In all of film history, is there a more glaring example of a song that became bigger than the movie than Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”?
Probably! To name just a few: Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (from the Peckinpah western Pat Garett and Billy the Kid), Frank Sinatra’s cover of “New York, New York” (from the Scorsese film of the same name), Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (from the Gene Wilder comedy The Woman in Red), and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” (from the Jason Patric-Jennifer Jason Leigh cop drama Rush).
However, is there any Bond song that more eclipsed its actual film than “Live and Let Die”? Even Shirley Bassey’s iconic Bond tune “Goldfinger” – classic banger though it may be – comes from a film that not only has its own classic imagery (Shirley Eaton in gold paint) but also an Austin Powers spoof (Goldmember). Live and Let Die, on the other hand, feels like it’s a complete oddity to the majority of the people who’ve heard the song that shares its name.
There are a handful of other Bond songs – Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” and Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only,” to name two – that turned into such legacy-stretching radio staples that the average oldies fan has long forgotten there was ever a movie. But Paul McCartney has elevated “Live and Let Die” far above a mere radio hit. Over 30 years after its release, he played it at the freakin’ Super Bowl!
McCartney – first with Wings, later as a solo act – has been turning every “Live and Let Die” performance into a full-on production with pyrotechnics and light show like that since the 70s. When Guns N’ Roses scored a hit with their 1991 cover version, McCartney was only further emboldened to add more fire to the touring version and reclaim the song as his own.
I saw McCartney perform “Live and Let Die” at a local concert a couple years back, and I can practically still feel the heat that was given off by the walls of flame syncopated with every drum beat. Others might have similar concert memories of the song just substitute “Guns N’ Roses” in for “Paul McCartney.” Sadly, millions now associate the song – the GnR version – with Donald Trump touring a medical mask factory while refusing to wear a mask on camera.
There is a Live and Let Die movie, though, and it’s a fairly significant one – first Roger Moore Bond picture, second-to-last to be co-produced by Harry Saltzman, first black Bond villain. In 1973, United Artists and Eon needed Live and Let Die to save their cash cow after Sean Connery’s departure, and the film did just that, delivering box office totals far above the most optimistic expectations. All these years later, however, fans argue over this movie. The Guardian, The Independent, Collider, and Parade say this is easily a top-10 all-time Bond picture; USA Today has it more in the middle-of-the-road category; Reader’s Digest thinks it’s damn near the worst.
Edgar Wright, who in 2017 named Live and Let Die his favorite of all the Bonds, is a huge fan. Who am I to disagree with Edgwar Wright? I mean, really, why would I even dream of such a…
Ah, crap, I have to disagree, don’t I? Yeah, Live and Let Die’s Bond meets blaxploitation? Not my bag, baby.
In This Ever Changing World In Which We’re Living
Briefly, Live and Let Die is best described as James Bond meets blaxploitation, voodoosploitation, and – albeit four years before this film actually came out – Smokey and the Bandit-sploitation. (Hat tip to Ian West for that one.) Also, a 21-year-old young Jane Seymour tries ever so hard to be a serious actress in such a silly movie. At the end, someone blows up like a helium balloon, and it’s pretty cool
The backstory: After the producers briefly flirted with the idea of an American actor like Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood replacing Connery, they circled back to Roger Moore, who would have become Bond in 1969 if not for the TV show he was doing at the time. Once cast, Moore instantly changed Bond into someone who enters every scene through the comedy door whereas Connery’s version always exited every scene through that particular door, a distinction Connery himself pointed to as the key difference between their versions of Bond. The more threatening, violent Bond wouldn’t return for over a decade, but the people of 1973 seemed cool with it.
Prior to Moore’s casting, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz had already picked Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming’s second Bond novel, because he thought the story of a black drug lord (actually a gold smuggler in the book) would give them an extra edge. (Didn’t hurt that Shaft had been such a big hit in 1971.) Originally preferring to simply move on to different things, Diamonds Are Forever director Guy Hamilton was enticed back by the challenge of making a Bond without Connery. Producer Harry Saltzman took the lead while co-producer Cubby Broccoli was a more passive presence.
Makes You Give In and Cry
The plot: Spurred by the deaths of several British agents, Bond is dispatched to New York to look into some shady dealings between Dr. Kanaga (Yaphet Kotto), a United Nations diplomat, and a Harlem gangster named Mr. Big (insert Sex and the City joke here). Old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who played the part again in 1989’s License to Kill) offers his assistance, swooping in when necessary to offer backup (“Get me the make on a white pimpmobile”) or smooth things over with the owners of newly destroyed property courtesy of 007 (“Now, Mr. Bleeker, there’s no need for name calling”).
