I haven't got around to working on my next BlogalongaBond piece looking at Bond scores, but word this week that Thomas Newman could be picking up David Arnold's baton to provide the soundtrack to Bond 23, aka Skyfall, got my mind racing.
Thomas Newman? A Bond score? Thomas-American-Beauty-Newman? The guy most widely known for Any Other Name, a piece that showcases both his tinkling piano melodies and die-hard love of the vibraphone?
It's a pretty clear indicator that Sam Mendes is making himself at home in the director's chair - after five Bond films on the trot, it takes a lot to remove David Arnold from scoring duties.
Newman, presuming he does get the job (likely, given his previous collaborations on all of Mendes' work, except for Away We Go), would be the *counts quickly on fingers* ninth person to compose Bond music. John Barry, of course, led the way, arranging Monty Norman's guitar-twanging theme for Dr. No and defining the franchise's sound. George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch and Bill Conti all tried to fill his shoes with varying pop-tinged, electro-scores that never quite fitted the bill. (The opening of For Your Eyes Only is enough to make your ears cringe like a young woman being kissed by Roger Moore.) Michael Kamen warmed down from Die Hard with some typically excellent work, while Eric Serra's Goldeneye soundtrack... erm, yeah. That also exists.
So is Newman better suited to the task? A quick listen to one of his tunes from American Beauty (Dead Already) doesn't raise hopes:
But one quick change to that riff and things are starting to sound like they're on the right track...
Newman's instrumentation is, naturally, very different to that of Barry . Newman favours percussion-driven passages, particularly tuned percussion, with distinctive tinkly piano melodies during quieter moments. That's no bad thing, but for 007 you need some punchy brass or a string-led sequence, with a theme that's instantly identifiable.
You can hear, for example, in WALL-E's Mutiny! that the brass stabs are present, and set the mood, but they're almost an after-thought:
By the one minute mark, John Barry would already have broken out a solid bit of theme tunage. From Russia with Love (one of the best Bond scores) takes 56 seconds to get round to a theme in 007 Takes the Lektor. But when it does, the syncopated horns and that timpani riff blend into the background, where they're meant to be:
Moving on to Rogue Robots, also from WALL-E (the rogue robots in American Beauty were sadly cut out), the string and brass ensembles are far more prominent, even if it still feels mainly led by the rhythm department. Still, it's impressive just how far we've come from American Beauty territory:
With any new Bond composer, there's always the worry that it could drift towards Eric Serra's Goldeneye score: all synth percussion and no symphonic depth, to the point where John Altman had to be drafted in to score the famous tank chase scene in St. Petersburg. But Newman's a step ahead of Serra. Consider Hurricane Herman, one of the better tracks on the Lemony Snicket OST. The orchestration is exemplary and the rhythms are nicely layered:
That said, it's no African Rundown, for my money one of David Arnold's best compositions, opening Casino Royale without any hint of 007 and yet full of franchise flourishes. Like Newman's faster-paced work, it's driven by the rhythm of the scene but, crucially, not at the expense of the tune:
Now of course, these random examples I've picked out are all from non-Bond soundtracks, so they're never going to be a perfect fit for the 007 sound, but we can see traces of the right kind of thing. The most important thing is to forget the stripped down style of Any Other Name: Newman clearly knows how to use the bigger sections of the orchestra when necessary.
And this is, perhaps, his greatest skill. He can vary his style - more so than, say, Hans Zimmer - to suit a variety of genres. His back catalogue is impressively diverse, ranging from WALL-E and Finding Nemo to The Shawshank Redemption and The Good German. In the latter, he pastiches soaring classic Hollywood soundtracks with ease, while Nemo's Foolproof is a neat play around with Ocean's 11/Lalo Schifrin-style conventions.
If he takes that same approach to the world of Ian Fleming's spy, there's no reason why Thomas Newman can't give Bond music some of his own unique flavour. David Arnold updated the franchise to modern day with a well-judged use of electronic music, a development that Newman could easily continue. And let's not forget that the vibraphone was a cornerstone for Barry's arrangement of the original Bond theme.
You can also imagine, for example, Newman doing a neat equivalent to Casino Royale's subdued track, Death of Vesper:
To date, however, Newman is still to be let loose on a major action project. The nearest we've got is 2010's The Debt, which I liked quite a lot. The score was, inevitably, full of electronic percussion (again, David Arnold might have done something similar) but a couple of tracks from it (especially One More Parcel and An Unscheduled Stop) are quite promising. They're not on YouTube (or I would've embedded the hell out of them earlier) but you can listen to them on Spotify here.
Take those into account and you can see how espionage and Newman might blend to make an interesting contribution to the series. Besides which, at the end of the day, I trust Sam Mendes to make the right choice. If he wants Thomas Newman to write his Bond music, then I'm willing to go with it. As long as it doesn't turn out like this:
For more on Bond scores, expect an in-depth BlogalongaBond post in a couple of weeks' time.
Oh, and cheers to Collider for the image.