Music in the movies: the scores of John Barry 1968-1979 part 1
Our detailed look back over the non-Bond scores of John Barry continues with a look at his work between the years 1968 to 1979…
In the third part of our John Barry retrospective, we enter the late 60s and a surge of activity that would typify the composer’s output for nearly two decades. Despite the exacting nature of his commissions, he continued to build on his reputation with a succession of quality scores that stockpiled brilliant and unexpected surprises on top of unprecedented new ground. But all the while, he continued to strive for authenticity of arrangement and sincerity of expression. This phase demonstrates his broadening outlook but also reflects, in a profound way, the diversity of his musical influences.
His early output took inspiration from both the rhythm and blues of The Barry Seven and the popular rhythms of the time, such as Gene Vincent and American guitarist Duane Eddy, whose dirty, low guitar sound echoes in the percussive embellishments of Barry’s first foray into Bond. Elsewhere, the likes of the Nat King Cole trio and the big band sound gave Barry a tangible sense of scale, spontaneity and, conversely, discipline – while artists such as Gracie Field informed his whimsical appreciation of melody.
Going back further, one can cite the influence of Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, old-school Hollywood movie composers to whom Barry expressed an unwavering devotion, as echoes of their work continued to resonate in his own.
Before all that, when Barry was just a boy, one of his primary influences was classical music. He adored the Russians composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovitch and Prokofiev, and one of his earliest childhood memories was listening to Sibelius’s first symphony in E minor while he played with his toy cars. At York Minster, under the tutelage of Francis Jackson, he learned the rudiments of melody and counter point that would help him to produce his own symphonic delights.
The young Barry never said much, but Jackson was bowled over by his dedication and his facility for melody. Long before he nailed the method, he was ready for the muse. That education would hone an instinct that later chased the dizzying textures of period pieces such as The Lion In Winter (reviewed below), resplendent with its high horns and low flutes.
Barry’s influences, his receptiveness and his sheer bloody-mindedness, as well as his training by Jackson and William Russo (arranger to Stan Kenton) – not to mention the correspondence course in composition that he undertook during his national service – all had their part to play.
During the late 60s, those influences were palpable as he continued to fuse staggering technical proficiency with startling emotional truths, shaping seemingly limitless musical landscapes that were at once believable and incredible. These scores are giants of mood and authenticity, clustered with technique, bursting with invention, but always sincere.
Despite having Michael Caine as recovering alcoholic and cat burglar Henry Clarke and Bryan Forbes as director, Deadfall had a bleak box office showing. The notion of Caine plunging “into the world of the treacherous and the perverse” seems derivative at best, and this improbable jewel heist romp tries to be too many things, but John Barry squeezes out every last drop of suspense and whips up a delirious body of ideas – along with a rare film appearance as a symphony orchestra conductor.
This tense, romantic score has a few traces of Bond and his early work. Some scenes even feature source material from the score for Beat Girl. Still, there are lots of new ideas here, demonstrating Barry’s continuing affection for unusual instrumentation, quirky interpretation and bold technique, and all with an intoxicating international feel. Statue Dance, for example, flaunts castanets and maracas, unusual melodic progressions, hypnotic rhythms and feverish sidesteps, while My Love Has Two Faces (along with its sister theme Philosophy) escalates mellifluously over irregular time signatures. Shirley Bassey’s disarming performance moves easily between velvet coercion and volcanic eruption, and reveals a little of that haughty eroticism we will enjoy again in Diamonds Are Forever.
But the highlight of this score for me is the gorgeous Romance For Guitar & Orchestra, also known as Guitar Concierto De Juan Barri (after Rodrigo), and I would urge anyone to type the name into YouTube. This striking, flamenco-infused tour de force takes place in real time at a concert hall, while Clarke and his accomplices attempt to steal diamonds from a millionaire’s chateau. The arrangement is a sexy treat: a classical body curved around a Spanish guitar, plucking every scintilla of tension and sensuality from that most intimate of instruments.
It captures the intensity and suspense in a beguilingly bruised Mediterranean fashion, with an arch eyebrow and an enigmatic glance, between crashing strings and timpani flashes, xylophonic paranoia and wistful flute, and naked, intense stirrings of emotion in the hands of smoldering Catalan guitar soloist Renata Tarrago – all with a deliciously meta twist in the shape of Barry as conductor. Music and plot mesh with delirious intent and mutual respect – and the preliminary orchestral warm-up and rapt concluding applause serve to further heighten the mood and tweak the nerve.