Mostly, though, Bond is just trying to feel his way through a complicated mystery that stretches from Harlem to New Orleans and all the way down to the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique. Along the way, there are poppy fields, boat chases, crocodile jumping, a cartoonish Southern sheriff (Clifton James), voodoo ceremonies lorded over by Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), a tarot card reader named Solitaire whose gift for second sight is tied to her virtue (Seymour, cast instead of Diana Ross when United Artists objected to a black female lead), two villains who turn out to be the same person, and an evil scheme to flood the market with heroin.
Throughout it all, Moore – playing Bond like he played Simon Templar – quips, smirks, and tries his best to walk the tightrope laid out for him by the screenwriter: how do we pull this off without seeming racist?
You Know You Did, You Know You Did, You Know You Did
The film’s answer, at least partially, is to lean into how out of place Bond is in a story like this. A character who’s tailing Bond cracks, “It’s like following a cue ball.” Another scolds, “Great disguise, Bond: a white man in Harlem.” Indeed, when Bond walks in as not just the only white man in a black Harlem bar but also a stiff and proper Englishman and orders a bourbon with no ice – taking a one-movie break from the signature vodka martini – he sticks out like Forrest Gump at a Black Panther party.
Bond can’t even get out an old-fashioned bribe for information before the bar booth he’s sitting in rotates into the wall to reveal a secret evil villain lair. Similarly, Bond’s first face-to-face with Mr. Big ends before he can even get his name out. (“Names is for tombstones, baby,” Big hilariously scolds before handing this white boy off to be killed in a back alley.) Later, when Bond encounters the unkillable Baron Samedi and Solitaire’s devout belief in voodoo he views it all with a skeptical, at times dismissive headcock, but the film ultimately lets the other side get the last laugh.
Still, sensing that a Bond movie with entirely black villains might come off wrong since every Bond fan knows the bad guys will lose and 007 will win, Mankiewicz created Sheriff J.W. Pepper (James) as a southern sheriff to laugh at instead of laughing at black villains. He’s completely out of his depth trying to keep up with Bond’s speedboat chase down the Louisiana bayou, but while it plays like proto-Smokey and the Bandit it feels totally out of place in this movie. A long, but tightly edited boat chase is completely derailed by this guy:
Prior to all of that, Bond is briefly paired with a junior CIA agent (Gloria Hendry) who happens to be black, and at the risk of angering southern movie theater owners of the time, the film does give us a white man and black woman kissing with direct reference to off-screen sex.
Remember, Uhura and Kirk’s infamous interracial kiss happened just 5 years earlier and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner a year prior to that. So, Guy Hamilton and writer Tom Mankiewicz were certainly looking for ways to make Live and Let Die feel progressive, an effort that extended behind the scenes considering the number of black people hired to work the local crew.
Give the Other Fella Hell!
To some, all of that effort adds up to – as Hollywood Reporter critic Marc Bernardin put it – an enjoyable, “playfully racist” movie. To others, it’s just plain racist.
What strikes me most about Live and Let Die, however, is the way it set the stage for the Bond movies to graft their formula over other genres. Two years after Live and Let Die‘s blaxploitation riff, Bond rubbed elbows with a kung fu movie (Man With the Golden Gun). By the end of the 70s, he was in outer space (Moonraker), caught chasing some of that Star Wars money. In the decades after that, Bond was inserted into a Miami Vice/Lethal Weapon movie (License to Kill), circled back to kung fu again (Tomorrow Never Dies), and tried on a Jason Bourne skin (Quantum of Solace).
That’s why it has been said that when the Bond people get nervous, they imitate. You don’t pass the half century mark as a film franchise without proving yourself adaptable to the times, but no matter the emerging genre Bond tries to rip off, he always seems to end up storming the evil villain’s lair at the end.
So, there is actually much about Live and Let Die that plays to the classic Bond formula. A larger-than-life villain (I wish Yaphet Kotto was in the movie more) spells out his evil plan while 007 is strapped to a torture device. Just like Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With the Golden Gun, and kind of also The Spy Who Loved Me, a physically distinctive henchman (Julius Harris’ hook-handed Tee Hee Johnson) sticks around for one final attack long after he’s been forgotten. There’s a pretty Bond girl in need of saving, and the whole thing closes out on one last Bond quip.
