‘Year of the Spy’ reflected in music award nominations

Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman

The Film Music Reporter today published a list of nominees for the World Soundtrack Awards. Musical work done during 2015’s “Year of the Spy” figures into some of the nominations.

Thomas Newman was nominated as film composer of the year for SPECTRE, the 24th James Bond film; Bridge of Spies, a historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg about the American lawyer who negotiated the release of U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers; and Finding Dory

Daniel Pemberton was nominated in the same category for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the movie based on the 1964-68 television series, Steve Jobs and Mal de pierres (From the Land of the Moon).

Other film composer of the year nominees were John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Carter Burwell.

There are also five nominees for best song written directly for a film. “Writing’s On The Wall,” used during SPECTRE’s main titles is one of the nominees. The song, co-written by performed by Sam Smith, won the Oscar for best song in February

The Spy Command’s final thoughts on ‘Year of the Spy’

BridgeOfSpies
Almost a year ago, this blog christened 2015 as the “Year of the Spy.” As the year draws to a close, this post looks back on that year with some final thoughts.

The blog didn’t write about all the movies discussed here. But the blog editor did see them all. The films listed are in order from best to worst. Actually, none of them was a stinker, so “worst” here is relative. Regardless, here we go.

Bridge of Spies: This wasn’t so much a spy movie as a film about the aftermath of espionage.

The Steven Spielberg-directed “biopic” starred Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan (1913-1970), the American lawyer who negotiated the release of U.S. U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets.

With any “based on true events” film, one should never view it as history. Regardless, it was very engrossing. Here, CGI is used to recreate Powers’ capture when his plane was shot down.

Hanks is an accomplished actor and, as usual, delivers a strong performance. This movie also is a milestone of a different sort. Spielberg had to rely upon a composer other than mostly retired John Williams. For this film, that was Thomas Newman.

Bridge of Spies is mostly a low-key drama. The stakes are large, but it doesn’t have the pyrotechnics of the typical action film. This is exactly what Newman excels at. His score is perfect for the movie — and also points out his weakness at another prominent movie on this list.

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The return of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin after a 32-year absence was a financial failure, despite a modest $75 million production budget.

The Guy Ritchie-movie took liberties with the source material. Henry Cavill’s Solo was, more or less, the same character that Robert Vaughn played in the 1964-68 series but his back story was quite different. Ritchie took more liberties with Armie Hammer’s Kuryakin, who had a far darker side than David McCallum’s original.

Still, it mostly worked, even if it relied on an “origin” story line. It had a strong opening, downshifted to a decent middle section, then went into high gear in its second half. Once main villain Victoria (Elizabeth Debecki) calls Cavill by “Mr. Solo,” the proceedings accelerated until the end.

One of the strengths of the movie is Daniel Pemberton’s score. The composer was instructed by Ritchie NOT to emulate John Barry’s 007 movie style and that advice pays off.

The chances of a sequel are remote. That’s show biz. But the movie wasn’t camp (a fear of long-time U.N.C.L.E. fans). Perhaps, in coming years, this movie might attain the status of a “cult classic.”

SPECTRE poster

SPECTRE poster

SPECTRE:  The 24th James Bond film started out strong as it sought to mix “traditional” 007 movie elements with Daniel Craig’s 21st century grittier take. For the first two-thirds, it succeeded.

Yet, in its desire to top 2012’s Skyfall, some things went awry. The same writers of Skyfall (John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) worked on this year’s Bond film. Their roles, however, were reversed.

Until now, Purvis and Wade — who are very familiar with Ian Fleming’s original novels and short stories — would do the early drafts while another writer (Logan in the case of Skyfall) would come in and polish things up.

In this case, Logan did the early drafts. Purvis and Wade weren’t even supposed to participate. However, Logan’s efforts were found lacking — something that likely wouldn’t have been known had it not been for computer hacking at Sony Pictures, which exposed behind-the-scenes details of many movies, including SPECTRE. Also, playwright Jez Butterworth (who did uncredited polishes on Skyfall) apparently did more on SPECTRE because he got a credit with the other scribes.

