John Barry (1933-2011)

by Richard Kraft

I once posed the question to composing giant Jerry Goldsmith: if he were a film director, whom he would hire (other than himself) to score his films. Without pause he offered a name,  “John Barry.”

Goldsmith, perhaps the most compositionally complex composer for film, he of the never-settling time signature and unexpected and unsettling harmonics, suggested a composer noted for his straight and seemingly simply melodies. I had to inquire why. “No one nails a film with a theme better than Barry,” he said.

Goldsmith was right. Without a lot of compositional filigree, John Barry would aim straight for the heart of a film’s emotional core. He possessed an uncanny ability to take in the complexities of a film’s characters and narrative, distill it into a pure form, and then express that as straight and direct melodies.

The James Bond films were my first exposure to the art of John Barry. Looking back at his contribution, one realizes that he wasn’t really scoring the action on the screen. He was commenting on the attitude of the character. “James Bond is cooler than you will ever be,” is what his music expressed. ohn Barry let us know that the most important thing about Bond, the essence of what separated him from every other film hero that proceeded him, is that 007 is one cool, sexy, sophisticated cat.

His contributions to the “James Bond Theme” for DR. NO paved the way for a bold and decidedly modern approach to spy film scoring. Given the opportunity to expand on that in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Barry expressed through sleek and clean compositional lines a sound palette that explored and celebrated the film’s exotic settings and its wry and playful cat-and-mouse attitude. For GOLDFINGER, his score glistened in capturing the machismo of Bond, the villain Goldfinger, and even the bi-sexual love interest Pussy Galore. It was a score of big brass lines blaring, “Gold-FINGER!” in defiance of anyone who doubted that the language of action filmmaking has now changed forever. For THUNDERBALL, Barry focused his thematic attention onto the film’s seductive, twisting, undersea labyrinth. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE was about Asian music put through the filter of a Western gentleman’s ears and sensibilities (both Bond’s and Barry’s). ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE was Barry’s opportunity to save the franchise from the absence of its star, Sean Connery. Barry offered up witty and propulsive melody after melody, always tinged with the “James Bond Theme” to reassure audiences that no matter the lead, Bond is forever back in action. With DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, he captured a cool, icy sophistication that made the jewels of the film’s title as much an ever-present co-star as any of the other characters.

John Barry’s gift for finding the perfect melody extended way beyond Bond. For BORN FREE, he let us know immediately, in that bold and wonderful leap from first note to second, that he was celebrating a sense of expansive brashness—that was about being alive as much as it was about the exploits of a particular lion. He was never timid with his ideas. BORN FREE lets us know exactly how he was feeling about the film he was scoring.

For MIDNIGHT COWBOY Barry ignored the film’s literal Manhattan setting, and instead discovered the lonely heart of its characters through a wistful harmonic theme that captured the quiet isolation that could exist in cowboys of all sorts, including Ratso Rizzo on his final roundup on a Greyhound to Miami.

Like pawns in a sweltering game, the characters in BODY HEAT act and respond the way they do because John Barry’s music compelled them to do so. Like a spider forever weaving its fore-drawn web of death, Barry composed music that was both dripping with eroticism and underlined with dread and nihilistic inevitability.

Two of John Barry’s most beloved scores are for OUT OF AFRICA and SOMEWHERE IN TIME. Both contain achingly haunting and melancholy love themes written in a style so distinctively Barry. Both films are about true loves that can never really play out fully in the real, everyday world. His tunes explore how profound love can be, and how it can also be not quite within our grasp. It isn’t surprising that when given the opportunity to name an album of his original, non-film compositions, Barry chose to title it “THE BEYONDNESS OF THINGS.”

For CHAPLIN, Barry understood the sadness behind the eyes of the clown. His score to WALKABOUT was about the childlike beauty that ties its lead characters together. For PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, Barry brings an entire past and history to its time-traveling heroine as she reconnects to a wistful lifetime of real and missed experiences.

One of Barry’s greatest triumphs was looking out over the events and characters of DANCES WITH WOLVES and seeing a great horizon that unified them all. Instead of getting caught up in the various details of the film, he applied a few bold, straight, and direct melodies that served as a warm quilt transcending the differences between the cultures of the characters. Barry’s music was about an idea. A big, noble idea that was about much more than one man’s journey or even one tribe’s experience. He dug within himself and found something much more profound and universal to bring to his vision.

Even when scoring less than monumental motion pictures, Barry couldn’t help but apply the same approach he would take if he were tackling THE LION IN WINTER. For those films, he would dig within himself and score the ideas and intentions behind the movies. While the execution of the film THE BLACK HOLE comes up painfully short, Barry’s mysterious, forever-pulling theme captures something far more grand and operatic than anything on the screen.

The same applies to THE DEEP, where Barry’s music suggests something of epic proportions is just a few leagues away. And for the 1970’s remake of KING KONG, he connected to the aching heart of the giant ape and the disorientation Kong would feel being dragged into a modern world. Hell, John Barry even found something profound to say about HOWARD THE DUCK.

It is tempting when writing about John Barry’s music to keep going back to the word “simple.” In many ways it is the perfect word. It captures the distinct quality of distilling something down to its basic idea. It is also a wonderful word at describing something that is accessible, that bypasses too much thinking, too much second-guessing.

Being film music, those traits are especially important in connecting with an audience, all coming to the theatre with a different set of perceptions and experiences, and unifying them and connecting them to the specifics of what that film is trying to express.

But is it is also deceptive to think that the creation of something that is simple is actually simple to do. Gene Kelly’s carefree dance in a down-pouring rain celebrates wistful self-expression, but one can only imagine the lifetime of experiences and hard work Mr. Kelly must have brought to bear to create that moment. Al Hirschfield used just a few sweeping lines to capture the essence of a celebrity’s entire personality. The lines may have been simple; the artistry to execute it was not. The same can be said for the music of John Barry.

If writing a perfect simple tune that defines an entire motion picture and lives on in the memories of generations of people around the world were that easy, we would all be doing it. We can try to dissect exactly what made a Barry tune a Barry tune, or why his seemingly unsophisticated countermelodies wrench us in our gut, but that would be like trying to pull apart the majesty of a rainbow. At the end of the day, it works because it works.

John Barry was simply the master musical dramaturge for motion pictures.