earlier in the film and he left powerless to return the favour. However, “Mountains and Sunsets” romantically restates the film’s main theme to provide depth to the typically shallow characterisation of Bond and Japanese agent Kissy Suzuki falling in love. It’s no wonder he went on to win an Academy Award for his score to Out Of Africa; he really can write beautiful music.
The music accompanying the fight and destruction of the volcano base is typically bombastic and loud for Barry’s writing during this type of sequence – he’s often a little bit lost in these scenes with his better work usually heard in emotional scenes as above. He would have had a field day if he were still alive to write for Skyfall.
13. Licence To Kill
Eighties action films had two things: violence, and scores by Michael Kamen. Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, two iconic 80s franchises had both, and so who better to accompany the increased violence in Licence to Kill than the man who gave us the music of Riggs, Murtaugh, and McLane?
In his one entry for the Bond series, Kamen shows us he would have been a marvellous successor to John Barry. He writes with emotion, sass, and intensity, with a bit of a syncopated touch that admittedly lacked in the latter Barry scores.
There’s a strong Latin American flavour to a lot of the music here, but because of the setting and the villains it doesn’t feel so forced as other local flavour in the series has. Sanchez’s leitmotif, such as it is, develops an effective feeling of unease about the character. The more heroic brass is saved for Bond, of course, and it works a treat.
Except for any of the music under action sequences involving Bond, Kamen is remarkably subtle. The Latin guitar highlights as mentioned create a mysterious and unsettling atmosphere, a minimalistic touch which is so striking because it’s so different from what we’re used to in Bond scores.
He manages some Barry-esque beauty and wonder when James and Felix skydive into Felix’s wedding, and a bit of sadness when Bond, reminded of his murdered wife, sadly leaves Felix and Della to begin their honeymoon.
All in all I think it’s a shame Dalton’s third Bond film ended up being cancelled; I suspect Kamen would have scored that too and if this is anything to go by it would have been magnificent.
Thomas Newman’s first contribution to the world of Bond is a nuanced and emotional score which at once impresses and underwhelms.
It impresses because Newman is the master of ambience. His music lends subtle flavour to scenes rather than overbearingly stating it. It’s full of interesting tones, melodic ideas, and he restates themes and builds on them at key moments. His use of the theme he develops during early scenes at MI6 to add emphasis to the death of M is a masterstroke.
Unfortunately, it’s often these same wins that contribute to Newman’s losses. Because his scoring is instinctively ambient, moments that could use a little more punch are left wanting. The gunfight during the government enquiry is left accompanied by electric drums and little else, but there was an opportunity there for a little more heroic brass fanfare. And most disappointingly, Newman cared so little for the Bond them that he just borrowed from David Arnold instead of putting his own spin on it.
Fortunately I’m judging as much for listenability as I am for effectiveness in the film, and Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall really delivers in that respect. I could listen to it again and again, and as the music is so evocative of what’s happening on screen it’s easy to compose a mental picture of the action.
When the brief for the film was “James Bond Does Star Wars”, of course we were going to end up with John Barry’s most symphonic score yet!
Barry’s work here echoes the romanticism of the music Kubrick chose for 2001: A Space Odyssey more than it does Star Wars, but under the space sequences which are paced more like 2001 anyway it works very effectively. The operatic chorus employed for the back half of the film lends it a most otherworldly feel indeed, and this would not be done again in the Bond series until David Arnold used a similar idea in Die Another Day.
In a film whose plot is short on genuine intrigue, John Barry gives his absolute all trying to make it seem mysterious. The death of Corrine Dufour is even more disturbing and horrific taking place in a film where the star smirks at the camera every five seconds, and Barry’s music for the scene (heard here from 1:10) is part of why we feel so unsettled. Everything under the sequences in Venice when Roger Moore is being unsubtly subtle (“Bond Smells A Rat”) is phenomenal; just listening to it makes it seem like the death of the scientists by their own nerve gas is much more dramatic than it plays out on screen. Even the music for the cable car fight is almost enough to distract from the appalling blue screen and obvious stunt doubles. For a boat chase he even resurrects his alternative Bond theme, “007”, unheard since Diamonds Are Forever!
Moonraker is one of those Bond films where there are a bunch of really great ideas strung together by a flimsy plot and lousy production values. Fortunately John Barry ties it all together thematically, so at least there’s a joyous listening experience to be had out of it.
To relive the excitement of ranking the Bond films, start here!
You can read other things I’ve written about James Bond here!