Thomas Newman, who did such a splendid job on Bridge of Spies, is only serviceable here, even recycling some of his Skyfall score in some scenes. Clearly, doing a Bond film is NOT in the talented composer’s wheelhouse.

Regardless of the soap opera, SPECTRE ran out of gas. Its final third wasn’t a total loss but it didn’t sustain the momentum of the first two-thirds. As a result, this blog puts SPECTRE behind U.N.C.L.E., which finished much stronger.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation's teaser poster

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’s teaser poster

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation: The fifth Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film had its own behind-the-scenes soap opera.

The movie was originally scheduled to debut Dec. 25. But Paramount abruptly moved up the release date to July 31, presumably to get it out of harm’s way from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Presumably, that had to add extra stress to screenwriter-director Christopher McQuarrie. Directors almost always want more time to tinker with a movie in editing, not less.

Regardless, from a box office standpoint, it was an astute move. It definitely hurt the U.N.C.L.E. movie (which came out two weeks later). And the movie was well received, encouraging Paramount to order up another film.

Technically, the movie was very exciting. Star (and producer) Cruise probably scares studio bosses by insisting on doing his own stunts. This blog drops the movie down a step because it’s not as much of a Mission: Impossible movie as its predecessor, the Brad Bird-directed Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.

The original M:I series (1966-73) was very much about team work. Ghost Protocol very much followed that path (even reworking some bits from the show, albeit in a bigger and more spectacular fashion). Rogue Nation was a step backward. It was another example of turning M:I into The Tom Cruise Show.

Kingsman: The Secret Service: If this movie had sustained its first half for the rest of the film, it probably would have been the best spy movie of the year.

It didn’t. In the first half of the movie, one of the best scenes in the first half is where Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) says, “Manners maketh man,” before he clobbers some British thugs. But director Matthew Vaughn conveniently forgets that advice. Once Harry is killed midway throught he film, the movie dies a bit with him.

There’s still a decent amount worth watching (and the movie was a hit, especially with international audiences). Still, whatever class was present disappears into the mist.

Taken 3: The final (we hope) of Liam Neeson’s adventures as a former spy does everything it’s supposed to do — but no more. In this installment, the wife of Neeson’s Bryan Mills has been killed and he’s been framed. Of course, he’ll get out it. The question is how.

A few thoughts about the U.N.C.L.E. Blu Ray

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

The blog made an preliminary examination of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Blu Ray disc which went on sale today. Some random observations:

Some interesting content in the extras: For example, one of the extras shows how some of the stunts were performed. In an early sequence, Gaby (Alicia Vikander) and Solo (Henry Cavill) are in a car which Gaby appears to be driving. For much of the sequence, there was a stunt driver in a cage atop the car. There was also judicious use of “green screen” CGI.

Technology: In the original series, Sam Rolfe, who scripted the U.N.C.L.E. pilot, said he wanted the tech to be about 15 year ahead of what was available at the time. During the original show, the tech went beyond that, including vaporizers and mind-reading machines. Meanwhile, in one of the extras, co-scripter and co-producer Lionel Wigram said the idea in the movie was to keep the tech as close to the early 1960s as possible.

A bittersweet line: Also in the extras, Armie Hammer says he hopes the movie will lead to more U.N.C.L.E. film adventures. Given how the movie flopped, that’s not likely to happen.

Lens flares: Director Guy Ritchie appeared to adopt a visual signature of fellow director J.J. Abrams, particularly in the opening sequence in East Berlin and later when Solo is tortured by a former Nazi. But there’s even more of the visual technique through much of the movie.

Oops: At the 38:44 mark, you can see very faint shadow of a boom microphone on the door to Illya’s hotel room in Rome when Solo comes calling. To be honest, the Spy Commander missed this detail the five times he saw the movie in the theater. But it’s the kind of thing you can catch up with when you can pause and rewind.

