Like many James Bond fans, filmmaker Mat Whitecross’s trip to see No Time To Die at the cinema was memorable. “I saw it on the day it came out, and was blown away by its amazing ending. I knew I needed to see it again, so I went the next day with my family.”
Yet while his family was enthralled by the action and adventure, losing themselves in the drama and the tragedy, Whitecross was concentrating on his ears as much as his eyes. “I needed to go back to really appreciate the music of the film,” he says.
At that point Whitecross was hard at work on his latest documentary, The Sound of 007. He had been crafting his film for some time, sifting through hours of archive material, shooting new interviews with key contributors from across the years, while figuring out the best way to capture the story within the constraints of a 90-minute running time.
“You’d need a 10-part television series to go into every song and every score in detail,” says Whitecross, “but when we were watching No Time To Die, which worked as such a beautiful final curtain, we realised we could use that as the spine of our film. We had such wonderful access to Hans Zimmer, Johnny Marr and Daniel Craig, as well as Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell. From here we could jump into the past.”
It was when watching No Time To Die for the second time that Whitecross was struck by one of Hans Zimmer’s innovations. “You could hear this unique siren voice; Hans had incorporated the title song into the soundtrack, and had specifically incorporated the singer into the soundtrack. No one had done anything like that with the song before. I thought that was a wonderful use of the song.”
The James Bond theme songs form a huge part of Bond’s musical make up, and Whitecross explores the most iconic of them in The Sound of 007. “007 composer David Arnold says that the Bond songs are like a genre in themselves,” he says, “It’s a genre wide enough to encompass everything from lounge and swing, all the way to New Wave and even a punk aesthetic with Jack White.”
“The Bond films have a who’s who of so many of the best pop musicians in music history, from Shirley Bassey and Matt Monro in the early days, through to Billie Eilish now. No film series will ever be able to emulate that.”
Whitecross’s film collects a intriguing set of interviews from James Bond singers and songwriters and it’s through their stories that some of The Sound of 007’s most memorable anecdotes appear. There are amusing moments, such as as when Duran Duran and John Barry share secrets of their sometimes rocky relationship on A View To A Kill; moments of candour, with Nancy Sinatra recalling how stepping into the studio to record ‘You Only Live Twice’ was one of the most intimidating moments of her life; and also moments of poignancy, most notably with Barbara Broccoli sharing her memory of a meeting with Amy Winehouse about a potential collaboration.
Perhaps the most thrilling anecdote, however, comes from Michael Caine who recalls how he had moved out of his digs with Terence Stamp to escape the perennial partying. He wound up sleeping on John Barry’s couch and one night he was awoken by his host singing at the piano. The composer had just written the title song to Goldfinger and Caine was the first person to hear it. “It is wonderful to hear Michael talk about being the first person to hear that song,” smiles Whitecross. “It allows you to really step into the Swinging Sixties. John Barry was one of the most iconic figures in the Swinging Sixties. He was right there; he was married to Jane Birkin, and was mates with everyone, from The Beatles to Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, and there is something lovely about the snapshot of the ecosystem of the time of the first Bond films. It’s no coincidence that they emerged then; it was such a creatively fertile moment.”
Whitecross says that talking about James Bond songs is like talking about the National Anthem or a folk song. “It feels like it could never have been written; it’s just always been there. Like a nursery rhyme, it has always been in our minds – that’s how I think of the Bond songs,” he explains.
“Each song is of its time but also must reflect Bond. There is this fusion of different elements that make it timeless. The songs and the scores are a snapshot of a moment in time and that is not true of any other film series in history.”
For all the focus on the songs, Whitecross is even more fascinated by the majestic scores, which form the backbone of his film. “I love all the songs but what really appeals to me is the classical side of things and the soundtracks, the history of John Barry going all the way to Hans Zimmer,” he says. “That seemed an area that hadn’t been covered that well on film. And, in a nerdy way, I’m obsessed with what that process is like, so to have Tom Newman, Hans Zimmer or David Arnold break down and anatomise what they do was amazing.
“If we had a longer running time I’d have liked to have done a whole section on David Arnold and Casino Royale in particular. I love the music for Casino Royale and David was such an excellent contributor to our film. It was very hard not to make the film a documentary entirely about John Barry,” laughs Whitecross. “He was such a genius and I am such a fan. I love On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with ‘We Have All the Time In The World’. That score is almost like a test case of why the music is so important to Bond.
“If you’re changing the face of Bond, as they did after Sean Connery left, it’s the music that helps give the film so much of its identity,” he says. “Connery might have gone but the music told the audience they’re still in safe hands; this is still the same man. Barry had to fight doubly hard on that film and that’s why many people say it’s the greatest Bond score.
Monty Norman’s ‘James Bond Theme’ is, of course, another vital component of The Sound of 007, and it features early in the film. “Again, it would have been so easy to focus so much time on that story,” Whitecross says. It is, after all, the ‘James Bond Theme’ that provides the audience with such an important anchor, launching them immediately into the hero’s world.
“We dug into the archives and tapped up Monty and his wife, Rina, and it was great to show some of the programmes from his early musicals. Sadly, Monty passed very recently but we were able to talk to him and to conduct the last interview he ever did. That was such a rewarding part of such a brilliant project. Being able to make a film about my favourite film music has been a truly wonderful experience.”
Mat Whitecross has directed films and music videos for artists including Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Take That and Jay-Z. He won widespread acclaim for his Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, as well as the music documentaries Oasis: Supersonic and Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams. He also directed the four-part drama Fleming about the life of the James Bond author
Watch The Sound of 007 here.