You Were Expecting Something Else?: Re-ranking the Bond Themes

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Quantum-of-Solace-1640As I intimated back in 2012, “The Bond Sound” as we know it is mostly a cultural construct that was borne more out of John Barry’s orchestrations from the 1960s than much else to do with the theme songs in and of themselves. But, another few years and another couple of Bond tracks later, and I guess I should regroup and rerank them all, because that’s what you do when a new thing comes out, right? Listicles, man, listicles. My grading criteria shifts from son to song because I was rejected from SPECTRE membership, but it’s on two levels of consideration: a) is this a good song? And b) is this a good song for the Bond films? Because this is what you do when you have a lot of time on your hands. Read the rest of this entry »

Skyfall Into Place: Skyfall

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Like many past traditionalists, I was initially skeptical of how Daniel Craig would be as James Bond when he took the role in 2006 just before Casino Royale would blow my mind. Actually, I was probably unfairly vehement. Having grown up watching Connery, Moore, Brosnan, et al., the very different nature of Craig’s demeanor, not only how he looked, was off putting. However, I have since come to realize that Craig’s acceptance of the role is one the best things that ever happened with the franchise. Fifty years, twenty-three films, and enough martinis to make any sane liver quiver, Bond returns once again in Skyfall, and he is never more potent and more relevant than now. As a long time Bond fan, I can definitely say that Skyfall is not only one of the best Bond films ever made, but one of the best films of the year.

After a mission that goes wrong and results in 007’s death, a mysterious cyber terrorist begins taunting MI6 by posting the names of undercover agents on the web. With the whole of the English government on the watch, Bond resurrects himself from the dead, so to speak, to find the man behind the threats and, in doing so, must travel back into the past to acknowledge things about himself he hasn’t wanted to for year.

The nice thing about the Bond films is that every so often they will feel the need to prove their relevance, regardless if we asked them to or not. Bond is, essentially, a “relic of the Cold War” as his prickly boss M (Judi Dench, then and now) once described him in 1995’s GoldenEye We, even the Americans, still needed a cartoonish action hero to believe in in From Russia with Love; we still liked having that security in The Living Daylights, and we definitely were aware that whatever peace had been reached after the Cold War might not last forever, acknowledged in GoldenEye. Aside from those films, and maybe another couple in there, Bond’s evolution and acknowledgement of the world around him has been minimal at best; that is, until Casino Royale. With Martin Campbell’s gritty and real action epic, Bond was pretty much created from scratch to fit a very post-9/11 world. Why do that? Why not just continue making random action film after random action film? Because, thankfully, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson realized it was time for a change. Maybe they took a nod from Nolan’s Batman Begins, but they knew that this was a new world with new dangers not like the ones from before. And they needed a character who would fit that.

That is the beauty of the character, one could suppose: he is, if anything, flexible. Even if he and his films didn’t always acknowledge whatever context was needed, you knew perfectly well that he could if he wanted to. With a  character like Bond that has no strict canon, even in the novels, save for a few details, this flexibility seems inherent and necessary. Not only does reinvention from scratch help with context, one can play around with origin stories, which Casino Royale showed could be done successfully. You could make your character three-freaking-dimensions, even if it meant getting the occasional accusation that your Bond was more Bourne than, well, Bond. (Accusations are silly, and I like to blame it on Marc Forster. Actually, I like to pretend that mediocre mess Quantum of Solace never actually happened.) And that flexibility and acknowledgement of change brings us to the twenty-third Bond film: Skyfall.

Skyfall does both of these things: it acknowledges the context of a very contemporary and very real universe and it continues to dabble into Bond’s past and origin, without ruining the so-called canon. And not only does it do these things well, it does these things so well, that Bond’s 50 year screen history seems comparably young yet obviously there.

Casino Royale hinted and alluded to the post-9/11 thing a little bit, especially when M refers to the stocks crashing, but the rest of it was primarily built subtly around the style of the film. Skyfall aims to be more overt about the changes, and this, surprisingly, works in the film’s favor. There is, shall we say without spoiling, a very analog versus digital argument in the film that thematically travels in the three Craig films, and is in this one put to an end, I suppose. There is a complete and total admittance that this is a new world; there are terrorists that we fear with technologies we can hardly fathom; that we do need a hero. And that’s what James Bond is for, right?

To my recollection, there are only really two Bond films that have gone at any lengths to explore the protagonist’s past, the two being GoldenEye, in which Bond’s former partner 006 (played by always-going-to-die Sean Bean) returns from the dead and tries to steal money via satellite and Casino Royale, where, as you know, we start from scratch. The interesting aspect of Craig taking on the role of Bond is that there seems to be a new part of the canon being made. As aforementioned, the previous Bond films never paid much attention to continuity and they didn’t have to. This might actually be changing slightly, as least in terms of back story. We get, for the first time, a look waaaay back into Bond’s past. Think origin story, sort of. In Skyfall, we get a peak and Bond’s psyche and self-destructive nature; how hard he is willing to push himself; and how is indeed willing to serve Queen and Country, the Queen being M.