“Have the chair warmed up”: This line was used twice, albeit in subtitles, and foreshadows a sequence when Solo is tortured by the former Nazi. Again, the kind of thing that’s easier to catch when you can pause and rewind.

Daniel Pemberton’s score: Still one of the best things about the movie. Director Ritchie didn’t want to mimic a John Barry James Bond score and it was one of the best decisions he made.

The Jerry Goldsmith U.N.C.L.E. theme: Ritchie really, really didn’t want it in the movie and Pemberton barely placed a few notes in it. In the end, it really wouldn’t have mattered to throw the original U.N.C.L.E. fans a bone and include it in the end titles.

It’s still one of the best entries in 2015’s “Year of the Spy.” Yes, it changed the back stories of Solo and Illya. Still, the movie got the most of its relatively modest $75 million production budget.

 

REVIEW: Guy Ritchie adds an edge to U.N.C.L.E.

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

Director Guy Ritchie, after stripping out some familiar memes from his version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., adds in some edge that often wasn’t present in the 1964-68 television series.

It mostly works, although things don’t really kick in until the film’s second half. The first half is a little flat.

The proceedings get reinvigorated when Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo finds himself in peril starting at the midway point of the movie. From that point on, both Cavill and Armie Hammer’s version of Illya Kuryakin get more traction. Make no mistake. The movie remains light and breezy, but there’s a feeling of increased stakes.

The second half also is when Hugh Grant’s Waverly, a cagey British spymaster, starts to have a slightly bigger role. Grant, who turned 53 when U.N.C.L.E. was in production, is decades younger than Leo G. Carroll was when he played Waverly in the series. But Grant’s version is just as manipulative, if not more so, than the original.

Ritchie, who co-wrote the script with Lionel Wigram, essentially tore down the original show. No secret headquarters, no vast worldwide organization. Even if a sequel is made, it’s doubtful any of that would make a comeback in a Guy Ritchie U.N.C.L.E. universe.

Instead, the writers emphasize the basic characters — Solo, Kuryakin and Waverly. Even here, there are notable differences from the show. Solo’s still a womanizer who likes the finer things in life, but has a back story of being an art thief. Kuryakin is given a back story even more at odds with the show (which had very little background for the character).

Ritchie also emphasizes the Cold War setting in a way the original didn’t. It’s the initial layer of edge added by the director. The story begins in East Berlin as Solo, here a CIA agent, is assigned to “extract” Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic whose estranged father is a missing nuclear scientist.

That’s the beginning of a long sequence where Solo and Gaby are pursued by the seemingly indestructible Kuryakin, here a KGB operative. Things move quickly and it holds the viewer’s interest.

By comparison, the rest of the first half, while not bogging down, doesn’t move as quickly. We get the set up.

A mysterious organization is close to building an atomic bomb. The U.S. and Soviet Union decide they have to work together. Solo and Kuryakin size each other up (an excuse to add more of the back story the screenwriters have devised). Gaby is to be part of the mission because she has an uncle who works for the company run by evil mastermind Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki).

Besides all that exposition, Ritchie is setting things up for the second half, but not in a straight forward way.

The director pays lip service to U.N.C.L.E.’s idea of having an “innocent” be part of the plot. Instead, it’s sleight of hand, introducing a complication that — stop me if you’ve heard this before — adds edge to the film.

Despite all the alterations in their backgrounds, Cavill and Hammer do provide recognizable versions of Solo and Kuryakin. Each one ups the other equally. Each saves the other’s life. They eventually do operate as a a team.

Once Solo gets captured — and is being tortured by a former Nazi who’s pretty adept at it — the preliminaries are over and film gets down to business. Cavill is suitably suave and the British actor is convincing enough as an American who thinks his way out of trouble as much as he fights.

Hammer’s Kuryakin, or rather “Edgier Illya,” is falling for Gaby and Hammer does fine taking advantage of those scenes. “Edgier Illya” has more than a few psychological problems, and Hammer gets to play with that also.

For those who’ve never seen the original series, there really isn’t a need to catch up before seeing the film. For fans of the show, the ones who accept the film as an alternative reality will like it just fine.

