SPOILER WARNING. I think.
From those mid Sixties strings firing like very familiar harpoon guns into a John Barry-savvy ocean, Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall is clearly ripped from the very genome of 007’s DNA. And it has certainly “divided fans” as media outlets love to say. But maybe middle-aged, blokey Bond fans aren’t quite the Sam Smith demographic. Aside from a trailer or two and a few Range Rover vanity vlogs, this is all the movie-going public can ‘own’ right now of SPECTRE. The bar is always high.
I’m prepared for this,
I never shoot to miss
Did I love Adele’s Skyfall when I first heard it about 30 seconds before going on air to talk about it? Did I instantly warm to Gladys Knight’s Licence To Kill when I heard some 2am snippet on local radio? And did I like or even understand the lyrics of The Living Daylights when I first heard a weirdly mixed b-side version? No to all of them. Bond songs are curious beasts. The best ones charted badly, the disliked ones sold well, they have always been a canny marketing tool dressed in a sequinned ball-gown, unlike champagne they age better than they first taste and they always play differently onscreen than through a phone.
It is seemingly not just the writing that is nowadays on the wall, but everyone and his Twitter bestie’s opinion of what a good Bond and a good song is. Nothing divides reaction more than music (well, maybe Jeremy Corbyn does a little bit). But nothing divides musical reaction more than a Bond song – not when the writing can be fired in 140 characters or less at every media wall going. Because the 53 year old cultural legacy of Bond is so rich, it becomes personal – strapped to all film fans nostalgias and musical tastes. And Bond song opinions are like favourite Bonds – everyone has one, so to speak. But like new 007 actors, Bond songs need time to bed in. Not every dollar-paying punter knows all these songs inside out.
It is a stranger sound for Bond. It is a different sound for Bond. But it is not wrong. It maybe needed a stronger climax, but it needs to be seen alongside Daniel Kleinman’s forthcoming title sequence for the actual SPECTRE film rather than snatched hearings on Spotify. There is a camp tragedy to it all – in part fuelled by Smith’s oeuvre of really martrying those vocals into submission. He certainly gets the drama of the gig. It is definitely a 1am torch song lament (like a lot of the best 007 numbers are). It is worth remembering too that – like Adele’s Skyfall, Madonna’s Die Another Day and Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name – there is now a story context to these songs. They are not just dropped in as a fade-to-titles Bond scrambles in some yacht for his condoms and champagne. In the Craig era these songs are now a narrative and tonal stepping stone for the film themselves. SPECTRE launches with a visceral, ambitious and aggressively mounted action sequence in Mexico City. The quieter melancholy of this track could be an apt and intended breather. There is definitely a context to this song based on what the audiences would have just experienced and the drama at stake. Remember – Sam Smith was asked to read the script. The writing is on the wall in the song, the film, its family of colleagues and all of Whitehall.
Co-written and co-produced by Jimmy Napes, Writing’s On The Wall is certainly a well-produced track. As Adele’s creative partner Paul Epworth proved in 2012, the Bond song project now has its eyes on producers and the ability to put on a production as much as the headlining singers. Whilst the sibling-production duo Disclosure (who co-produced the track) are more about the garage synths and electronica than anything evident in this tune, theirs is very much a crisp effort. The track could have very easily derailed itself with Smith’s octave-spinning vocals and penchant for piling vowel upon vowels (or Mariah-ing as artists less skilled than Smith tend to be guilty of).
If I risk it all, could you break my fall?
It’s certainly different – a [gay] male vocalist “risking it all” with a pained love song that retracts the traditional and bombastic momentum of a Bond song with a quiet falsetto or three (Communard Bond anyone?!). This writer would have loved to hear Smith step aside from the successes of Adele’s Skyfall, really go with that falsetto motif and create that hi-energy disco Bond song Sylvester never recorded. But maybe with Writing’s On The Wall we now have the first Bond song that sees a male soloist take the stance of the trapped bird, the love that cannot say no to our man James. That aching, first-person narrative is very Sam Smith and very Bond.
I’ve spent a lifetime running and I always get away
But for you I’m feeling something that makes me want to stay.