This seductive calling card pre-dates the gloss and polish of Ruby Cairo by more than 20 years. It’s a stunning accomplishment that breathes life into an apologetic deadweight of a film.
The Lion In Winter (1968)
Listening to The Lion In Winter’s menacing main theme on this side of the 70s, it’s hard not to make comparisons with the brooding, malevolent tempest of Ave Satani from The Omen. But this turbulent score predated Jerry Goldsmith’s work of hell-raising proportions by almost a decade. Furthermore, although Barry seems to manipulate similarly sinister forces to do his bidding, here the focus is on earthly treachery and culpability in the House of Henry II.
Seemingly stealing inspiration from Sibelius, Prokofiev, Schubert and Gregorian plainchant, yet exhibiting remarkable individuality, Barry took another leap of faith and revisited the classical training of his youth with these Oscar-winning brass and choral arrangements for Anthony Harvey’s tale of malicious pomp, fury and intrigue, surprising many of his peers by developing authentic Latin texts. Bold, fearless and devastating, his score upends the story of an unhappy royal house with all the brute force and earthly expression befitting this wonderfully bleak and vitriolic saga.
And what a saga it is, with sadistic exchanges galore between Peter O’Toole’s ‘Henry a la mode’, Katherine Hepburn’s inscrutable Eleanor of Aquitaine (for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress) and a ‘greedy little trinity’ of barbaric sons who are all after a fatter piece of the royal pie. Featuring Anthony Hopkins as would-be Lionheart and sometime poet, and Timothy Dalton as fruity Philip II, both in their first movie roles, The Lion In Winter is groaning with haughty theatrical imperatives, pithy one-liners and malignant comebacks, like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf? for the Middle Ages. It’s a veritable wild animal of a film, and Barry is the quintessential lion tamer.
Amidst a volley of verbal assaults, perverse mind games, betrayals, rotten promises and wayward shags, Barry delivered a rich assembly of technical embellishments, Latin vocals and wordless chants to create something rhapsodic and foreboding. The experience is one of disorientation, of having staggered into the arena of a classical master.
The title theme is a magnificent collision of brass, timpani and vocal angst, by turns hushed and feverish, while The Herb Garden is a grim cacophony of mournful wailing in a brass cauldron of pain, decorated with church bells. How Beautiful You Make Me twists choral dissent into a series of sliding brass tectonics, while in Media Vita In Morte Sumus rolling brass and timpani confront a tide of atonal accusations in a sea of tortured string.
There are also moments of transcendence, such as Eya, Eya, Nova Gaudia and Eleanor’s Arrival, an ecstatic refrain that blends soft strings and harmonies into a charged hymn of melancholy and grace – unequivocal proof that Barry was channeling otherworldly ideas in the earthly realm.
This accomplished score has a delirious momentum and spontaneity, perhaps because Barry had just three weeks to turn it around. Authentic and profoundly affecting, it nailed the film’s barbed powerhouse of Plantagenet misery, capriciousness and dissembling, but also stands alone as a masterful opus.
It would not be the last time his work took on a classical stature, but it was groundbreaking for its time and earned Barry an Academy Award for best original score and the Anthony Asquith Award from the British Film Academy. It was also one of his favourite scores.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The unison of sound and image could not have been more direct, yet as delicately soldered, as those opening few minutes of Midnight Cowboy. That toy cowboy ricochets wildly in front of a blank open-air cinema screen, before melting into the sun-glazed funk – and then we hear Buck’s tortured yodels, his boot cracks against his front door and a carefully timed version of Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson hooks us in. Barry’s idiosyncratic perfectionism was key in piecing each frame to its melodic counterpoint.
Working as musical supervisor, Barry attached popular songs from The Groop and Elephant’s Memory to Nilsson’s contribution, and also added his own score to the film’s neon wilderness. Contemplative and hopeful, Barry’s involvement lent profound emotional textures to John Schlesinger’s Oscar-winner, providing an elevating accompaniment to pain undefined.
The raw appeal and engaging sincerity of Harry Nilsson’s version of the Fred Neil classic was no secret to director John Schlesinger, as it was used as a place-holder while he awaited contributions from various songsmiths. But Barry loved its country leanings, that sense of isolation, and that touching lyric about going where the sun keeps shining.
