Nov 7, 2016
Double O Section 10th Anniversary: Top 7 Spy Scores of the Past Decade
My Favorite Spy Scores 2006-2016
1. Daniel Pemberton: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Urged by director Guy Ritchie to avoid the brassy, bombastic spy tropes of James Bond music for his 1960s-set film version (review here) of the classic TV show, Daniel Pemberton drew instead from slightly more obscure corners of Sixties spy music and ended up creating the most enjoyable soundtrack of the decade. He comes out of the gate offering not horns, but bongos and flutes, setting the precedent for an eclectic score that evokes more than anything the somewhat obscure Eurospy scores of the decade (and their close cousins, Spaghetti Westerns) by the likes of Ennio Morricone and Piero Umiliani. His inspired use of a cimbalom also recalls not only Morricone’s Arabesque, but some of John Barry’s great non-007 spy music, like The Ipcress File and The Persuaders!, as well as Edwin Astley’s harpsichord-heavy ITC music. What it doesn’t especially recall is Jerry Goldsmith’s original U.N.C.L.E. music, and his theme from the show is basically absent. Would I have liked to have heard a new version of that theme in the movie? Sure, of course I would have. But I find it impossible to complain when what we’ve got is the most creative spy score of modern times! Pemberton’s music is the perfect accompaniment to Ritchie’s movie, which is a finely-crafted love letter to the same sorts of Sixties cinema from which the composer draws.
2. David Arnold: Casino Royale (2006)
David Arnold had done wonderful things with The James Bond Theme in his Pierce Brosnan-era Bond scores, but by deciding to withhold that famous theme (other than a few well-deployed bars) until the end of Casino Royale (review here), he demonstrated exactly how capable a composer he is for this franchise. The recurring "You Know My Name" melody throughout not only recalls the way John Barry used to incorporate the theme song into each score, but also serves as a fine theme for the character on its own. This is a Bond score that doesn't need the Bond theme, and that's a very impressive feat! In fact, I'm a little bit disappointed that "You Know My Name" didn't become a secondary recurring theme for Craig's Bond the way "007" was in the Barry days. Casino Royale is a spectacular Bond score, and would also be a spectacular score and theme establishing an entirely new character or franchise.
3. Michael Giacchino: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
Michael Giacchino really upped his game in his second Mission: Impossible score. He made ample use of the Lalo Schifrin themes fans want to hear (“Mission: Impossible Theme” and “The Plot”), but also created a lot of riveting original music that felt like a logical expansion of those themes rather than something so contemporary it felt at odds with the classic material. Best of all were the localized variations on the main theme. I absolutely love the track, “Mood India,” a terrific piece of local flavor music that slowly morphs into a Bollywood take on the famous theme. Likewise, the Middle Eastern-flavored “A Man, A Plan, A Code, Dubai” subtly incorporates Schifrin material into the sort of epic local flavor music that characterized the best Bond scores of the Sixties and Seventies. And he even gives us a take on “The Plot” with a Russian chorus that sounds out of The Hunt For Red October for the Kremlin sequence!
4. Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
For Kingsman (review here), Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson went the opposite route from Daniel Pemberton on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. While he sought to intentionally avoid brassy Bondian bombast, they revel in it. While distinctly contemporary, this is an unrepentant pastiche of classic Bond scores, and quite a successful one at that. (If only the movie had been as good!) The epic sound does a lot to make the film’s budget-conscious setpieces feel bigger than they are, and tries its best to make digital mattes like the Kingsman underground hangar feel as spectacular as we wish they looked. The album is a great listen outside of the film itself that simply screams, “spy!”
5. Herbert Gronemeyer: A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Herbert Gronemeyer’s very contemporary score for this taut John le Carré thriller is another one that manages to say “spy” without the traditional musical vocabulary of the genre. It does so through its wonderfully downbeat tone (utterly appropriate for the le Carré material), which always makes me feel like it’s raining when I hear it out of the context of the movie, and with its impeccable sense of place. The score not only convey’s “Hamburg” very effectively; it specifically conveys the Muslim community within Hamburg when called upon to do so. Some of the more ambient tracks, like “Text from Jamal,” are downright Eno-esque. Gronemeyer's score is completely modern, but it's the perfect 21st century compliment to Sol Kaplan's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold soundtrack.
6. Ludovic Bource: OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006)
While I was initially disappointed (as with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) that this comedic Eurospy revival (review here) didn't make use of Michael Magne's infectious original OSS 117 theme, my disappointment was quickly mitigated by what an awesome job Ludovic Bource did capturing the spirit of the era in which the film is set. His score perfectly matches the mise-en-scene, special effects, fight choreography and all the other behind-the-scenes elements that meticulously recreate early 1960s filmmaking. The movie is a comedy, but the score plays things completely straight, as scores must in a successful parody. (Spy, Johnny English and Austin Powers all also delivered straight, good faith spy scores.) Even the scene in which star Jean Dujardin ends up flinging chickens at an opponent is scored earnestly—or at least in the manner of the era. With its hip, lounge-y vibe (my favorite cue is the ultra-chill "Froggy Afternoon"), North African local flavor and occasional legit action number, Bource most directly evokes Henry Mancini's Sixties Pink Panther music. It accompanies the film perfectly, and makes for a great listen on its own.
7. John Powell: Fair Game (2010)/Green Zone (2010)
Reflecting my own tastes, the majority of my choices on this list are deliberate throwbacks. But this pair of 2010 scores by Bourne composer John Powell ring with a thoroughly contemporary spy sound. Powell is the first composer to completely redefine what audiences think of as “spy music” since John Barry defined the sound to begin with in the Sixties. Both composers worked within a wide spectrum of sub-genres, from outlandish fantasy (You Only Live Twice in Barry’s case; Knight and Day for Powell) to grounded, serious action (From Russia With Love; the Bourne films) to gritty drama full of bureaucratic hurdles (The Ipcress File; Fair Game), applying their signature motifs across the board. While many great composers have worked in the spy genre over the last several decades (and some have experimented with totally different sorts of scores), no one has so exhaustively overhauled the sound of spy movies as Powell. Barry’s jazz-infused style remained the expected and accepted soundtrack of the genre up until the 2000s (when it may have been partially done in by George S. Clinton’s spot-on pastiche in the Austin Powers movies). Now it’s propulsive percussion–which offers somewhat less room for variation, but perfectly compliments the high-energy spy movies being made today–and Powell brings that in spades to Fair Game (review here) and Green Zone (review here), signaling “spy” to the audience as loudly as Barry-like trumpet flourishes did in the past.
VARGR contest code word: AMBER