Last week, Adele’s theme for Skyfall, the 23rd film in the iconic James Bond series, was released online and immediately embraced by fans of the singer, the franchise, and uninitiated on both sides. Climbing to number one on iTunes in less than 24 hours, Skyfall is the first breakout musical sensation of the 007 series in many years, and one of the most warmly received in the franchise’s long, five-decade history.
It makes me even more excited for Skyfall than I was before – a level of anticipation I previously thought insurmountable – largely because I am eager to see how the film’s graphics department will visually depict Adele’s music. One of the great joys of any Bond film is the title sequence, the invigorating marriage of sound and imagery that (ideally) sets the adventure off on the right foot.
Will Adele’s opening take its place among the very best openings the franchise has had to offer? We won’t know until November, but for now, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on the best James Bond title sequences of the last fifty years. I have compiled a list of the ten best, judging them not just on strength of music or visuals, but on how well both work in harmony. There are plenty of good ones to choose from, but these are the ten I feel best represent what the Bond series is capable of.
So without further ado, let’s look at the Top Ten James Bond Title Sequences. Enjoy…
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10. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Main Titles)”
From On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Written by John Barry
We begin with a very different but extremely cool song and title sequence, one completely unlike anything else in the Bond canon. Veteran franchise composer John Barry did not want to compose a ‘title song’ for this 1969 George Lazenby outing, understandably believing there was no way to organically work the long and complex film title into lyrics. Instead, he composed this incredible electronic piece that plays out over a series of painterly, impressionistic silhouettes and brief, silent clips from prior movies.
The overall effect is pretty amazing, making it very clear that in this first non-Connery film, things have changed. Barry’s piece is extremely foreboding, building gradually and forcefully while the imagery grows wilder and more surreal. In one of the most memorable images, the black silhouette of an hourglass splits apart, and gradually becomes two women. The sequence is fairly remarkable from start to finish, recalling the past while suggesting a dark, dangerous new future. It seems like the perfect way to kick off the ‘new’ era of Bond that, due to Lazenby’s departure and Connery’s return, never actually happened.
9. “The Man With The Golden Gun”
From The Man With the Golden Gun; Performed by Lulu
My favorite example of an utterly silly, thoroughly cheesy, completely substance free James Bond opening, “The Man With The Golden Gun” is a wacky, faux ‘hard rock’ piece that is kind of awesome in spite of itself. The lyrics may be ridiculous – “Love is required whenever he’s hired; No one can catch him, no hit man can match him” – but they achieve the perfect amount of goofiness for this era of the series, and Lulu has a lot of fun singing what essentially amounts to one long string of dumb sexual innuendos. The visuals are actually excellent in their own right, with memorable images of women giving seductive glances underneath watery surfaces, or dancing in front of showers of red hot sparks. It may all be mindless and frivolous, but that’s what Bond themes were becoming at this point, and this sequence, at least, has no allusions about what it is. It’s just a fun, campy romp, and I like it.
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8. “For Your Eyes Only”
From For Your Eyes Only; Performed by Sheena Easton
The first Bond film of the eighties gets the kind of song that epitomizes the decade: Synthesized instrumentation, swooning vocals, and big, illustrative lyrics that don’t say much of anything. And you what? I really love it. There’s a certain irresistible charm to eighties pop that “For Your Eyes Only” captures perfectly, and it’s a much better example than other Bond films from the era of building a song around the movie title. Even if the lyrics are largely substance free, they’re actually pretty good, with a satisfying verse/chorus structure that builds spectacularly and suggests a pleasant, romantic atmosphere. It has nothing to do with James Bond, but it works just fine for the time.
The song, in fact, would be fun on its own, but it’s the visual design that pushes this one into ‘great’ territory. Most of the opening sequences in the Roger Moore era look largely indistinguishable – naked women, suggestive silhouettes, sexy hues, etc. – but For Your Eyes Only breaks things up by putting singer Sheena Easton front and center, singing over recognizable imagery as if in a music video. It’s an odd choice, but one that works surprisingly well. Moore himself is worked into the sequence fairly organically as well, and the overall effect is really satisfying. Not a particularly insightful Bond opening, but a darn stylish one.