Skyfall is, in a way, one of the weirdest James Bond films primarily because it has one hell of an arsenal of cast and crew. While it has had Judi Dench as M since 1995, she was never really fully utilized until now. She has a role in the film; an important one. Through M, we are allowed to explore what kind of person Bond is and what he is willing to sacrifice. Yes, here, Dench is stunning, real, and raw, and M, for the first time in the franchise, is more than just “the boss”. Ralph Fiennes joins the cast as a government person named Mallory. He fits in with the cast quite well, almost immediately able to pick up the pace when it comes to repartee with Bond. We have Naomi Harris as Eve, both talented, agile, and stunningly gorgeous. We have Berenice Marlohe, whom, I suppose, while certainly adding something to the film, might be Skyfall’s one “weak spot”, though hardly marring the experience. She’s good, no doubt, adding to the Asian atmosphere and certainly introducing Bond to something key, but perhaps inessential in several ways. We have Ben Whishaw as the new, young, snappy Q. Whishaw is actually quite adept at creating a new persona for his new Q while being able to, again, glide into that traditional verbal jousting. Aaaaand, of course, you have your Big Three: Bardem, Mendes, and Deakins.

Javier Bardem should, no doubt, go into the hall of fame for making awful hairstyles into iconic traits of some of the nastiest villains on screen. YES, you heard me, I’m including Bardem’s Silva in that superlative! Maybe it’s Bardem’s theatricality (sans scene chewery), maybe it’s the weird blonde hair, maybe it’s the connection to Bond’s past, but Silva is, name notwithstanding, the most memorable Bond villain to come around in ages. He has, in  the (comparably) short time span of 2 hours and 45 minutes, earned a place in the Rogues Hall of Fame, next to Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, Alec Trevelyan, and Le Chiffre (or maybe I remember him because he’s played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelson?). There is something very wrong and very twisted about Silva that seems so much more damaging than most Bond villains. Maybe a little Freudian on the part of excellent screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, but Bardem’s new villain is one of the most menacing and, dare I say it, one of the most memorable since Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

The last “good” director, as in reputable, they got to direct a Bond film was, arguably, Michael Apted in 1999 for The World is Not Enough. Apted is well known for directing the Up documentary series (in which a number of kids from different socio-economic backgrounds are followed and caught up with every seven years; there’s, like, 8 films in the series), but his entry in the Bond franchise is, sadly, known as one of the weakest. This time, we get the Oscar winner of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road (which is the most depressing film I think I’ve ever seen, in case you were wondering). Does the high caliber of the director make a difference? Here, it looks like it does. AND WHAT A DIFFERENCE. When the film could have had a lot of dull moments (like the ones really anal people complained about in Casino Royale), Mendes makes these moments barely a lull in the story and, instead, a way to further character examination. The film is arguably one the most perfectly paced in the franchise, with nary a dull moment. It balances the high drama and character study with the thrilling action without much fault.  Oh, yeah, the film is one of the most thrilling action films of the year, with set pieces worthy of any Bond film. Mendes’ mark on the Bond series will be indelible.

Which, I suppose, leads me to Deakins. Roger Deakins is very well known for working with the Coen Brothers on films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink, etc. So, getting him to do cinematography for a Bond film is, quite honestly, one of the best decisions ever made. Skyfall is one damn fine looking Bond film: the best looking Bond film of the franchise. Without taking away from the story or even the atmosphere of it being a Bond film, the film looks stunning. Golds, blues, and impeccable lighting fill the film throughout, making you wonder, “Damn, why hasn’t Bond looked this good before?”

The last thing to address is brief: it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise, and much like the fortieth anniversary, which coincided with the release of Die Another Day, there are some clever allusions in the film (much cleverer and much more subtle than the aforementioned film). There’s the DB5 from Goldfinger, there’s an allusion to an exploding pen, etc. But while the first two acts of the film is filled with these little references, they all serve a greater purpose: to acknowledge that there is kind of a history and then to, essentially, make way for a new one. I posit that one of the cleverest decisions made on the crew’s part was to include the innocuous anomalies to the franchise and then discard of them towards the end as we “enter Bond’s psyche” and look into his past. That, I think, was done to really show that the character of James Bond, Agent 007 has truly evolved from just a dapper dandy playing baccarat or poker to a human being facing the world’s new demons at the same time he’s facing his own.

Skyfall isn’t just a great Bond film; it’s a great film period, and one of the best of the year. Exploring new facets of Bond and M, acknowledging the context of the world and universe the film takes place in, and truly allowing the character evolve is all the things this film does right. There’s stunning direction, a bravura performance each from Craig, Bardem, and Dench, and the film looks incredible (see it in IMAX!). If this is the direction Bond is heading towards in future films, count me in. The film left me shaken and stirred. And, most importantly, it reminded me that it’s true: when it comes to saving the world, nobody does it better.

Watch and See – My Favorite 101 Films: Part 3

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Welcome back, to my continuing series of my top 101 films! In case you missed it, here’s part 2!

Welcome back to my continuing series of my favorite 101 films of all time, where you’ll encounter: wood chippers, tanks, “Nazi Julie Andrews”, Beauty and the Beast, something precious, whiskey, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whistled, Nabokov smiling, something too gay to function, the end of the world, memory problems, a smile, and two tragic heroines, who happen to be hookers.

