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Review by Brad Green:
One of the earliest Bond Films, Casino Royale, was a parody; or perhaps a travesty. With myriad James Bonds, played by all sorts of unlikely suspects including Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and a chimpanzee, it should have been hilarious enough to crack a broad grin across a po-faced Q. But the send-up fell flat.

Given that Rowan Atkinson often comes across much like a combination of Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and a chimpanzee, and has long since paid his dues as bumbling bureaucrat Nigel Small-Fawcett (at least this character didn’t appear in the same film as Pussy Galore!) in Never Say Never Again, the license to pack complete incompetence into the one secret agent suggests considerable comic potential. 

Ultimately, however, a great physical actor playing an idiot in an idiotic movie isn’t nearly as funny as a great physical actor playing an idiot in an intelligent movie. Compare how Chaplin and Keaton boosted their talents with witty scripts, and the way Jim Carrey consistently buries his with the reverse. Atkinson, of course, has a CV full of brilliant screen material: not only Mr. Bean, but Blackadder and a number of one-off, TV specials which included perhaps the finest showcase of his brilliances as a mime. In an inspired piece of lunacy, we observe him sitting in an empty room playing air piano in time with a classical recording -- the precision of his fingers and wrist flicks and facial expressions convincing us that he is playing every note on an invisible Steinway. One of the reasons it works is because the music gives him material to mould and exaggerate; it wouldn’t be nearly so hilarious were he miming to Chopsticks. 

The advantage for Edward Shearmur with this soundtrack is the venerable musical backlog he is licensed to shake and stir. The challenge is that since John Barry passed on the baton, the composer for every “serious” Bond score has needed to find ways of reinventing his inimitable music. So what to do in this case? One of the most popular devices (no, not self-destructing tuba with an eject switch) has been to modernise and harden the original guitar-and-orchestra sound with techno-electronica. Predictably this has only served to undermine the basic material, although this remains so wonderful that every Bond soundtrack has been a success to some extent. Shearmur exploits plenty of electronics here too, but as his aim is caricature he is more playful as well.

There is something slightly paradoxical about parodying the Bond music. Those brass hits and twanging guitars already have a mock-ominous tint to them -- an ambiguous, tongue-in-cheek reflection of a world of fast cars, faster women, vodka martinis and megalomaniacs who don’t stand a chance. The music is the complement to Bond’s sangfroid and savoir-faire in the face of personal and international peril. By going about his dangerous business with a very British sense of duty, a risque drollery and not a hint of panic, he constantly reminds us that he is in on the fact that he will inevitably save the day and get the girl. He knows everything. 

And Shearmur knows what to do with this soundtrack. He Gets Smart from the start -- and in the same way that Mel Brooks (who brought KAOS to the spy concept even before Casino Royale) realised the potential for further parodying the naturally parodistic Broadway style in the stage version of The Producers -- Shearmur indulges heartily in pastiche plus excess, exaggerating both the peril and the pratfalls. He not only goes to town on the guitar riff and brass blasts, but also the romance-of-espionage elements personified by some splendidly turgid piano and string cues and a pensive flugelhorn that is reminiscent of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score. 

Between Shearmur’s scavenging and tinkering, we are served a variety of songs. The opener, which features Robbie Williams on vocals and was composed by Hans Zimmer, sounds exactly like The Whitlams with Bond-esq guitar substituted for Tim Freedman’s piano: a compliment all round. Then we have Bond, the female string quartet who were originally dubbed the “Classical Spice Girls” but can presumably now pass themselves off as… ahem… the Bond Girls. Their first track begins sombrely and builds to a rousing crescendo, while their second is a salsa version of the Theme From Johnny English that would have Ian Fleming dirty-dancing in his grave. Moloko’s The Only Ones (from their recently studio album Statues) is a stunning amalgam of electronic wizardry and chilled-out soul. The only droop occurs with Abba’s Does Your Mother Know? which ranks among their tunes about where Rowan Atkinson resides on the pecking order of secret agent sexuality. 

Perhaps the most amusing element of a film that has seriously failed to tickle the critics is that its soundtrack is more entertaining than many of the genuine Bond scores of recent times. At any rate, the music is almost certainly the best thing about the movie, and what they probably should have done is left the spy-spoofing to Mike Myers and given us Rowan Atkinson miming the flugelhorn. 

Published June 19, 2003

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TITLE: Johnny English
ID: Universal/Decca
ARTISTS: Robbie Williams; Abba; Bond; Moloko
SCORE: Edward Shearmur

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