A Close Look at the SPECTRE Score by Matthew Grice

SPECTRE, the 24th installment of the longest running franchise in cinema history has caused a divide amongst fans.  Some love it while others think it was poor calling for Craig to bow out from role. I will hold my hands up and admit that I once didn’t like Quantum Of Solace as I felt the film was rushed, weak, and didn’t live up to the same expectations as Casino Royale, however, my view has changed over the years.   If watched directly after Casino Royale, Quantum is a better film and now after seeing SPECTRE, I can appreciate Quantum even more. Despite mostly enjoying SPECTRE, it took me a few days to fathom what my issue was with it.  The Bond Craig played seemingly ceased to be the literature Bond who we’ve seen in his previous three films and how now morphed into the typical cinematic Bond of old.

Sam Mendes and Thomas Newman

Sam Mendes and Thomas Newman

The score of the film has also been criticized by many who claim that it was boring and unoriginal. I certainly don’t want to encroach on other opinions as we are all entitled to them as fans but I strongly think that the work of Thomas Newman’s second Bond score has been misunderstood and underrated. Many critics have said that he has repeated himself for SPECTRE and as you listen to the soundtrack album you can understand where they are coming from.  Certain action cues such as Backfire, Tempus Fugit, and Westminster Bridge are exactly the same as what can be heard in Skyfall with slightly different arrangements. Even the tracks Donna Lucia and Madeline are in the same vein as the track for Severine in Skyfall in the sense that it’s just nondescript sound and there isn’t any recognizable tune to be heard.

I will admit that when I first saw the film at the cinema I was completely thrown out by the music that accompanied the MGM and Sony logos.   I learned from a reliable source that the gun barrel was now back at the very beginning of the film and upon hearing that, I looked forward to the bold, brassy and loud music that famously accompanies most gun barrel sequences.  I even avoided listening to track 1  “Los Muertos Vivos Estan” on the SPECTRE album as I wanted to be surprised by the music, and if the music wasn’t good, it would have ruined the whole film.  For me the gun barrel music is the most important and vital piece that needs to be right. The music that accompanied the studio logos and gun barrel is in fact the exact same arrangement that can be heard during the very final scene in Skyfall between Bond and Ralph Fiennes as the new M. It’s also heard at the very end of SPECTRE. Could this be part of Newman’s James Bond theme, which we first heard on track 18 titled ‘Breadcrumbs’ from the Skyfall soundtrack?  Who knows, as we never got a full version of Newman’s rendition of the Bond theme on either of the soundtrack albums. The music playing over the logo made me wonder if the gun barrel was back where it belonged.  Of course it was!! But like that of The Spy Who Loved Me, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough it didn’t feature the famous guitar riff.  Overall I think the style and visual of the gun barrel is the best in the series and I definitely appreciated the whole sequence the second time round.

The second piece of music that is taken from Skyfall is heard at 6:25 into the pre title sequence when Bond has narrowly escaped being buried in rubble.  When I had heard this I had instantly recognized it from being in Skyfall and was somewhat annoyed at why Newman was repeating himself. At 7:14  we then hear the first piece of original music which appears to be the same as track 6 ‘Backfire,’ which eventually leads to track 18 of the soundtrack album titled ‘Day Of the Dead’.   Note to self: I must find the lyrics to that! At 10:42 of the pre-titles sequence we then hear the climax of Backfire, which is the same piece that was, used for track 1  ‘Grand Bazar’ of Skyfall.   This is then followed immediately by track 19 of the SPECTRE soundtrack titled Tempus Fugit.    Interestingly this is the same as Track 25  ‘Welcome to Scotland’ from the Skyfall soundtrack but with a different arrangement. This  ‘version’ of ‘Welcome to Scotland’, which I am a fan of had fans speculating at whether there was a hint of a slide whistle to accompany the barrel role that the helicopter engages in. This of course could be a nod to the bizarre choice that John Barry had done in The Man With The Golden Gun. At 12:24 we then here a fresh approach to the Bond theme, which is used in the correct place just as Bond saves the helicopter from crashing.   This piece then goes immediately into the introduction of the title song.  As memory serves I think this is the first time the introduction of the title song is played before the title sequence has begun and I think it works wonderfully as the introduction that sounded like something written by John Barry fits perfectly for a vista landscape which is exactly what we get as Bond flies off into the distance.  Unfortunately this is the only time the introduction of the song is used for a Vista shot as it is a perfect piece.

