Music in the movies: The scores of John Barry 1980-2001

We take John Barry’s non-Bond retrospective into the 80s, with some of his epic scores of love, lust and loss…

John Barry’s love affair with cinema is well documented. One could not imagine such a torrent of melodic invention pouring forth with such vibrant intensity if he was not enraptured by the cinematic experience: the darkened periphery of the auditoria; the hushed reverence of another world; the minutiae of human emotion playing out on the big screen. Everything he did, from The Beat to Enigma, represented a direct and synchronous passion for lyrical expression alongside the visual language of film.

The young Prendergast got his love of film from his father, Jack Xavier, who was a cinema projectionist in the silent movie era and would subsequently own a chain of cinemas in the North East. One of Barry’s earliest memories was being carried on his dad’s shoulders through the foyer of the Rialto and into a matinee, where he found himself looking up at a big black-and-white mouse on the screen. Cinema became a huge part of his childhood. When he was older, he would sit in those hallowed auditoria, enjoying that synergy of music and images, and taking notes.

His earliest forays into the world of cinema would also present him with a sense of the emptiness felt when people leave, as he himself revealed: “The theatre would be full… everyone smoking. Then the film would end, everybody would go, and we’d have to walk through the theatre, and it was all ghosts. Imagine it! Twenty minutes before, [you had] 200 people looking at An American In Paris or Sunset Boulevard. There’s something that so many people leave behind when they exit a room… That’s what stays with you through life.”

The profundity of loss permeated Barry’s life in other ways. When Barry was just eight, and Nazis bombed the convent school he had been attending, his dad grabbed him out of the air-raid shelter and took him out into the streets. As the sky above York burned red, Barry’s tough Irish father told him to never forget how easily something precious could be taken away. This lesson would be brought home to Barry again at the onset of the 1980s, when his father died.

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Barry would go on to score several movies that dealt with loss, and would continue to be influenced by Jack. He would channel his own loss into something transcendent, full of lingering echoes that would pay tribute to his father. In these scores, he would convey, in the simplest and most direct terms, a universal take on the bittersweet nature of relationships and the intricacies of separation – and what is really left behind when a loved one leaves.

Somewhere in Time (1980)

Romance as science fiction tragedy presents a stretch for the most ardent incurable romantic. This fantasy film about two lovers with a massive age difference and a few mortality issues, who can be together only by time travel via self-hypnosis, had the odds stacked against it. It would take a score of passion, classicism and yearning to elevate this seemingly hopeless cause. Fortunately for director Jeannot Szwarc, John Barry was not afraid of a hopeless cause. He was the champion of them.   

When Barry was approached to score the adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel, Bid Time Return, his father had just died. In touching on those indescribably bleak feelings, he captured the yearning of the doomed Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve), transforming a rush of minor notes into a dizzying symphonic declaration. His score connects incurable dreamer with impossible dream, creating a tangible link between what is and what could be, but highlighting the ultimate cruelty of a journey that has to be travelled both ways, and felt to both extremes.

That primary theme swoons and shimmers with the pressure of the spell it casts, blending trembling strings and aching flute and piano solos with long sustained notes that leak emotion. In different hands, this sentimental juxtaposition might have seemed insincere, manipulative or just saccharine. But Barry wasn’t painting this musical landscape on a blank canvas with disposable globs of emotion; his were intensely charged materials, spread out in pertinent textures and infused with a grief that was at once highly personal and readily accessible, capturing the essence of longing and heartbreak in a few rhapsodic bars.

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This achingly poignant theme gives credence to the story of a jaded play writer who falls for a photo of stage actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) and determines to travel from 1980 to 1912 by any means, improbable or otherwise. Barry’s melodic persuasions give us a reason to believe in the journey, as well as the significance of the destination – suddenly, Richard’s quest is both plausible and inevitable. Barry conducts an electrical current so palpable that only the cynic could fail to be moved – such was the sincerity of the personal investment he made.

One cannot countenance the heartache of the main theme without discussing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini, which plays at pivotal moments. Given the splintering romantic intensity of this variation, it’s hard to imagine another piece resonating so tenderly with Barry’s score. Matheson had suggested Mahler as a potential fit, but Barry struggled with it. The eighteenth variation, with its concertante style, seemed a more romantic complement, segueing into Barry’s central theme with a dreamy and soulful solicitude. By the time Richard falls for Elise, who has already died, the spell is cast.

