This is why I miss theme tunes…
Anyone that knows me or survives the end of each Bond & Beyond review knows I’m a bit of a soundtrack nut.
They’re pretty much all I listen to, whether from films, TV or video games. Films tend to offer the grander, more memorable soundtracks thanks to the bigger budgets and a pace set by the editing of each scene (as opposed to the more fluid nature of games music, which often has to match the player’s actions).
However, film scores have become less memorable in recent years due to the shift away from something I believe is fairly crucial: theme tunes.
There is a whole video essay about this in relation to the Marvel films, starting with a point I’ve been making to those who will listen to me for a while. It’s this simple: hum James Bond’s theme tune. Now do Indiana Jones. Superman, circa 1978. Batman, circa 1960s. The A-Team. The Ghostbusters. Axel Foley. Easy, right?
Now hum the theme for Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America, or any other MCU hero. For Katniss Everdeen. Any of the current, gritty DC superheroes. Unless you’re even more of a soundtrack nerd than me (or, failing that, the composer), you can’t.
Now I understand that cinema has moved away from distracting dittys and nana nana nana nana batmans in favour of more emotional, less intrusive music, but sometimes that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes it leaves films, and particularly action sequences, lacking a certain… vigour.
Take a look at this scene from Skyfall (skip to 1m22 if you want to get to the bit I’ll be talking about) and really listen to the music.
The score is played up for tension, dramatically ramping up to instil a sense of danger and imminent death. It’s designed to make you worry about Bond, about whether he’ll survive the jump or lose his tastier. The marching beat evokes the idea of time running out.
It’s not a bad way to score the moment by any means. In fact, it’s one of the few standout, recognisable moments on the soundtrack – but it’s undermined by a couple of things. First, the cuff-straightening landing in the carriage was all over the trailer, TV spots and other marketing footage so we already know Bond survives. Secondly, it’s the opening 15 minutes of a two-hour film – we know he’ll survive because we’ve still got 105 minutes to go.
Now watch it as edited by YouTube user JBRescore2011 (skip to 55s for the main bit).
Completely different tone, and I’d argue a much more rousing one.
By using the classic theme tune, all power shifts to Bond. The digger-turned-bridge evolves from a desperate and risky act to a calculated move, matching the determination on Bond’s face. The whole scene goes from interesting stunt to almost iconic setpiece.
As soon as the classic guitar riff begins, seasoned Bond fans – and even newcomers – know something cool is going to happen. It swaps tension and anxiety within the audience for anticipation and excitement. James Bond is the hero, he’s about to do something heroic – and this version doesn’t downplay that.
This is the type of moment we have been denied through the lack of theme tunes. This is why it’s increasingly hard to get notably excited by Iron Man’s entrance, every Captain America fight or Katniss’ incredible archery skills. Okay, it might not suit the tone of the latter – and indeed shouldn’t be shoehorned into every action film. But there are plenty of current blockbusters that would benefit from more liberal use of a heroic theme tune, not only complimenting but enhancing the actions of our silver screen icons and heightening the audience’s experience of these signature moments.