When I first received the SPECTRE soundtrack I noticed track 1  ‘Los Muertos Vivos Estan’ was only 2. 35 long, whilst track 18 ‘Day of the Dead’ (which 100% has a Live and Let Die feel to it, but then the whole PTS does) is 2.43.  This made me realize that we only have 5:45 worth of music for a 12 minute long scene.  Was the remaining 5:45 minutes without score???

Even thought PTS is considered to be the best in the series the music is quite powerful and uses hints of the Bond theme.   Why Newman or Sam Mendes decided to recycle a music cue from Skyfall, I’m not sure but one can only imagine what David Arnold would have done if he had been chosen to score the film.    Whether the music cues were composed especially for the scene or just copied and pasted from other tracks of the score I’m not sure, but I do find that process lazy and lacking in imagination if that is the case.   Whether this was the composer or director’s choice, we as fans who pay attention to Bond film scores are left to wonder.

After having cues taken from Skyfall and music that sounds the same through out the pre title sequence we then get another cue that is taken directly from Skyfall.  This time it appears to be snippets of ‘Close Shave’, track 17of the Skyfall album.   By this point the repetitiveness of Newman actually took away some of my focus from the story of the film, and I instantly began naming that cue!   ‘Close Shave’ appeared at 19:02 in the film when we see Moneypenny give Bond his personal belongings that forensics had found at his ancestral home. After hearing ‘Close Shave’ we then hear the wonderful cue ‘Voluntary Retirement’ which was introduced in Skyfall.   This piece made a comeback as Judi Dench’s M made a surprise cameo.   This tells us that this wonderful music cue may now be dubbed as M’s theme, where ‘Close Shave’ could now be Moneypenny’s theme.

The third track ‘Enternal City’ is the first on the SPECTRE album that sounds the same as what was used in Skyfall for a ‘New World.’   In comparison to both tracks they start off with the same playful melody interwoven with parts of the Bond theme. It then gradually builds up to a typical ‘Bond arrives into another country’ moment.  In each film Bond is with Q before we cut to a vista shot.  Clearly, Newman composed a playful tune to accommodate the playful relationship between Bond and Q.   However what Newman composed for when we entered Shanghai in Skyfall is in my opinion a stronger and more Barry -esque than what he composed for Bond entrance into Rome. Also at 1:1:15 we hear parts of this theme again when Bond introduces Madeline to Q. So ‘New Worlds’ and ‘Eternal City’ both open up with what could be a theme for Q. If Newman is back for Bond 25 will we hear snippets of ‘Close Shave’ and ‘New Worlds’ again? My conclusion is that Newman repeated himself and recycled certain music cues from Skyfall to represent characters, which is the skill of a composer by telling the story through a score.  Therefore, in many cases the recycling of music cues is a stylistic choice to emphasize a sort of musical continuity with the Skyfall score.

For characters to have their own themes in Bond films isn’t anything new.   Monty Norman had of course composed the Bond theme and John Barry had created the ‘007’ theme that can be heard through out 5 films.   However sadly he never gave Blofeld or S.P.E.C.T.R.E their own continuing theme when we saw them the first time round during the Connery era. Of course Arnold used various themes throughout his Bond scores.  We had Elektra’s theme woven throughout the score for The World Is Not Enough and Gustave Graves had his own theme in likes of Icarus, but most importantly Arnold helped tremendously with the storytelling of Quantum Of Solace when he rightly so used Vespers theme, which he composed for Casino Royale.

