|Léa Seydoux in Spectre|
I'm more of a fan of the music of 007 than the actual 007 movies themselves (although I'm fond of From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Living Daylights and the 2006 Casino Royale, and I like a lot of what Sam Mendes and Penny Dreadful showrunner John Logan--as well as regular Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins--brought to the table in Skyfall). It's a franchise that's committed more misses than hits in its 53-year history, artistically speaking, and I understand why Andrew Ti from Yo, Is This Racist? despises the 007 movies a lot more than I do. "He's like the literal personification of imperialism," grumbles Ti about a franchise that's either ridiculed and emasculated Asian men (Licence to Kill) or killed off the ones who, for a change, aren't villains like half-Pinoy ex-wrestler Dave Bautista's Spectre henchman character Mr. Hinx (A View to a Kill). I'm sure Ti would also be thrilled about the time Bond told a black sidekick to fetch him his shoes.
That's why--despite how well Daniel Craig plays Bond as a broken man and how interestingly the underrated Timothy Dalton similarly portrayed the Ian Fleming character as a damaged soul (particularly when he's seen still mourning his murdered wife Tracy in Licence to Kill)--I've never viewed this personification of imperialism as a hero I'd root for and completely identify with. I may ogle the Bond women and admire the artistry of some of the Bond action sequences, but I've never felt like these action movies were being made for me--in the same way that Justin Lin was making Fast Five and Furious 6 specifically for me and creating the first non-stereotypical, post-Sulu Asian American cinematic action hero in the form of Sung Kang's Han, a character Lin so regretted killing off in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift that he ballsily rewound the Fast and the Furious series timeline just so he could include Han in the action again.
I've seen all the 007 movies except Moonraker (Buffy once warned me against renting it), and the best and most fascinating thing about these movies that are still being run with a tight fist by the same family that started them (the story of the Broccoli family business, by the way, is another fascinating tale in itself) is often the score music. "It's mean stuff. It's not pretty or sanitised. It sounds tough. That's why [John Barry's] work has been sampled so much by hip-hop artists - those sinister horn stabs, especially," wrote superproducer Mark Ronson about the aural template that was established in the '60s by the late Barry and later recreated by Barry fan David Arnold in five consecutive 007 movies and regular Mendes composer Thomas Newman in Skyfall and now Spectre. Even when the movie's terrible, either Barry or Arnold would bring an unmistakable pulse to the original music. Unfortunately, that pulse is missing from "Writing's on the Wall," the newly released Spectre theme performed by British singer/songwriter Sam Smith and written by the blue-eyed soul artist (in what he claims to be only 20 minutes of songwriting) and Jimmy Napes, who both penned "Stay with Me," the 2014 Smith pop hit that bizarrely sounds like the love child of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and the theme from I'll Fly Away.
I'm not going to be like a lot of haters of the Spectre theme on social media and dismiss the theme with an extremist, Blaine and Antoine-style "Hated it!" (although some of those anti-"Writing's on the Wall" tweets are amusing, particularly one woman's description of the tune as "a drunk elephant tried to do karaoke to an Adele song whilst singing like James Blunt"), because the theme is actually an okay 007 ballad in the mold of Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty's Secret Service's dating montage and the Pretenders' "If There Was a Man" at the end of The Living Daylights, which were both produced by Barry. In fact, the best aspect of "Writing's on the Wall" is its Barry-style dramatic orchestrations, particularly before Smith's trademark falsetto comes in and warbles typical 007 song lyrics like "I'm prepared for this/I never shoot to miss." The first 15 seconds are classic 007 travelogue music.
But as an opening title theme for a 007 movie, "Writing's on the Wall" leans a little too adult contemporary for my tastes. "I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond, where you see into his heart a little bit," said Smith to NPR about lyrics like the rather adult contemporary-ish "How do I live, how do I breathe?/When you're not here I'm suffocating." RogerEbert.com writer Odie "Odienator" Henderson would complain on his blog about Adele's beloved and pitch-perfect "Skyfall" being too slow and putting him to sleep. Henderson doesn't understand that "Skyfall" is supposed to have a funereal tone because the song is actually about the death of M and is written from her point of view. That's why it would have been stupid to open Skyfall with a "View to a Kill"-style dance floor banger, whereas "Writing's on the Wall" is the kind of somnambulant tune Henderson misguidedly thought "Skyfall" was.