As it seems every self-pronounced diva on Eurovision seems to be channelling a faux John Barry Does Bond vibe (Conchita Wurst and her chuffin’ Vauxhall feathers anyone?!) what Disclosure, Napes and Smith have done here is definitely not faux. It is a very vintage Bond sound – no doubt in tune with that mid Sixties Thunderball template the fourth Craig film has its eye on. This film is called SPECTRE after all. In the wake of Austin Powers’ imitations and pastiches, that old-school, cat stroking villainy needs a classical sound to pin the film to that John Barry heyday when audiences last saw that mob of piranha-owning stalwarts in their prime. But is more David Arnold channelling John Barry than not and maybe indicative of the fact these ain’t your father’s Bond songs anymore. Sam Smith and his colleagues on this one were toddlers when Brosnan stepped into the role.
So as some initial reactions are seemingly giving this fledgling Bond song another kick in the wall, it might be worth noting what Smith himself noted to BBC Radio 1 upon its debut – “it’s a grower this one”. He may well be right.
Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall is available now on iTunes.
SPECTRE is released in the UK on October 26th.
“He seems fit enough. Have him report to me in Istanbul in 24 hours…”
Rosa Klebb, From Russia With Love, 1963
10th October 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Eon Productions From Russia With Love. A favourite of both CATCHING BULLETS and even John F Kennedy (who boosted sales by declaring it was his favourite book) this was the first Bond film with a pre-title sequence, the first overture of a title sequence within the film itself, the first Bond film to go to Europe, the first full score by John Barry and the first film to prove that James Bond can indeed return. It is a clear favourite with the Bond producers Eon Productions and always a film that those responsible came back to when discussing how they got it right.
“I’m not mad about his tailor, are you?”
Read more about From Russia With Love in CATCHING BULLETS.
Sam Mendes returning to the Bond fold is great news. Not because Skyfall was the most successful Bond movie, the most successful British movie ever, won two Oscars and a few high profile gongs. It is not even because it was the first Bond movie for a while to become a cultural event, a film whose momentum and qualities both shook and stirred the public’s consciousness and stoked the anticipation for what James does next in a way possibly not seen since the 1960s. No, Sam Mendes returning to direct Bond 24 is great news as the Bond series is in a new golden age of confidence and impetus. With 2012’s fiftieth anniversary bench-marker Skyfall pulling all sorts of clever doves out of Baron Samedi’s top hat, the pressure is naturally there for all involved to find a new hat to pull some tricks from.
Can lightning be trapped in an empty Bollinger bottle twice? Of course it can. 007 producers Eon Productions have a whole cellar full of lightning bottles. But I doubt Bond 24 will be Skyfall Too – Back to the Chapel. It will no doubt take its predecessor’s baton and sprint with it like a gym-fit Daniel Craig. Yet it will be a totally different kettle of SPECTRE piranhas. Heck, there may even be some SPECTRE piranhas in there. And a submersible Prius. With Union Jack airbags. Maybe not.
Yet it won’t retread. We are in era of Bond directors with firm creative signatures of their own. Mendes’ tends towards films exploring what circumstances and the wider facets of society does to people. Respectively American Beauty, Road To Perdition, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall are a turn of the century classic, an ode to gangsterdom, a bitter stab at suburban nirvana and a home-soil vendetta. They are Sam Mendes looking at what wider circumstances, societal structures and defence mechanisms do to the common man. Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva (Skyfall) is no different to Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (American Beauty). Both have been chewed up and spat out by life. And both allow Mendes to have fun with how they stick up two fingers to the world. Likewise Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead and Away We Go’s Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski are striving to not let the same happen to them. There are lot of roads to perdition in Sam Mendes work. There is no reason to question why a new facet of Bond will not be explored, another internal scar creating external damage laid bare. That is the world of Fleming. And that is the DNA of Bond onscreen.