41.          Fargo (1996) Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’ve observed, tend to be neo-noirs disguised under some other sort of other genre clichés. However, their dark classic Fargo is just a straight up noir, studying the lives of criminals, a police officer, a mild mannered guy with a lot of debt, and the small town residents of North Dakota with their funny accents. The Coens described where they grew up as “Siberia with family themed restaurants”, and that description seems to be a good metaphor for the perfect blend of comedy and suspense. The film is dark and cold, but also completely hilarious. Fargo is perfect, dontcha know?

42.          GoldenEye (1995) | Directed by Martin Campbell

I have always asserted that the best James Bond films are simply the best espionage films. It works outside of the series and can stand on its own. This is just as true as Martin Campbell’s first Bond effort, GoldenEye, which ushered in Pierce Brosnan as Double O Seven for the first time. Bridging the gap between the hokey escapism of the previous14 films and the gritty realism of the Craig era, GoldenEye works well because aside from a couple key scenes and the fact that, as per usual, Bond recites his name, it doesn’t feel like a Bond film, therefore not weighted by certain expectations. Even if the expectations were there, it would surpass them, and rightly so. GoldenEye was a fantastic way for Bond to enter the ‘90s.

43.          In the Loop (2009) | Directed by Armando Iannucci

In the Loop is the Dr. Strangelove for the 21st century. The terrific film delves into the world of British politics and profanely satirizes everything. If it weren’t so gut bustingly funny, it would be deeply depressing to realize how incompetent some of these people are. The screenplay is incredible, its language so vulgar and funny that it shed new light on certain topics. And added some insults to my lexicon. (“Nazi Julie Andrews!”) Based loosely on the BBC show The Thick of It, In the Loop spectacularly mocks the fog of war.

44.          Kill Bill (2003/2004) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Kill Bill was Tarantino’s pop art collage. Stealing (or borrowing, whatever you prefer) everything under the sun to create a fast paced, frenetic film, it’s a playscape for the senses. The visceral thrills are second to none, as Tarantino shows off how much he knows about film, provides a badass female lead fantastically played by Uma Thurman, and seems to have an incredibly fun time.

45.          King Kong (2005) | Directed by Peter Jackson

If there has ever been a contemporary remake that’s been done right, it is this one. Peter Jackson’s gorgeously realized film is a stunner in every way. The level of detail, the characterizations, and the look of the film. The best thing about it is, though, the Beauty, Ann Darrow (a charming Naomi Watts) and the Beast, Kong (Andy Serkis is a genius, did you know that?). The love that Kong feels for Ann is so beautiful and so real that the ending breaks my heart every time. Animated with integrity, Kong’s fall from grace is painful and beautiful all at once. No one brings me to tears more often than the utterance of “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”

46.          Kuroneko (1968) | Directed by Kaneto Shindo

This Japanese horror film with a feminist twist features some of the most stunning cinematography in a horror film. Deriving much of the action and movement from traditional Noh Theater, the stage is lit for ghostly shimmers, as a vengeful woman and her mother, who sometimes appear as cats, rip the throats out from samurais. Its plot is fine, but it is undoubtedly a showcase for the presentation, from the beautiful costumes and sets to the dreamlike cinematography. Spectacularly creepy, it’s like dancing with the demons in the pale moonlight.

47.          The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This seems to be Hitchcock at his jauntiest. He may have made other light dark comedies, and even one deliberate comedy, but The Lady Vanishes is his frothiest film yet. Some of the techniques that would become Hitch’s trademark are featured in the film, but whatever the sense of foreboding; it is driven away by how amusing and funny it is. Its romance and the “opposites attract” would actually leave a little bit of a legacy, with Carrie Fisher quoting the film in When Harry Met Sally… (“You’re the most contemptible man I’ve ever met!”) Hitch keeps the audience entertained by both the comedy and the mystery, but even noted film historians have started watching the film with the intent to analyze it heavily and given up, lying back, and relaxing their ride on Hitch’s train.

48.          Lady Vengeance (2005) | Directed by Park Chan-wook

I always go back and forth between this and Oldboy as to which is better. Both are part of a thematic trilogy from Chan-wook, and on days when the Lady takes the cake, she really takes it. The emotional resonance in this film is extraordinary. A beautiful study of revenge and redemption, Lady Vengeance sticks out for its lush colors (or not, if you watch the excellent Fade to White version, in which scene by scene, the film desaturates) and its very Murder on the Orient Express-like conclusion. The treatment revenge has in this film is, in a way, less harsh than in Oldboy. Out protagonist comes to realize what she’s doing and how revenge itself is changing her far more quickly and halfway through the film, her motivations change slightly. It remains one of the most beautiful thrillers of the last decade.

49.          The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (2001 – 2003) | Directed by Peter Jackson

There is not very much to say about Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy that hasn’t been said before. Though the pacing is at times problematic (how would you deal with the material?), it’s extravagant and amazingly huge in scope. If anyone could ever tackle these tomes and bring them to life, it was Jackson.