Why Newman repeated himself on actions cues I’m not too sure, but Arnold also repeated himself when it came to action music.   At 2:44 of ‘Bike Chase’ of Tomorrow Never Dies it is identical to 2:32 of ‘Come in 007 your time is up’.

Also he used the baseline for OHMSS in both The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, yet I believe Arnold did this more subtly.  As I mentioned before the ‘Tempus Fugit’ is the same as ‘Welcome to Scotland’ and track 24 ‘Westminster Bridge’ sounds similar to ‘The Moors’ from Skyfall.

Also it is interesting to note that some pieces that where used in ‘Dr No’ that was scored by Monty Norman also made an appearance towards the end of ‘From Russia With Love’ for the boat scene even though that film was the first to be scored by John Barry.

“Los Muertos Vivos Esta” opens up with a 20 second cue which we don’t hear until 42:07 of the film. This is what we hear when we are introduced to Mr Hinx.  This sounds similar to what we hear at 2:45 of track 11 ‘Snow Plane,’ which is of course a scene heavily featuring Mr Hinx.

Track 7 titled ‘Crows Klinic’ even though it was actually called Hoffman clinic in the film features a new theme which is practically used at most vista shots and is played throughout the score at different tempos with a variety of different instruments.

The next time we see Hinx is during the epic fight on the train where Newman has taken a page from Barry’s score and decided not to score this sequence, which I personally think can be just as powerful and have a stronger impact. However in the film we have the typical “will Bond survive moment and we see him practically done in and clearly has no energy left.  This is where we hear track 15 ‘Hinx’, which recalls track 7 from the Skyfall soundtrack.  I will admit that I find it a shame that this particular track isn’t all that long as it is one of my favorites and makes the scene more tense.

Despite Bond intense fight scene with Mr. Hinx, which would result in hospitalization in the real world, Bond’s libido kicks into high gear giving him the strength to throw Madeline through the doors of their compartment whilst making passionate love. This love scene is accompanied by the same sweeping strings, which were played during introduction of the title song at the beginning of the film.

The track ‘Tempus Fugit’ (in Skyfall it was known as ‘Welcome To Scotland’) is heard for the first time since the pre-titles sequence as Madeline throws Bond explosive watch towards Blofeld.

As we approach the end of the film when Bond and Madeline both escape the demolition of the MI6 building we then here the track ‘Westminster Bridge’ which is basically ‘The Moors’ from Skyfall. What I actually enjoyed was Newman’s nod to Thunderball, which can be heard at 0.40 in to the track.   Again I was disappointed that we didn’t get more of it.   Throughout there are times where Newman makes the stylistic choice to tease the Bond theme without actually playing the Bond theme.

After Blofeld’s helicopter is shot down over The Thames by Bond’s Walther PPK (ridiculous I know!), Bond simply decides to ‘run out of bullets’ leaving Blofeld to be taken away by the authorities. As Bond chooses to leave with Madeline instead of completing the ultimate act of vengeance against Blofeld.  Then, we cut to external shots of London and cut again to Q’s laboratory.  Bond needs to pick up one last thing: The Aston Martin DB5 of course.

This is when Newman finally gives us the Bond theme in full.

Overall my thoughts on the score are the same for the film in the sense it’s not my favorite.   I will confess that alongside other fans I was skeptical at what Newman would bring to the franchise when he was announced as the composer for Skyfall, however, his score grew on me and I think there are some memorable and powerful cues such as ‘Voluntary Retirement’ and ‘Tennyson’ but not enough of the Bond theme.   With SPECTRE there are some original pieces, which are memorable. Track 6 ‘Backfire’, Track  14 ‘Hinx’ and  ‘Secret Room’ are my favorite and yet again there just isn’t enough Bond theme.