From Goldeneye; Performed by Tina Turner
Like the films themselves, the Bond opening sequences had fallen from grace by the time Goldeneye rolled around, recycling the same visual ideas and repeating the same basic song structures over and over again. Goldeneye doesn’t quite blow open the formula, but it tinkers very effectively, giving us visuals that are much bigger and vastly more modern. The naked models and curvy silhouettes are still there in force, but are realized very differently, with a greater emphasis on live action performers and more detailed, stylized backgrounds. There’s even an artistic arc to the sequence, as various Soviet symbols – the hammer and sickle, massive statues, etc. – are torn down with increasing ferocity.
It’s amazing to look at, and the Tina Turner song – written by Bono and the Edge of U2 – is pretty cool as well. Built on a relaxed, three-note bass beat that keeps the song moving at a very compelling pace, the tune is extremely memorable, and Turner sings with an impressive amount of control. In the context of the film itself, the song is a breath of fresh air, as it comes out of one of the most intense pre-credits sequences in franchise history. The song and its accompanying imagery understand that it was time, with the Cold War over, for James Bond to evolve, and the entire sequence works because it pays respect to what came before while making a conscious effort to shake things up. It’s one of the very best.
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6. “Another Way To Die”
From Quantum of Solace; Performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys
I understand this is a controversial one among fans, but I personally love every second. It’s such a vastly different opening than anything else in the Bond canon, embracing an as-yet unexplored musical style and modern technology in ways the franchise, up until the Daniel Craig years, had largely shied away from.
White and Keys absolutely kill it on the song itself, playing and singing with a ferocious, invigorating intensity that I can never get enough of. The lyrics, while not spectacular or particularly insightful, are at least specific to James Bond’s actual lifestyle, recognizing and underlining the danger he lives with every day. The visuals are even better, highly stylized, three-dimensional, and extremely memorable. It’s still recognizably Bond, with silhouette-based imagery and naked women aplenty, but the distinctive desert landscape and sense of all-consuming danger set it apart. The sequence does a lot of what classic Bond openings did well, while improving upon and advancing from what was possible in previous titles. Visually, I think all Bond openings should strive to give viewers something new and imaginative, and that’s exactly what “Another Way To Die” achieves. It’s a definite favorite.
5. “Nobody Does It Better”
From The Spy Who Loved Me; Performed by Carly Simon
One of the most iconic Bond songs also makes for one of the very best title sequences. Starting slowly atop images of Moore and other silhouettes jumping, as though on a trampoline, against a British flag background, the song explodes into a big, epic love ballad, a truly memorable and accomplished song that stands among the best of the franchise’s compositions. A very different kind of song than had been seen in the series up to then, “Nobody Does It Better” is much more laid back and romantic, swooning and sweeping with an excellent sense of pace and energy.
This is one case, in fact, where the song is so darn good that I hardly care how forgettable the visuals are. It’s certainly a handsome sequence, but there are better ones out there. The star here is the stirring instrumentation and Simon’s beautiful vocals, and though the song doesn’t need to be about James Bond, it works as a very nice summation of the public’s attitude towards 007: Even at his very worst – and the Moore years were arguably a creative low point – nobody does this particular brand of entertainment better than Bond. A really nice love anthem, to the series as much as anything else.
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4. “Live and Let Die”
From Live and Let Die; Performed by Paul McCartney and Wings
Hell yeah. It may be silly, stupid, and completely meaningless, but you don’t hire Paul McCartney and Wings to create great poetic masterpieces. McCartney is the king of catchy, frivolous pop, and “Live and Let Die” is one of his finest non-Beatles compositions, a ridiculously fun piece that still lights up arenas in concert. I like the song so much that I am willing to overlook how proportionately disappointing the visuals are. The design – African American woman projected over fire and skulls – certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have the same energy as the song itself, which is a shame. No matter. The song is awesome, and that’s enough for me.