50.          Lost in Translation (2003) | Directed by Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola is an expert at capturing the meandering reality of loneliness. She did it, probably in a flashier way, with The Virgin Diaries, she did it with more focus on the costumes than on the plot in Marie Antoinette, but she explored the topic perfectly in Lost in Translation, which won her an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Two lonely people in a place where there is a significant language barrier meet and… do not sleep together. Instead, they find in each other kindred souls and a kind of intimacy that is unmatched with merely sex. The exploration of strangers in a lonely place offering solace to one another is pitch perfect in every scene. It turns out that existential ennui translates perfectly for the screen.

51.          M (1931) | Directed by Fritz Lang

Having seen this film several times, there is no way that I will not think of Lang’s noir-ish crime thriller M when I hear the foreboding notes of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Whistled faux-innocently by the ever creepy Peter Lorre is the first sign that nothing good is to come of this. Almost a critique of the police procedural as we know it, the deliberate pacing, sparsely framed shots, and beautiful chiaroscuro all add up to what is an indelible experience. (And, yes, I do consider it a part of German Expressionism).

52.          Manhattan* (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen

I’ve gone back and forth between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan for what feels like ages, but I decided the latter would be in my top ten. More the comedic drama than Annie Hall’s dramatic comedy, the bittersweet tale of unrequited love and intellectuals in New York is a masterpiece. The film’s one liners are perfect, but underneath is the pathos and feeling of desire that everyone feels in the film. The Gershwin filled score adds to these tender moments of drama and romance, aiding the tone perfectly. And, of course, the film features some of the best black and white cinematography ever on screen by the Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis. While some may love New York, I, myself, love Manhattan.

53.          The Manchurian Candidate (2004) | Directed by Jonathan Demme

Here’s another remake that was very successful in terms of quality. Though, re-adaptation seems a little more appropriate. Demme re-appropriates the themes of the original film, which circled around Communism, and used them in a contemporary context. Taking place after Desert Storm, the film gears in on various medical testing and the state of terrorism in the real world. It makes for an effective and taut thriller. Live Schreiber and Meryl Streep are incredible in the film.

54.          Mean Girls (2004) | Directed by Mark Waters

You may think it odd for me to have this film on my Top 101, but I truly adore it. Tina Fey’s acute study of the teenage girl in high school and the desire for popularity is one of the smartest teen films to ever be made. Endlessly quotable, its astute observations (as I mentioned in my lengthy review) are more than true. Even at the small school I go to, there are things that have happened that have reminded me of Mean Girls. Part of this realism is that the film is based on a nonfiction book, the other part being just good writing. Mean Girls is supported by outstanding performances from its cast, including Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Caplan, and Rachel McAdams. Yes, I’m going to say it: This movie is so fetch!

55.          Melancholia* (2011) | Directed by Lars von Trier

It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.

56.          Memento (2000) | Directed by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough art house film is an incredible exploration into memory, denial, and crime. A gloriously fantastic neo-noir with a tight script, amongst the things that make this film extraordinary is the nonlinear narrative. Yes, my friend, linearity goes out the window, as it is played backwards. If I didn’t love this film, I wouldn’t have written my extended essay on it. Guy Pearce plays a damaged man searching for his wife’s killer, but as we go further back into his mind and into the past, the things that are revealed are chilling yet incredibly human. Nolan starts playing his games for the big time in Memento. Stunning in every frame, Memento is one of the greatest film noirs ever made.

57.          Midnight in Paris (2011) | Directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.

58.          Modern Times (1936) | Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin avoided sound for as long as he could, and nearly a decade after The Jazz Singer had premiered with its revolutionary synchronized soundtrack, Chaplin was still holding tight keeping his Little Tramp’s lips sealed. The film is not completely silent. Modern Times incorporates some sound effects and probably half a dozen lines spoken by minor characters. And while Modern Times is undeniably hysterical, heartwarming, and as good of a showcase of Chaplin’s pantomime abilities as any of his films from a great filmography, Modern Times provides some interesting social commentary about consumerism, labor workers, and the industrialization of America. The film also ushered in the classic jazz standard “Smile”, which would be famously sung by Nat King Cole. With its ambiguous, but happy ending, Chaplin would move forward with technology and social awareness in his films.

59.          Moon (2009) | Directed by Duncan Jones

Duncan Jones’ debut feature is a about a man on the moon, who mines, and feels lonely. Yes, the existential crisis of loneliness in space. It sounds rather trite, but with sharp visuals, a gorgeous and atmospheric score by Clint Mansell, and absolutely stunning performance from Sam Rockwell, Moon is a star amongst emotional dramas. Sam Rockwell’s performance of Sam Bell is the “every man”, a man who has been working and mining for the last three years on the moon. When his time on the moon is about to close and he gears up to head back home, he realizes that he has become so attached to solitude, he does not understand how he will cope with the change in environment. It’s a beautiful, subtle, and at times fantastically suspenseful film.

