Did you hear? A new James Bond movie is coming out.
And, as such things happen, we got a new Bond theme to add to the illustrious canon: “No Time To Die” by Billie Eilish.
And … the sainted Johnny Marr showed up for this?
Look, I like Billie Eilish!
Really, I do. I was intrigued to hear what she could do with the form, because Bond themes are damn near their own genre now. However, she fails to break the trends of recent Bond themes.
Remember when James Bond movie themes weren’t all expected to be slow-walking, sad-sack piano ballads with some strings in the back?
We’ve lost the grandeur, the bigness, the bombast that was the Bond theme. And we likely will stay on this wave for a longer while still, because Adele and Sam Smith won Oscars for doing this same song.
“Skyfall” is the best version of this. Nonetheless, like Adele’s lesser songs, it’s got a strong start with fair bombast that carries you before you realize it’s not doing much and doesn’t go very far. And I wish, I wish that the 2019-20 Sam Smith got a crack at a danceable-but-sad Bond theme instead of giving us the musical Zoloft ad that is “Writing’s On The Wall.”
“No Time To Die” is literally more of the same, as the fourth Bond theme in the past eight films (23 years) to have “die” in the title. The only one before that was “Live and Let Die” in 33 years from 1962 to 1995.
I never liked “Live and Let Die” because it’s so disjointed, but it still has a lot going for it melodically, and it does contain the bombast that I want from a Bond theme. Even the sweeter ones, such as “Nobody Does It Better” or “For Your Eyes Only,” have a bigness to them that we’re not getting now.
Shirley Bassey set such a high mark with “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever.” Her vocal imprint sticks on the brand still, and likely will forever.
That’s not a bad thing, really. I don’t think the problem comes from people trying to be Bassey.
You don’t have to be her, but the precedent of such a big voice lends to the grandeur and extravagance of the Bond fantasy. Other big-voiced divas did it well, including Gladys Knight (“License To Kill”), and Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye” is the last great Bond theme.
Even some of the male singers were able to bring it with big, cheesy crooning, such as Matt Monro on “From Russia With Love.” Tom Jones, that super Saiyan of a ham, nearly makes you understand what the hell a “Thunderball” is.
I don’t even fault the themes that chase trends, because I think they’ve done that to overall success. Garbage’s peak ’90s overproduction sells “The World Is Not Enough.” And my favorite trend chaser may be “A View To A Kill” by Duran Duran.
It captures a feeling of near-gleeful danger with the “dance into the fire” refrain, even though it seems to copy a lot from the David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” that came out a few years before.
I think the downfall of the Bond theme, from “Skyfall” onward, sits with composers learning the wrong lessons from John Barry’s iconic theme. People remember Barry’s strings and horns, but they forget the swing and verve of them that bolstered the Bond swagger.
Listen to the theme from “Dr. No” again. Really listen. From the first bass note on the downbeat, then trombone bleating out a bump-bump-bump on each upbeat, the tapping on the cymbals, and then that surf guitar sidewinding its way into frame, the song swings. It builds, and then the gong and brass kick in along with a standard swing beat on the drums, to a drumroll and brass going ba-dum, ba-da-ba-da, ba-dum, ba-da-ba-da.
Bond now is spartan, bleak and brutal, as personified by Craig’s beautifully stony visage, his chiseled but battered body, his razor-sharp crew cut, and suits nearly molded to his flesh.
How can the music swing when Daniel Craig’s Bond feels so apocalyptic and worn down, as he rages against obsolescence, loneliness, and the gaping void of death and destruction? That’s the Bond we have now, in service of realism, I guess. (Which is funny, given how the ending of Spectre was so wildly unrealistic that it perhaps should have shuttered the entire franchise once and for all.)
The Craig era of Bond exists amid late capitalism, rising autocracy and oligarchy around the world, 20 years of the war on terror, global warming setting the world afire, Wikileaks, Putin, Trump, Homeland and 24. Everything feels bleaker, and the future is nothing to dream about. Q isn’t even as fun anymore, as tech has become its own world-ending spectre.
On the business side of things, every one of Craig’s Bond films after the inaugural Casino Royale has nearly been the final one. The script for the next film, Quantum of Solace, literally arrived two hours before the writers’ strike of 2007-08, and the studio could not hire any writers to fine-tune it. Co-distributor MGM went bankrupt in 2010.
A pair of gloves Craig wore during an action scene in Skyfall reportedly almost bankrupted the entire production. (Look it up!) Then the script for Spectre was stolen in the hacking scandal that hit Sony Pictures, parent company of the other co-distributor, Columbia Pictures, in 2014.
Amid all that turmoil, Craig repeatedly and publicly voiced ambivalence about continuing with the role for most of these past 15 years. He’s turned down more than $99 million to come back, called the character a misogynist, even commented he’d prefer suicide.
Some of that surely was kayfabe for the contract negotiations, but I do think Craig is genuinely worn out by the whole process of making these movies. Why wouldn’t he be, given that he started at age 37?
Timothy Dalton was 40 when he got his first turn as Bond in The Living Daylights, yes. At least that was in an era before Jason Bourne close-up handfighting, an ageless Tom Cruise doing his own stunts, and all that. Under Craig, the role become known for being so physically punishing, as they slid more superhero aesthetics into the films.
Craig turns 52 this year. Sean Connery looked too old for this shit in Bond un-retirement for 1983’s Never Say Never Again. He was 53. Roger Moore says he stepped down after 1985’s A View To A Kill because, one day during filming, he found out his ingenue co-star’s mother was the same age as him. He was 58 then!
Craig, the studio, and everyone is saying No Time To Die is his actual, final time out as James Bond.
So when and how do we get the swing and swagger back into Bond themes, and Bond himself?
A new Bond may be part of the solution. New Bond, new energy? Speculation says Taron Egerton, whom we’ve already seen be Bond-like in the Kingsmen movies, is the front-runner for the role now, unstoppable Idris Elba rumors be damned.
Maybe a new gender?
Brosnan, who ushered Bond into the “new era” 1990s with less overt sexism and misogyny in the role, has been calling for a woman to step up. And Captain Marvel breakout actress Lashana Lynch is in No Time To Die as a new Agent 007 who tries to persuade Bond to come out of retirement. Producer Barbara Broccoli says she’s rather keep the role male, though.
But I do know one thing that could put this swing-less Bond theme trend to rest.
When Timothée Chalamet or somebody reads the winner of Best Original Song at the 93rd Academy Awards next year, it’s got to be something, anything else taking home the Oscar.
A hero must rise to put “No Time To Die” and all sad-sack Bond themes in a casket.
Now get to it.