Saturday, February 9, 2013

Top Ten James Bond Title Sequences

Carly Simon Nobody Does it Better The Spy Who Loved Me

Top Ten James Bond Title Sequences: The Master, Maurice Binder, at Work

Maurice Binder
Maurice Binder.

In some ways, the James Bond title sequences created the whole idea of music videos. If nothing else, they certainly emphasized the idea of matching artistic scenes to popular music. Each title sequence is a story unto itself, sometimes with only the barest of references to the succeeding film. You can watch one of Maurice Binder's creations and just marvel at the artistry. A good title sequence can enhance an entire James Bond film and take it to the next level.

Putting together a good opening for a James Bond film took a lot of hard work and effort. Maurice Binder, who was the king of the James Bond opening sequences, was notorious for getting his work to the studio at the very last minute. One surmises that at least some small fraction of the reason behind that habit was Binder not wanting anyone to have the chance to demand changes in his creations. Certainly, though, it also reflected how much effort he (and the others who did title sequences) put into their creation.

To have a top James Bond title sequence, you need some combination of the following:
1. A top Title song;
2. Brilliant, arresting visuals;
3. some kind of narrative that enhances the following story somehow; and
4. flashy elements which draw the viewer's attention away from the actual credits such as naked women and strobe lights.
Maurice Binder

Maurice Binder usually was the master of numbers 2-4, the narrative, flashy elements and visuals, but the selection of the song was out of his hands. Some of his brilliant title sequences were ruined by a mediocre title tune ("From Russia with Love" - how they couldn't figure out to put Matt Monroe's brilliant rendition over the opening titles is just a mystery). On the other hand, some brilliant songs were marred by mediocre titles ("Live and Let Die," "A View to a Kill"). Then again, sometimes both the music and the visuals sucked ("The Man with the Golden Gun"). Other times, the music and visuals are both perfectly fine and get the job done, but together they are simply mediocre ("Moonraker"). It's like the story of the three little bears: a song or sequence can be too hot, or too cold. Getting them just right, well, that wasn't always something even Maurice could pull off in his studio each and every time.

An average song or title sequence could be saved by the other. For instance, "Goldeneye" by Tina Turner is a pleasant tune, but few would call it one of the true classics. The visuals, though, were magnificent, and raise the whole effort above the pack.

Herewith, the top ten James Bond title sequences.

10. Thunderball (1965)

Tom Jones wasn't the first choice to sing the title song (Shirley Bassey recorded something else that was dropped), but he gave it his all, reputedly passing out from the strain of singing the final note. The visuals by Maurice Binder are good, with shots of predatory fellows using aqualungs and the usual scantily clad girls swimming about. Nothing too amazing, but the title sequence did help introduce the fact that this Bond film would involve underwater action and in large part be set far out at sea. This is a good example of both the song and visuals being just good enough jointly to raise this title sequence above the pack, without either one being particularly outstanding.

9. Goldeneye (1995)

It was a long wait from "License to Kill" in 1989 to "Goldeneye," and just hearing a new James Bond theme song was a thrill. Tina Turner gives it a fairly subdued treatment. Bono and his U2 bandmate The Edge wrote the song, which is quite nice but, like "Thunderball," not quite in the elite of James Bond themes. This was the first title sequence since "Goldfinger" not done by Maurice Binder, and the new blood probably was a good thing by this point. Even the masters can get stale, and Binder's last few efforts were mediocre at best. It's a very symbolic title sequence, which alerts the viewer to the fact that it is set in post-Soviet Russia, and some of the film's stars make appearances. Daniel Kleinman did a great job, with guns and bullets used quite artistically, though some of the symbolism is a bit murky.

8.The World is Not Enough (1999)
"The World Is Not Enough."

David Arnold had taken over from John Barry, and he collaborated with long-time James Bond composer Don Black (who also helped with "Thunderball," among others) for the classic song sung by Shirley Manson of Garbage, "The World is Not Enough." The title sequence makes clear that oil is at the heart of this tale, and it introduces the idea of actually finishing off a plot point from the teaser (Bond, in jeopardy before the sequence, is seen to land on his feet and walks away unharmed). It was quite clever, and the only bad thing you can really say about it is that, well, the title sequence sure does seem obsessed with oil.

7. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
"For Your Eyes Only."

For the only time in the series, the performer of the title song actually appears in the opening credits, and it is easy to see why. Sheena Easton had an okay voice (a bit heavy on the Scottish accent, but whatever), and it was a good but not altogether "wow" sort of song. However, Easton had one thing going for her that few of the singers who had preceded (or followed) her had to offer: she was strikingly beautiful, as pretty as any of the girls who usually appeared in Maurice Binder's title sequences. There are some several action images of Roger Moore as James Bond re-used from "The Spy Who Loved Me" title sequence which are put to good effect. It was the dawn of the music video age, and Sheena was in the spotlight making it clear that this was her music video. She singlehandedly carried both the pedestrian song and the fairly average  visuals way above where they deserved to be, right into the Top Ten.