Would I like to see Newman return?   Yes, I would.  It would definitely be interesting to see if he returned even if Mendes doesn’t.  Over the course of his two Bond films he has done a reasonable job and it’s refreshing to have a different sound and style. As long as he doesn’t make action scenes seem generic by recycling his own music, I think he’d be onto a winner.  Let’s not forget Arnold also repeated himself and yet that is somewhat forgotten now as we critique Thomas Newman.

article by Matthew Grice

Matthew-Grice

  • Simon Woolley

    Excellent job mate!

  • Jack

    I think an important thing to note, however, is that, while Arnold (and many before him) repeated himself (and rightly so), what Newman did sounds more like a mere cut-and-paste, which is why we feel like it is lazy. You have to have some level of repetition in this franchise: you have an iconic hero with his own musical theme or themes, and to not play them would be a crime. It’s also not a crime to use themes for characters as we’ve experienced in these last two films, which you pointed out with themes for characters such as Judi Dench’s M and Moneypenny. And, in fairness as well, when compared to David Arnold’s scores, Newman is being compared to someone who may have been a given with the Bond franchise as Arnold; although he only scored five films, his tenure was akin (albeit smaller) to what we came to expect from John Barry as being a simple “given” on each subsequent film. But what Newman did felt so much more than simply “quoting” his previous cues, especially due to the rate at which he employed this.

    Further, an article in Variety that was published after the release of SPECTRE had an interview with Newman where he stated that every musical decision made had to be cleared with Mendes. I would almost blame Mendes as much (if not possibly more so) than Newman for what is, in my opinion, two mostly forgettable scores. Originally, I thought that Newman lacked the ability to properly score a Bond film. However, his first cue on the SPECTRE soundtrack album (as Bond is walking across the rooftops in Mexico City) shows that he can properly do it, but that perhaps he was restricted from doing so.

    In my opinion (that being of someone who is a professional musician and who holds a Masters Degree in Music, earned with a thesis on the music of James Bond), the scores of both Skyfall and SPECTRE are as equally lackluster as both films in general. Perhaps they have their moments, but neither grabs you by the collar and forces you to pay attention to the shivers that run down your spine. In fact, the only times I experienced such a phenomenon in either of the last two movies was from the studio logos until the rooftop walk in SPECTRE.

    I would much prefer to have David Arnold return for the next film than to have Thomas Newman return.

  • Stephen Wadsworth

    Great, Matthew.
    Personally, beforehand I was quite excited about Newman doing the Skyfall score as I’d liked scores he’d done for previous Mendes films. I’ve been disappointed with his two efforts for Bond only because, aside from the occasions that he references the Bond theme, his two Bond scores sound to me like they could be plonked into any action movie. Maybe that ‘s a bit of Bond snobbery on my part to think that the scores for Bond films should be on a higher plain to others in the same genre!
    I’m torn as to whether or not I’d like Newman to be on board for Bond 25. Part of me would like that so that he gets a chance to nail it next time, but for the sure-fire route to get ‘the Bond sound’ back for the next film then I think everybody would be happy to have David Arnold return.
    I wondered whether Newman had actually recorded a full version of the Bond theme, because the version heard in the final credits of SPECTRE sounded to me like David Arnold’s arrangement of the theme for Casino…
    Quantum’s definitely a grower on me too. On my first viewing, my over-riding thought was “Why are they trying to be Bourne?” but take away the first 20 minutes (when the film definitely does want to get into Bourne territory) and now I think there’s so much going for it – beautifully shot, fantastic scene at the opera, brilliant ending for Mathis, great dealing-with of the main villain, nice tie-up to the Vesper storyline at the end. It’s above Skyfall for me within the Daniel films.

  • MyDarkMeatRises

    Just reading this article and my opinion is similar to yours. When you’re someone who is a repeat watcher, reusing the score can easily take you out of the film. To the casual viewer, it may not be a big deal, but the weak score of SPECTRE made it a lesser film IMO.