"Where's the intrigue? Where's the danger?," wonders Idolator in its pan of "Writing's on the Wall." After those terrific first 15 seconds, the song never really builds towards anything memorable or punchy. What particularly makes "Writing's on the Wall" disappointing is that it reteamed Smith and Napes with the U.K. garage act Disclosure, a.k.a. brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, but it has little of the spark of earlier Smith/Napes/Disclosure tracks. I had no idea Disclosure had a hand in producing the Spectre theme until I saw several pop music blogs take note of Disclosure's involvement, right after I downloaded the "Writing's on the Wall" single from Amazon and then listened to it and thought I had teleported into the "Brian McKnight helps Martin propose to Gina in the park" episode of Martin instead of an action thriller.
"The reason we got involved afterwards was to try and add a bit of post production and they just wanted it to sound a little more spacey and add something behind it that wasn't just a straight-up orchestra," said the duo to the U.K.'s Capital FM radio network. While trying to lend a hand to something that they've said is "a lot more along the 'Goldfinger' lines," Disclosure, an act I enjoy for never being too saccharine in their music, sacrificed too much of what makes them great and took a turn towards the saccharine. k.d. lang and Garbage previously proved in Tomorrow Never Dies' Arnold-produced "Surrender" and the Arnold-produced opening title theme for The World Is Not Enough, respectively, that you can bring your own stamp to a traditional-sounding 007 tune and honor the 007 sound without sacrificing too much of your musical identity. I know I keep using the word "pulse" to refer to what "Writing's on the Wall" lacks, but that's the best word I can come up with to describe the thing that's absent from the Spectre theme and had permeated the previous Smith/Napes/Disclosure collabos "Latch" and "Together," which features some unknown nobody named Nile Rodgers.
Where's some of the sinewy garage sound that also distinguishes Disclosure's work with other acts like AlunaGeorge, as well as their work on their own (my personal favorite Disclosure banger, by the way, is "When a Fire Starts to Burn")?
Now imagine some of the sounds from the above Disclosure tunes, particularly the J Dilla-influenced "Willing & Able" and the Napes-penned "Masterpiece," enlivening "Writing's on the Wall" instead of being shut out of it. Maybe it would piss off a few Bond fanboys who live in a bizarre bubble and refuse to engage with pop music beyond 1970, but I don't care (this is why I'm leery of involving myself in conversations with a lot of film score fans: based on experience, they tend to show off their racist colors the minute they start attacking hip-hop and end up sounding exactly like Bill O'Reilly).
So "Writing's on the Wall" is a bit of a letdown as an opening title theme, but don't fret, 007 fans with editing skills and a lot of time on your hands. After Spectre hits Blu-ray, you can always take the Spectre opening titles and insert into them either newcomer Ivy Levan's "Who Can You Trust" from Spy or Siouxsie Sioux's "Love Crime" from Hannibal's recent series finale, two original songs that better capture the spirit of a classic 007 opening title theme than "Writing's on the Wall."
Who expected a Paul Feig comedy--especially when that comedy's a feminist response to 007 and is, at times, like the Roxanne Shante to 007's UTFO--to open with a 007-inspired theme that's more impressive and has more drive than the official one the Broccolis would drop later in the same year? Musician Craig Wedren, who co-produced "Who Can You Trust" with Spy score composer Theodore Shapiro, possesses an incredible knowledge of all sorts of genres--or, in the case of his scoring work on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, all sorts of artists--and one of those genres is escapist spy movie music.
I especially like how Wedren and Shapiro didn't approach "Who Can You Trust" as a parody and pretended their epic-sounding tune was a theme--in the mold of "Surrender" and Tina Turner's "GoldenEye"--that was recorded for a Pierce Brosnan-era 007 movie but got lost on the way to the Broccolis' mailbox. The sound of the shortened version of "Who Can You Trust" that opens Spy might not be compatible with Mendes' current gritty tone for the 007 movies, but Wedren and Shapiro's lyrics could fit in with the little that we currently know about Spectre's storyline (the "Writing's on the Wall" lyrics tell us very little about that storyline and seem to focus on either Bond's romance with Léa Seydoux's character or his romance with Monica Bellucci's character), if someone ever decides to mash up "Who Can You Trust" with the Spectre opening titles someday.