60.          Nights of Cabiria/Vivre sa Vie* (1957/1962) | Directed by Federico Fellini/Jean-Luc Godard

The prostitution of society, religion, magic, celebrity, emotion, and money are the subjects of two of the greatest films ever made. I see Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Godard’s Vivre sa Vie as companion pieces, both dealing with similar subjects, both dealing with similar tragic protagonists, and both ending in similar ways. In Fellini’s film, Giulietta Messina inhabits the outspoken, down on her luck prostitute Cabiria. She aspires to be something bigger, but men constantly, habitually take advantage of her. In Godard’s film, framed around twelve tableaus, Anna Karina plays Nana, a Parisian girl who aspires to be an actress, but soon is relegated to being a prostitute. Both films take place in beautiful places in the world, and show the decrepit nature beneath the façade. Both films are directed with integrity and mastery of the medium. And both films are heartbreaking and tragic. If you don’t cry, or at least shed a tear, at the end of the films, you are a robot or a sociopath. Containing two of the greatest performances by women in cinematic history, both films, exploring complex characters, are the best the world of cinema has to offer.

The Bond Sound

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The music of James Bond has always been one of the highlights of the entire franchise. From the likes of Sheryl Crow, Tina Turner, Carly Simon, Tom Jones, Gladys Knight, and even Jack White and Alicia Keys, the Bond music has become its own form of iconography within the canon. But, really, how similar are they and do they really deserve such praise? Granted, from song to song, the opinion has changed and varied, as it should. But everyone talks about a certain song, even if it’s not even related to the Bond series, as having certain Bond-esque qualities, or a song that would seemingly fit the series for one of the films. If anything, the music should embody the film and the character, the themes and the style of the movie, and the music will always, realistically speaking, reflect something of the times. With the big brass of Shirley Bassey’s voice on the title track to Goldfinger to the electronically manipulated sound of Madonna’s take on Die Another Day, each song has its unique place in Bond history. I’ve been enamored of the Bond films since I was 6 and I first heard the strumming sounds of the James Bond theme from, not Dr. No, but the video games 007: Agent Under Fire. It did not, nor ever will, compare to the one featured in Bond’s first adventure from 1962. There will always be something compelling about that music, something very interesting, even if it’s not very Bond-ian. It’s a trademark of the series, which often fits together with some intoxicatingly beautiful images of nude women in each film’s stunning main title sequence. I will be looking at each of the film’s theme songs and see how they compare as truly Bond-esque. The yardstick I will measure the songs against will be none other than John Barry and Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme”, first featured in the film Dr. No.

1. “The James Bond Theme” from Dr. No (1962), performed by Monty Norman

The theme that started it all. Creeping up on the audience right from the get go, as Bond shoots his gun at the audience and through the gun barrel, thus revealing a gorgeously minimalistic title sequence from title creator Maurice Binder, the Bond theme will always be incredibly iconic with all film goers. The strumming guitar riffs, which were held to a microphone and then manipulated in the studio adding a kind of echo, were originally intended for a musical Norman had been writing. After that had been scrapped, Dr. No composer John Barry requested to use it for a new spy/espionage/action movie. And then history was made. The theme plays in all suspenseful moments, being utilized for, what else, mood music. It makes the most indelible impression, and makes cinematic history, with a simple, “Bond. James Bond.” The heavy brass of the chorus is what it’s all about. The strumming riffs are like the stealthy entrance from the super spy and the big brass is Bond kicking ass. The theme is so smooth, so suave, and so cool that no one could possibly think of another theme being better suited for such a cold, calculated character as James Bond. Despite it being Bond’s first time on the screen, Sean Connery and the music burst onto the silver screen with as more confidence one could have thought. They know exactly what they’re doing here. It’s become a part of popular culture, and has inspired countless rip off and pastiches. But, really, nobody does it better. – A+

2. “James Bond is Back” (John Barry) and “From Russia with Love” (Matt Monro) from From Russia with Love (1963)

Maybe trying to chase the high that was the first James Bond theme, John Barry opted to use another instrumental for the titles of Bond’s second outing, From Russia with Love. Combining the title song (written by Barry, performed by crooner Matt Monro) and the James Bond theme, it feels very much like one of those “A new adventure, but still the same spy” kind of track. The exciting brass will always be iconic within the Bond music. The brass represents that thrill of the Bond films, an element that would disappear later in the themes. The song itself is an interesting piece. It doesn’t quite fit the character, but it somehow fits the film. Bond has never been an actual romantic. As Judi Dench’s M tells him in 1995’s GoldenEye, he’s a “misogynist dinosaur”. Thus, it’s kind of odd to encounter such gorgeous refrains worthy of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in a James Bond film. Bond sleeps with women and then disposes of them, and even though it was the second film, audiences already knew this. How many women did he go through in Dr. No? Three. The lyrics are cute, with the bridge pleading, “I’ve seen face, places, and smiles for a moment; but oh, you haunted me so”. The film’s Bond girl, Tatiana, is hardly the love of Bond’s life and would barely leave an impression on him. That being said, although the lyrics most definitely do not fit the film itself, the general composition and tone of the song certainly does. Full of lush strings, and gypsy-sounding tambourines, the tonal quality fits the locale and feel of the film. It’s a personal favorite of mine to listen to, yet it remains fairly underrated and obscure. – A-/B+