3. “You Only Live Twice”
From You Only Live Twice; Performed by Nancy Sinatra
“You only live twice, or so it seems / One life for yourself and one for your dreams.”
How cool are those lyrics? “You Only Live Twice” certainly has the most poetic, gorgeous writing of any Bond song, so much so that AMC’s Mad Men actually used the piece in their latest season finale. Nancy Sinatra’s performance is absolutely rapturous, and the use of a string orchestra and Japanese instrumentation gives it an extremely unique flavor. It’s simply a tremendous song, James Bond or no, and the incredible visuals kick it to the next level. Comprised of natural volcanic vistas, lava, Japanese women, and crossfades aplenty, there’s a remarkable sense of atmosphere to the sequence. As hellfire reigns down over beautiful, mysterious women, we get a sense of true, undeniable danger, the exact sort of tone a good Bond film should establish at the outset. You Only Live Twice is a very good Bond film, of course, and this sequence is the perfect starting point.
2. “You Know My Name”
From Casino Royale; Performed by Chris Cornell
Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” is my personal favorite song in the James Bond canon. For one, it plays very strongly to my personal tastes – rock n’ roll is my favorite genre, and Cornell knows exactly how to put a good rock song together – and lyrically reflects my preferred interpretation of Bond: As a hardened military gun, ready to kill or be killed at any second, just as Ian Fleming originally wrote him. Casino Royale was all about bring Bond back to his literary roots, and “You Know My Name” is like the film’s thesis statement. It establishes not only who Bond is in base form, but who he may grow to be as he experiences true love for the first time. I wish more Bond songs dealt directly with the psyche of the character, but until that becomes the norm, I will just have to make do with this song, which is just fine by me. It’s spectacular.
That being said, I don’t think the visuals are quite up to snuff with the song itself. They’re fantastic, don’t get me wrong – I love how the familiar concept of silhouettes is used to demonstrate Bond’s violence, or how Daniel Craig walks forth from the animation at the very end – but the imagery doesn’t inspire the same passion as the music, at least not to the degree my number one pick achieves. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt in my mind this is the franchise’s second best title sequence, and part of why I hold Casino Royale in such high regard.
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From Goldfinger; Performed by Shirley Bassey
Goldfinger is not the best Bond title sequence simply because it established the franchise’s long-lasting template, but because it does so more effectively and with a greater sense of purpose than everything that came after.
The song itself is fantastic, an instantly iconic melody that makes expert use of horns to suggest a very specific tone and style. Shirley Bassey’s vocals are simply stunning, as she belts the music out with incredible strength and power. The lyrics may be a little silly at times – “He loves only gold!” – but they fit perfectly with the nature of the film’s villain, and help establish Auric Goldfinger’s iconic, inimitable nature. When this song starts up, you know you’re in for something great; it gets the blood pumping, and primes the viewer for a suave, exciting, dangerous adventure.
But it’s actually the imagery that make Goldfinger stand out as the best of the Bond openings, as it is the franchise’s single best example of music and visuals working together in perfect harmony to suggest something greater than either on their own ever could. The look of this sequence is sleek, sexy, and extremely foreboding, with images from the film projected over naked, golden painted women, like shadows against Greek statues, all atop a totally black background. Unlike the openings of the Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan eras, the naked women aren’t simple objects or jokes, but a crucial part of a threatening atmosphere. The visuals may look enticing, but they are also intimidating, for there’s a deadened, soulless look to the bodies that suggests real, palpable danger in the film footage. It implies that things are going to get very heavy in this film; that behind the attractive veneer of gold and nudity, there is something deeper and darker at play.
That, to me, is exactly what the best Bond openings should do: Use eye candy to hint at the actual content of the film, and maybe make the viewer think in the process. There are individual songs, like “You Know My Name,” that I like better than “Goldfinger,” and imagery that, in a vacuum, is even more impressive than this, but no other combination of song and visuals works quite as powerfully as the Goldfinger opening, and for that, I think it is easily the best title sequence in the series.
What is your favorite Bond title sequence? Your least favorite? Do you agree with these picks? Sound off in the comments!Previous