Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Shaken. Not Stirred. -- Part 1 -- The Music

Stop looking at me through your gun. That's the worst way to kill someone.
With the release of 23rd Bond film, I took to watching all the lead-up movies in quick succession. It was quite the ride, indeed. In a fifty-year lifespan such as Bond's, there are bound to be missteps, weak links, and duds, but there are also some high points, some defining and definitive moments, and a good mix of action, humor, sex, and whimsy thrown into a diabolical plot to take over the world.

Twenty-three films is nothing to laugh at, and it's twenty-five, if you count the original Casino Royale with the endlessly charismatic David Niven as Bond, (and Woody Allen as a particularly nebbish villain Dr. Noah) and the Sean Connery-driven "spin-off" Never Say Never, Again (an unfortunate rehash of  the full-stride Connery-Bond era Thunderball). And the legacy it leaves and continues to leave on spy movies specifically and action movies as a whole is something more to be regarded than trivialized, although we do have to acknowledge some glaring miscalculations along the way (like is it impressive or awkward that two separate movies portray stereotypical Asians?)

I've made some lists ranking, in my opinion, the most important Bond elements.
Here is the first.

The James Bond Theme Song
The Bond theme song has always played an important role in the reception of the movie it represents. Played over the opening credits, the imagery depicted has ranged from abstract violence, broad references to plot points or settings, fire and guns, the female form, often water. Like one of those odd music videos played in the background of a dark dance club, the relevance can often be questionable, but the music over the years has always been strong. Revealing Adele to be the singer for Skyfall was almost as big of an announcement as the release of the movie itself.
The theme is often reflective of the time period, but has always conveyed a certain amount of bravado and bombast. The songs, like the movies themselves, rarely convey subtlety and nuance, but speak to Bond as a character, the movie as a thrilling piece, and music as a mood-setter.
Live and Let Die and Nobody Does It Better, and even We Have All the Time in the World, grew much bigger outside the world of Bond and are undeniably great songs, but I wanted to get more specific to the Bond universe. 
Here are 5 of the most interesting songs to me, and 3 of my least favorite.

My 5 Favorite Bond Theme Songs...
5.) "Another Way to Die" - Jack White and Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace)
An unlikely choice maybe to some, but the quirky collaboration of White and Keys is intriguing enough alone. I love that the theme has a grittier spy feel, the discordance is oddly harmonious, and the pieces all come together in a curious but satisfying way, much like a Bond film. It's definitely one of the better "departures" of the more modern Bond themes that started with Madonna's. This, like my number 4 choice, is the saving grace for a sub-par Bond outing.

4.) "Diamonds Are Forever" - Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever)
Of the three Bassey-sung tunes, this one captures her style most of all. Many see Bassey as the definitive Bond theme singer and while I don't deny her crown as the most prolific, there's a certain timeliness in the songs that leave something to be desired years later. But nonetheless, it's still obviously one of my very favorites, I mean that voice has undeniable power and strength, and it saves a pretty lackluster movie. 

3.) "License to Kill" - Gladys Knight (License to Kill)
Something about Ms. Knight has always fascinated me. Perhaps it's that huskier, darker tone she has, that adds more soul to anything she sings, but I always get very excited when I see her perform or realize she's singing on the radio. When I first saw License to Kill, I had no idea she sang the theme until the credit sequence started. It was strong, soulful, and stirring. Later, I looked back on it as a template for what a Bond theme could be. Still a strong female singer, but changing with the times (I've always mostly preferred a female singer for the theme: Bassey, Nancy Sinatra, Carly Simon, even Rita Coolidge though the song wasn't that great). For me, Gladys is the voice. 

2.) "Skyfall" - Adele (Skyfall)
Again, a female singer just seems to bring it all together for me. I was damn impressed with Adele's take on a Bond theme, a refreshing mix of throwback to the Bassey days, while using the intricate orchestrations of the more modern takes.

1.) "Thunderball" - Tom Jones (Thunderball)
I know, I know...not a female singer. But. This theme is just the best. Most of the themes for me reflect more on the villain or the abstracted themes of the movie. Thunderball is one of the rare cases where the song is truly about Bond. Also, Tom Jones. You just don't have a male performer like him anymore. Groban is in the neighborhood, Buble is interesting, and Vandross was probably the closest we ever had, but Jones. I used to use this song to psyche up before shows. Also, I haven't seen him do it, but I'm willing to bet anything that he can still sing this with the same agility and quality as he did decades ago.

...And My 3 Least
3.) "For Your Eyes Only" - Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only)
Bland and inoffensive, not particularly bad for any reason, Easton sounds great, but the song is really more like a montage backing than a full theme. Completely forgettable.

2.) "The Living Daylights" - a-ha (The Living Daylights)
Just a year before, there was a great idea to take the biggest band at the time and have them do the theme. A View to a Kill by Duran Duran is an arguably strong theme, though not of my favorites personally. But when they attempted strike twice with the "Take On Me" band, I think they completely missed the mark. The Living Daylights theme is pure poppy trash.

1.) "The Man with the Golden Gun" - Lulu (The Man with the Golden Gun)
What first disappoints me about the theme is the blatant attempt to recreate a Shirley Bassey theme, both in performance and construction. For as talented a performer as she may be (and to be fair, I have nothing else to judge her on) Lulu possesses none of Bassey's chops and she gets lost in the bombastic orchestration she is attempting to sing over. The second thing that disappoints me is that of all people, Alice Cooper was the runner-up who wrote and performed his own Golden Gun theme. When I heard that one, I was even more severely disappointed by this choice.

That does it for the Music! Up Next: The Bond Girls.