3. “Goldfinger” from Goldfinger (1964), performed by Shirley Bassey

The brass is back and louder than ever. Strong with the strings and ominous tone, “Goldfinger” is one of the most memorable tracks Bond has ever produced. With Shirley Bassey at the front, this began a grand tradition of hiring famous people to sing the Bond themes. The lyrics here are probably a lot weaker than people are willing to admit. It’s not the lyrics that make the song (“Such a cold finger; beckons you to enter his web of sin; but don’t go in”), it’s Bassey’s great voice. Resounding with thunder, Bassey makes the track so good; you kind of forget the lyrics are kind of terrible. Who else can hold a note like that end note? This most definitely fits the Bond type of music, and with good reason. – A

4. “Thunderball” from Thunderball (1965), performed by Tom Jones

With big brass remaining a hallmark of the Bond themes, we also have music whose lyrics talk about the film’s villain, rather than Bond himself. I don’t know if I quite agree with that, but it would work for the next forty or so years. Tom Jones powerful voice thunders during the track, which uses big brass much better than “Goldfinger”. With a title like “Thunderball”, it’s a good thing they took it to heart and made it as jazzy, classy, and loud as possible. It a strange way, although the lyrics are relatively simple, it manages to explore certain themes within the villainous canon of Bond bad guys than any other song in the series. Yet another winner in my book. – A-

5. “You Only Live Twice” from You Only Live Twice (1967), performed by Nancy Sinatra

Her boots are made for walking, she was shot down, and apparently, she only lives twice. Yes, Bond managed to snag Old Blue Eyes’ daughter for a Bond theme. But, the trend of songs only very vaguely related to the villains, themes, characters, etc. can be once again found here. Although Ian Fleming opened his original novel with a haiku (“You only live twice/ Once when you are born/ and once when you look death in the face.”), the song itself speaks vaguely of love and danger and being a stranger. It’s muddled and lacks enough of the Japanese influence to really suit the movie. It’s also kind of boring. – C

6. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Theme” (John Barry) and “We Have All the Time in the World” (Louis Armstrong), from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Was it because “You Only Live Twice” kind of sucked or did John Barry just have an itch to have an instrumental “reminiscent” of the original Bond theme start the film? Either way, it was unsuccessful. Using a strange, maybe electronic technique for the bass guitar, the music does not truly allude to the style of Bond, even with the use of the brass. I suppose I can give them kudos for making it sound like you’re going down a mountain, sort of. But, OHMSS was the introduction of the first new actor to play James Bond, Australian actor George Lazenby. So, I guess a new theme was in order for a new Bond? The title sequence uses images and scenes from past Bond films and passes them through an hour glass. And then we have the great Louis Armstrong, Satchmo, on his last recording ever with the sweet, melancholy “We Have All the Time in the World”. This wonderfully romantic tune does make sense here, as James Bond marries Tracy Vicenzo (Dianna Rigg). However, I’m not a big fan of his voice, so it isn’t something I would listen to. – C/B-

7. “Diamonds Are Forever” from Diamonds Are Forever (1971), performed by Shirley Bassey

Once again, Shirley Bassey returns to make mediocre lyrics look splendid in a very chilling theme. Also, Sean Connery makes his final return as James Bond, after Lazenby had stepped out after only one film. The main problem of many of the Bond songs is you have no idea who’s narrating the song. But here, again, it doesn’t really matter. I suppose one could assume that it’s Blofeld, because he’s the villain, but then she begins talking about men, so maybe Jill St. John’s diamond smuggler Tiffany Case. The song combines the chilling tone, the brass we know and love, and carefully chosen strains of disco-esque tones. It creates something pretty perfect, and that’s mostly thanks to Bassey’s helluva voice. – A

8. “Live and Let Die” from Live and Let Die (1973), performed by Paul McCartney and Wings

If you can’t have the Beatles, I guess you might as well have McCartney and Wings. The lyrics have nothing to do with the movie or anything. It’s only vaguely, and I mean vaguely related to the title. McCartney and his wife apparently could barely muster enough wit to explore the actual philosophy that Fleming satirizes in his title. If anything, it’s an exercise in self-indulgence and excess. Yes, the loud parts of the song are action pack and thrilling, but it means nothing and fails to leave any real mark emotionally on the viewer other than “oh that is so cool”. Even though it is, in my opinion, one of the series’ weakest songs, and honestly, most pointless, it has enduring strength. It’s like a half-assed version of “Band on the Run” in the way that it transitions (without reason) from style to style, but here it’s back and forth and not nearly as well composed. Despite the movie taking cues from Blaxploitation movies like Shaq and the films of Pam Grier, there’s no obvious influence of that music style in the theme. This was also Roger Moore’s first Bond, one out of seven. I guess they wanted to market him as exciting. Instead of honestly marketing him as kind of pithy and corny. – D

9. “The Man with the Golden Gun” from The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), performed by Lulu

Again, we find ourselves going back to our roots and vaguely talking about the villain in question, one Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). Where “Live and Let Die” failed to marry Bond’s jazzy roots with newer, cooler rock and roll, “The Man with the Golden Gun” does so much more successfully. It feels like a crossover of jazz to rock, probably more the latter than the former. The electric guitar slashes through the song, and Lulu’s pop-esque voice works well for the song. While not nearly as skilled or convincing as Bassey, Lulu still manages to some extent disguise the fact that the words are poorly written and lackluster. – B+