But along Mendes’ story paths there is a playfulness and wit. Lester Burnham’s breakdown is a lush descent into suburban anarchy and Away We Go is a fun road movie peppered with non-centric eccentrics. Mendes is currently executive producing Penny Dreadful under the auspices of his own creative company Neal Street Productions (Call The Midwife and The Hollow Crown – which of course saw Skyfall’s Ben Wishaw recently scoop the Best Actor BAFTA). Written by Skyfall and Bond 24’s John Logan, Penny Dreadful is a London Victorian re-imagining of the origins of classic horror creations such as Dracula and Frankenstein. A co-production with Showtime, the series is due to bite TV screens in 2014. This sort of baroque villainy has already shown its own teeth (literally) in Skyfall and could well flick a different villainous cape in Bond 24. With John Logan in the writing seat alongside Mendes, the end result of their 2012 ‘act one’ was a carefully arched Bond film marked by rich exchanges pushing the story forward through dialogue, character wit and drives (Bond and Severine, Bond and Silva, Bond and M, Bond and Q, Bond and Kincade, Bond and Moneypenny). The creative impulse to let the characters steer the story was a welcome one and wholly succeeded. Expect more of the same come the Fall of 2015. Skyfall ended with the orphan James Bond presented with a new family. Ben Wishaw’s Q is suggesting he will be back, as might Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ralph Fiennes as the new M. But what about the bureaucratic Clair Dowar MP (Helen McCrory – whose real life husband and possible ‘next Bond’ candidate Damian Lewis is currently shooting Eon’s new co-production, The Silent Storm) and Rory Kinnear’s much-liked ally Tanner? And of course we may well see more familiar keynotes of Bond re-dressed for 2015.
Mendes clearly relished his time working with Eon Productions, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson. It is a team-led ‘family’ operation with working relationships and continuity much valued linchpins. Throughout the 1980s, director John Glen helmed all five successive Bond movies with great results, creating new fans in new generations and blasting the lazy detractors of that era’s output with aplomb (see this writer’s Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan). Sam Mendes will have already done the same. As part of a maybe three-act regeneration of Bond, Skyfall certainly has re-pointed the character for its guardians and its audiences new and old. The twenty-second Bond film relished the heritage of 007. My hunch is that Bond 24 will move forward from that. Or aside. The history of the films will not be sidelined. The much touted ‘formula’ of Bond is entwined with the heritage of the character, the films and those that produce them. Yet, Mendes will want to produce a brand new movie, a brand new take and a brand new project. He has never directed a sequel to any of his cinematic work (whose narratives admittedly do not leave much room for ‘what happened next?’). We all have our wish lists and suggestions (mine would be Barcelona, Washington, a bit of skiing and a Daft Punk theme tune). However, it is worth noting the curious skill of Skyfall was how it packed in wholly familiar turf for the Bond series – London, the Far East and Istanbul – yet dressed it most wisely. Mendes is not about reinventing the wheel, but how the spokes work. We are still in a time of relative studio poverty (Skyfall had to allegedly hem in its budget and the results worked). Bond 24 will no doubt have to rein itself in too – as best as a multi million pound movie can. But having financial and physical restrictions often aides creativity. The Bond series’ production history has always proved that.
For any director or writer to come into that Bond world is no doubt a daunting task. Next time round Mendes is no longer the new boy at school. He is head boy – a proven newcomer with a few trophies (if that matters alongside such global box office stamina) gleaming in the Eon cabinet. But the team at Bond HQ are not wholly looking to emulate Skyfall. They are looking to emulate the decisions, the discussions, the aptitude and perceptions Mendes brought to the table. Of course the dollars and the studios that gave and then counted them are wanting more of the same. That is simple business sense. But film-making – even on the scale of a Bond – thrives on creative relationships and continuity. It is about both project and product for Eon.
The Sony PR elves were forever telling us how Mendes noted his own Bond fandom launched when he saw 1973’s Live and Let Die. There are echoes of that film in Skyfall (the arched villainy, the deathly opening titles, the throwaway dead girls, the drama often playing out on familiar streets and pavements and even the shared double-decker London buses…maybe). The question now is – what Bond film did Sam like next? My money’s on a direct sequel to Octopussy. That barge had to pull in somewhere?!*
Mark O’Connell is the author of Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan (Prelude by Barbara Broccoli). www.splendidbooks.co.uk
Eon Productions Live and Let Die celebrates its fortieth anniversary this week (it opened in the States on June 27th 1973, and a week or so later in the UK). It has been a linchpin of the series and the man on the street’s affection for James Bond ever since. It is also director Sam Mendes stated favourite 007 entry, whose influence is very evident in 2012’s Skyfall.
For more thoughts on Live and Let Die and all the Bond movies, check out Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan.