Sweeter Sound – Soundtracks that improve films

We’re starting a new feature series here at Vulture Hound. So, yes, this could be the only one of the series that ever exists. The ‘Sweeter Sounds’ series will look at those two conveniently paired senses sound + vision (do-do-do-do-do-do), music in films, specifically film soundtracks that were so good that they either helped elevate a film or surpassed it.

We may dip into a specific song here and there but for now we are concentrating on the whole soundtrack package and first up we will be looking at John Barry’s majestic score to ‘A View to A Kill’.

John Barry was the musical stalwart of the Bond franchise. As familiar to the series as Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny he scored 11 of the films and wrote the arrangement for the original Bond theme (although this fact remains murky at best, over the years Monty Norman has been credited).

Barry was the man who perfected the “Bond sound”. A rich mix of jazz horns, frantic guitar, lush strings. His soundtracks for ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ remain some of the most beautiful orchestral ever committed to the screen. It was amazing that after 9 films before “Kill” that Barry had managed to give each Bond score its own unique quality whilst firmly being recognizable as a James Bond soundtrack. ‘Octopussy’ which had proceeded ‘Kill’ is often regarded as one of the franchise’s weakest entries (it’s terrific fun though) but Barry’s music had been some of his most dynamic sounding in sometime. With ‘A View to a Kill’ he brought in something new to the Bond sound. Something many disliked, rock guitars.

Yes the Bond theme is an electric guitar but played very much in the surfer rock style big in the early 60s. With this soundtrack Barry finally seemed to acquiesce to popular music culture. This choice lead to a fresh sound fraught with danger and a brilliant pop title track by Duran Duran, which to this day holds the record for being the only Bond theme to reach No. 1 in the US. ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’ had flirted with a more pop sound but had ultimately retained the big-band Bond sound.

Duran Duran were the first pop act to have made a theme song at that point. The role had usually gone to singers with bombastic voices, your Tom Jones, your Shirley Bassey’s or the tenderer, Carly Simon, Sheena Easton. Word has it that Duran Duran bassist John Taylor approached Cubby Broccoli at a function and drunkenly offered the bands services. From there they created a funky but sprawling number which blends Barry’s orchestra with the bands industrial drums and general 80s – digital sounds. Talk of dancing into fires ensured a catchy if vague chorus, lifted by a far-away lift. The song shouldn’t really work but it does spectacularly. Every time I hear it I feel like I’m on the Golden Gate Bridge where the films climax takes place. The only unfortunate side-effect of the song was the god-awful video featuring the band flouncing around the Eiffel tower whilst clips of Roger Moore and Grace Jones are weaved in to look vaguely like their stories are connected. Then there’s some flying camera for some reason and an incredibly slap-able Simon Le Bon does a ‘Bond, James Bond’ related pun.

I’ve just realized I’ve been getting ahead of myself a little. I’ve not spoken about an essential part of this feature. The film itself. How silly. Well, ‘A View to a Kill’ was the 14th film in the franchise released in 1985. It was the last outing for Roger Moore who was 58 at the time of filming and sadly looks every day of it. Moore apparently was planning to leave three films previously making ‘Moonraker’ his last Bond but hefty paychecks guaranteed him for 3 more which they managed to squeeze out. Later Moore would say that he knew it was time to go when his Bond girl co-star’s mother was younger than him. The film features Christopher Walken in cackling, Bowie-looking mode as villain Max Zorin with Grace Jones as the plausibly tough henchwoman May Day. Walken once said that in every scene his motivation would be to silently ask his co-star “Look at my hair. What do you think of what they’ve done with my hair? Do you like my hair?” in reference to his bleached blonde bonce – a rare look for Walken. The film attempted to update Bond with stories of microchips and Silicon Valley but did so without ever actually getting into any computer specifics relying more on bunch ups on horseback, fire engine chases and almighty dust up on top of the Golden Gate Bridge. The film faired relatively poorly for a Bond at the box office. Some found the films US based plot uninvolving, the acting sub-par (to be fair Tanya Roberts love interest is useless) and Moore just too long in the tooth to be a watchable Bond. That being said it has remained for me a childhood favourite. From the opening Alaska set snowboarding chase, which admittedly does feature a bit of unforgivable “musical comedy” when The Beach Boys ‘California Girls’ plays as Bond boards down a mountain the music’s marching horns and percussion drive the action constantly toward some sense of impending danger, a perfect summation of James Bond as a series. The classic mix of horns and strings is sliced in two as the electric guitar pops up brining ‘A View to a Kill’ firmly up to date… in the mid 80’s.

The same theme runs throughout the film during the more action packed scenes. Piece names such as “He’s Dangerous” and “Golden Gate Fight” continue to build on the constantly drums into an almost shrill crescendo as the villain dies (I would say spoiler alert, but it’s Bond). What also sets the score apart are the quieter moments. When the film itself strives for drama and genuine emotion it fails under the weight of jokey script and hammy acting. The music though settles down to a single flute solo on the tracks “Bond Meets Stacey” and “Wine with Stacey”. A variation on the ‘Kill’ theme, the slowed down tempo and lonely flute renders the music almost heartbreaking. The sounds feel as though they should be under scoring a much more emotional scene from an entirely more dramatic film. Listen to it now, it will make you melt or cry. When the mournful strings are brought in it becomes almost grandiose.

Time hasn’t been kind to ‘A View to a Kill’ the film. I’ll still defend it to some degree though. The soundtrack though is a masterful mix of the classic James Bond formula whilst incorporating 80s trends, perhaps some synths may have been welcomed. John Barry created one of his masterpieces that deserves to mentioned along with his other classics like ‘Born Free’, ‘The Lion in Winter’ and ‘Dances With Wolves’.