With the release of No Time to Die, the 25th 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. The theme song for No Time to Die was co-written and sung by Billie Eilish, and won the award for Best Song Written for Visual Media at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. It became Eilish's first number-one single in the UK.
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 the 1990s and early 200s, David Arnold had 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. More recent Bond films, however, have further expanded the roster.
For Skyfall and Spectre, Thomas Newman took over scoring duties; however, for No Time to Die, Hans Zimmer has stepped into the role of composer.
Zimmer and his company Remote Control Productions are a fascinating part of contemporary film scoring—a phenomenon that, like Bond, represents a blend of the familiar and the new. As with the old studio music departments of the 1930s and 40s, the scores they produce may be collaboratively produced (even though they often bear Zimmer’s name), but they also make extensive use of contemporary technologies of music production and post-production. As such, Remote Control Productions blend traditional orchestral sounds and state-of-the art virtual instruments with complex digital sound manipulation.
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 Zimmer on the scoring stage, it will be fascinating to see (and hear) just what No Time to Die offers in terms of this blend of the familiar and new.
Undoubtedly, though, the time is surely long overdue for a woman to take on the mantle of scoring this traditionally misogynistic character, and perhaps the next film in the series will see not only a new Bond but also scoring duties taken on by a composer like Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker and Chernobyl) or Mica Levi (Under the Skin and Jackie). That might see things shift decisively towards the new in Bond’s musical portrayal.