With its mod rhythms, shagadelic exotica, bold brass, bongo-driven percussion and sheer, string joy in death-defying adventure against world-conquering wannabes (while of course not musically messing up the hero’s Carnaby Street tailoring), the era-specific sound of spy jazz has been making a making a comeback at the cinema, played for delirious height of kitsch by Geoff Zanelli and Mark Ronson in “Mortdecai,” the “Kingsman’s” head-blasting drive by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson, or used for pure chase adrenalin by Joe Kraemer in “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” But while those two movies are latter-day exercises in battling villainous Eurotrash, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” goes right back to the genre’s source with faithful, 60’s-set take on the NBC show that originally paired Robert Vaughn’s debonair spy Napoleon Solo and David McCallum’s Slavic Illya Kuryakin in the service of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
While as much a stylish Bond imitator as any of the period’s numerous 007 spin-off’s off for film and television, “U.N.C.L.E.” created the kind of cult following that’s enabled director Guy Ritchie to give the material the kind of seditiously humorous, excitingly in-one’s-face attitude that he last used to energized the stalwart Sherlock Holmes, especially with its deliciously crazed fiddle-heavy score by Hans Zimmer. Now with ladykilling and spy-smashing humor to spare, Ritchie has re-suited up “Man of Steel’s” Henry Cavill and “The Lone Ranger’s” Armie Hammer as Solo and Kuryakin, and given them a buddy-cop cum-Cold War agent origin story as the duo attempt to defuse a scheme of course involving nuclear weapons and the very survival of the free world.
Where John Barry had applied a lush symphonic-pop sound when it came to James Bond beating S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and their ilk, the not quite-so extravagant TV music budget of “U.N.C.L.E.” had such fabled composers as Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin, Morton Stevens and Robert Drasnin go for an ever jazzier, leaner and often more eccentric sound. That level of hepness has now been exaggerated to wonderfully dizzying extremes for the big screen by Daniel Pemberton, who takes his own distinctive shot at complementing Guy Ritchie’s sense of kinetic humor – though not taking its stars’ charisma and the mushroom cloud threat into Austin Power’s satire land.
A Brit composer with a prolific background in television before landing an impressive theatrical debut with the ghost story chills of “The Awakening,” Pemberton has since shown his talents at the twisted crime dramas of “The Counselor” and “Blood” while displaying his Latin dance talents for “Cuban Fury.” But the creative gloves are off like never before with the classic spy music stylings of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” Russkie cimbaloms dance tango break-outs, hammering percussion throttles through the rhythmic Italian streets of Rome, and howling Spaghetti western voices rock with electric fuzz guitars for good measure, creating a kitchen sink jam session of all that’s ear-catching about the spy sound. It’s s score that infuses a rebooted Solo and Kuryakin with impossibly hip energy to spare, a winning shot at the genre that truly puts Pemberton on the Hollywood map.
Could you tell us about what led you to composing?
Wow. Big question. There’s a very long answer and a relatively short one. I will give you somewhere in the middle. When I was about 10 years old my dad took me to the Planetarium, which used to be in Baker Street, to watch the laser show. The soundtrack was a load of synthesizer music by Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and people like that. Before then I wasn’t massively interested in music but I had never heard anything like this before. It was like a switch was pressed in my head. Suddenly I became obsessed by it. I listened non-stop to any electronic and instrumental records I could get my hands on. I saved up money to buy a synthesizer and a tape machine. I started writing music and recording it in my bedroom. I made tapes of my stuff and gave them to anyone who’d be interested. By the time I was 16 a record label wanted to put them out. I had an album called “Bedroom” released – quite a mad record of Avant-garde ambient electronic music. A director, Paul Wilsmhurst, heard it and asked if I’d liked to score a TV documentary he was doing. I said yes. I was still at school at this point and was scoring his shows after I finished my homework. It went well. I did his next one. Then someone else liked what I did and asked to work with me. This kept on happening and has never really stopped since then. It’s kinda amazing. I still joke technically I am on my year out from school. I was meant to go to university but I took a year off to see how the music would go. It’s just been a very long year… I had to teach myself as I went and I think that’s why people find my scores sound different. I’ve learnt through non-stop work for about 20 years now. When I first met Ridley Scott he said, “You’ve done your 10,000 hours in the garage.” I liked that.
