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That Bond Sound
While the greatest musical dynasties ruled over vast empires of the imagination, their geographic domains were small. The Couperins held the organist post at the church of St. Gervais in Paris for nearly two hundred years from middle of the 17th century to well into the 19th. For a still longer period legions of Bach relations spread out through the Lutheran heartland of central Germany like industrious musical beavers. Churches, court chapels, schools: these were the modest and often confining venues where the Bachs practiced their craft.
The reach of these august families is dwarfed by that of the most influential of all musical lines—the Newmans of Hollywood. Not yet extending across as many generations as the clans just mentioned, this movie-music dynasty rules the multiplex and therefore the world.
Whereas the most august of the Couperins and Bachs produced some of the monuments the Baroque, from elegant and profound keyboard pieces to monumental vocal works, the Newmans have given the world countless soundtracks and orchestrated even more. J. S. Bach produced more than 200 cantatas in a handful of years, but the greatest of the Newmans—Alfred the Indefatigable—was still more prolific. This Newman’s career spanned Hollywood’s Golden Age, from City Lights of 1931 (Chaplin himself wrote the score; Newman was his music director) to the star-studded flames of Airport released in 1970, the year of the composer’s death. What is the majesty of the B-Minor Mass as against Newman’s most familiar (and perhaps shortest) piece—the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, that proudest signal of America’s enduring moving-picture pride and the ultimate Pavlovian cue to moviegoers that two-hours of generally mindless escapism will immediately ensue? Just look at the Academy Award tally: Newman 40 Nominations and 9 Oscars; Bach 0. (True, the latter should have posthumously gotten the bullet-headed statuette for his laudable work on Silence of the Lambs.)
The next generation of Newmans is at the height of its powers. Nephew Randy approaches seventy and has twenty Academy award nominations to his credit; he’s won only twice, and not for scores, but rather for original songs. When he received the award in 2011 for his song for Toy Story 3 he joked that he was so often at the nominee dinner that the Academy had named a chicken dish after him. Busy in t.v. and video games and with a few less-than-distinguished features to his credit, Joey Newman represents the third generation of this film composing dynasty. He chose to take his mother’s family name for obvious reasons.
Alfred’s son Thomas Newman was born in 1955, educated at Yale, and already has ten Academy Award nominations, though in line with the low Newman family winning percentage he has yet to win the foolish thing. In a faintly just universe, his 2008 score for the Disney feel-bad-but-then-feel-good-in-spite-of-the-environemtnal-apocalypse WALL-E would have received the award. But no awards in this or any other universe are as arbitrary as the Oscar.
The first forty-five minutes of WALL-E follow the ceaseless diligence of an endearing binocular-eyed robot on a lifeless planet earth reduced to a landfill by human wastefulness. Since the first half of the movie is completely without dialogue, vast sonic space is cleared for Newman’s soundtrack. He makes the most of the opportunity to demonstrate a command of orchestral sonority as nuanced and imaginative as that of his father. The robot’s sense of wonder at the arrival of a spaceship is captured with the shimmering strings and oscillating harmonies beloved of film composers, but here enlivened with winking references to classics like Bizet’s Habanera and maybe even that very same Alfred Newman Fox fanfare. The younger Newman has a great sense of timing, one that must of necessity follow the dictates of the on-screen action. But his score bravely follows its own musical logic as well. No one sends out rushes of sound to collide with silence more dramatically than Newman. Even his rests make sense, something that cannot be said for many a soundtrack.
In his father’s era, the ability to allude to a wider repertory was also vital to film composers, but nowadays the poaching of elements from disparate musical styles is a prerequisite for success in a gourmandizing culture that starts pawing through the fridge for left-overs of yesterday’s feast before the plates heaped with today’s faddish fare have even been cleared from the table. The scene in which WALL-E goes on a first date with a sleek, white and apparently female robot steps around its own maudlin ooze thanks to Newman’s scoring of the encounter with a smoky shuffle and close-harmony doo-waps. Newman supplies the needed comic effect by surrounding an earnest android suitor and airy super model with the sonic haze of a retro 1970s lounge. But even here Newman does not drown in his own irony, but instead splashes happily about on its surface; among other life rings, it’s ardent Bacharach violins that keep the music afloat.
