You Only Live Twice, more than Thunderball, is the spiritual successor to the template setting Goldfinger. It establishes the iconic Bond villain trope with Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld, it, like Tomorrow Never Dies, takes everything that worked in a previous successful film and turns it to 11. Blofeld’s volcano lair is the exaggerated succession of Goldfinger’s home and even Dr. No’s atomic lair, Blofeld himself is inflated to almost cartoonish proportions compared to previous villains. As mentioned in my review of Tomorrow Never Dies, this bigger and brasher approach to Bond films doesn’t always work, however, in the case of YOLT it’s the highlight. Pleasance’s iconic, over-the-top Blofeld is a treat and the volcano lair is an impressive feat of creative set design by the great K. Even the climactic finale, a heightened version of the Goldfinger finale, is a fun, albeit elongated, romp.
But, with YOLT being the fifth film in the series the Bond exhaustion was written all over Sean Connery’s face. By now he had grown out of the role (and the pay) and the series was beginning to grow a little stale. What could have been a brilliant location in Japan, ended up being painted with broad stereotypes, and many of the set pieces come off as goofy and half baked, and let’s not forget about the cringe inducing racism and misogyny. More so than Thunderball before it, it feels like Cubbie Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and company were throwing kitchen sinks into the black hole of creativity that had opened up after the first three films. It was time for a fresh reboot of the series.
However, there was one area of the films that was beginning to hit its stride, the Bond song, and by extension the opening credit sequence.
As I’ve said many times before in this countdown Goldfinger set the standard for so many James Bond tropes including the song—not the James Bond theme—but the original song that opens every Bond film and is often recalled in several minor overtures in the film’s score. It’s the tone setter that heightens the cinematic spectacle, and many Bond fans are just as eager to hear the new song as they are to see the movie.
Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger is the bombastic tone that catapult’s us into the film, but, it’s Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice that finds the perfect marriage of sound and sight for a Bond opening, and the melodic recalls give welcome splashes of color throughout a pretty ordinary film (by Bond standards). It’s breezy, infectious melody coupled with Sinatra’s silky voice would go on to inspire several Bond songs later in the franchise, such as Carly Simon’s great entry Nobody Does it Better for The Spy Who Loved Me.
Quite often the song works as a time capsule for that moment, like Duran Duran, the poster boys for the Mtv generation doing A View To A Kill at the height of the Mtv boom. In the case of YOLT long time Bond film composer John Barry adds timely teases of psychodelia that mesh with the sounds of the time and Maurice Binder’s opening title design.
It can be argued that none of the songs would be as grand without the late Maurice Binder establishing the opening credit template for the franchise. Binder’s opening title designs were essentially early music videos, his lively color design for Dr. No was ahead of its time, but the song (Three Blind Mice) was hardly its equal, then after not designing the titles for From Russia with Love and Goldfinger he returned for Thunderball and again he designed the hell out of the titles, but again, Tom Jones’ Thunderball was less than inspiring (though I love it). It wasn’t until YOLT when his visual style was finally teamed beautifully with song. From then on Binder and composer John Barry would complement each other in the opening titles for nearly every Bond film up through the Dalton era.
Nearly every fan of the franchise could give you their top five songs off the top of their head and I’m no exception.
- Goldfinger – Shirley Bassey
- Skyfall – Adele
- Nobody Does it Better (The Spy Who Loved Me) – Carly Simon
- You Only Live Twice – Nancy Sinatra
- A View to A Kill – Duran Duran
And conversely we can all name our five least favorite.
- The Man With The Golden Gun – Lulu
- Die Another Day – Madonna
- On an All Time High (Octopussy) – Rita Coolidge
- Writing’s on The Wall (SPECTRE) – Sam Smith
- Tomorrow Never Dies – Sheryl Crow