Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Remembering Film Composer John Barry--He Captured My Imagination

When I heard of the passing of 5-time Oscar-winning composer John Barry last week, I realized that his music deeply stirred my childhood imagination, as I fell in love with the movies.  His movie themes, ever-present on the airwaves of the 1960's, were the soundtrack to my growing love-affair with film.  He was one of my musical heroes, and I will miss him.

One of the biggest hits of 1966 was Barry's theme from "Born Free". The Song, and the Score, captured Oscars.  "Born Free" was the true story of Elsa, a  lioness cub who is raised by humans and trained to return to the wild.  The song is heartfelt and sentimental, with the first glimmers of the sweeping orchestrations Barry would be known for.  "Born Free" was one of the first movies I ever saw in my childhood.  The emotional punch of the song coupled with my fascination and affection for the animals portrayed on-screen started me on my life long love and appreciation for the creatures of the world.

Barry was famous for writing music for the original James Bond films.  There is still a controversy over who composed the Bond Theme (Monty Norman has received credit for this although stories have it that the studios, displeased with Norman's work, hired Barry to revamp it and create something new).  Nevertheless, no one can deny Barry's contribution to the jazzy, '60's infused compositions for some of Bond's best-known themes.   I get a chill of excited anticipation whenever I hear the first two booming notes from the title tune of 1965's "Goldfinger", sung by Shirley Bassey in the film:

In 1968, Barry created one of his most unique and dramatic scores for "The Lion in Winter".  The music used the influence of Gregorian Chants for this tale of 12th- Century royal intrigue.  I remember catching a glimpse of this film when it was broadcast on PBS many years ago.  I had not seen it before, but was very familiar with it.  I caught myself staring at the screen just to hear the music;  I had rarely heard anything so beautiful in a popular motion picture. It won him his third Oscar. Here's the strong and ominous opening credit track:

I wanted desperately to see "Midnight Cowboy" in its initial release in 1969, but with a strictly-enforced 'X'-rating, it would be many years before I would have the opportunity.  The theme song "Everybody's Talkin'", and John Barry's instrumental theme, became huge hits and were played often on contemporary radio.  I would hear the music and reconstruct the film in my imagination, using every review I could get my hands on, to fill in the details.  This laconic, sadly hopeful harmonica-solo and string arrangement is one of my favorite pieces of film music, in one of my all-time personal favorite films.

Barry went on to win an Oscar for the sweeping and emotional "Out of Africa" from 1985. It is a more intricate score, one that may require a hearing or two before it sticks in the mind. And then it is unforgettable.  It is a lush accompaniment to a passionate and doomed relationship between a writer far from home and an adventurer who would never settle down.  Once again, after "Born Free", Africa had inspired the romantic in Barry.

His last hurrah may have been the score for 1990's "Dances With Wolves".  By then, Barry's themes were becoming more familiar; one can almost hear "Out of Africa" underneath some of the pieces in this film.  Even so, it is the music that carries the film, gives it its legendary flavor, and creates an emotional resonance that enhances some marvelous imagery of an era long gone.


  1. Great tribute. John Barry got me into James Bond: I had a teacher that played Barry's Bond scores while we wrote essays, and I loved it so much I bought a CD with all the themes. Classic work that has yet to be matched, in my opinion.

  2. Walter--that is so cool that you were able to compose essays to the themes from James Bond! Glad you like John Barry's work...I totally agree with your assessment!

  3. Bless you for throwing so much love on Barry's work on Out of Africa! God, that score is so phenomenally sweeping I can hardly stand listening to it without getting the chills!

  4. Such an incredible back catalogue ofwork, thank you so much for putting the clips together Tom, really enjoyed listening to them. Each one a masterpiece.