Consequently, he devoted himself to making sure the kinetic energy of the re-recorded version swooped and soared in all the right places. But there is an emotional dexterity at work too, chiseling away at what we think we’re watching as the muddled testosterone, sexual misdirection and grandiose personal failures kick in.
The song threads around a series of flashbacks and episodic misadventures as Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a self-proclaimed hustler who has come to New York to make the big time getting laid, gets played for every dime and reels from one humiliation to the next. That relentless melody, spurred on with some trembling strings and a wailing vocal melody line, is like a constant heartbeat as Buck forms an unlikely business alliance and eventual friendship with con man and cripple, Ratso (Dustin Hoffman).
This bizarre but compelling friendship, lovingly referenced by a host of comedy shows such as Seinfeld and Futurama, is invariably accompanied by those infectious rhythms, taking us from the bravado of those iconic street shots (and that famously improvised cab incident) to the tender demonstrations on that final bus journey.
But if Everybody’s Talkin’ is the heartbeat to this story, Barry’s aching central theme is the oxygen, suffusing warmth and colour to an unlikely friendship. As a succession of weary neon snapshots flash in and out of focus, that hauntingly bluesy refrain provides a distilled emotional resource, draping key scenes in a tender solicitude.
Its stirring cadences shift and slide from despair even as the camera is fixed on abject miseries with no names; it casts longer shadows as the protagonists are ground down by increasingly reckless schemes, but its warmth resonates among the tramps, street walkers and lost souls, enveloping the anonymous in their mutual separation.
Barry’s decision to hire jazz virtuoso Toots Thielemans to play the harmonica was inspired. Those pensive vibrations represent the intransigence of hope flickering in even the darkest moments, lending pathos to the bleakest scenes of inarticulate loss.
The most beautiful aspect to Barry’s score is its simplicity, and he took care not to include too many trademark flourishes and unusual instrumental couplings. Science Fiction, the piece that plays during Buck’s unfortunate encounter in a movie theatre, has a little of that classic Bond sensibility, and the mellow Fun City is an intoxicating plunge into familiar jazz territories, but in Joe Buck Rides Again he develops the cowboy motif with sensitivity and poignancy, and the final credits deploy a stripped-down version of the central theme with modest finesse.
One amusing exception is Florida Fantasy, which underpins Ratso’s dreams of being a successful hustler who can outrun his friend. So catchy was this calypso ditty that it would later be used for children’s show Wildtrack.
Barry’s take on New York was initially met with reservations, but it was ultimately justified. As a Limey, he was absolutely qualified to capture the alienation of the film’s leads and score those streets without bias or agenda. His nationality gave him objectivity and gave his central theme the credentials of the true outsider.
That haunting yet strangely reassuring descending melody is at once dignified and destabilising, capturing the loneliness, naïveté and melancholy of the dislocated Buck and his friend with one identifiably lingering and emotionally eloquent sound that would win Barry a Grammy for best instrumental theme.
We’ll be looking at some of Barry’s pieces from the period 1971 -1979, including scores for Mary, Queen of Scots and a film that drew a few unfortunate Jaws comparisons.
Honorable mentions (1968-70)
A gorgeous score with shades of The Ipcress File, conjuring up the qualities of a grief-stricken fairground with Barry’s winning blend of cimbalom and woodwind. Graceful, delicate and melancholy, his pipe organ and cimbalom waltz was the best thing about this Taylor and Burton turkey and did much to redeem the labours of the film’s two tortured leads.
Definitive strands of Barry magic were consolidated for Richard Lester’s tale of colliding mid-life crises with George C Scott, Julie Christie and Richard Chamberlain. This cool but sensual score – replete with layered strings and horns, complementary melodies, unexpected time shifts and tender, mellow refrains – hits high note after seductive high note. It also features a trombone as a cue for love-making.
The Appointment (1969)
This unimaginative film about a lawyer (Omar Sharif) who is obsessed with proving that his new wife is a high-class prostitute managed to secure not one but three scores from different composers. The score Barry put together with Don Walker, which replaced that of Michel Legrand for the film’s theatrical release, is similarly downbeat and slight, but it’s interesting to compare the scores on the CD soundtrack.
The Last Valley (1970)
Barry drew on his choral and military background for this bleak story of a captain and a free spirit who struggle to find solace during the 30 Years War. He was allowed a staggering six months to perfect this ambitious score, which employed the Accademia Monteverdiana to tether transcendent chorals to a solid, anguished slab of sound.