Music in film: The Master and Skyfall

Feature Ivan Radford 14 Nov 2012 - 09:35

As two of the year’s biggest films hit cinema screens, Ivan examines the soundtracks to The Master and Skyfall…

How do you sum up a nation in a single piece of music? Jonny Greenwood did an excellent job of it in There Will Be Blood, composing a sparse country of unease, greed and determination. The Master conjures up that same sense of unease – and then plays with it like a puppet.

"America," screams the opening chord, a happy few seconds of harmony and belief. Then, something happens. Other notes come creeping out, violins and flutes clashing and questioning that powerful chord. The confidence gives way to uncertainty and the orchestra falls to pieces. It’s like the whole of the US tuning up before the main show. And there you have it: the sound of post-war America encapsulated in about 30 seconds.

That’s the kind of scale you can expect from Jonny Greenwood’s score. A perfect match for Paul Thomas Anderson, the two writers have an eerie knack for epic, sprawling and ambitious compositions. And while the movie itself may leave some viewers frustrated, or even bored, the music’s ambition pays off in dividends.

Combining Greenwood’s traditional discord with America’s familiar standards, The Master’s score is a graceful balance of nostalgia and confusion. And it sure knows how to pick ‘em. Slap Ella Fitzgerald on any soundtrack and you instantly evoke of a bygone era, but The Master is about the lyrics as well as the tunes; the words of Get Thee Behind Me Satan carry the kind of subtle meaning usually reserved for the end credits of Mad Men.

A few tracks later, we hear Freddy (Joaquin Phoenix)’s old flame, Doris, singing Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, an a capella number that moves from strong to vulnerable as her wavering voice is undercut, then swamped, by flutes singing their own repeating riff; in the film, that scene is distorted by The Master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) humming over the top, seeping into Freddy’s memories. Here, Greenwood exacts the same undermining effect. The flutes play the same three chromatic notes over and over, never going anywhere. That intrusive loop bleeds into the next track, Atomic Healer, only to be followed by a second flute, which adds its own pattern. They go at it for 83 seconds, a bewildering din that sounds like Ron Burgundy after one too many scotches. By the end, your ears have no idea what’s going on, but it’s creepy as heck.

It’s a superb demonstration of Greenwood’s use of rhythm and isolated instruments to unsettle a listener. But the Radiohead guitarist, like the recovering 1950s America, is only just tuning up. The main show? A track called Able-Bodied Seamen (a direct quote from Freddy). On-beat chords drive the tune forwards, a low fifth that leaves a gap for Greenwood to slowly fill in.

Offbeat wood blocks directly challenge that first rhythm, a manual metronome that fits Freddy’s practical description of himself. But then everything switches. On-beat becomes offbeat. Quavers become semi-quavers. Pairs become triplets. You start trying to count the notes, to find the pattern, but it never stays the same. All the while, wild clarinets distract you, fluttering around your head so you only have that spiraling bass riff to cling onto.

It may look like the secret of The Master’s control stems directly from his impressive moustache, but the music is where the real hypnosis happens. And Greenwood keeps that hypnotic tone going all through the album. Tracks such as Alethia seduce you with its rising and falling organ motif, and that unsettling opening chord comes back to haunt you several times.

The whole album is a bizarre collection of wrong notes that might take some getting used to, but the sound of The Master is enthralling, impressive stuff. Greenwood has the reach and scope to capture an entire country adrift, but the strength comes from its narrow, psychological focus; the noise of one man’s stranded mind as The Master takes it apart bit by bit to see what makes it tick, then puts it back together again in a different order.

There Will Be Blood’s score raised eyebrows when it didn't get an Oscar nod back in 2008 because it reused other bits of music. The Master’s musical powers of persuasion could see it win the whole contest. Just make sure you never listen to it while operating heavy machinery.

Skyfall

By the time the world has stopped singing about Adele's apple crumble, the new Bond score has already been and gone - a fleeting effort with little to make it stick in the mind. Not even a hot pudding. It's a tough job to write the 23rd Bond score. With 22 before you, where's left to go? To his credit, Thomas Newman comes up with an answer. It's just not always a good one.