You did a cool old-school spy score for the BBC miniseries “The Game” before taking on “U.N.C.L.E.” How do you think that helped set you up for the task ahead, while also being different from it?
Although both projects are about spies they are very different. “The Game” was a lot darker, both tonally, aesthetically and morally than “U.N.C.L.E.” “U.N.C.L.E.” is like a kaleidoscope of international color. “The Game” is like a brutalist slab of 1970’s concrete. I loved working on them both.
How did “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” come your way? And once you got the gig, did you immerse yourself in the old show and its scores? How do you think the film is different from it?
Guy had heard every showreel in Hollywood and then someone passed him mine. It wasn’t even that great but he said it was the only one that didn’t sound exactly the same as all the others. Did I want the job? Yes please. I did not need to immerse myself in anything as I’d spent most of my life absorbing it already. So many of my favorite scores were from that era and genre. Composers like Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, Quincy Jones, Roy Budd, Edwin Astley, Ennio Morricone. I’d listened to so much of their work religiously by then that I knew all the tricks and things I loved and would want to hear myself as a fan of that genre. And hopefully I got to play with them all in U.N.C.L.E!”
What do you think made U.N.C.L.E.” different from such other Bond spin-offs as “Mission Impossible,” as well as Bond himself? And do you think taking an outright period approach further helps differentiate the film and score?
Firstly writing a score set in the 1960’s was for me, a dream come true. There is a boldness about the music then and the way it was written and recorded that I absolutely love. When you talk about spy music everyone still really thinks of that era. I think it’s hard to pull off that kind of music in a modern film as it has so many connotations to that past. But if you are scoring that era then you can just go nuts and have the most fun with it you can. Which is what I tried to do. UNCLE has it’s own feel and vibe. We very consciously made sure it didn’t feel like a Bond rip off musically as it’s such an easy route to end up going down when you are doing a spy series. I mean it’s a fun route but we just tried to steer clear of it.
Were there any particularly inspirational classic spy scores that influenced you here, not to mention songs from the early 60’s day, of which this album offers plenty.
Blimey. There are so many I don’t even know where to start. OK some random scores and films. “The Knack.” “The Taking Of Pelham 123.” “The Ipcress File.” David Axelrod. The Beatles. Nina Rota’s Fellini films. “The Italian Job.” Serge Gainsbourg’s film scores. Francis Lai. “Get Carter.” Pretty much every ITC TV series (“The Prisoner,” “he Saint,” “The Persuaders” etc.). This could go on forever…
Having presumably watched the scores that Guy Ritchie got for his “Sherlock Holmes,” did you get the sense of him taking a sort of punk rock approach to hipping up classical period sounds? And how do you think that applied to “U.N.C.L.E?”
Guy doesn’t want his films to sound like everything else that is out there. As a composer that is a real blessing. It also makes it very challenging as he always wants to hear something that feels fresh and new and you have to constantly re-invent the wheel with every cue. But he loves crazy ideas and he loves really allowing music to have a huge part in his films. That is such a gift for any composer who likes trying to do things differently.
When you’ve got the sound of “retro spy” music mostly used for comedic affect, what’s the trick to using it in a way that keeps the characters light on their feet, but not in a way that they become targets for outright humor?
The right sounds. A harpsichord can sound really cool but can also be quite funny too. Basically just get a harpsichord and you’re sorted!
Could you tell us about the Eastern European nature of “Uncle’s,” some cues like “We Have Location” has a cool “Third Man” quality to them with the cimbalom?
Basically the cimbalom is such a great instrument I love an opportunity to use it. “The Third Man” – which, nerd point alert, is actually all on the zither and not a cimbalom – is probably for me the greatest film score of all time. The idea of managing to write an entire score on one instrument which is so instantly recognizable yet also carries so many different emotions, is like the holy grail for me. But I haven’t done it yet!
