Spoiler Warning: the following article contains spoilers and speculation for and about the Daniel Craig era of James Bond films. Proceed at your own risk!
The theme song in a James Bond movie is a crucial tool to set the mood for the film that it kicks off. Throughout the history of the Bond franchise, these songs have either been ominous tales of dangerous scenarios and vicious villains, or ballads full of gloom and doom. However, just as the Daniel Craig era of 007 adventures has introduced more consistent serialization to the character's story, it has also allowed for the theme songs to tell a narrative of their own.
In the course of five songs, including the recently released theme for the upcoming film No Time To Die, there’s a pathway that shows the development of James Bond’s arc. From the energetic Chris Cornell opener “You Know My Name,” to Billie Eilish’s recent haunting but beautiful hit, a picture is painted that shows us a man who starts with clear eyed intentions, but becomes a little more broken every step of the way. Let’s jump back to the beginning, and start to tell the tale of how James Bond eventually became the man we see before us today.
“You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)
Actually seeing Daniel Craig’s James Bond make the two kills that qualified him for 00 status in Casino Royale was just the glass of cold water that the series needed splashed on its face back in 2006. With a new reboot that showed us those momentous beginnings, a dynamic new theme song needed to be along for the ride.
Eschewing the standard tragic ballads and villain songs, “You Know My Name” is a hard-driving rock tune sung by the late Chris Cornell. Introducing the world to James Bond for the first time thanks to the film’s soft reboot status, this track represents Bond’s relative freshness and eager attitude to get the job done by any means necessary.
Perhaps the most telling section of Casino Royale’s big opening is the chorus:
Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you.
The odds will betray you,
And I will replace you.
You can't deny the prize it may never fulfill you.
It longs to kill you,
Are you willing to die?
The coldest blood runs through my veins,
You know my name.
At this point in his career, James Bond is aptly described by M (Judi Dench) as a “blunt instrument,” and he pretty much lives up to that label in every step of Casino Royale’s story. But even a blunt instrument can be chipped and broken, which is exactly what happens to Bond as he almost dies several times, and ultimately loses the woman he loves.
Throughout that film, and eventually through his future missions, he’ll be asked that all-consuming question: “Are you willing to die?” Bond may have survived to fight another day, and his capture of Mr. White is still pretty satisfying, but a lot of damage is hiding under the man’s calm and cool exterior.
“Another Way To Die” by Jack White and Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)
Picking right up where Casino Royale left off, Quantum of Solace jumps into the further pursuits of James Bond, as he starts to uncover the full extent of the criminal organization known as Quantum. A new, avant garde style Bond adventure was ready to unfold, with another experimental effort in the world of theme songs kicking things off: “Another Way To Die.”
This time out, we’re treated to a song that shows off a sort of confident paranoia that 007 has taken on. With the first act of the film showing Quantum to be the sort of organization that can penetrate any government and/or agency, a lot of different factors had Bond working on his own, without much backup to speak of.
James Bond being a sharper spy and a deadlier killer, the song has Jack White and Alicia Keys singing about his exploits highlighting the heightened attention that Bond has to pay in order to survive this particular mission. While not exactly plot points to Quantum of Solace’s overall story, again it is the chorus to “Another Way To Die” that gets right to the paranoid heart of the matter in short, detailed manner:
A door left open, a woman walking by
A drop in the water, a look in your eye
A phone on the table, a man on your side
Or someone that you think that you can trust
It's just another way to die
While he’s better at his job, the cracks in the world of Bond’s line of work are already showing. Quantum is only the start, and as we see in the next song/film in the modern 007 franchise, the famed super spy trusts very few people implicitly.
"Skyfall" by Adele (2012)
At this point in Daniel Craig’s run as James Bond, he’s had his heart broken by the ultimate betrayal, and avenged the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd with what he thought was the last nail in the coffin of his vengeful quest. Of course, Skyfall would prove this theory to be horrifically wrong, as M (posthumously discovered to be named Olivia Mansfield) the person he most trusted in his world, is tragically taken from him.
That, of course, is only after a full movie’s worth of cat and mouse games run by disavowed operative with a grudge Silva (Javier Bardem), who leads both Bond and his somewhat adoptive maternal figure to the place where his life began: his family’s ancestral home of Skyfall.