The whole album's tone is set from the first few bars of the opening number, Grand Bazaar, Istanbul: a brassy chord, full of 007 promise, which then splutters into a load of electric guitar. A taste of Bond, shaken, not stirred, into something else entirely.

From then on, it’s mostly a digital show. Synths push the tracks along, while guitars carry the tune instead of the orchestra. It's the kind of electronic-heavy composition that brings to mind two ominous words: Eric Serra. Fortunately, Sam Mendes' regular collaborator brings more depth to his score than GoldenEye’s disappointing effort.

Grand Bazaar wins points for its native percussion, which keeps the Bond flavour alive, but while it captures the geographical vibe well enough, where’s the tune? Compared to African Rundown, David Arnold’s opening to Casino Royale, it’s surprising how unmemorable this is. The brass section finally turns up near the end, introducing the 007 theme, but the rhythm always seems to take priority over the melody – a trend that continues for a lot of the film.

When Newman was announced as the Skyfall composer, it was obvious that the man behind American Beauty could handle the quieter moments. Tracks such as Voluntary Retirement have gorgeous long phrases, as French Horns hover on the peak of Bond’s iconic three-note riff before uneasily stepping down a semitone. But even that’s over swiftly: one minute in and the electronic instruments arrive again, turning everything into a world of tuned percussion and guitars.

The sound works well enough, particularly on New Digs, which suits the technology theme of the film’s plot; you could listen to that going into work in the morning and feel just like Tanner at MI5. The question is whether that’s what you want from a Bond score. Should it be a John Barry fest, symphonic and tuneful, or should it be something else?

Thomas Newman certainly manages the something else. Heavily building on his work on The Debt, his plucking riffs and dynamic pacing are solid complements to Skyfall’s action. Shanghai Drive’s distorted loops are atmospheric, repeating Voluntary Retirement’s two-chord shift, but it doesn’t feel like 007, or even that distinctive. Jellyfish and Silhouette almost border on Hans Zimmer with their furious low arpeggios, loud timpani, and trumpets jumping minor thirds. But just as things start to become bland, the score gives way to a pretty spell of piano – this is where Newman finally shines through.

That’s the irritating thing about Skyfall. Despite the score’s inconsistencies, there are parts where Newman nails the balance between his own voice and the franchise, delivering on the promise shown in WALL-E’s Rogue Robots or Lemony Snicket’s Hurricane Herman. Day Wasted gives Monty Norman's chord sequence a modern spin, reverberating it round a guitar. Someone Usually Dies lends it a quavering tremor we haven’t heard before. The Bloody Shot (the opening’s other, better, track) boldly holds on one note for 10 seconds as trumpets pile on top of each other in a brilliant crescendo. Brave New World and Severine even offer a brief taste of romance, giving moments to both the harp and the cellos.

All those flourishes come together on Komodo Dragon, the most Bondy track on the album. As Daniel Craig sails into a Shanghai casino, Newman adds swooning strings, brooding brass and a splash of the 007 theme. But what really makes the track work is the way it incorporates an inverted version of Adele’s tune. What Bond scores have always done well is integrate the title song into the mix. Skyfall does it rarely.

The titular 23rd track on the album, where you might expect it most of all, conveys all the loneliness of the Scottish highlands, but seems to have no connection with the rest of the soundtrack at all. That lack of a consistent theme only adds to the jarring atmosphere; those two repeated chords from Voluntary Retirement come back again and again, but it’s not quite enough to hold the score together.

The result is an uneven album that, like the film, is bold enough to take Bond in a new direction. The frustrating thing is that for half of the time, it manages it beautifully. The other half risks becoming forgettable corridor-walking music. And whether you want your 007 music to sound like Barry or not, that’s a slight shame.

As reports circulate of John Logan and Daniel Craig both jumping on board the next 007 outing, it leaves you with one question: who should get the Bond baton next? Newman again? Alexandre Desplat? Alberto Iglesias?

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