One of the highlights of the movie is Daniel Pemberton’s score. It’s more Lalo Schifrin than John Barry, but that fits with Ritchie’s alternate universe U.N.C.L.E.

Some notes, mostly for fans of the show. Norman Felton (1913-2012), the executive producer of the series, is credited as an “executive consultant.” Sam Rolfe (1924-1993), who developed the series and was its first-season producer, receives no credit. Meanwhile, the 1965 Hugo Montenegro arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme is heard for *maybe* five seconds when Solo is checking radio stations while in a truck.

Also, for James Bond fans, a character gets to share the name of a minor villain in Thunderball, although here it’s spelled Count Lippi.

Finally, the end titles show dossiers of the principal characters. It’s an effect similar to, but more subtle than, the little scenes that occur in the end titles of Marvel Studios movies. Fans of the show will likely want to review them to see even more differences, particularly with Waverly’s.

For the Spy Commander, the movie was a tossup in the first half, but the second charged things up. GRADE: B-Plus.

Daniel Pemberton: U.N.C.L.E. score avoids 007 sound

Daniel Pemberton's Twitter icon

Daniel Pemberton’s Twitter icon

Composer Daniel Pemberton said that director Guy Ritchie wanted The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie score to avoid the James Bond film sound.

Also, in an interview with The Spy Command, Pemberton said Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to the original 1964-68 television series is present in the film, but only makes a cameo appearance.

Pemberton joins a long list of U.N.C.L.E. composers, including Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin, who scored two episodes and did the second-season arrangement of Goldsmith’s theme.

Pemberton’s U.N.C.L.E. score received a rave review July 29 on the Films on Wax website, which said the score included “wonderful music that is a hell of a lot of fun.”

Here’s the text of the interview.

SPY COMMANDER: How did you become involved in scoring The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?

PEMBERTON: I’d just finished the Ridley Scott film The Counselor and as a result there was a bit more interest in me as a composer suddenly. I had a meeting at Warner Bros. in the US and they mentioned that Guy (Ritchie) was doing U.N.C.L.E. I was a big fan of the idea so they asked me to get a showreel together.

So I did that but I didn’t think my reel was actually that good. It certainly wasn’t ‘Hollywood slick’ — it had a load of crazy stuff I’d done for TV and video games more than my movie scores. This, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Basically, Guy had heard pretty much every showreel in Hollywood and he was fed up because he said they all sounded the same. Mine was the only one that sounded different apparently. So we had a meeting, I hung out on set and was offered the job. Wowzers.

QUESTION: You’re on record as being a fan of Lalo Schifin. How would you describe the influence Schifrin had on your work?

PEMBERTON: I really love Lalo’s stuff. I actually met him when I was 21 and interviewed him for a magazine called The Wire. He was such a charming guy. Kinda weird when I think about it now — I am a fellow U.N.C.L.E. composer! I would have never have guessed at the time.

I think it was the mix of great grooves and musicality mixed with all that exotic instrumentation of those scores of his that really connected with me. One of my fav cues was always ‘Jim On The Move’ from the M:I TV series. It had such a cool piano solo. I made sure we got one track on the U.N.C.L.E. album (Escape From East Berlin) that had a crazy keyboard solo on it — you can’t beat ’em!

QUESTION: The original U.N.C.L.E. series included scores by a number of talented composers. Did you research the series any before doing your score for the U.N.C.L.E. movie?

Not that much. I saw a few and was familiar with some of the music already. There’s that slightly ouch one (Spy Commander note: The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV movie in 1983) where George Lazenby turns up but they obviously can’t call him James Bond so they come up with all these slightly amusing ways to insinuate that yes, it’s James Bond and not basically George Lazenby in a tuxedo. But Guy wanted a fresh take on it so it wasn’t a vital part of the process. I wanted to respect what I thought were the cool aspects of the series musically but give them a new twist rather than slavishly replicate them, as I think any composer of the time would have done as well.

