With the release of SPECTRE, the 24th film in the long-running series that follows the exploits of secret agent James Bond, it’s an opportune moment to think about the role of music in this quintessentially British cinematic institution.
We can certainly consider the musical richness of Bond’s world and the composers who have written for the series. But two things immediately spring to mind: the songs that accompany the main title, and the Bond theme.
The former can be used as a barometer of public taste in popular music, and has become increasingly important to the films’ commercial strategies. Over the years themes have been sung by Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney & Wings, Duran Duran, and Madonna. SPECTRE’s title song is performed by Sam Smith and is the first Bond theme song to shoot to number one in the charts.
The James Bond theme itself, however, remains virtually unchanged, or is at least always recognisable (complete with twanging electric guitar, moody horns, and strident trumpets). It provides a degree of continuity across the decades even as Bond’s own face morphs to fit the actor currently portraying him.
What is the role of this theme? The subject of contested authorship claims between Monty Norman and the composer of many of the early Bond scores, John Barry, it has come to instantly identify the character in the popular imagination.
Although its arrangement may alter to match the period of the film, it suggests a musical calling card, something akin to the operatic concept of leitmotiv (or leading motif) employed to such good effect by composers like Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini, and also used in much film music.
But who wields the Bond theme? Is this music the sign of a narrator figure identifying the character (rather obviously) for us? Or might Bond himself use the theme as a kind of talismanic protective blanket; as a way to ward off bullets in the actions scenes in which it’s commonly used? It’s open to interpretation, of course.
Bond certainly recognises his own theme, commenting in Octopussy that it’s a “charming tune” when a fellow agent, disguised as a snake charmer, plays it to attract his attention.
This is a classic example of what academics might refer to as postmodern self-reflexivity—though that’s not to say it shouldn’t also be thought of as a joke!
Beyond these two standout elements—the title song and the Bond theme—the films are often musically rich in other ways, however. The Living Daylights, for instance, featured a cellist as Bond’s love interest, which was an opportunity to present a brief extract from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo’ Variations in concert.
Quantum of Solace, though, went one step further by including a remarkable scene at the opera. We see part of a production of Puccini’s Tosca—an opera that with its themes of violence and political conflict shares something in common with the plot of the film.
Indeed, according to musicologist Marcia Citron, the opera scene in Quantum of Solace offers us a detached, isolating experience, one that is entirely appropriate to Daniel Craig’s broken and cynical Bond.
Undoubtedly, though, the unique atmosphere of a Bond film is often dependent on the sound of its score, which reflects the individual musical style of its composer as much as the character of Bond.
Sean Connery’s Bond, for instance, is instantly associated with the horn- and string-rich melodiousness of John Barry’s music, musical features that characterise many of Barry’s other notable film scores (such as Out of Africa, The Ipcress File, or Dances with Wolves).
Barry continued to write for the series until 1987, though other composers contributed the odd entry. Marvin Hamlisch, for instance, provided a score influenced by 1970s disco for The Spy Who Loved Me, an extract from which can be seen in the second video in this OpenLearn free course extract.
In recent years, David Arnold has assumed the bulk of the duties. His is an approach that often relies on music as a tension-inducing texture, and is heavily dependent on contemporary percussion sounds.
For Skyfall, however, a new composer will take over the scoring duties: Thomas Newman. Newman is part of a great film-composition dynasty that includes his cousin Randy, his uncles Lionel and Emil, and his father, Alfred Newman, who was head of music at 20th Century Fox in the 1940s.
Bond has survived not only the Cold War but also a string of actors and composers, remaining both musically current and yet part of an identifiable tradition. With Newman on the scoring stage, it will be fascinating to see (and hear) just what SPECTRE offers in terms of this blend of the familiar and new.