Ease with both the symphonic tradition and world music have equipped Thomas Newman to take up his latest and most ambitious mission: a James Bond soundtrack. Other illustrious film composers, Marvin Hamlisch and John Barry have preceded him. Barry rendered service to eleven of the Bond films, that is nearly half of the current total of 23. Although Barry didn’t compose the theme song (that was done by Monty Norman), he did provide its distinctive sound—the dissonant brass chords, the lecherously distorted guitar riff, the slinky flutes, the bawdy trombones with plunger mutes. That immediately defined the martini swilling, dinner jacket-wearing toff flying around the world keeping its casinos, bars, and beaches safe for democracy. Here was a sound that conveyed chutzpah and cunning and encouraged, even more quickly than one of those martinis, the necessary suspension of disbelief in order to swoon before his literally lady-killing cool.
Each new Bond actor and each new Bond film is now accompanied by pr-driven talk of transformation. The pugilistic face of Daniel Craig certainly helps present an agent who’s been a few times around the bloc, both East and West. Craig’s status as a bona fide A-list leading man helps too. That the auteur Sam Mendes is in the director’s chair—or more frequently helicopter—lends class to the project: Mendes is a fellow Brit who came to Hollywood from the London theatre-world and with his first feature film, American Beauty of 1999, landed one of those Oscar I somehow keep referring to. Newman’s percussion-driven score for the movie was also nominated. American Beauty was pretentious and ponderous, and the music did nothing to relieve the suffocating aura of self-seriousness.
But the Mendes-Newman team certainly provides the kind of prestige that the hoary Bond franchise thinks it needs to trudge on in the post-Cold War era. Before we are even oriented in Skyfall and the sweaty danger of a hot-spot, third world locale in which it opens we get two shock chords which are meant to jolt the audience into knowing immediately that Bond is back and that the he’s still got it. With the sparsest of sonic means, Newman and Mendes literally trumpet their pledge that the brand is intact. Over the subsequent two hours kinetic chases using various kinds of vehicles—from motorcycles to subway cars—are separated from one another with set-piece speeches in which distinguished British actors pontificate about the lasting value of the old human methods of intelligence and espionage that are threatened with obsolescence in the digital age. These intervals of soporific calm are even more boring than they otherwise would because of the absence of music. At least there’s bad-guy Javier Bardem to have some campy fun with his lines. When Dame [!] Judi Dench’s M begins quoting Tennyson before a parliamentary panel, the Bond corporation might as well be appearing in creative bankruptcy court.
When allowed to, Newman’s score tries its best to keep this rambling wreck on the road. After that salvo of vintage chords from his predecessor Barry, Newman is given space after the credits to show his majestic talent by weaving in the sinuous and instantly recognizable Bond chromatic thread into expansive orchestral textures of his own. In Newman’s hands the Bondian motive becomes a kind of cantus firmus; he sneaks it in in one spot and brandishes it like a rocket-launcher in another. With each stop on Bond’s Condé Nast itinerary, Newman amps things with global rhythms, from the techno hustle in the dazzling nocturnal neon of modern Shanghai to the beach drums of what might be Bali. Newman keeps things moving along, but when, like Bond, his hands are tied and his music silenced you feel the movie slump forward in its chair.
The producers think the easiest way to cut him free is with the old gags: I suspect the Broccoli heiress (Barbara) and her half brother Michael Wilson are responsible for bringing the Aston Martin with machine guns hidden in the fender out of mothballs so 007 can road-trip it back to his ancestral manse called Skyfall with M, evil ex-agent Mr. Silver (Barden) close on their heals with an army of cinematic cannon fodder.
As soon as we see that silver sports car the soundtrack reverts to Barry’s Bond music in all its big band glory. This knowing ploy is meant to let is in on the irony of infinite regression: Craig playing the new Bond playing the old Bond. But it’s all been done before: the Aston Martin and the blaring brass have been de-mothballed for at least a couple installments from the Pierce Brosnan interregnum. That Newman is made in Skyfall to reheat the Barry’s classic material is hardly a humiliation—especially at the kind of fees Newman likely pulled in for his work. But it becomes immediately clear that what began with the fresh treatment of overused musical themes, ends in a rout of the new. It is telling that the soundtrack is the first to hoist the white flag of surrender to the imperatives of the brand. In the random darkness of this untethered romp, the music piped in from the past allows one to close the eyes, lean back, and think of an England that doesn’t even qualify as myth.