QUESTION:  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie is a period piece, set in the 1960s. Did you do any research concerning the ’60s before scoring the movie?

PEMBERTON: Oh yeah. Well I had been a massive fan of all the ’60s spy scores anyway growing up so there wasn’t a lot of research to do on that front. I’d already done it. But in terms of getting a really great authentic ’60s sound, yes I did tons.

I hooked up with a great engineer and mixer at Abbey Road called Sam Okell. Sam is basically a complete gear nerd and is really into 1960s recording processes. So we did tons of research on those. What would be cool? Which ones are worth spending the time on and which ones could we do better now?

We used so much great gear — old REDD mixing desks (look it up!) which are these insane mixers that look like they are from a Soviet nuclear facility. You’d record stuff through them and it would sound fantastic. We did stuff down to tape, even used the echo chamber room in Abbey Road to get reverb on a few tracks.

I also did lots of research into getting the sounds right. I remember really loving the bass sound on Serge Gainsbourg’s Melody Nelson album and by a really weird coincidence a friend of mine is married to Jane Birkin’s brother. He’s this hive of info on everything and he had a load of stuff about the recording process on that album in his giant shed. So I said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and sat down with that for quite a while!

Also the musicians would bring their own spin on things. The flute we used was actually the one from The Jungle Book. Dave the flautist had bought it off the guy years ago. We also hired in a great 1960s Harpsichord. I would totally buy one for myself if it wasn’t for the fact that within about three hours it was out of tune. The tuner had gone home and we were running out of time on a cue and I was like, ‘Shit!! We have to get this done before the tuning just totally goes!!’

QUESTION: How is The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie different than James Bond films?

PEMBERTON: I’d say U.N.C.L.E. has a bit more of a heart to it in a way. I love Bond so much but it’s very aggressive in some respects. With U.N.C.L.E. I think there’s a bit more warmth and also a bit more lightness. With this film we definitely played against the action in a number of places whereas with Bond it would be played very straight.

Guy was very insistent it DIDN’T sound like Bond which I think is the template for any sort of spy cliche these days. So that was good. It meant we probably didn’t use as much brass as I originally thought we would but I think it gives our film a very different sonic palette. There’s one cue ‘Into The Lair’ which Guy was like, ‘It’s a bit Bondy – but I’ll let you have it,’ as it was all the big tremolo strings John Barry was so great at.

I think with Bond one of its greatest strengths and also weaknesses is the template for the sound is so mapped out. You know what you’re going to get pretty much before you even see the film. Whereas with U.N.C.L.E. I think you have no idea. Which is fun because it means you can always pull the odd surprise — like the screaming buggy chase cue — out of the bag! For me, I love it when a film score surprises you..

QUESTION: Were there any surprises once you started work on the U.N.C.L.E. movie?

I think originally I imagined it to be more thematic and traditional score based. But it soon became apparent Guy wanted to do it differently and make the cues more like stand alone tracks. Which, once I’d worked that out, was great!

It was a very very long process. I worked alongside the edit right from the beginning which is fantastic in that you can really help influence the movie and write original music rather than copy temp, but also very, very intense. I would actually write multiple ideas for every scene. Every scene I probably scored in about three, four or five different ways.

Guy wanted to try everything out he could. He has an amazing editor called James Herbert who is also brilliant at coming up with ideas and they would just be thrown at me all the time. So I had to work really really fast and make things appear out of nowhere, sometimes in an evening. But the end result is so good it’s a process I would definitely go through again. I am up for U.N.C.L.E. 2, 3 and so on if they do them!

QUESTION: Besides Lalo Schifrin, are there any other composers you’d consider an influence?

Oh so many. OK here we go with just some random names: John Barry, Edwin Astley, Ennio Morriconne, Serge Gainsbourg, Nina Rota, Francis Lai, Quincy Jones, Jerry Goldsmith, The Beatles, erm this could go on for ages…

QUESTION: Were you able to incorporate Jerry Goldsmith’s U.N.C.L.E. theme into your score?

