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Burt Bacharach: Casino Royale

Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is probably the least maligned aspect of producer Charles Feldman’s 1967 film version of Casino Royale. For connoisseurs of cinematic disaster, the problems that beset that production are well familiar. Kaufman, who held the movie rights to Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, intended to make a canonical James Bond film, but upon failing to secure the cooperation of Eon Productions, decided instead to mount a spoof on a grand scale. The film’s star, Peter Sellers, was fired halfway through production, requiring that the remainder of the already loosely structured film be written and shot around his absence. On top of that, multiple directors were engaged, each delivering a “chapter” of the film marked by their own individual sensibility. The result has been railed against as a shamefully self-indulgent work of anti-cinema, a triumph of – not style over substance – but style as substance.

Fortunately, one doesn’t have to love Casino Royale, the movie, to enjoy collections like Quartet Records’ comprehensive, 2-disc release of the original soundtrack. That’s a good thing, because from my perspective, the film’s reputation has nosedived even further in the years following the release of Eon’s “official” version of Casino Royale in 2006, to some extent becoming the victim of a James Bond fandom inspired to heightened levels of entitlement and pedantry by the internet – as well as the absurd notion that a pop cultural edifice as implacable as James Bond couldn’t survive having a couple of good natured pot shots taken at him.

As for myself, I’m sure it will surprise no one that I’m in the opposite camp from the Casino Royale haters. The film was a local TV “movie of the week” staple when I was a kid, often shown over two nights due to its length, and my friends and I watched it again and again, to the point of memorizing large chunks of its dialog. Perhaps I was too young then to understand the accepted wisdom that a movie had to make sense, or have a “plot”, to be considered good. To me, Casino Royale was just one long, uninterrupted parade of awesome, all delivered on blast with no concessions to form or audience expectations: beautiful girls (I was the president of a Daliah Lavi fan club of one at my school), cool cars, absurdist humor, shiny sci-fi trappings, British accents and, of course, all of Bacharach’s exciting, catchy music.

Given Casino Royale’s “more is more” aesthetic, it’s not surprising that one of the biggest hit makers of the era would be engaged to provide its music (although Bacharach would have been a natural choice for Feldman, given his work on the producer’s What’s New Pussycat? two years earlier). Bacharach was the rare songsmith whose name was almost as familiar to the public as the stars he wrote for. In just the year leading up to the picture’s release, he’d scored chart success with songs for Dionne Warwick, Cher, Tom Jones and Cilla Black. With Casino Royale, he added to his legacy by contributing one of his signature songs, the slinky and sophisticated “The Look of Love”, sung by Dusty Springfield.

Interestingly, the Oscar nominated tune was written to solve a problem. According to original director Joe McGrath, the scene — a slow motion reverie depicting Ursula Andress’ seduction of Sellers’ Evelyn Tremble as shot through an enormous aquarium – was shot using “The Girl From Ipanema” as a temporary backing track. Feldman disliked the scene, thinking it too “arty”, and wanted it cut. Bacharach vowed to come up with an accompanying tune that had the necessary romantic “oomph” to put the scene over. Thus was one of the great pop songs of the late 20th century born.

But it was Bacharach’s instrumental score that gave Casino Royale the air of swinging mod era exuberance that today makes it go down so much easier than it otherwise might. There is often an aspect of playfulness to Bacharach’s compositions; so effortless is his command of harmony, song structure and melody that he seemingly can’t help but run them through all manner of contortions like a mad pop alchemist. Melodies flirt with baroque complexity. (Bacharach and his lyricist Hal David reportedly delighted in presenting Dionne Warwick with compositions that were ever more difficult for her to sing.) Chord progressions dip perilously into dissonance before flowering into majestic pop choruses. This sense of play, along with the eclecticism of the film itself, served Bacharach particularly well in his work on Casino Royale.

Casino Royale pic

Like many works of mainstream popular culture from the late 60s, Casino Royale seems geared not just toward the lucrative youth audience, but also toward the lucrative not-so-youthful audience who suddenly wanted to sample what the youth audience of the late 60s was smoking — or at least wanted to appear as if they were. Thus Bacharach’s tunes cannily combine an addled whimsy commensurate with the film’s many drug references and a jaunty and infectious brand of bachelor pad “adult” pop – the latter bolstered by the presence of “Dad’s record cabinet” staples Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. In a way — and like the film itself – the score distills a very particular 60s aesthetic, an encapsulation of the “mod” sensibility as it expressed itself through mainstream culture at the time: resolutely anglophilic, smirkingly “sexy” rather than frankly sexual, and augmented by French horns playing baroque flourishes against manic organ riffs and a booming backbeat.

But perhaps what is most noteworthy about Bacharach’s compositions is just how damn catchy they are. Few soundtracks are as hook-laden as Casino Royale’s. This fixity lends added mnemonic power to the movie’s visual moments. It’s impossible, for instance, to hear “Moneypenny Goes for Broke” without immediately picturing Barbara Bouchet, clipboard in hand, locking lips with a queue of prospective James Bonds. Meanwhile, the theme itself, played by the aforementioned Herb Alpert and company, is an earworm of near weapon strength.

