Even though Skyfall has been in theaters and released on home video for quite some time, I thought I’d go ahead and fill up the interweb with some pointless thoughts on one of my favorite parts of the Bond franchise: the theme songs.
There are a lot of ways that this film series provides a continuing time capsule of popular culture. There’s the political aspects. (Russians are the bad guys. No, industrialists are the bad guys. No, terrorists are the bad guys.) There’s the gender role aspects. (Moneypenny adores Bond. Moneypenny puts up with Bond. Moneypenny flirts hopefully with Bond.) And a review of the action sequences shows the steady increase in complexity, cost and inventiveness that the movie industry invests in sheer spectacle.
But the way these films really set themselves in their time is the opening song that underscores what is usually a visually stunning opening sequence. (Two films had no song, Dr. No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so I won’t be discussing either of those films, though they’re both still pretty good.) Bond theme songs are never at the real cutting edge of music, but they’re usually only a few years behind the curve, and considering the investment the studio is putting into the pictures as a whole, you can’t really blame them for being just a bit cautious.
Rather than subject anyone to a monster post reviewing 20 songs, I’m splitting the Bondiverse up into decades. So, we start in the 1960’s:
“From Russia with Love” – Matt Munro sings this somewhat sleepy, yet still sweet love song. Right of the bat, we run into one of the strange obstacles the song writers had to deal with on this series: coming up with a reasonable song that has the same title as the film. (Thank goodness they gave up on that when Octopussy came around!) The tune has a fun Russian feel in the instrumentation, but everything else is straightforward strings and simple percussion. The other recurring theme that is introduced here is the sense of love as a tenous thing, something that might easily shatter. This is one of the most unabashedly romantic of the theme songs.
“Goldfinger” – Enter Shirley Bassey singing another ridiculously titled song. Musically, this song brings to the fore something we’ll hear a lot in future songs: a brass section blaring out a variation of the Bond theme. Here we have a song that has a portrait of the villain of the film, not to mention some foreshadowing of the death of Jill Masterson, smothered by gold paint. Rather than the simple love story vibe of “From Russia with Love”, this song teases some sex. “Such a cold finger beckons you to enter his web of sin… but don’t go in!” There’ll be more of that to come.
“Thunderball” – Tom Jones belts out another insanely titled song. And this time, it really doesn’t work. The song is good enough, but it’s really a stretch when you have lyrics like “and he strikes… like Thunderball!” The strings are back, but the brass section is again working overtime with that Bond theme variation. Lyrically, this is the first song that serves as a portrait (and not a flattering one) of James Bond himself: “He will break any heart without regret… His needs are more, so he gives less.” Crap, this Bond guy’s kind of a douche.
“You Only Live Twice” – Welcome to the Bondiverse, Nancy Sinatra! This song has a more poetic title to work with, and so a reasonable lyric presents itself: “You only live twice, or so it seems: one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Aw… That’s nice. Much like “From Russia with Love”, this song eschews the blaring horns and settles on a simple string arrangement with the addition of some eccentric Japanese plinking that echoes one of the key settings in the film. The substance of the song is maddeningly vague. “Love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on. Don’t think of the danger, or the stranger is gone.” Huh? Well, love and danger are prominent, so we have ourselves a Bond song!
Well, that’s it for the Swinging Sixties. Next up, the… also Swinging Seventies!