10. “Nobody Does it Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), performed by Carly Simon

This song is definitely about you, Mr. Bond, and it is one of the first to have the lyrics explicitly address James Bond himself. I’m not sure why everyone loves this song, and I’m not sure why I even love it. It’s sweet, tender, and honest; qualities that do not match the Bond series in any way. Marvin Hamlisch’s disco inspired song manages to work, somehow. From the beginning piano riff, it’s totally romantic and somehow totally works. Carly Simon’s beautiful voice, so pop inspired and so recognizable from her song about that other singer, just fills the speakers with sweetness. I don’t know how, because it shouldn’t work. It doesn’t fit the rest of the music, where even “You Only Live Twice” hypothetically makes more tonal sense than this song. But it just does. – A

11. “Moonraker” from Moonraker (1978), performed by Shirley Bassey

Not even Bassey’s flawless voice can save the lyrics of this song. Not only is the title track to one of the worst Bond movies asinine, it is painful to listen to. It does not make any sense from anyone’s perspective. Not Bond’s, not the villain’s, not even the Bond girl’s. This is a new low for Bond.  – D-

12. “For Your Eyes Only” from For Your Eyes Only (1981), performed by Sheena Easton

Yet another song that is only vaguely related to the title and so totally does not make sense to the series or the film. If “Nobody Does It Better” was suited to The Spy Who Loved Me somewhat in tone, this one again fails to make any sense. This track is probably most explicitly related to disco/pop and thus most explicitly nonsensical and annoying. Sheena Easton’s voice is good though, but it would be much more suited for a romantic comedy of some sort than a James Bond film, of all things. – C+

13. “All Time High” from Octopussy (1983), performed by Rita Coolidge

The song that is fun to listen to but has no relation to even the title. It’s like the lyricists are getting really lazy here. Granted, the song itself is pleasant, with its soft rock inflections and pleasant performance, just not right for Bond. – C

14. “A View to a Kill” from A View to a Kill (1985), performed by Duran Duran

By track fourteen, you begin to question why the Bond songs are iconic at all. Besides Shirley Bassey, Carly Simon, and the Bond Theme itself, most of the songs have been incredibly lack luster. Here, with the number one band of the 1980’s, Duran Duran, we do have a little hope., The lyrics are still fairly terrible, but there is some kind of marriage of Bond’s themes and characters with that of very contemporary music. “Dance into the fire” is very action packed sounding, and that’s the best you can hope for this far into the game. (It may be sad that I only knew who Duran Duran was because of this song whenever people would bring them up.) – B

15. “The Living Daylights” from The Living Daylights (1987), performed by a-Ha

By now, Bond’s brassy sound of action had been pretty much thrown away In favor of sounding as contemporary as possible, and thus barely acknowledging the roots of Bond’s style or theme. It’s that theme that made Bond so iconic. Yes, it was all those other factors, but that theme left an impression so indelible on music history, that it’s something exclusive to that brand and to that character. Any spy can drive a cool car, play poker, and have gadgets and girls, but only one man has that theme. I’m not really sure what to make of a-Ha’s Bond theme for The Living Daylights. I’m not sure what the music means. It sounds somewhat orchestral, somewhat electronic, and somewhat like rock. It’s like an amalgam of those genres that is not messy exactly, but it’s far from perfectly executed. The falsetto singing throws one off a little. It’s not a terrible song, but it doesn’t really make sense. – B-

16. “Licence to Kill” from Licence to Kill (1989), performed by Gladys Knight

Much like “Moonraker” and “Live and Let Die”, “License to Kill” is the kind of song I will skip over if it comes up on my iPod. And since I happen to have the album The Best of Bond…James Bond on my iPod, it happens every so often. Continuing the trend of irrelevant lyrics and contemporary style over any relation to roots or the film’s themes, it has a very R&B feel to it. You would think that a film dealing with a Colombian drug lord would have a little spice to it. But, no, instead we get a plodding pseudo-ballad about heartbreak and the singer belting, “I got a license to kill, and you know I’m aiming straight for your heart”. So trite and annoying.  – D

17. “GoldenEye” from GoldenEye (1995), performed by Tina Turner

Is it wrong for me to just expect Tina Turner doing a Bond theme to be damn good? I hope not. The song is a nice return after a series of stupid, trite, and irrelevant tracks, a nice return to quality and mystery, much like the film itself. Pierce Brosnan’s first adventure as James Bond will always be one of my favorites, because, in a nut shell, it’s just a damn good movie. The song was penned by U2’s Bono and the Edge, so that definitely adds to the “hell yes” factor. Paying homage vocally to Shirley Bassey, Turner handles the song with integrity, adding throaty and gritty vocals to every note. The lyrics make sense too! Sung from the perspective of Alec Trevelyan, Agent 006, Janus, and the man who betrayed Bond, the song is actually a deep and interesting look at jealousy and greed. A Bond song that not only makes sense to the film but is also actually good? You’re kidding! I am not. “GoldenEye” begins with string plucks and walks the line of contemporary pop music and sweet, mysterious jazz, and does so beautifully. And Tina Turner is always, shall we say, Onatopp of things. – A

