To call Eric Serra’s “GoldenEye” score an acquired taste is putting it mildly. Though some fans appreciate its originality, the vast majority find its synth-heavy sound lacks the rich orchestral flavor that’s been an integral part of the 007 film series since the very beginning. In fact, during James Bond Radio podcast #023, Tom Sears claimed it felt less like a Bond score and more like something you’d hear in “dodgy French porn.” Even Michael G. Wilson referred to it as “controversial” during his audio commentary on the film’s Blu-ray.
Yet amid all the withering criticism, one bright spot remains: Composer John Altman’s thrilling score for the film’s spectacular tank chase sequence. Accompanying one of the most memorable moments of the Brosnan era, Altman’s tank chase music is everything that Serra’s score isn’t. It’s rousing, dynamic and boldly orchestrated. Best of all, it brilliantly incorporates the classic Bond themes, while adding its own unique spin on the material.
But how did Altman end up scoring (or, technically, re-scoring) the film’s biggest set-piece?
To learn the answer, I attended a recent luncheon in Los Angeles, hosted by the Academy of Scoring Arts. There, with disarming candor and self-effacing charm, John Altman discussed his unique contribution to James Bond history. What follows are some of the highlights:
Altman traces his involvement with Eric Serra and “GoldenEye” back five years, to his work on Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 Paul Bowles adaptation.
I have to go back a few years to “The Sheltering Sky,” which was a Bertolucci film that I orchestrated and conducted for Ryuichi Sakamoto, who basically could’ve done what I did in his sleep. Eric Serra, who worked a lot with Luc Besson, saw “The Sheltering Sky,” and he wanted to hire the team who worked on it. Which was me!
So I did two films for Luc Besson with Eric Serra, which were “Léon,” or “The Professional” in this country, and before that a film called “Atlantis,” which was all music. Eric was basically a synthesizer composer, and I orchestrated what he wrote and gave it to the Royal Philharmonic. I conducted and arranged it.
Flash forward five years.
So when they cast Pierce Brosnan in “GoldenEye,” they wanted the music to be like “Léon,” which they all loved. But that’s a very different film from “GoldenEye.” And it just seemed from the very beginning that Eric Serra was used to Luc Besson, who literally put everything that Eric wrote into his films. They’d grown up together. They’d been childhood friends. Luc said “I don’t know anything about music, so whatever you write goes in.” So it all went in.
The trouble begins.
As soon as Eric started working on James Bond, he had to deal with producers, directors, editors, sound editors, and they all had their input. And being, A, French, B, quite young, and C, inexperienced, Eric reacted as one might expect. He just told them all to take a running jump, basically. And they stopped talking to him after awhile. They talked to me instead. I wound up as a sort of go-between, if you like.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I got a phone call on the Friday before the film’s release, which was literally a week away, saying “Could you come in?” And I turned to my assistant and said “It’s the tank chase! I know it!” Because I’d heard what Eric had written for the tank chase, which had no orchestration at all. It was all sort of synthesized, and was very low-key and didn’t cut through. It was eccentric. He took it into a weird space of oriental disco.
And what happened was, they were dubbing the film, and they literally had a revolution of the dubbing editor and the editor, who said “I want my name off this movie if this cue stays in. This is the highlight of the film. It’s not James Bond. It’s not what we’re used to.” They’d all worked on the classic John Barry scores. And they said “This is not James Bond! This is a different film!”
The Broccoli family was a bit baffled by what Eric was giving them. So everyone was a bit wary. And of course, the public eye was on James Bond. Will Brosnan be any good? Will the film be any good? Will the composer be any good?
Regarding Serra’s original score for the tank chase.
They hated it. I mean, they really loathed it.
A fast turnaround.
I got the call on a Friday, and they said “The latest you can record it is Tuesday.” So I phoned friends and said “Stand by.” And I thought, the hell with it! I’m going to do it all myself! So I composed something on Saturday, orchestrated it on Sunday, gave it to the copyist on Monday, we had the recording session on Tuesday, and the film came out on Friday!
All I remember is Michael Wilson saying “IF I’D KNOWN YOU WERE THIS QUICK I’D GIVEN YOU THE WHOLE FILM.”
Altman’s one stipulation.
I literally said to Martin Campbell, “I don’t want to do this unless Eric okays it,” because he hired me to do the film. And Campbell said, “We’re going to get somebody to do it, so it might as well be you, because you know what the rest of the score is like.”
My big regret is that my version has never been released on a record.
Getting the band back together.
I really got carte blanch. When you hear the arrangement, I had six trumpets, six horns. I must’ve had five or six percussionists. Probably six keyboard players. I literally got what I wanted, including Derek Watkins, who’s played on every James Bond movie! Kenny Wheeler is on there, too! In fact, Guy Barker, one of the trumpet players, said “I’ve died and gone to Heaven! I’m sitting between Derek Watkins and Kenny Wheeler, playing the James Bond theme!”
I got the best musicians, because we did it in the evening. I said “I want these people.” The entire horn section was incredible.
The take was so terrific that at one point I noticed a mistake in the strings that obviously was either my writing, or something between me and the copyist, and I just let it go. Forget it! We were in such a rush, you know.
The kiss of death.
I remember two things the producers said: “We’d have given you the whole film to re-score if we’d known you were that quick,” and “You saved our movie.” Unfortunately, those are the kiss of death! You know you’ll never work with them again.
Is Altman still on speaking terms with Eric Serra?
I am now. I wasn’t for a long time, but I am now. But I never did another film with him. It’s the last film I’ve ever done as an orchestrator or conductor for anybody else, as well.
Is there any solace in the fact that Bond fans finally know who scored the tank chase?
Yeah. This was back 1995, sort of pre-internet. I had no idea that anybody even knew I’d done it. I did it as a favor at the last minute, and I forwent my credit because there wasn’t time to put a credit on! And then, suddenly everyone knows that I’ve done it, and they want the backstory.
article by Matthew Chernov