6. You Only Live Twice (1967)
"You Only Live Twice."

Nancy Sinatra's brilliant vocals, combined with John Barry's marvelous song "You Only Live Twice," carry this entry into the Top Ten. The images of an exploding volcano, while artistic, have next to nothing to do with the story. The whole thing is saved by some classy shots of Japanese ladies in traditional garb and the fact that some of the lava shots are pretty darn impressive. Too bad this song couldn't get some better visuals, but they did advance the idea that this Bond film would be set in Japan and have something to do with volcanoes, which was true, in a roundabout fashion.

5. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

George Lazenby gets no respect, least of all from Diana Rigg. However, he helps carry the title sequence for "On Her Majesty's Secret Secret Service," making a wry joke right before it and then running artistically across the screen in slow motion, timed nicely to the beat of the instrumental theme, to establish his presence. The instrumental theme is one of the classics, but the visuals really carry this title sequence. Shots from past Bond films establish the continuity of the series, which undoubtedly was a top concern of the producers. Maurice Binder foreshadows where he would be going in the '70s with the title sequences by using plenty of nude girls in silhouette in between clips from the previous Bond films, giving the whole effort a flair that catches the viewer's attention.

4. Diamonds are Forever (1971)
"Diamonds Are Forever."

This was entry number 2 for Shirley Bassey, her first being "Goldfinger" and last "Moonraker," and her whack at "Diamonds are Forever" was good. The song itself was fairly simple, but the visuals for it were perfect. Combining shots of diamonds with a precious little white cat instantly alerted the knowledgeable viewer that old villain Blofeld likely was going to be putting in an appearance, and that it would involve smuggling of some sort. Just the visual of the white cat wearing a diamond necklace, and arrogantly strutting off the screen, makes this title sequence an instant classic. Maurice even manages to work in some quick shots of dancing go-go girls, making their appearances special and not the overbearing presence they became in some of his later outings. "Diamonds Are Forever" is a very enjoyable, almost campy title sequence which bears repeated viewings.

3. Casino Royale (2006)
"Casino Royale."

Daniel Kleinman already has appeared on this list for "Goldeneye," and he came up with another top opening title sequence with "Casino Royale." Apparently, Kleinman wisely went back to the roots of the franchise and found an old first edition copy of the Ian Fleming book "Casino Royale" and based the sequence on its cover. The use of cutting edge animation (rotoscope?) to portray Bond and his assailants in silhouette gives the action in the title sequence an almost mythic quality, and even Eva Green makes an unusual Bond girl appearance in the sequence appearance as the Queen of Hearts. Combine that with the superbly muscular and confrontational title song "You Know My Name" by Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell and what is left is one of the top title sequences in the entire franchise. Daniel Craig's performance in this title sequence - ending with a final defiant stare into the lens - is his absolute top performance as James Bond, and in its own way matches up with any performance by Sean Connery, Roger Moore or any of the other Bonds..

2. Goldfinger (1964)

Shirley Bassey gave the entire James Bond franchise a signature sound with her brassy rendition of the title song composed by John Barry, with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. Strangely enough, Bassey wasn't even the first choice to sing the tune, as Newley himself was going to do it. Bassey just wowed everyone with her version, which was a chart smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The key to the title sequence's success, though, is that it is devoted, not to Bond, but to the villain, Goldfinger. If you are going to have your hero take down some villain you've never heard of before, what better way to get the ball rolling than to dedicate the entire title sequence to singing about how fearsome he is? It was a brilliant, backhanded decision, and showing images of Goldfinger himself even before those of James Bond (the only time in the series that happened) helped sell the rest of the film. Some say that the lyrics of "Goldfinger" are trite, but every time Bassey sang that word "Goldfinger," it made the character seem even more imposing and a worthy adversary of 007 himself (much the same way that the song "He's a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" later helped sell "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"). There also are shots of Shirley Eaton and the other Bond girls in the title sequence by Robert Brownjohn which spices it up (like with the anonymous dancing girl in his previous "From Russia with Love"). This was a technique that Maurice Binder picked up on and enhanced in the 1970s and still is used occasionally to this day.

1. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
"The Spy Who Loved Me."

The song "The Spy Who Loved Me" by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager, was performed to perfection by Carly Simon. She hadn't had a hit in several years, but suddenly she reappeared with this crystal-clear power ballad that was unlike anything else on the radio at the time. It received tons of airplay and became one of the top hits of the franchise. It takes more than that to create the top Bond sequence of them all, though, because plenty of Bond films have great, classic theme songs. What sets "The Spy Who Loved Me" title sequence apart, placing it way ahead of the pack and almost in its own league, are the extraordinary visuals by Maurice Binder. One can argue that, technically, they are not all that impressive, as there is some clumsy editing and no real theme to the entire sequence. However, after a brilliant segue from the astonishing ski-off-the-mountain stunt, Binder makes the brilliantly original decision to have Roger Moore act out scenes - completely unrelated to the following film - for the title sequence that became iconic images of Moore as Bond. In fact, the images were so good that Binder re-used them in the title sequences for all subsequent Moore films. This title sequence is so well known that it has become a bit of a joke among Bond afficionados, but you have to be good to be remembered, and this title sequence is remembered above all others. The use of naked girls throughout is controversial with some, as is the repeated imagery of Phallic pistols and James Bond manhandling women, but the title sequence for "The Spy Who Loved Me" is a delicious, campy treat served fresh from the cream of the 1970s for your viewing and listening pleasure.


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