18. “Tomorrow Never Dies” from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), performed by Sheryl Crow

With an entirely new Bond of the 1990’s we get an entirely new kind of song for each film. “Tomorrow Never Dies”, while not the masterpiece I think “GoldenEye” is, is nonetheless an interesting examination of Bond’s cold heart. The best guess as to whose point of view the song is supposed to be would be Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher), Bond’s former lover and current wife to villain. Or maybe it’s the cynical view of Wai Linn (Michelle Yeoh), who is, essentially, Bond’s match (one of the first legitimate matches, from what I remember). Sheryl Crow’s soaring vocals are always a treat, and the orchestral nature of the music is a lovely acknowledgement of Bond’s orchestral days. The song, though, is a bit enigmatic, but it at least makes some sense to an extent. – B+

19. “The World is Not Enough” from The World is Not Enough (1999), performed by Garbage

Another one of my personal favorites, and what I can say is a nice psychoanalysis of the film’s villain Elektra King, Garbage’s take on a Bond theme involves lush strings and passionate guitar. A proper homage to the Bond films of yore, with lyrics that correspond to dialogue in both TWINE and OHMSS. It is one of the most perfect examples of a rock crossover to whatever genre also makes up this fantastic song. Shirley Manson, the band’s lead vocalist, hits some pretty great notes in the song, and she looks fabulous doing it in the track’s music video. This span of great Bond tracks is short lived though. *sigh* – A

20. “Die Another Day” from Die Another Day (2002), performed by Madonna

I imagine that when it was announced that Madonna would sing the title track to Brosnan’s last Bond film, some people were thinking, “Wait, why didn’t they ask her in the ‘80’s, or even ‘90’s?” The lady who is still releasing singles to this day brought us a weird electro pop song that is so much less than what it aspires to be. Instead, it feels like the lackluster songs of the Moore films, the ones that basically made no connection between the lyrics of the song and the film itself, as opposed to the title. Maybe I’m being a little harsh, as one could make the connection that it relates to the movie’s bad guy, Gustav Graves. (On the electro pop note, it should be noted that here, more than ever, composer David Arnold employed a lot of electronic manipulation to the music.) But that’s stretching it. They probably should have asked her more than a decade ago to do it. – C

21. “You Know My Name” (Chris Cornell) and “The James Bond Theme” (David Arnold) from Casino Royale (2006)

Apparently, an origin story calls for a whole new theme, so rocking and rollicking that it’ll blow your mind. We’ve had songs that talk vaguely about the title, or about the villain, or talk vaguely about James Bond himself, and the occasional one that talks explicitly, and well, about Bond. But we’ve never had a James Bond theme that’s from the point of view of the Master Spy himself. Woo, we get an existential self-evaluation about what it’s like to be a cold killing machine. And, because it’s addressed to someone, we can then assume he’s talking to Vesper Lynd, the gorgeous beauty. What do I love about this song? Besides everything, the lyrics are powerful and relevant, the music pulsates, and, as an origin song, it totally makes sense. Is there any homage to the Bond theme itself? Not really, and with good reason. Yes there’s a little bras, but this is Bond for a new generation, one that is starting from scratch. So, the musical motif throughout the film is not the James Bond theme, but actually refrains from “You Know My Name”. But that isn’t to say Bond’s theme has disappeared completely. On the contrary, just as Bond finally discovers that he is the man with the license to kill, and we hear his “first” utterance of “Bond. James Bond.”, David Arnold serves us up with a retro, neo-classical update of the Bond theme. It honors the original but has its own kind of cool tone. I would say “You Know My Name” is my all-time favorite Bond theme, for it is song writing and storytelling at its best. – A+/A

22. “Another Way to Die” from Quantum of Solace (2008), performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys

I will forever resent Jack White and Alicia Keys for even stepping foot in the studio to do this song. The opening riff sounds like it was literally ripped from “You Know My Name”’s opening riffs and just put in bass form. The lyrics seem strangely more suited to something like, I don’t know, a hybrid of rap, pop, and R&B. The overall sound is a confusing mess, trying to do what Casino Royale did, but failing completely. That’s how I feel about Quantum of Solace in general; Casino Royale was so good that they wanted to recreate that feeling. The voices aren’t suited to the song and here we have a song that, perhaps like “All Time High”, seems to have nothing to do with the movie. A huge letdown, like the film itself. – C-


The Bond music will always be memorable, but the only reason that is because of a select few songs that are deservingly iconic. There are a couple that are underrated, but for the most part, that “Bond sound” only exists in about six or seven of the over twenty-two themes produced in the entire franchise. The longest lasting franchise has inexplicably created the longest lasting impression of a certain kind of sound. Yet that “sound” is inconsistent, and nearly disappears for an entire set of the songs, which means almost a decade. Let’s hope that with the new song for the upcoming Bond film Skyfall, it’ll be a song with integrity and with good lyrics. We need that music to let us know that one man is on the screen, Bond. James Bond.

Top 5

1. James Bond Theme – Dr. No

2. You Know My Name – Casino Royale

3. GoldenEye – GoldenEye

4. Goldfinger – Goldfinger

5. Thunderball – Thunderball