Bond: When movie music doesn't work

James Bond is iconic, just play the original theme by Monty Norman and everyone recognizes it. However, it's dated, from a time (1962) when swing orchestras were all the rage. Now, these orchestras are replaced with sampled sounds and updated beats.

Unfortunately, in the case of James Bond, the old sound updated doesn't work. The title track, by Jack White and Alicia Keys, was pre-released as part of a Coke Zero ad prior to the film release. This was to drive sales of coke and generate excitement for the film. But it's boring, repetitive, lacks development and sounds more like a cheap electronic pastiche of the Bond theme, rather than any attempt to create something new. It might be perfect for video game music, but now days even video game music is more sophisticated than the theme "Another way to die."

The music uses a hip hop technique for sampling sounds that incorporates the striking brass stabs of the 1960's style swing orchestra music and overlaying effects to create an even punchier sound. First, you record the three or four notes you want to incorporate. Take the recording and add compression, cutting off both the top and bottom ends so you get a really tight sound. Then equalize the sound to highlight some of the upper registers (to really make them crisp). When you're done, you have those same three to four notes, but when in the mix, they stand out as really bright. In hip hop, which is all about hyper-effected sounds, and sparkling music (think music with glitter), and this sort of sampled brass fits perfectly.

In the case of "Another way to die" the sample stands out, because what's running underneath it is bass and drums, very much like the original Norman theme - with some sampled synthetic strings replacing the original live ones. Because hip hop has so many layers, and all of it is effected, the brass stabs add, but don't jar with the rest of the music. In the White/Keys song they do.

To make matters worse, the stabs don't change, develop of do anything other than repeat. Beethoven's music develops the original motive as the piece progresses. Each time we hear the motive it has changed slightly. Schoenberg, in his book on music composition, discusses the importance of developing a theme (or motive) to add interest to the music. "Another way to die" doesn't develop the motive; it just repeats (and repeats and repeats). The result is a really boring theme, that doesn't fit with the James Bond image.

When I first hear the coke theme I thought, "this is horrible. They couldn't even accomplish half decent pastiche of the Bond theme. Coke spent a little money on the video game graphics and obviously nothing on the music. (The graphics are like something from a half baked video game and, like the music, not very well done.) Then, when I saw the film "Quantum of Solace" last night I realized it wasn't Coke that failed to spend money on creating a decent pastiche, it was the film producers who have no idea of the difference in the genre's of the music, that of the 1960's and of today.

The music in the rest of the film? Well, at least they keep it to a volume that doesn't intrude in the film. But I suppose, no composer ever expects to get an Oscar for a Bond film anyway, so no need to spend a lot of money hiring someone who is going to write good music, when bad music played at nearly inaudible levels works just as good (it doesn't, but that was obviously what the producers felt). Chris Lennertz is the composer and his film credits are anything but impressive. Some of his best work is in video games - and, again, it seems the video game market is where they were aiming this film.


jodru said…
""Another way to die" doesn't develop the motive; it just repeats (and repeats and repeats)."

Are you familiar with pop music at all? I don't mean that in a nasty way, but you are looking for a level of sophistication that isn't there. Instead of a 'motive', what they use is riffs, which don't generally repeat. The development you are looking for is all in the foreground material: vocal embellishments, instrumental solos, drum fills, etc.

And there is plenty of development of that material in the song. It's not the best Bond theme ever, but it's much more fully developed than you give it credit.
Chip Michael said…
Yes, I am familiar with pop music. I am using classical music terms for the development of the music, but pop music still uses many of the same techniques.

While taking a "pop" composition course during my undergraduate days, I was amazed at how much subtlety was put into a pop song in terms of development. Prior to the class I thought the music was basically strophic (verse-chorus) with no real development within a verse. But that's not the case at all. Often each 4 bar segment will be altered from the previous 4 bar segment to propel the music forward, even if the music within a given instrumental line doesn't change from segment to segment. It is this subtle change that is missing in the music.

Yes, there is vocal development, but over a VERY static accompaniment there is just not enough to hold interest. It could have been so much more if they'd only taken the time to develop some of the piece - like the brass stabs. A simple change of these stabs (even just changing the eq to give it a different sound) would have given a great deal of interest. Instead, they did what's called a "slash and burn" - a rough edit, bring the vocalists in to flourish over the top and call it good. It didn't take them a great deal of time or effort, and that is evident in the result.

Pop music, when done right, can be as complex and as interesting as classical music. The way development is done is different, but the effect is the same. The producers of "Another way to die" opted to not waste their time.

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