The Casino Royale soundtrack was originally released in album form by Colgems in 1967, but with some important omissions. The most glaring of these is the vocal version of the theme song, also known as “Have No Fear, Bond is Here”, which plays over the end credits. This was sung by Mike Redway, a session singer who formerly sang with the Oscar Rabin Band, who performed it, at Bacharach’s urging, in an exaggeratedly posh British accent that amounts to his impression of Noel Coward. (According to Jon Burlingame’s The Music of James Bond, Johnny “Secret Agent Man” Rivers was offered the opportunity to sing the theme over the main credits, but turned it down, calling the song “terrible”.)

Subsequent CD releases of the soundtrack mimicked the original’s track listing, until the release, in 2012, of Quartet ‘s double disc “45th Anniversary” version. The Quartet release represents the first time that the entire Casino Royale score – mastered from the original mono stems found in the MGM archive – has been made commercially available, and includes numerous incidental pieces that were deemed unworthy of appearing on the original. Also included is a remastered version of the original soundtrack album, which – recorded “hot” by legendary producer Phil Ramone on exceptionally high quality magnetic tape — was noted at the time for its outstanding fidelity, and remains a sought after collectible to this day for that reason.

To the non-obsessive, Quartet’s set might seem like overkill, but I don’t think there’s any argument as to it being definitive. As represented on Disc 2, Casino Royale’s original stereo soundtrack LP fully lives up to its reputation as the ultimate hi-fi demo record; the crisp, pristine sound lending Bacharach’s intricate arrangements a shimmering transparence. It’s almost as if Dusty Springfield is whispering in your ear. Disc 1, clocking in at just over an hour, presents the complete score tracked in chronological order and basically amounts to a musical recreation of the entire film. Finally given their due are Mike Redway’s vocal cuts, which also include the whimsical “Wake Up James, You’re Winning” and previously neglected “Seven Bonds in Heaven”.

Unlike the original LP, which combined the various pieces into song length suites, this disc includes snippets of lengths as short as 30 seconds, all of which are given titles of a much more clinical nature (“Opening Cars Converging”, “Vesper in the Shower”, “Torture Sequence”) than the more playful ones assigned to the LP cuts (“Hi There Miss Goodthighs” anyone?). Among the most welcome of those absent from the original are the cues, like “The LSD Room”, that accompany that section of the film that takes place in the space age island lair of Woody Allen’s Doctor Noah, which are the closest thing to what we’d think of as traditional “spy music” that Bacharach produced for the film. Granted, all of these are presented in mono mixes, but the resulting compression lends the brass-heavy compositions a pleasing wall of sound effect.

As much as I love Casino Royale the movie, I’m not going to proselytize on its behalf. I will say, however, that if its music fails to put even the slightest spring in your step, there must be something wrong with you. Quartet’s lavish set may come at too dear a price to test that out, but earlier editions found on eBay will undoubtedly do the trick. Then again, if you’re a spendthrift who just needs that little shove further toward the poorhouse, the Anniversary Edition’s booklet, which features a 24 page essay by the Daily Film Music Blog’s Gergeley Hubai that puts everything nicely in context, might provide the necessary temptation. In any case, this collection provides a saving grace to those who would slag the film and a vital keepsake to fans like me. To those former I say, you can keep your Bond. He may be suave and unflappable, but he’ll never be as groovy as mine.

Never fear, Bond is here!

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One thought on “Burt Bacharach: Casino Royale”

  1. Approximately fifteen years ago, there was a club night in Moseley in Birmingham called The Silver Dollar, which played songs from Mothra soundtrack albums, soundtracks to movies as wholesome as “Schoolgirl Report” and “Vampiros Lesbos” as well as Pizzicato 5, Francoise Hardy and ABBA. Oddly, It was run by various members of Pram, Plone, Broadcast and Rehab, but…..even more oddly….was usually attended by various members of Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower, Injury And Death, Bloodbath Picnic Heroine, Toxic Shock Syndrome, Boyraper, Missy Hate, Man is the Bastard, Kill for Kali and Castration Complex.

    There is something odd about those days, when it didn’t seem remotely unusual to go out to a club night with all of the swank and production of a village hall dance, playing bizarro exotica, and meet (and interact with perfect civility) with death metal guys, math-rock headcases in mod suits dancing with aggro-lez riot grrls in full-length evening dresses, gals who looked like they had stepped out of Mary Quant runway shows, and guys who thought that Travis Bickle was a role model in fashion as well as life. I never did make it to Blow Up! at the Camden Falcon though, which is somewhat of a regret of mine.

    I miss those times, And in order to get them back, I feel like buying the soundtrack to Casino Royale for myself for Christmas. As well as dusting off ‘Christmas with Julie London’ again.

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