Barry’s employs a violin to heartrending effect in The Old Woman, used in the film to link back to Rhapsody and heighten the significance of the connection. Elsewhere, classical lines connect a trembling piano with raw, wailing strings and soft timpani in The Journey Back In Time, surging through dark musical corridors of doubt before those strings vibrate across the high ranges, producing a dreamy, manifest serenity.

The musical textures that pervade Richard’s 1912 experience play on this dreamlike quality. His trans-generational courtship is shrouded in the shimmering, metallic grace of transcendent refrains such as A Day Together and Is He The One? Elsewhere, The Man Of My Dreams lends a sensual edge to an impromptu monologue that Elise delivers with the suggestive gambit: “The man of my dreams has almost faded now.”

Ultimately, all dreams will be paid in full. Richard’s time trip is paid for in the form of a shiny new penny from 1979. The opening bars of Return To The Present are a rumble of melodramatic string appliqué collapsing into a woodwind lullaby that suggests the waking time has little left to parley. It’s hard to know, as Richard tries to hypnotise himself out of heartbreak, where the lines of reality are being drawn as a solitary violin moans for release from waking hours.

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Little wonder Barry received more fan mail for this unparalleled paean to heartache than for any other score. Truly, this is an experience in pain like no other – finding oneself out of time, alone in real time, and lost for all time. When those searing end credits have subsided, something of that outro-energy lingers in the psyche. It may be just a dream, but the effects of the dream are very real.

Body Heat (1981)

If ever a film score dripped with sexual intent, this was it. Sticky and sultry, this 1980s homage to Double Indemnity is the soundtrack to entrapment and voluntary abandonment of the self. It captures the oppressive heat of Lawrence Kasdan’s contemporary crime of passion, while honoring some of those earlier motifs in a tantalizing blend of lingering jazz signatures.

Rather than fight the musical language of an earlier genre, Barry teased provocatively with the phrasing. This was noir with erotic nuance. Blending his distinct classicism and jazz sensibilities with sensuous new ground, he would make this neo-noir classic ooze with delightful aural pleasures.

Body Heat explored the loss of all moral boundaries in the pursuit of the idyllic (and ultimately illusory) love affair. In this oppressively sweltering moral vacuum, everything sweats; the Florida coastline sweats, the rich, sexy housewife sweats, the corruptible, lust-addled lawyer sweats, the music sweats. With temperatures running high, the old rules don’t apply. Barry’s score is all about the undressing of the old noir style while getting close enough to enjoy the burn.

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Hooking a lazily audacious saxophone, heavily saturated synthesizer and moist string couplings around several variations on a theme of sexual intrigue, Barry created something that would burn as indelibly as the image of Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) flaunting her aggressively campaigned charms at Ned Racine (William Hurt) through the window of her apartment. As those inevitable expressions of carnality roll, Barry has already flooded our senses with a musical seduction that has all but peeled back the layers. Barry knows exactly how to undress her, with a score that conceals as much as it reveals. But there are no zippers and buttons in evidence here — just the smooth, sumptuous glide of heat against skin.

However, while this score embraces the heat and physicality of our femme fatale, it also delivers the cool coda of an elusive, indefinable character that cannot really be pinned down. Barry’s score folds the illusion back on itself without ever losing his grip on the ultimate focus of this neo-noir fantasy. He blends sensuality with a mystique that transforms the narrative into something more suggestive than the sum of its parts, even allowing for the fact that those parts are delectably put together.

The languid main title theme loops saxophone, piano, bass string and percussion with a synth that’s stretched out in inexorable progressions to plumb the sexual depths. The sound of a triangle being tapped in low, steady rhythm acts like a pulse challenged in the collision of bodies, fried moods, tensions and intentions. Casual but persistent, Barry’s wanton saxophone and knowing piano strokes convey a torpidity that still manages to sound defiant, and dangerously so. For Matty hides as much as she displays, and the tease extends far beyond foreplay.

There is an undeniable symbolism to the wind chimes in I’m Weak. We’re told that wind chimes usually indicate cool air, but not this year. This year, those chimes don’t tell you what you think they’ll tell you. Yet as synth chimes resonate against a saucy three-bar melody and breathless synthesizer modulations, Barry’s coercion overrides the alarm bells: that distracting rhythm section brooks no resistance as it tears against all percussive intersections and spills out on a soft, sweaty pile of feverish strings.  

