01 February 2011

Farewell to a Master: John Barry (1933–2011)

I lost one of my major influences, one of my musical idols, on Sunday evening when English film composer John Barry died of a heart attack at age seventy-seven in his home in Oyster Bay, New York.

Barry became one of the foremost film composers in the world starting in the 1960s. After a short career in popular music as a trumpeter, Barry emerged as a film muscian who could bridge the gap between the older orchestral style with the newer interest in popular music. His earliest scores, starting with Beat Girl (1960), were pop and jazz pieces. But in 1962, he exploded with two foundational scores: From Russia with Love, the first Bond score for which he had composer credit (he had done arrangements and much uncredited work on Dr. No), and Zulu, a score that showed his ability with epic sweep and classical styles. These two themes would dominate his career. In 1964, his score to Goldfinger turned his music into a worldwide sensation, and the “Bond Sound” became attached to Barry forever. Today, all Bond music lives in his shadow. When he departed the series after The Living Daylights, a great era concluded. Although offered the other Bond movies, Barry turned them all down, feeling the emphasis on action made it no longer interesting to score them. And . . . he definitely had a point. The Bond movies have never had the same level of power since Barry’s run. His contribution to the character as a global phenomenon is immeasurable. I don’t give a damn about producer Cubby Broccoli. I give a damn about John Barry. He brought as much to 007 as Sean Connery, Ken Adam, and Terence Fisher. Perhaps brought more, since he stayed with the character longer.

Barry’s music soon attracted critical accolades, and he received his first Academy Award for Best Score with Born Free in 1966, and his second in 1968 for The Lion in Winter, a deeply medieval and intense piece that remains one of my favorites of his works. He also won Oscars for Out of Africa (1985) and Dances with Wolves (1990). The latter score was a key one for me as a budding soundtrack collector at the time. I already knew Barry’s work from his Bond scores and selections of his most popular love pieces on compilation albums (I never had much affection for Somewhere in Time, but the Love Theme is a staple at weddings), and when I purchased the Dances with Wolves CD I seriously did not stop listening to it for months and months. It owned my CD player.

In fact, Barry was perhaps more instrumental in getting me to start collecting soundtracks than any one else. Jerry Goldsmith ignited the hobby into a frenzy when I heard The Omen, but Barry had already started the trend. Most fans my age started with John Williams. I knew Williams’s music, of course, since I grew up with his popular scores from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and Jaws, but perhaps it was all too familiar to me. I would later develop a great appreciation for Williams’s depth of skill, but at the time Barry came from a different place and seized me with his ability to thrill with Bondian action music and then great transporting and aching emotional lyricism.

Some of my favorite of Barry’s compositions come from his albums of non-film music, The Beyondness of Things and Eternal Echoes, which are orchestral concept albums that have powerful, all-consuming beauty. I place his 1995 IMAX film score for Across the Sea of Time in this same category, as it feels more like a symphony than a score.

A list of my top Barry soundtracks encompasses films both famous and forgotten, and in a wide variety of styles. The two Bond scores I return to again and again are On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, an abundance of awesomeness with the greatest love theme the composer ever wrote (“We Have All the Time in the World”), and Moonraker, which goes against the grain of the film’s silliness with an ethereal and exotic sound. The Black Hole (1979) I’ve discussed twice on this blog as a key score for me, and the one most deserving of extended treatment. The little known films The Last Valley (1970) and Playing by Heart (1998, and now the composer’s penultimate score) boast astonishing work that would normally get Academy Award nominations if anybody was paying attention. The horrible Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter (1995) was a late flowering of Barry’s amazing romantic powers, and even action garbage like The Specialist (1994) sported a score that I still listen to on a regular basis—almost like Barry’s farewell to James Bond outside of the James Bond series. His short score for Nicolas Roeg’s beautiful Walkabout (1971) is a touching masterpiece that shows how Barry found timelessness within places that would seem to require specific cultural music. (The same can be said about Dances with Wolves.)

And . . . I could go on and on . . . I only recently purchased the limited edition album for his score to the forgotten Charles Bronson “Jaws Western,” 1977’s The White Buffalo, and its dark tone is utterly engrossing. He rarely made a misstep, and his best is music that both elevates its film and works as independent compositions that elevate life. Barry was an artistic genius, and man who wrote his music with heart that no listener cannot help but hear beating through every note. He has enhanced my world, made it better place to be, and through his music he will live forever.

No, Mister Barry, I did not expect you to die. And you haven’t.

If it were up to me, here is what I would play at Barry’s funeral as a celebration, as his “fanfare”: