Hasitha Fernando on the best James Bond film scores…
With No Time to Die scheduled to begin its international rollout on September 30th, following multiple delays it is a fine time to look back at the incomparable musical legacy this long-standing franchise has given to audiences the world over. From the now iconic opening gun-barrel sequence accompanied by Monty Norman’s theme song to the likes of musical legends such as John Barry, Marvin Hamlisch and Bill Conti bringing on their signature style to the mix, let us now take a journey and look back at the best James Bond film scores thus far, in no particular order.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE – JOHN BARRY (1963)
There has been some contention as to whether or not John Barry composed the theme music for the gun-barrel opening sequence but the man certainly struck back with a vengeance taking on scoring duties for this Dr. No’s sequel. Within a span of one film, Barry pretty much set the foundation for what should encompass the future 007 soundscape. The brassy score exuded charm and sophistication from the first few notes of the ‘Opening Titles’- an unforgettable instrumental rendition of Matt Monro’s From Russia with Love song married with the immortal cool of the James Bond theme- till its conclusion with the aggressively upbeat ‘007 Takes the Lektor’. If any music aficionado wanted to commence his or her journey into the world of James Bond, this gorgeous score would be the best place to start.
Highlights: Opening Titles, Bond Meets Tania, 007, James Bond with Bongos
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE – JOHN BARRY (1969)
No doubt one of the more controversial entries in the Bond canon, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service saw Australian actor George Lazenby take on the mantle of 007, to mixed results. Whilst frequently quoted as the weakest Bond, Lazenby’s edgier take on the character undoubtedly influenced Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig later on. Barry’s score for the film however was touted as one of the best in the series, with this making the sixth successive Bond film he’s scored. With more electronic instruments infused into the effort, Barry went on to craft a more timeless sound for Bond that would appeal even to contemporary tastes. Lush string sections, aggressive brass elements, jazzy electronica you name it it’s got it- and they all come together making up one perfectly flawless whole.
Highlights: This Never Happened to the Other Fella, Bond & Draco, Journey to Blofeld’s Hideaway, Death of Theresa
GOLDFINGER – JOHN BARRY (1964)
Goldfinger was a gamechanger for the franchise and for good reason. The film served as the template for what James Bond flicks would become as the series progressed. Seductive femme fatales, nifty life-saving gadgets, exciting action set pieces and scenery chewing villainy; the usual suspects are all here. When it comes to the score Goldfinger is probably the most traditional sounding Bond score Barry has ever crafted and that’s certainly ain’t a bad thing, at all! Perfecting on what worked during his erstwhile outing, Barry delivers ‘the’ seminal James Bond score that flawlessly complimented the roguish Sean Connery’s adrenaline-fueling spy hijinks featured in the iconic film. Shirley Bassey’s unforgettable title song is merely the cherry on top of this grand cake. It simply doesn’t get any better than this, take my word for it.
Highlights: Alpine Drive-Auric’s Factory, Dawn Raid on Fort Knox, The Arrival of the Bomb and Count down, The Death of Goldfinger-End Titles
TOMORROW NEVER DIES – DAVID ARNOLD (1997)
After the dismal, earworm of a score Eric Serra conjured up for 1993’s GoldenEye, British film composer David Arnold was personally recommended by John Barry to continue the Bond legacy for the upcoming Tomorrow Never Dies. Not a stranger to blockbusters by this point, having composed music for sci-fi action adventures such as Stargate and Independence Day, Arnold took his assignment to heart and delivered what can best be described as the greatest non-John Barry 007 score of all time. The soundtrack acts as both a tribute to the classic Barry scores, whilst channeling its own flamboyant synth-driven personality. It is the perfect amalgamation of that which is old and new, and remains ‘the’ definitive David Arnold entry in the James Bond franchise to date. An absolute must listen.
Highlights: White Knight, The Sinking of the Devonshire, Paris and Bond, Hamburg Breakout
CASINO ROYALE – DAVID ARNOLD (2006)
Die Another Day put the proverbial nail on the coffin of the Brosnan era Bond, and after that embarrassing debacle it was abundantly obvious that the franchise needed a proper reboot. So, they took a back-to-the-roots approach delving into Ian Fleming’s book by the same name and opting to go for a more grounded tone overall. With Daniel Craig boarding the project as James Bond, the series was now set to go on its brand-new journey. The ever-dependable David Arnold was once again summoned to create the score for Casino Royale. Mirroring the grittier reinvention of the character Arnold’s music too took on a darker, more aggressive tone. There are some sublime action materials interspersed with quieter, bittersweet moments which make it a captivating listen from start to finish, despite the fact that elements that make up a typical Bond score are absent.
