At one point in time, the idea of a James Bond film without a John Barry score must have been a hard concept to grasp. Although the first film to feature the character – Dr. No – had a score by Monty Norman (arranged by Barry) the composer took hold of the spectacular spy series and defined a sound that would be influential for decades to come. Big brass strokes, lush strings, violent percussion, Barry’s music was both copied and parodied in hundreds of films, and still is to this day. He is the unmistakeable sound of 007.
But what about the others?
As Sean Connery retired (at least officially), Barry also left Bond, albeit temporarily. After making it through six films, he gave up the baton for a new composer to briefly take the mantle. And while it wouldn’t be until Pierce Brosnan’s tenure that someone other than Barry would have a regular spot as composer for the Bond series, several high-profile figures from the music world had a go at creating a new sound for Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But how did they do?
Well, really Mr. Bond: For Your Eyes Only (1981)
As you saw in our last installment, 007 was supposed to return to work for MI6 in For Your Eyes Only, at least according to the credits at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me. Unfortunately, between 1977 and 1981, something got in the way, namely Star Wars. Just like everyone else in the film industry at that time, Albert Broccoli decided that George Lucas wasn’t to have outer space all to himself and immediately ordered a change of plans. Instead of going with Eyes, Bond’s overseer decided the next film would be based on the second James Bond novel, Moonraker. Because the film was not made in the UK, John Barry – who was a tax exile – was able to compose and record the score in Paris.
However, when it came to finally produce For Your Eyes Only after Moonraker, the production returned to England and Barry was unavailable. To replace him, Broccoli looked to a composer who had already made his name providing music for one man against the odds. That man was Rocky Balboa and the composer was Bill Conti. By ’81, Conti had already composed scores for Rocky and Rocky II, and would go onto composing Rocky III directly after Eyes, as well as The Right Stuff. While an established and respected composer, Conti had a popular music style that fit like a glove with the Rocky movies, but added a little bit of controversy when it came to scoring James Bond’s exploits, especially as it invoked the dreaded D-word: disco.
For Your Eyes Only marked a different approach for 007; less concerned with the special effects of the previous three movies, it had Bond using his wits rather than his gadgets, and the plot was relatively simple. A ship containing the A.T.A.C. (Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator), a macguffin designed to control the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet, is sunk in the Ionian sea. Bond is ordered to retrieve the unit before the Russians do, and runs into the vengeance-seeking daughter of a family asked to find the ship’s salvage. This of course quickly escalates into all sorts of shenanigans including ski chases and keelhauling before climaxing atop a monastery (the film, not Bond).
Directed by former editor John Glen and taken from a few different Ian Fleming stories, For Your Eyes Only is not a great film. It tries to go for the back to basics feel but conceptually this is in conflict with Roger Moore’s Bond, so when he’s given scenes when he has to murder in cold blood – for example, a villain’s car perches perilously on the side of a cliff face and Bond kicks the car making it tumble down – and it seems uncomfortable and unnecessary, something that may not have been the case with Sean Connery. The action scenes are pretty slow; the climactic cliff climb is nicely tense but there are car and submarine chases that seem positively geriatric.
Bill Conti’s score has been criticised on many occasion for providing a cheesy discofied backdrop to the film, and it’s hard to disagree in some ways. As is the norm, he sets his stall out with the gunbarrel, with the thickest bassline and a disco beat but it doesn’t sound terrible. What is dreadful is the pre-credits sequence and the music underscoring it. After a brief prelude in a cemetary where Bond lays flowers at Teresa’s grave (one of the few scenes that actually provide series continuity), 007 is trapped in a helicopter controlled via radio control by a bald guy with a white cat (legally they couldn’t use the official character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld). The scene only uses around a minute of score, but what is used is simply the cheesiest rendition of the Bond theme you’ll ever hear.
Thematically the score isn’t bad, and indeed the main title theme (also written by Conti) is lovely. And there are some wonderful moments where Conti is able to channel Barry and give us some little flourishes, mostly as establishing shots. But while melody is free and flowing in the score, the way it’s used is rather disappointing. Cheesy isn’t a word I like using as it tends to be a lazy way to dismiss things, but it’s probably the term that best fits Conti’s score. Now obviously we have to put this into context – the film was released in 1981, so we were still in the midst of the disco craze. To put this in perspective, a popular thing at the time was to release disco versions of soundtrack themes – right at that time you would have been able to go into a store and pick up Bob James’ theme from Star Trek – The Motion Picture, or Boris Midney’s The Empire Strikes Back. Match this up with Conti’s then contemporary pop style as evidenced in his Rocky scores, and you have some very inappropriate music.
Probably the most disappointing this is that whoever played the wah-wah pedal didn’t get credited in the opening titles. The pool scene is wall to wall wah-wah and solos, it’s so awesomely terrible, not to mention the horrendously to the point pop song ‘Make It Last All Night’ that also plays during the scene (lots of lyrics about being “inside me”). The Citroen 2CV chase again has maximum wah-wah, but at least it’s relatively propulsive. As mentioned earlier, the action scenes in the film are not quick and Conti doesn’t help with some laconic scoring. Sometimes this works, as in the tense climb to the monastery, other times it doesn’t (the submarine chase). And it’s not as if Conti is unable to pull it off, as the ski chase features a good use of percussion and piano, although it goes all cheesy again in the second half.
The thing is, it’s not terrible to listen away from the film. A thirty-five minute album was released by United Artists, and this was reissued in 2000 by Rykodisc with an extra twenty-five minutes of score (this album was reissued again in 2003 by Capitol Records). It’s a fun if uneven listen on its own, and there are some great individual moments, but the score just doesn’t fit the score. It may have worked with something like The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker where it was a bit more fantastical, but with the whole approach Broccoli and co took for For Your Eyes Only it just doesn’t really come off, which is a shame as Conti is a really underrated composer who would go on to win an Oscar two years later for The Right Stuff. But probably the worst thing for Conti is that he would be associated with a movie that ends with Maggie Thatcher getting chatted up over the phone by a parrot she thinks is James Bond.
Despite not being very good, For Your Eyes Only inevitably went on to break box office records and ensured 007’s legacy would continue. John Barry would return to the franchise for the next film, 1983’s Octopussy, and would stay for two further efforts with his last Bond score being 1987’s The Living Daylights. After that, the series would again take on an American composer, someone at the time who was in the midst of redefining the Hollywood action score: Michael Kamen, whose intense style would provide a satisfyingly explosive score for Bond’s most controversial effort yet. But all in good time, Mr Bond.