Composer Lorne Balfe has spent his career working on blockbusters including “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning” but even so, Matthew Vaughn’s spy thriller “Argylle,” which features an all-star cast including Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell and Henry Cavill, was one for the books. For a start, the soundtrack incorporates the Beatles’ last-ever record, “Now and Then,” the existence of which Balfe had to keep top secret for over a year until it was finally released last November.
The movie also involved Balfe making an album of cat sounds, provided by Vaughn’s moggy (and Howard’s co-star) Chip. “There were recordings of him while they were filming so we were able to chop it up and make it a percussion library,” says Balfe, a self-confessed dog person. “I’m going to post it on Twitter as a freebie so composers can use it and Chip can go into the world of music.” Meaning Chip is well on his way to becoming the world’s first feline EGOT. (The soundtrack, meanwhile, boasts a variety of tracks with cat-themed puns in the title, including “Careless Whisker” and “The Spy Who Scratched Me.”)
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Balfe sat down to talk with Variety about co-writing tracks with Vaughn and his pinch-me Beatles moment.
The film opens with Dua Lipa and Henry Cavill dancing to Barry White “You’re My Everything.” Was that Matthew’s choice?
Always, right from the beginning. And then that’s me singing “whirlybird” on top of it.
The score is interwoven with songs from popular artists including Barry White, Leona Lewis and of course the Beatles. Was it challenging to make that work?
I think it makes it more enjoyable. Because normally what happens is people write [songs] into the script. But I think if you look at Matthew’s films, they’re very iconic with songs. There’s the slow-mo fight sequence [between Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell] with all the colored smoke — that’s [accompanied by] Leona Lewis covering Snow Patrol’s “Run.” I think we tried 40 different songs.
What was it about that track that clicked?
It means different things to different people. You’ve got the “X Factor” generation that remembers it, then you’ve got the Snow Patrol generation. It’s just something that connects visually, there’s something beautiful about it. Her singing is amazing.
Did Leona re-record the song for the film?
We had thought about it, but we couldn’t beat it. I think it’s difficult. We had tried it with “Top Gun: Maverick” with “Danger Zone,” having new recordings done of that, and it never works.
What was the starting point for you on “Argylle”?
I started writing with Matthew three and a half years ago. He’s very musical so we wrote the themes together. He’s got a piano. He can play. And we’re both big fans of 80s music. We’ve got extraordinarily similar tastes in music, so we write together.
Where do you start when you get a script?
Somebody always said to me, don’t choose a script, choose the person because the script can change. The way Hollywood is they’ll change the ending, the character’s name, the character’s gender — everything changes. You’ve just got to immerse yourself in the passion of how the director is talking, or who’s bringing you on board. And with something like this, it’s why we’ve gone into film, it’s escapism.
Absolutely. I particularly loved the scene with Elly skating on oil.
Good because we spent a lot of time on that, musically. We had played with actually having songs there and then Matthew, every time he watched the film, it would kind of jar for him. The fact that you felt “Here’s another song and it’s the set piece.” And it shouldn’t be a set piece, it should be a build-up of a spectacle. We recorded that quite a few times, that scene. The best filmmakers I get to work with are the ones that are just constantly thinking about the audience and not necessarily themselves].
What songs did you try in that scene?
We tried some disco there but it just didn’t work. And I wrote it a few times and it didn’t work. It’s a ballet, it’s a beautiful scene, so the music had to just embrace it and go for it. But it’s like anything, I don’t think you can explain sometimes why a piece of music feels right.
The film has an amazing cast. Did they influence your writing at all?
It’s more about Elly, giving her a theme where you’re not looking at it as female or male — it’s got nothing to do with it — and it’s simply just a theme that warrants this potential new superhero. So writing for [Bryce], to me, that was the inspiration.
What was the weirdest moment for you on this?
The Beatles. The Beatles were never part of my life and all of a sudden, “Now and Then” appears, where it’s the Holy Grail. Every time Elly is writing, that song triggers her all the time. We had that about a year and a half before it got released.
Matthew had been looking for a song that was Elly’s trigger. He wanted a song that was part of her history. And it was as if the stars aligned at the right time. Giles Martin [son of the Beatles’ longtime producer George Martin] was speaking to Matthew and said, “I’ve discovered this song and I’ve been working on it” and it just clicked. It was the most unique song I’ve ever got to work with.
And you had to keep it a secret.
Were you allowed to tell anybody? Did you feel like a spy?
I played it to my wife. When we were recording it [with an orchestra and choir] we didn’t use the title. I didn’t know what it was when I heard it. I think it meant a lot to many people that this was the last [Beatles] song. So being able to have an orchestra and write cues and put it into the movie was, I think, now when you process it, it was an honor because it’s not something you [usually] get to do. Also, having a choir singing it. Afterwards in the break, you heard them all singing the song and none of them knew it was the Beatles.
Did they think you’d written it?
Yeah, they probably thought “Finally he can write a good tune!”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Listen to the soundtrack below.
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