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Sam Smith brings drama to new Bond movie with “Writing’s on the Wall”

Sam Smith dropped “Writing’s on the Wall” Friday, his new James Bond theme tune for the movie “Spectre,” out November 6.(Capitol Music Group)

By William Thorne

Sept. 29, 2015 6:26 a.m.

It all began with a low, brooding guitar riff in 1962.

As a suave, mysterious secret agent walks across the screen, the guitar fades away and the rhythmic toots of the trombone become louder. Suddenly, the agent turns and shoots. Blood trickles down the screen while cymbols crash and trumpets blare.

There has been 24 James Bond movies to date, and John Barry’s iconic “James Bond Theme” has been a constant through all of them, from 1962’s “Dr. No” to 2012’s “Skyfall.”

However, no Bond movie would be complete without a lusty ballad or a crooning love song to get the action ball rolling and compliment Barry’s tune. On Friday, “Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith was released as the theme tune for the latest Bond movie “Spectre.” It may seem absurd, but Bond films are often judged on the strength of their title themes. Over the years, however, the songs have been a very mixed bag.

The most memorable is “Goldfinger” from 1964, performed by the legendary Dame Shirley Bassey. Her voice wavers between piercing and luxurious, mirroring the rippling golden glow in the background.

The least successful was probably Madonna’s effort for the 2002 movie “Die Another Day.” Her song, also called “Die Another Day,” is full of awkward synths and glaring autotune. The song is the most jarring in the franchise’s history, a failed attempt to bring a James Bond title theme to the top of the pop charts.

Earlier this month it was revealed on a BBC Radio show that for “Spectre,” the next installment in the Bond franchise, the theme tune would be composed and sung by Sam Smith. Fresh from scooping up four Grammy Awards in 2015, most notably Song of the Year for “Stay With Me” and Best New Artist, Smith would at first seem like the perfect choice to perform the next Bond title theme.

People questioned whether he could live up to Adele’s Academy Award-winning “Skyfall,” a song that, coupled with a thrilling movie, restored the public’s faith in Bond films after the barren wilderness of “Quantum of Solace.” Bond fans wondered whether Smith would stick to the much loved, tried and tested formula of having the film’s title as the heart of the piece, as the crescendo.

The answer is, he has done neither. Instead, he has come up with something surprising, something different.

Rather than adopting the blasting horns and the piercing hiatuses of Bassey’s “Diamonds are Forever,” “Writing’s on the Wall” harks back to the moody love ballads of “You Only Live Twice” from 1967 and “The Spy Who Loved Me” from 1977. Smith’s song ebbs and flows, slowly building to a point where most Bond singers would give the notes all the vocal gusto they can muster. It’s here that Smith reins the orchestra back, slows the tempo down, and finishes on a reflective, almost mournful note.

The decision to have an entirely orchestral accompaniment is a bold one, but it pays off, adding a classic drama to the song. The strings’ notes are long and mournful, while the piano’s drift, giving the song an ethereal quality.

However, it’s Smith’s signature falsetto which dominates the piece.

No one doubted his considerable talent as a singer, and “Writing’s on the Wall” plays to his strengths. He gives himself plenty of time to linger on single notes, and the total silence at the end lets his powerful voice speak for itself.

Smith’s voice deliberately wavers at times, cleverly reflecting the lyrics which convey Bond’s regret at never being able to live a stable life. The song contemplates Bond’s salacious previous love life, asking whether what he’s done has been truly worth it: “I want to feel love run through my blood / tell me is this where I give it all up?”

In the end though, these dreams of normalcy and aspirations to take back all the times he has run away seem inevitably to be in vain. “Writing’s on the Wall,” like almost all other Bond theme tunes, questions whether he has finally found the love to hang up his spying boots for.

However, as is always the case with Bond, Britain and the world need saving. Once again, he’s going to have “to risk it all / cause the writing’s on the wall.”

– William Thorne

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William Thorne | Alumnus
Thorne was the prime director. He was previously the assistant A&E editor for the Theater | Film | Television beat.
Thorne was the prime director. He was previously the assistant A&E editor for the Theater | Film | Television beat.
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