The heart is a hunter
And hard as a stone
Cold blood in the chamber
Bullets hung bold
Into the night you will fall
Where there's no wrong or right
Rough justice for all
Love is powering lust
You may find my smile deceitful
But after it all
Who else can you trust?
Who else can you trust?
An original song that's more congruent with the tone of Mendes' 007 movies is the striking "Love Crime," which Sioux and Hannibal score composer Brian Reitzell wrote and recorded for Reitzell's show and was chosen to accompany Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter plummeting off a cliff together at the end of Hannibal's final episode back in August. This isn't a song I'd expect Reitzell to compose for Hannibal because his score music from that show (some of which is in rotation on AFOS) is so atonal. It's a tune I'd expect to hear during a Craig-era 007 movie. But Reitzell wanted to change up his sound for the final moment in the series. He wrote, "I wanted [the Hannibal fans, a.k.a. the Fannibals] to have a souvenir. I wanted them to have a song. I wanted them to have a melody, because I've not been able to really do that with this show."
This also isn't the first time Sioux has written and performed an original song that could easily fit in with the 007 sound. Siouxsie and the Banshees contributed "Face to Face" to Batman Returns, and it's easily the best original song to come out of any of the Batman movies (live-action or animated), due to its entrancing and sensuous 007 vibe and the ways it engages with Danny Elfman's Batman Returns score.
"Face to Face" interpolates the themes Elfman wrote for Batman and Catwoman in a playful manner that's missing from "Writing's on the Wall," which never once interpolates Barry and Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme" like previous 007 opening title themes--particularly "Skyfall"--have done. The feline-sounding string arrangement from Elfman's Catwoman theme first appears at 1:04 during "Face to Face." The first full statement of Elfman's Batman theme appears at 2:13. I love the way "Face to Face" dances around the Batman theme and then finally gives the theme its full statement at 2:13.
Both the Batman Returns song and now "Love Crime" make me wonder if Sioux is a 007 music fan with a secret wish to perform a theme for the franchise, but she knows the Top 40 radio-minded Broccolis will never let artists like her get their Gothy and lacey mitts on a 007 theme, so she's made up her own 007 tunes in the form of "Face to Face" and "Love Crime." The lyrics in "Love Crime" are meant to represent what Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller views as the love story between Dr. Lecter and Graham, but they could also apply to Bond's self-described hobby of "resurrection" in Skyfall and maybe his determination to figure out his place in the world, a motive Craig hinted at while trying not to give too much away about Spectre during a recent Esquire interview.
Oh, the skies, tumbling from your eyes
So sublime, the chase to end all time
Seasons call and fall, from grace and uniform
Oh, the dye, a blood red setting sun
Rushing through my veins
Burning up my skin
I will survive, live and thrive
Win this deadly game
Love crime, love crime
I will survive, live and thrive
I will survive, I will
They're such great 007-style lyrics. "[Sioux] wrote those lyrics without seeing any picture, just because she was a fan of the show," said Reitzell. But perhaps the most intriguing fact about "Love Crime" is that Fuller's take on the Thomas Harris characters entertained Sioux so much that it pulled her out of an eight-year retirement from recording music.
That sort of passion about literary characters who have been reinterpreted over and over on screen--and have commanded such a loyal audience in their latest screen incarnation--is something "Writing's on the Wall" could use a little more of. Rarely during "Writing's on the Wall" do I get the sense that Smith and Napes understand that the intrigue, danger and vivacity of the world of Bond are why we're still drawn to his world, even though some of us kind of hate his imperialist guts.
Selections from the scores to From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Tomorrow Never Dies, the 2006 Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall are in rotation during "AFOS Prime" and the espionage genre music block "AFOS Incognito," midnight from Monday to Thursday on AFOS. "Who Can You Trust" from Spy is also part of "AFOS Incognito."