I love the Bond themes songs. All of them. My iPod has a dedicated playlist called “Bond” that contains all of the existing Bond songs save the one for “Skyfall” … an omission I plan to rectify as soon as possible. I even have that horible song by Madonna for “Die Another Day,” the one that my wife charitable calls “the worst Bond song ever written.”
What’s my favorite, you ask? It depends. On some days, I really love Shirley Manson’s take on a John-Barry-like theme with “The World Is Not Enough.” Other times, I get on a Shirley Bassey rush, “Goldfinger” being my favorite. And then there are days when I feel unconventional and I queue up Paul McCartney’s weird theme to “Live and Let Die.” Heck, sometimes I queue up Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” for Casino Royale and listen amazed as to how a more modern rock sound fits a Bond movie. This is what I love about Bond songs — there is usually a connecting theme… usually some variation of the classic soundtrack. However, the artists themselves are so diverse that there’s a lot of different ways to write a song that fits the intro sequence of a Bond movie.
I am also the sort of person who mourns, every day, that Amy Winehouse was never able to record a Bond theme. If there was ever any clear successor to Shirley Bassey’s mantle as Her Majesty’s Official Bond Balladress, it was her. RIP Ms. Winehouse.
However, there’s only one entire Bond soundtrack I own. Now, movie soundtracks are a bit iffy, since it’s often that an entire piece can stand on its own as standalone composition. Usually I pick up just the main themes. That’s the way to go with, say, John Williams and Danny Elfman.
From time to time, though, the entire score is worth picking up. That was the case with Phillip Glass’s score for Koyaanisqatsi (which Roger Ebert eventually figured out was just a giant music video for Glass’s work) and Michael Giacchino’s score for the new Star Trek movie. The trick is that there have to be specific movements that reflect a variety of emotional states… whether it’s the crazy rush of adrenaline during an action scene or the quiet moments of self reflection.
And this is why, out of all the Bond movies, the only complete movie score I have on my iPod is the one for Thunderball. It’s got a little bit of everything, and it holds together without having to view the movie itself. As one commentator on iTunes said, it’s almost like John Barry composed the music first, and then they built the movie around it.
Let’s take a look at how some scenes just couldn’t exist without the music.
There’s one called “Search for the Vulcan”, where Bond and Felix take a helicopter over the Caribbean to search for the downed plane carrying nuclear warheads. I have to point out that without the music, this is a very boring scene. Two dudes looking over vast expanses of water. Yawn. Beginning with the simple flute melody though (and transitioning to the haunting string of violins), it gives you a sense of how lonely and vast the sea is, driving home the sense that this search might only end in absolute frustration.
More famous is the “Street Chase” scene, where Bond evades assassins by hiding in a parade. The footage is chaotic, mimicking how both parties must be trying to keep their composure during a wild party atmosphere. The music is fast, and the drums resemble a swiftly-pounding heart. The loud horns remind the viewer how neither side can rely on their sense of hearing.
Following after is perhaps my favorite piece, the SPOILERIFFIC titled “Death of Fiona.” It starts off like a smooth jazz piece: soft bongos, strumming guitar, and light clarinets. It’s like something you’d hear at a light soiree. But, very subtly, the bongos start to pound harder and faster. More menacing. It resembles the same chaos from the Street Chase, only not so raucous, as Bond is trying to keep his cover as a tourist (with a jealous wife) while scanning the crowd. The music crescendos … until Bond spots the assassin and maneuvers Fiona in place as she takes a bullet in the back. Then … back to the light soiree music. Only this time, there is a sense of coldness about it. I think Bond’s quip here (“She’s just dead”) is one of the hardest in all the Bond movies. While Fiona was a henchwoman for the bad guys, you sorta feel sorry for her. She doesn’t see her death coming, and she’s dispatched with friendly fire, a sarcastic quip … and bouncy lounge music. It’s an inglorious death.
Of course, no talk about the Thunderball soundtrack would be complete without talking about the undersea battle sequence. This scene is famously hard to figure out, some critics mention that the movie would have been perfect if not for this scene. I can’t really argue with that. However, it’s saved by two things: Sean Connery’s stylish orange wetsuit, and the score. It’s a reprise of the “Street Chase,” number, only done slower, reminding you that underwater battle is slower and more deliberate. It’s more or less impossible to hide in the clear blue Caribbean waters, and the way to defeat your enemies is to use the pace of the environment against them.
And finally, there’s “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” which is just swank as hell. I mean, even without the 007 Dr. No theme, you cannot hear this piece without thinking swinging 60’s super spy. It’s like relaxing spy music.
So there you go! Thunderball is the total package when it comes to Bond tracks. And I never even got to the brassy Tom Jones theme, the only James Bond theme lovingly parodied by Weird Al Yankovic.
One artist — Kurt Cobain, I think — once said the highest honor was getting parodied by Weird Al. Hey, I couldn’t agree more.