Some of the action cues like “Escape to East Berlin” have an almost improvisatory quality to them, especially when it comes to the flute. Do you think there’s a jazz-like quality to the score in that way? And did the scoring sessions almost become jam sessions?
Yes and no. Pretty much every note in the score was written down before we got to record it. But I wanted to give the players as much room and freedom to get the best performances out of them and sort of worked that into how I would write so we could jam as well. With the flute I did a lot of early work with the flautist – an amazing player called Dave Heath – while I was writing and we worked out things that would sound cool or different that you can’t get just writing dots down or replaying samples. Guy absolutely loved that sound, as it feels different to what you’d expect in a spy film – but not out of place – so we ended up using a lot of it in the end.
You’ve also got some particularly interesting use of percussion, especially in “The Drums of War” and “Fists.” How did you want to use rhythm here?
Anytime we were stuck on a scene the film’s editor James Herbert – who is an amazing, amazing talent and also brilliant with music, would just shout, “Throw some mad bongos on it” at me as a solution. It was sort of a running joke throughout the film. But everyone loved the percussion, especially the more unusual or chaotic it was. The Drums Of War cue was insane. It has a ton of different parts, some of which go in and out of time with the others, until they all come together at the end. Order out of chaos. Easy to say but was damn hard to get perfect! Basically never get involved with overlapping multi tempo maps. It is not fun. It’s like hard math with Steve Reich as your teacher.
There’s also a fun Spaghetti Western vibe to the score, complete with howling voices and rocking guitars in “Take You Down.” And it’s downright “Once Upon A Time in the West”-ian in “The Red Mist.” You wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear these kinds of grooves in a spy score.
I love those scores. They have such a visceral quality to them and we really wanted to capture some of that in the film. Morricone’s “Navajo Joe” is one of the most amazing pieces of film music ever. It’s just so crazy, yet so powerful. Just that crazy scream. We wanted to do something that was out there and I really didn’t think it’d make the final film. But I’m so pleased it did, as it’s one of my favorite moments in the score. To get away with that in a modern Hollywood studio film was just so cool. That track sounds HUGE! It also has amazing drums on it. We recorded two drummers at the same time, and it just sounds so large. I love how it turned out. I hope there’s a bunch of sequels and they keep re-using it.
Another great example of an unexpected ethnic detour is taking a tango approach to “Breaking Out.” Were you always thinking about how to spring those kinds of musical surprises in the score?
Guy always wants something new every few minutes in his film. He likes surprises or different ways of looking at things. Although, if I am totally honest, that cue was also heavily influenced by the fact we learn that Illya was at one stage in his life an undercover Spanish speed boating champion. But those important facts got cut from the scene! However everyone loved that piece so much by then it just stuck, which was lucky, as I had run out of ideas for it by that point!
Was there any pressure in your head that you’re potentially launching a new franchise here?
Yes and no. Early on everyone there was lots of talk about using themes, or the great original theme by Jerry Goldsmith, or doing new themes. But Guy doesn’t really like conventional scoring. He likes big, big tracks that all feel unique. So you have to write a score as if you are writing a ton of big tracks. Which is great but also really hard, as it still has to do all the things a score does – you just can’t notice that! But once we’d worked that out I think it’s a really cool way to make the whole film feel different to everything else. I could totally do more “U.N.C.L.E.” films. I’d love to do one set in China and just get let loose making crazy funky tracks on Chinese instruments.
Let’s go back to your earlier work, where you began with lots of TV films and documentaries. You also had the opportunity to score three episodes of the English version of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” as well as shows for the famed cook Jamie Oliver. What was that experience like, and how do you think scoring reality differs between the UK and America, especially when it comes to Ramsay’s shows?
At one stage I sort of did every cooking show in the U.K. I was the go to guy for music as someone chopped up an onion. I even ended up giving a lecture at the Royal College Of Music about it. It was quite surreal. I think I was lucky. I started off when reality TV in the U.K. was being born. And while now I kinda think a lot of that stuff being done now is pretty awful, at the start it was really good fun. You basically had these high concept shows – send some people back in time to be in a 1950’s army, live like an Edwardian and so on – and they needed tons of tracks. You weren’t scoring to picture so much you just had to write music and they would use it. They didn’t care so much as long as it worked – you had free reign. So I would just write all this crazy stuff and somehow it would get on prime time TV. Me playing the kazoo, or singing down a drainpipe. I would just mess around. I loved it. It went down really well and I did a ton of it and had a lot of fun and learnt a lot of tricks in the process.
