I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. Igor Stravinsky.
Monty Norman died earlier this week at the age of 94. I am sure most of you are going, ‘Monty who?’ Which is hardly surprising. My reaction was no different. Then again, on reading his obituary and discovering that this was the man who composed the unforgettable signature theme music for the James Bond films, I sat up and took notice. The music was indelibly imprinted on my mind, but the composer was an unknown quantity. Which is often the way. People of my generation have lived with the James Bond theme since we were barely into our teens. Never mind if the screen Bond switched from Sean Connery to Roger Moore to Daniel Craig and a few other lesser mortals in between, Monty’s theme tune remained constant. There were a few songs as well, thrown into the mix of this famous franchise by the likes of Matt Monro (From Russia with Love), Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker), Paul McCartney (Live And Let Die) and more recently, Madonna (Die Another Day), Adele (Skyfall), Billie Eilish (No Time To Die) and several others too numerous to mention. Those of you who remember the very first James Bond film Dr. No (I watched it again recently on cable), will recall a popular calypso/reggae-inflected number, Underneath the Mango Tree, set in the sunny beaches of Jamaica. The credit for that composition also goes to the self-effacing Monty Norman. Lest we forget, many of us also devoured Ian Fleming’s Bond books, which attained glamour and an iconic status on the silver screen.
To get back to the main, unforgettable James Bond theme music, I was fascinated to learn that the composer, Monty Norman, while struggling to hit upon the idea for a tune, arrived at his jackpot theme from something he had composed much earlier but was put away in cold storage. At the time, he was invited to compose the music for a stage play based on V.S. Naipaul’s acclaimed novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, and he came up with this very Indian type of raga-based, bouncy melody – tabla and sitar thrown in for good measure. As it happens, for reasons unknown, the play never saw the light of day and the tune remained hidden; ‘born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air,’ as the poet Thomas Gray might have put it. The composer, our Monty, decided it was high time the tune received its due recognition. He unearthed the song from obscurity, reworked it completely and voila! History was made. Ironically, the Bond franchise, over the decades has been celebrated for a variety of different reasons but Monty Norman was never one of them – at least not in the glare of public limelight and it was only in his passing that his name has received its overdue accolades. The Monty(s) most people I checked with in India were aware of included the zany sitcom Monty Python, General ‘Monty’ Montgomery and even lesser-known English cricketer, the Sikh Monty Panesar. This despite the fact that the Monty under discussion was honoured with the Ivor Novello Award for the ‘James Bond Theme,’ used in the films’ opening sequences or most intense action scenes.
There is a spicy twist to this Monty tale. In London, the producers of the James Bond films decided to hire composer John Barry to rearrange Monty Norman’s original track. He tweaked it around a bit and over time Barry’s name became inextricably linked with the Bond sound and he was credited as its creator. Naturally, this did not sit well with Monty. Hackles raised, he approached the courts in 1997 to claim authorship of the work. In 2001, a jury returned a unanimous and popular verdict in his favour. Bully for him, say I. Credit where credit is due. I can express it no better than The Wall Street Journal’s correspondent, Marc Myers. ‘For millions of baby-boomer males who saw their first car chase and sex scene in a Bond film in the ’60s, the theme song stirs powerful psychological coals, flipping a primal switch as images of silencers, casinos, bikinis, gin and gadgets flood the male brain.’ Not forgetting the ‘medium dry vodka martini, lemon peel. Shaken, not stirred.’
While we remember the signal contribution of Monty Norman’s music to the James Bond franchise, I would like to take this opportunity to put together a brief and highly subjective selection of other movies where the theme music has, in my personal opinion, been truly stirring. I hasten to add that I am not talking songs here, just the music that the film has come to be inextricably associated with. These are not in chronological order. I am merely putting them down as it occurs to me. A kind of top-of-mind exercise, if you like. In keeping with my observations on Monty Norman and the Bond films, the composers of the music for these films were not known to me. I had to look them up, which only underscores the whole point of this piece. I am not here referring to musicals like The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, South Pacific, The King and I, Hair, The Phantom of the Opera, Cats and so on, which were peppered with songs every few minutes. My preoccupation is with dramatic films enhanced by a powerful and emotive musical score.
