Review by C.J. Bunce
A new documentary from Amazon’s Prime Video takes on one of our favorite subjects. The Sound of 007 is director Mat Whitecross’s unfortunately half-hearted look back at Ian Fleming’s James Bond as realized on the screen from a musical standpoint. From Dr. No to No Time to Die, from scores of Monty Norman and John Barry to Hans Zimmer and songs from Shirley Bassey to Billie Eilish, only partially gets it right. The film makes the expected major points, with John Barry contributing to 11 films and Shirley Bassey as key to the introductory years. But most is brushed over, and at times, even slighted by modern uninformed commenters. Ultimately it plays like an advertisement for Billie Eilish and her song for the most recent movie, No Time to Die. With simply too much bombardment of the most recent film and emoting over how exciting it is to write a Bond song spliced haphazardly into what could have been an otherwise thoughtfully laid out chronology, the documentary is half watchable, half misfire.
Integral to the Bond song is the placement and style of the opening credits, which get glossed over as well. What does the film get right? It borrows a lot from the right places, taking interviews from so many creators who long ago passed away. It pulls in some good interviews with Bassey, but skips over Tom Jones, Madonna, and Adele, providing only the briefest of coverage. The most interesting bits are the snippets that form the stuff of Bond movie behind-the-scenes legend: Michael Caine discussing living with John Barry who stayed up all night composing on a piano one night and dragging himself to confront Barry in the morning who proclaims he had finished a song, then playing Goldfinger on the piano for Caine for the first time–the first time it had ever been played for anyone. Sam Smith’s brilliant and haunting The Writing’s on the Wall for SPECTRE is equally cool: Smith and his writing partner wrote the song in one building then walked next door and recorded the one and only–final–cut of the song the first time through, all in about 20 minutes.
The best James Bond song, of course, is Marvin Hamlisch’s Nobody Does it Better, sung by Carly Simon, and it’s a bit of a gut punch that Whitecross didn’t get her to interview for this show, instead using a blurry concert excerpt recorded decades later. The documentary has a British bias, which stands out, especially considering the significant American contributions to Bond music across its 60 years. Likewise Sheryl Crow is skipped over for… Garbage–the band, not literal garbage. Sheena Easton also only gets a too brief bit, but the band A-ha is entirely ignored. Why? Who knows. And there’s more than enough from Bono and Duran Duran, probably because the director preferred these star Brit bands. Nancy Sinatra’s excerpt is probably justifiably brief, having flown to London to record the song while being hounded by the press, barely able to get a recording for Barry for You Only Live Twice.
Gladys Knight is another singer virtually ignored, and the worst bit has one of the more modern Brit bands practically mocking the era of Rita Coolidge’s All Time High from Octopussy, which is another undisputed, era defining, Bond song. Lulu is featured in a nice interview about her title song from The Man with the Golden Gun. And Shirley Bassey trashes on her own Moonraker song, saying that she refused to ever sing it in concert.
None of the songs are heard in their entirety.
One good interview includes Barbara Broccoli discussing her single discussion with Amy Winehouse, who was considered to sing the theme to Quantum of Solace, but she overdosed and died soon after they met. Alicia Keyes and Jack White provided a memorable, if unusual replacement, with their Another Way to Die. Another good interview includes the unusual pick of Hamlisch for The Spy Who Loved Me–since John Barry was unavailable, and Hamlisch discussing composing Nobody Does it Better. But again, it’s such a big song and loss for any film on this subject not to have Carly Simon discuss it. In 2021 USA Today ranked Nobody Does it Better the best of the Bond songs–it works at every level and is actually about Fleming’s Bond unlike many other Bond songs. Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die stands strong and still gets U.S. radio play a half a century later. Perhaps it’s understandable the documentary didn’t get McCartney for a new interview, but at least his megahit pop song has a few stories that accompany its segment in the film.
While some of the flurry of content for Bond this year is about winding down Daniel Craig’s era as Bond, as well as the 60th anniversary of the EON movies, the Bond creators seem like they are bracing for the next era of Bond films. The Sound of 007 isn’t a bad documentary. It’s just missing a lot, and a more straightforward piece without the promotional bits for No Time to Die would have been more worthy of the subject matter.
The Sound of 007 is now streaming free for subscribers of Amazon’s Prime Video. Your time may be better spent watching all the Bond themes we lined up here at borg several years ago, and vote in our Bond polls here and here.