I don’t really like the way the U.S. does reality TV, which I think has crept over to the U.K. Now so much of it is just pizzicato string samples and big over the top string rises. Every moment is this ludicrous high drama. Everything is HUGE. I think it’s dishonest. I like playing the absurdity of situations and I think it’s something the British are very good at.
I first became aware of your work with the excellent, period ghost story “The Awakening.” Could you tell us about that experience, and how you wanted to do a suitably old-school supernatural score?
That came about because of a fantastic director called Nick Murphy. We had worked together a lot on TV and that was his first film. He asked me to do it with him and I’m so grateful as that was how I really entered the film world. He is a fantastic talent who understands music so, so well and is a real joy to work with. We did a TV series last year “Prey,” which was really great as well. “The Awakening” was my first real film score and it’s still probably one of my favorites. I loved working with a big choir for it.
The label Movie Score Media did a good job of getting your music out there to an international audience with titles like “Dirk Gently” and “Blood” (and most recently “The Game”) which showed a real versatility in taking on oddball subjects, as well as incredibly depressing ones! What was it like to get a label behind your work like that to really get your name out there, and how do you think other international composers of discovery can get that kind of break?
If you wanna get a CD of your scores out you have to be a pain in the arse. I have always been a pain in the arse trying to keep hold of my rights and so on or make sure there is an allowance to get a soundtrack released, otherwise it never happens and gets caught up in corporate red tape land. TV is getting smaller and smaller with a few companies making everything. They want to own every single right but do nothing with it. It gets me really worked up! I don’t mind if they own it but not if it just dies in a box never to be heard. So I am on their case from the start to make sure I can get a release out because that helps me focus and do a better score as well. I have sometimes turned jobs down because I know the company are just too greedy or too much of a pain to deal with. In retrospect I have never regretted that either! Those are often the people who don’t really care if your music is any good in the first place…
Your first big Hollywood break was on Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor.” What was it like to work with him on such an especially blackly comic crime film, and were you surprised by the almost violent reaction the film got?
The way I like to look at it is Ridley did a film before that got completely slated at the time it came out – Bladesomething, cant remember it exactly – but then, over time, people judged it differently. The weird thing is while a bunch of people hated it the people who love it REALLY LOVE IT. I mean you meet someone who likes that film and they won’t shut up about it. I meet them. They don’t shut up. They have so many questions. They have watched it so many times. Any film that gets that sort of reaction is great in my book. I loved working on that film and to work with Ridley was a dream come true. But yes it was a hard film to crack musically because it was so different to the usual Hollywood output.
We’ll be hearing you next on “Steve Jobs.” Could you give us a glimpse at your score, and what was the challenge of scoring a film where dialogue is key, especially when given a script by Aaron Sorkin?
I seem to specialize in scoring films that don’t want to be scored in an obvious way. Steve Jobs is similar in that respect – it’s unique and you have to find a way to deal with that. Right now its all top secret. But the film is in three acts and I am writing almost three different scores. It’s trying to find a similarly novel way to tell a story. That’s all I’ll say at the moment… Hopefully it’s gonna work! But the film is going to be fantastic…
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is riding the recent wave of retro scores like “Kingsman,” “Mortdecai” and “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” Why do you think there’s such a renewed interest in that scoring style? And if “UNCLE” is a hit, how do you think your music will continue to bring back audiences back to the glory days of spy swing?
YES PLEASE. If this means we get the groove back, the swing, the boldness I am all for it. So I hope it is a hit ‘cos I could definitely enjoy doing this kinda score again and again!
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” opens in theaters on August 14th, and Daniel Pemberton’s score is available from Watertower Records HERE
Listen to Daniel Pemberton’s releases on Movie Score Media HERE
Visit Daniel Pemberton’s website HERE