So, Live and Let Die is definitely a Bond movie, yet it doesn’t really feel like one to me. Near the climax, he interrupts a voodoo ceremony straight out of the blaxploitation classic Sugar Hill (which, to be fair, came out a year later). The sight of Bond firing his gun at a Baron Samedi statue while devoted followers – all of them black – cower is so wildly incongruous that I get why some people might like this movie for that very reason. Like I said with Moonraker, it’s just so crazy.
However, we all have to draw the line somewhere, and for me, it’s the supernatural. Bond doesn’t belong in a movie that closes with the implication that the Lord of the Undead is real. Beyond that, voodoo, tarot cards, a dual-identity villain with a Scooby Doo-like mask, exploitation cinema chase scenes through dreary Louisiana canals, and a new Bond actor genetically incapable of taking anything seriously makes for a really weird combination. Lastly, I don’t always like Bond in this movie.
His treatment of Solitaire, for example, is fairly cruel. He stacks the deck to convince her that the tarot cards insist they become lovers but is entirely unapologetic when he later learns her gift was tied to her virginity. “You’ve ruined my life forever!” she more or less cries as he rolls his eyes.
There are things I like, though. The opening New Orleans jazz funeral that’s actually a cover for a public assassination is fab. Meeting Moore’s Bond at home with a half-naked bird hiding in the closet as M and Moneypenny brief him on the mission makes for a memorable introduction. Once the action starts, the script constantly tosses 007 out of the frying pan and into the fire. For example, how’s he going to get off a tiny little island surrounded by crocodiles? Jump on their backs, of course!
I’m glad Edgar Wright loves it. Personally, I’ll stick with the McCartney song.
Thoughts on the Bond Women: Jane Seymour recalls how she got the part: “I was wearing this fur hat, because I’d always been told I looked so different with my hair off my face. I took off this hat and down came all my hair, tumbling down. That was it. Harry [Saltzman] said, ‘We want you to play the lead.’” Later, though, she lamented, “I’ve spent my whole life living down that part.”
Ian Fleming Connection: Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die (1954) involves 007 thwarting a gold smuggling operation run by a Haitian criminal mastermind who uses voodoo superstitions to control his followers and is actually a Soviet SMERSH agent. Around 10% of that made it into the movie, although additional elements from the book made their way into later movies, such as Felix Leiter’s shark attack and the villain’s “he disagreed with something that ate him” note in License to Kill.
Bond Song Thoughts: Easily my favorite of the Bond songs so far and the first to be nominated for an Academy Award, “Live and Let Die” was nonetheless not an instantly obvious choice to Saltzman and Broccoli. (Guy Hamilton didn’t much like the song either but at least saw the appeal of an ex-Beatle contributing to his movie.) When McCartney turned in his recording, the producers mistakenly thought it was a demo and were eager to re-record it with a female singer. They were eventually disabused of such notion but still kind of got their way: B.J. Arnau performs the song in the body of the movie as a nightclub singer.
Coolest Scene: The crocodile jump in crocodile shoes.
Favorite Line: Bond: “Why, it’s just a hat, darling, belonging to a small-headed man of limited means who lost a fight with a chicken.”
Biggest regret: That Yaphet Kotto didn’t get more screen time.
Little Known Fact: Filming on location in Louisiana, the producers quarreled with a few real-life Sheriff Peppers. Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz recalled:
The minute you got out of New Orleans into those parishes, you were in another country. We negotiated with the sheriff where the boat chase took place and we were going to spend something unbelievable back then, like a million and half dollars, in his parish in 1972. He said, “I know you got a lot of Negroes on your crew and in your cast and I don’t want Negroes driving vehicles in this parish.” And Cubby [Broccoli] said, “Well, sheriff, I guess we’ll have to find another parish to drop our million and a half in.” And the sheriff said, “Now hold on, hold on.”
Sampling of Critical Response From the Time: Frederick S. Clarke of Cinefantastique backhanded, “The film begins magnificently with a stunning credit sequence designed by Maurice Bender and cued to the music and lyrics of the title song by Paul McCartney. This delightful blend of sound and image is better by far than the film it introduces.”
Box Office: $161.8m worldwide ($935.6m inflation-adjusted), a surprising improvement on Connery’s official swan song from two years earlier, Diamonds Are Forever ($116m worldwide/$735.4m inflation-adjusted)
Sources: Nobody Does it Better, The Ultimate Guide to Bond, Some Kind of Hero, Cinefantastique, The James Bond Films
TOMORROW: Diamonds Are Forever