Highlights: African Rundown, Miami International, Vesper, City of Lovers
SKYFALL – THOMAS NEWMAN (2012)
While both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace opted for a grittier take on Bond, in a post-Jason Bourne world, director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall functioned as a love-letter to the 007 flicks of yesteryear. Portraying Bond as a near-redundant, world-weary secret agent in a rapidly technologized spy game was a master stroke that made audiences question the character’s relevance in the modern setting. For Skyfall Mendes brought with him his go to composer- Thomas Newman. Now, the multi-Oscar nominated musician is no stranger to undertaking projects of this magnitude but, action movies aren’t his usual cuppa tea. Nevertheless, Newman certainly stepped up to the challenge, delivering an effort containing hints of Barry, shades of Arnold and a little bit o’ his old atmospheric self. In short nothing like anything we’ve heard before.
Highlights: Grand Barzaar Istanbul, Severine, Jellyfish, Skyfall
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME – MARVIN HAMLISCH (1977)
It’s the 70s and the James Bond franchise had seen two incarnations of the character and was seeing British Actor Roger Moore having a crack at his version of 007. At that time, series familiar John Barry was unavailable to contribute music for The Spy Who Loved Me. Enter American composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch, who’d previously won an Oscar for his work on 1973’s The Sting. It must be mentioned here that Hamlisch is one of only sixteen people out there to have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and a Tony award during his career. But despite his pedigree, Hamlisch’s effort wasn’t received well by fans due to the creative choices he made for it. Long story short, Bond goes disco. Yep, you’ve heard that right. True, the funky disco elements infused with the classic Barry sound makes for a strange listen the first time around, but it was very much a product of its time and a damn fine one at that. Give it a spin, if time permits and you just might enjoy it.
Highlights: Anya, Bond 77, The Tanker, Eastern Lights
LICENCE TO KILL – MICHAEL KAMEN (1989)
The second and sadly last James Bond film headlined by the uber-talented Timothy Dalton was 1989’s Licence to Kill. The underrated British actor brought in a darker energy to a franchise which had pretty much reduced James Bond to a parody of himself. Dalton’s take on the character, no doubt, had a significant influence on Daniel Craig’s run of the titular super spy which featured an edgier-and at times- brutally uncompromising version of 007. Recovering from a life-threatening throat surgery, series veteran John Barry was once again unavailable to contribute to Dalton’s latest venture. In his stead, UK-based American composer Michael Kamen was hired. At that time Kamen was fresh off the success of scoring two era defining action films – Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. In a lot of ways, the Kamen’s music for Licence to Kill was a representation of the sound he crafted for 80s actioners with very little of ‘Bond’ in it. Even so, the soundtrack makes for a unique listening experience, which combines Kamen’s prowess in writing action and Barry’s signature jazz sound.
Highlights: Pam, Sanchez in the Bahamas, Ninja, License Revoked
QUANTUM OF SOLACE– DAVID ARNOLD (2008)
2008’s Quantum of Solace was a rare Bond film in that it functioned as a direct sequel to the movie before it. Its story picked up where Casino Royale concluded, and continued its journey, eventually wrapping up the whole Vesper Lynd saga. Receiving a rather mixed response on its release, Quantum of Solace was marked for its depictions of violence, darker tone and rapid-fire editing. The latter creative choice made for a more Bourne-esque, motion-sickness inducing experience, than your average Bond fare. Taking up composing duties once more was musician David Arnold, making this his 5th consecutive jab at a 007 flick. Stripping the score of all obvious Bond-isms, Arnold crafted a more intelligent, thought-provoking effort that offered subtle whispers of the franchise’s iconic soundscape whilst offering something fresh and different. A departure from the usual that yet feels… strangely familiar.
Highlights: Time to Get Out, The Palio, Talamone, What’s Keeping You Awake
OCTOPUSSY- JOHN BARRY (1983)
Barring the laughable title 1983’s Octopussy saw Roger Moore’s sixth appearance as the indefatigable super-sleuth. Initially wanting out of the role, Moore was lured back in by producers as a way of countering the rival Bond production Never Say Never Again headlined by former 007-star Sean Connery. What a strange time it was. After being absent from scoring duties for The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, John Barry returned to do his ninth Bond score. It’s been said the musician made a conscious effort to reference the James Bond theme throughout the soundtrack, in an effort to reinforce Octopussy as the ‘official’ Bond film. Strangely, musical references to the movie’s setting in India is somewhat sparse, but I ain’t complaining, this is classic Barry from start to finish, and that’s enough for me.
Highlights: 009 Gets the Knife & Gobinda Attacks, Arrival at the Island of Octopussy, Yo-Yo Fight & Death of Vijay, The Palace Fight
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.