|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")?