Acting as the title of the film, as well as the Academy Award winning title song sung by Adele, this track almost sounds like a lullaby from a mother to a child. These lyrics in particular feel rather telling:
Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
And face it all together
Even when MI6 was at its most vulnerable, and James Bond was technically unfit to return to active duty, he and M stuck together through thick and thin in Skyfall. Ultimately, while new allies are won over, the MI6 chief dies in the line of duty, leaving her metaphorical son orphaned yet again. This erosion of the world James once knew is only going to get worse in Spectre, though a new love will provide a crack of light on the horizon.
“Writing’s On The Wall” by Sam Smith (Spectre, 2015)
After the previous M’s untimely death, and with Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) as the new boss when Spectre kicks off, James Bond’s previously reckless antics are getting more dangerous, and more explosive. It doesn’t take long for him to find a new purpose though, as his deceased mentor leaves him the clues he’ll need to uncover an even greater threat than he’s ever faced.
Spectre sees Bond uncovering the legendary organization of villains that plagued him throughout the classic 007 films. As he weaves through the web of deception, he realizes that his adopted brother, Ernst Starvo Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), has been behind basically every tragedy and act of terrorism he’s encountered. It’s a lot to take in, for sure.
But upon meeting Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of former foe turned informant, Mr. White, Bond is ready to give it all up and call it a day. “Writing’s On The Wall” suggests this right from the start, as Sam Smith’s ballad is more focused on this potential retirement, rather than any sort of action driven storyline.
If I risk it all
Could you break my fall?
How do I live? How do I breathe?
When you're not here I'm suffocating
I wanna feel love run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
Cause the writing's on the wall
Bond knows that his current line of work is either going to kill him, or leave him alone. That writing is clearly on the wall, and he acknowledges it because he’s known it for some time. However, if he gives this profession up in the name of love, he could possibly have a normal life.
It’s what motivated him to try and quit with Vesper at the end of Casino Royale, and Madeleine has inspired similar feelings in Spectre. This song is James asking Dr. Swann if he can trust her enough to try this sort of act again, because at this point in his life it’s either be a lonely superspy for life or get out while he still can.
By the end of the movie, James makes his choice, and in a way tries to kill the person he was supposedly fated to become. No longer a mere hardened orphan doing a job he was psychologically fit for, Bond and Swann could have a shot at a normal life as they drive into the sunset. However, as we’ve seen in the ads for No Time To Die, it looks like that retirement is not only short lived, but totally not worth it.
"No Time To Die" by Billie Eilish (2020)
A long time ago, James Bond was asked a very simple question: are you willing to die? That metaphorical query was pertaining to how far the man would go in terms of completing his missions, and what he would give for his job as a spy for MI6. That question has seemingly been answered “yes” throughout his various adventures, bringing us to No Time To Die, and his return from his aforementioned retirement.
While we don’t know what exactly is going on between James and Madeleine, there’s a secret that’s so explosive it not only looks to have broken their love affair off, but it could have serious repercussions throughout the world of the James Bond series. The air is ripe with mistrust, and Billie Eilish’s torch song about a shattered relationship has grand implications for the road ahead:
That I'd fallen for a lie
You were never on my side
Fool me once, fool me twice
Are you death or paradise?
Now you'll never see me cry
There's just no time to die.
Shades of Bond’s ill-fated relationship with Vesper in Casino Royale are cropping up again. Once again, a moment of supposed weakness has lead him into another horrific lapse of judgement, and he’s not going to let it happen again. If you were to ask 007 if he’s willing to die at this point, you might see him say no.
No Time To Die’s epic finale to Daniel Craig’s time as James Bond looks like it’s going to be the moment where Bond truly hardens himself to the outside world. As we’ve been working on a timeline that’s shown us his origins and his development as a 00 agent, this final adventure could be the one that truly does break him out of the mold of trying to be a normal person.
With every adventure, James Bond has been pushed further towards his personal edge, and the results are an escalating sense of danger and insecurity. Every time he thinks he can fall into a loving relationship, or some sort of personal connection that isn’t connected to killing, a new pitfall reminds him that, at least in his case, that’s not possible.
Bond has lost some very important people in his line of work, and it looks like the greatest losses are yet to come. So if you’ve ever wanted to know how James Bond went from a promising, but reckless, spy into an adrenaline junkie who’s constantly looking for the next thrill, you need not look any further than these five songs that have set up a rather tragic and dour trajectory of personal reinvention.
No Time To Die will show us just how fall James Bond will fall, when it opens on April 10th.