R.I.P. John Barry (1933-2011)

January 31, 2011 | By

A rather dashing snapshot of a pre-Bond John Barry

British composer John Barry died Sunday Jan. 30th of a heart attack in New York.

If you read the sentence again, it’s simple, cold, and indifferent from notices of many other creative luminaries who’ve passed away, but Barry was perhaps Britain’s greatest film music export to the international stage, having scored the James Bond films and numerous genres without indulging in genre clichés.

Even if one examines his Bond films (eleven, and the most for any composer), Barry’s approach wasn’t bombastic, nor heavy in busy orchestrations for a multitude of elaborate sounds.

He could write elegant melodies, apply strings in the most lush, expressive manner without being melodramatic, and it wasn’t unusual to hear material going against the grain of scoring trends – slowing down the action and forcing the audience to concentrate on the character’s emotional stress level instead of scoring bomb blasts, gunfire, or a kinetically edited car chase.

He received four Oscar Awards in his lifetime: the title song for Born Free (1966), the pulsing, the eerie score for Lion in Winter (1968), the romantic classic Out of Africa (1985), and the elegant Dances with Wolves (1990). Barry also earned a BAFTA Award for Lion, a Golden Globe for Africa, and four Grammy Awards.

MCA kept both Africa and Somewhere in Time (1980) in print for years (the latter was also released as a gold disc) because they were catalogue favourites, and EMI repeatedly went back to the Bond catalogue because there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t appreciate one of the Bond films, let alone scores that were based around superb title songs (Lulu’s screeching Man with the Golden Gun excepted.)

I can recall the Bond scores being reissued by Liberty Records in the 80s, and EMI also released the albums during the early years of CD, with another wave remastered discs coming years later, some featuring much of the previously unreleased music fans had been screaming about for decades.

Among his Bond films, Goldfinger (1964) is the best-remembered, as well as his version of Monty Norman’s Bond theme, which Barry orchestrated and performed with his jazz band the John Barry Seven for Dr. No (1962).

From a commercial stand, Barry was an important figure in film music because he further exposed the general public to film music, but his style wasn’t always appreciated by critics. Films in Review’s Page Cook loathed his scores and would dismiss his work with acidic little salvos of bitter negatives, and not every Barry score was career highpoint – Follow Me (1969) has a haunting theme, but little variation and is maniacally repetitive.

I’ve always felt a composer isn’t fully responsible for a work’s success and failure because a score’s purpose is to satisfy the needs of a film, and what’s ultimately recorded and mixed into a film’s soundtrack is what the producer paid for, and the director wanted. If a score works, it’s because it’s part of the elements that make the movie; and if a score has a life beyond the film, it’s the composer’s success in crafting music that expands on a film’s themes and characters, and provokes the listener to experience emotions beyond the originating film.

I’ve never seen Somewhere in Time, but it is a lovely, impressionable work. To the opposite, I’ve seen the dreadful Raise the Titanic (1980), where Barry’s impeccable success capturing the emotional turmoil surrounding the Titanic legend, the elegance of the ship, the sadness of its loss as well as its passengers – all transcending the banality of Jerry Jameson’s direction, and the inherent cheapness of producer Sir Lew (“low”) Grade.

The moment Barry’s theme plays against a pre-credit prologue montage of stills from Titanic’s construction and launch, you’re hooked into a haunting journey that never really happens, and Barry’s music is perhaps the lone force that keeps one watching as Jameson’s film lumbers along until the finale, where the score and film coalesce into one magical moment where Lord Grade’s money allowed the ship to bob to the surface, and sail into New York City’s harbor in style.

As a child with a fleeting memory and attention span inherent to any grating rugrat, my earliest musical memory was Barry’s Born Free theme (with lyrics by frequent collaborator Don Black), which got regular play on radio.

Its impact and relation to the parting between lion and human was so profound, every single time that tune played in the car, I’d bawl – and baffle my parents. I can only assume Joy and George Adamson waving bye-bye to Elsa the Lioness was something akin to the death of a cherished pet in my dinky heart (or the disappearance of a favourite teddy bear), because there’s no other reason why Lion Song = Instant Sniveling & Crying.

For fans and novices, Barry’s work is easily accessible via the Bond films, and the aforementioned Oscar-winning character and romance films, but he accomplished a great deal in his 77 years. He was involved in stage musicals (Brighton Rock), orchestral jazz concept albums (The Americans), and he was an important proponent of getting jazz into film scoring, although that wasn’t a deliberate ploy.

Barry began as a jazz trumpet player, was respected as an arranger and composer, and also served as producer for a number of EMI -Ember artists in Britain during the early sixties, including Adam Faith, Desmond Lane, the England Sisters, and Bill and Bret Landis (see Allmusic for further info).

His collaborations with Faith made him a natural to score the singer’s early foray into acting, the sleazy-silly Beat Girl / Wild for Kicks (1960), whose score still holds its own and ranks as one of his best (and most fun) works. (The moody cue “The City 2000 A.D.” is a portent of the silky smooth jazz writing that made him an in-demand composer during the sixties.)

Most of his scores did enjoy commercial releases, and several key works left out were later re-recorded by Silva Screen, in a series of memorable productions with Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (such as the aforementioned Titanic, the haunting Walkabout, and the epic Zulu).

Barry was also profiled in Geoff Leonard and Pete Walker’s John Barry: The Midas Touch, and Film Score Monthly’s site features a transcribed interview from 1996. Cinema Retro also features a podcast of Barry’s 2008 concert.

My favourites works? Off the top of my heard: Beat Girl (1960), Body Heat (1981), Boom! (1968), The Deep (1978), Frances (1982), The Ipcress File (1965), The Last Valley (1971), The Lion in Winter (1968), Night Games (1980), Raise the Titanic (1980), The Tamarind Seed (1974), and the Bond films.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor



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