Soundtrack Review: Thunderball

Composed and Conducted by: John Barry

Goldfinger had ushered in a spy craze, with dozens of television shows and movies being made about secret agents and their often over-the-top adventures. It’s no wonder then that, until 2012’s Skyfall, Thunderball, made during the height of the craze, was the most financially successful James Bond movie (adjusting for inflation). Thunderball takes James Bond to the Bahamas, where he must stop eye-patched villain Largo from blackmailing or destroying the major cities of America and Britain with stolen nuclear weapons.

The tough schedule, which saw Thunderball released just a year after Goldfinger, did not affect the technical values of the film, but it did have the unfortunate result of forcing John Barry to release a soundtrack album when he had only scored the first half of the film. The result was having the exciting final battle music, among other cues, unreleased for years. With little action material available, the original album sounds strangely dark as its made up of mainly suspense tracks suited to underwater scenes. The eventual expanded 2003 release features the missing music, mainly in suites that run from seven to ten minutes in length.

The title song for Thunderball has an interesting history (Johnny Cash actually wrote a song and tried to get it accepted, but it’s a bit too country for Bond). John Barry, inspired by the Japanese nickname for James Bond, created a song called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, sung by Shirley Bassey. However, probably to mirror the success of the Goldfinger theme, the producers called for a song that had the title’s theme, was brassy, and had the James Bond theme mixed in. In one night Barry made up an entirely new song. “Thunderball” has some good brassy bursts, but its rushed creation is evident in the absurd, unclear lyrics and its fairly unoriginal tune. “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is presented in two special instrumental versions and is placed in the score to good effect. The version with vocals can be found, but not on either the original or extended and remastered album. Having two main title themes doesn’t hurt the score at all. In fact, the Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang theme can be seen as a third theme for James Bond, with the proper title song serving as a more encompassing main theme.

In addition to the themes and motifs derived from the two songs, there is a repetitive theme for the underwater scenes that I think is quite good, though it plays too much on the expanded release. Its best performance is in “Bond Under Disco Volante”, where it breaks from its suspense mode with heavy brass. Barry also brings back From Russia with Love’s 007 theme as the center of the action cues, this time with an extension added in to make it more wild and dramatic.

After the title song, the score proper starts with “Chateau Flight”, a very bombastic version of the James Bond theme that also introduces a repeating two-note extension. This extension usually appears in the more low-key tracks such as “The Bomb”. “Thunderball” and “Café Martinique” each takes one of the songs and transforms it into background lounge music. “Street Chase” and “Death of Fiona” bring in the percussion, the former interspersing it with the 007 theme.

The album closes out with two very long tracks. Track 16 is a bit too long and slow, but does break out into battle music at the end with the 007 theme. Track 17 is easily the best of the music missing on the first release. “Underwater Mayhem” features a slightly slower rendition of the 007 theme with whirling strings in the background to underscore the bloody aquatic battle. The main theme and the underwater theme return for some bridging before the most hectic and furious version of the 007 theme ever provides an action-packed climax in “Death of Largo”. “End Titles” features a quiet version of James Bond’s theme before the orchestra suddenly blasts out loud in an excellent finale mixing the same theme with the title theme.

John Barry’s Thunderball, despite some heavy repetition, remains a very thrilling and engaging soundtrack. Those who prefer Barry’s romance might not enjoy it so much, but fans of well-orchestrated suspense and action have much to find on this lengthy album.

Rating: (score) 8/10 (original album) 6/10

Tracklisting

  1. Thunderball (sung by Tom Jones) (3:04)
  2. Chateau Flight (2:31)
  3. The Spa (2:41)
  4. Switching the Body (2:46)
  5. The Bomb (5:42)
  6. Café Martinique (3:48)
  7. Thunderball (3:57)
  8. Death of Fiona (2:28)
  9. Bond Below Disco Volante (4:05)
  10. Search for Vulcan (2:25)
  11. 007 (2:28)
  12. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (3:18)
  13. Gunbarrel/Traction Table/Gassing the Plane/Car Chase (4:43)
  14. Bond Meets Domino/Shark Tank/Lights Out for Paula/For king and Country (8:18)
  15. Street Chase (3:23)
  16. Finding the Plane/Underwater Ballet/Bond with Spectre Frogmen/Leiter to the Rescue/Bond Joins Underwater Battle (10:16)
  17. Underwater Mayhem/Death of Largo/End Titles (10:21)
  18. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Mono) (2:41)
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