Let’s start with Lawrence of Arabia (1962). This David Lean spectacular with a multi-star cast swept us off our feet in 70 mm splendour and magnificence. When the theme music broke some time well after the opening sequence (flashback to Lawrence’s fatal motorcycle accident) and kept being repeated time and again, rising to a crescendo, the experience was truly elevating. Many of us went to the theatres to see Lawrence multiple times as much to enjoy the music as to wallow in the histrionic brilliance of Peter OToole, Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif and the rest of the glittering cast.
We again turn to a David Lean magnum opus, Dr.Zhivago (1965), starring Omar Sharif (he was everywhere) and Julie Christie and ‘a cast of thousands.’ The theme music, composed by Maurice Jarre (I looked it up) became a musical leitmotif to remember for all time to come. The tune was so hummable that popular singers fell over each other, with lyrics added, to record a memorable hit song, Somewhere my love. Connie Francis and Paul Webster were among the earliest to clamber on to the hit parade bandwagon as Lara’s Theme was on everyone’s lips.
Speaking of Lara’s Theme, I will now expend a few lines on, believe it or not, Tara’s Theme. The close similarity of the two names is entirely coincidental. We are now turning the clock back a few decades to that other all-time classic, Gone with the Wind (1939). With Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh heading up a strong cast, the film as well as Margaret Mitchell’s book on which it was based, is indelibly stored in our collective memory banks. Contrary to what I might have imagined, Tara is not the name of a character in the film but that of a fictional plantation in the state of Georgia where much of the action takes place. The theme music again, is one for the ages. Over the years, including quite recently, there has been some controversial static over the film (and the story) being ‘racially insensitive’ and some theatres even pulled the movie under public pressure. That has never come in the way of the film retaining its iconic status. As the hero Clark Gable’s character, Rhett Butler’s throwaway line at the end of the film says in a different context, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.’
The list of Hollywood movies with a memorable theme music soundtrack is long and many of you reading this can add sumptuously to the list. This is to prevent people writing in with ‘What about Casablanca?’ or ‘You forgot to mention Bridge on the River Kwai.’ And so on. However, I shall end this nostalgic contemplation of great film musical themes with The Godfather trilogy. Nina Rota, remember the name, will forever be celebrated and lionised for the music soundtrack of the entire Godfather franchise. As I had suggested at the top of this piece, the name does not roll off the tongue easily, but that does not detract from his monumental contribution to the success of The Godfather I, II and III (1972, ‘74’, ’92). As much as we loved Brando, Pacino and DeNiro as well as those unforgettable sequences that all but idolised the Mafiosi’s way of life, the haunting musical theme and its umpteen variants in the trilogy quietly sank into our subconscious and has remained there, never to be forgotten.
Theme music in films. It is a vast subject worthy of a doctorate dissertation paper. I should be surprised if somebody has not already done it. I have merely attempted to share a soupçon from my own experience. While songs are great and we all love to sing them, pure, wordless music can at times ineffably express the inexpressible. We have much to thank Monty Norman and the movie industry for.
Great piece, Suresh – evocative, as well as a reminder of several other great background pieces- Ben Hur, Exodus and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet come to mind.
Look forward to more great essays! 👍🏽
As always, many thanks JB.
Great recollections. Permit me to mention Mackenna’s Gold and The Dirty Dozen as well. The latter reminds me of the theme song of Sholay back home. Perhaps you are the right person to dish out a disseration on this topic!
Thank you, Ashok. As I said, there will be many ‘what abouts,’ but I had to contend with space constraints.
Nice one, Suresh.
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