Ah! The million dollar question! I was keen to get it in somewhere and for a while it was at the end of the film. But a lot of people — and I think these were people and an audience who were not familiar with its history — felt it didn’t feel right for the tone of the rest of the film. They didn’t know the track or recognize it.

Guy was very keen for this to be a fresh new take on U.N.C.L.E. and you have to respect his vision as a director on that. But I was still keen we got it in there somewhere as Jerry is one of the greats and I know the fans would want it.

At one stage, we had a couple of the bad guys whistling it — I’d recorded it in a session and everything. But that got ditched. It was last minutes before we hit the sound stage and I was bemoaning the fact it wasn’t in there at all to James the editor and he came up with a genius idea — the radio!

There’s a scene where Solo switches stations on a radio. So we got one of the stations playing the Hugo Montenegro version. He hears it but decides, this time, it’s not for him and changes the station. So I like that because this is a new Solo, a new U.N.C.L.E., but there’s a homage in there to the past — it’s really like a musical cameo rather than a starring role.

And put it this way — you can go rewatch The Avengers or The Saint which both really got the theme in there but were, for me, somewhat suspect films. Or you can just absorb the fun of this film because I think everyone has done a great job. SO yeah do the last one..!

Note from the Spy Commander: Daniel Pemberton’s current project is scoring the film Steve Jobs.

Some U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack titles of note

Daniel Pemberton's Twitter icon

Daniel Pemberton’s Twitter icon

Film Score Reporter published details about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie’s soundtrack IN A JULY 14 POST. Included was a list of tracks that caught our eye.

The soundtrack, which is due out Aug. 7, a week before the movie, contains both Daniel Pemberton’s score and some vintage 1960s songs. The Spy Commander’s attention was drawn to some of the track titles from the composer’s work. What follows are those tracks, including where they appear on the album.

3. His Name Is Napoleon Solo: When Pemberton was recording the score last year, he tweeted a picture of the sheet music, including this title.

4. Escape From East Berlin: The guess here is part of this track appears on the five-minute trailer for the movie shown at the San Diego Comic Con.

6. Mission: Rome: Pemberton is a fan of Lalo Schifrin. This title suggests an homage to Schifrin’s best-known television theme, Mission: Impossible.

Schifrin also composed the scores for two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series as well as doing the second-season arrangement for Jerry Goldsmith’s U.N.C.L.E. theme.

7. The Vinciguerra Affair: This refers to the lead villain (Elizabeth Debicki). But it also appears to be an homage to the original 1964-68 series, where each episode’s title had “Affair” as part of the title.

13. Breaking Out (The Cowboy Escapes): It’s known from the trailers that Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) calls Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) “cowboy.” Presumably, this track title is referring to Solo.

The television series didn’t have a true soundtrack album while it was in production. Instead, Hugo Montenegro did new arrangements of music from the series in two albums. A true U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack didn’t occur until music journalist Jon Burlingame produced special edition soundtracks in the 2000s.

Now, if someone, ANYONE, can tell us if the Jerry Goldsmith U.N.C.L.E. theme appears in the movie (even if it’s just int he end titles), the Spy Commander would appreciate it.

One U.N.C.L.E. composer wishes another happy birthday

Composer Lalo Schifrin celebrates his 83rd birthday today. One up-and-coming composer, Daniel Pemberton, took to Twitter to send a birthday greeting:

Schifrin is best known for composing the theme for Mission: Impossible as well as scores for such movies as Bullitt.

However, he also composed scores for two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and his arrangment of Jerry Goldsmith’s U.N.C.L.E. theme was used for that show’s second season (1965-66). Pemberton — born in 1978, a decade after the series went off the air — composed the score for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie that’s coming out in mid-August.

Separately, Amazon.com has started taking pre-orders FOR THE U.N.C.L.E. MOVIE SOUNDTRACK, to be released on Aug. 7. It’s listed as “various artists.” However, Pemberton sent A TWEET EARLIER THIS MONTH that he was involved with production of the soundtrack album.