Barry switches from sexual torpor to soft romantic intensity with Chapeau Gratis, a seductive melody that vibrates with tender warmth, before descending into a minor key and changing tempo, warning of danger. Better Get Him stretches out the tension further with a claustrophobic six-minute section, signposting the end game with devious relish.

And the revelation suite, Matty was Mary Ann, is a piquant coup de grace, reworking the main theme into a languorous refrain with real wind chimes. That provocative leitmotif disappears as conclusively as the focus of Ned’s obsession, but the memory lingers even as the orchestration dissolves into an almost wistful sax.

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Whether or not Barry was responsible for creating the sexiest music ever, he certainly knew how to get the most from his femme de jour, and explored the essence of noir with captivating filth, but also true finesse. It may not have had the halting bleakness of Jerry Goldsmith’s similarly refined Chinatown score, but it succeeded in bringing a furtive genre into a steamy, modern-day setting. Kathleen Turner would later credit Barry for the way his music enhanced the intensity of her allure. Truly, he transformed her modus operandi into a sonnet to sexuality and suspense.

Out Of Africa (1985)

Out Of Africa

earned Barry his fourth Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a platinum disc in record sales. However, facts only scratch the surface of the inner world in which this critically acclaimed score took flight. Barry’s epic take on the story of Dutch baroness Karen Blixen and her East-African farm is the stuff of legend, bringing a wide-screen expansiveness to a particular set of emotions and scattering its scope far and wide across the arena of nature’s giants.

In scoring the personal saga of this headstrong plantation owner in early 20th century colonial Kenya, he gives nothing less than a eulogy to a passionate time of discovery, adventure and rebirth, trapped in the pages between the collapse of the old, familiar comforts and the onset of an elusive new age, in a place where beauty is defined by its transitions and its temporary status, and loss is defined not just by love’s passing but by its very nature.

Before he even approached Barry, Sidney Pollack was using cues from Somewhere In Time and Robin And Marian as placeholders for the film, as he was drawn to Barry’s romantic sensibility. Pollack had considered indigenous melodies, but Barry opined that African music would not deal with the nature of Karen’s relationship with Denys. He believed the music should score the emotional landscape rather than the physical one and used indigenous sounds only sparingly. And although there’s just thirty-five minutes of music in the film, Barry knew exactly how to position it so it would suffuse the whole with an intoxicating energy and warmth. 

Barry’s empathetic score, with its high strings, low horns and angelic chorals, gives viewers a direct line to Karen’s emotions as she struggles to assert her individuality in a marriage of convenience and experiences a reawakening through a love affair with game hunter Denys (Robert Redford). His rhapsodic atmospheres present the country and its characters from Karen’s perspective, giving the film a natural voice, a distinct identity and an authentic romantic resonance. Using the same lyricism and emotional fire with which the real-life Karen wrote her memoirs, he captures the sense that this was a love affair not only with free-spirited Denys but also with Africa, thus enabling us to feel the loss of both when they are taken from her.

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The central theme, I Had A Farm in Africa, depicts an emotional attachment that acquires an expansive melancholy in the context of the film. Shimmering strings evoke the heat rising from a parched landscape, an exultant brass evokes the sound of elephants, and a solitary flute identifies a sense of isolation in an expanse of orchestral yearning.

Barry’s emotional wilderness brings to mind the poetry of a flight of ibis skimming across a punishing Kenyan sky, but also transcends sentient boundaries. His compassionate musical texturing outlines the wild terrain of her heart with subtle melodic atmospheres as well as melodramatic contours. By bringing us closer to the emotional environment that precipitates the film’s ultimate losses, Barry’s score moves us to feel that loss with her in a beautifully modulated hymn to heartache.

Barry scores intimate nuance as he does expansive emotion, with a suite of three arrangements referred to as Karen’s Theme, in which a delicate blend of woodwind and strings outlines the language of her feeling. There is also a classical piece, Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A (K.622) by Mozart, used memorably in the film to entertain a field of baboons as it plays on a gramophone. Another highlight is Flying Over Africa, an exhilarating musical epiphany with slow-building chorals soaring to a euphoric variation of I Had A Farm. Barry blends low voices, deep brass and high strings into a swoon of cogent luminosity as Denys flies Karen over Africa, giving us a deeper sense of what she stands to lose. By the time You Are Karen plays, with its more mournful arrangement, Barry has described the physicality of her emotions in aching detail.

Out Of Africa is one of Barry’s most profoundly affecting scores of the self, creating a sense of identity through vivid orchestral detail and intimate musical relationships, enveloping the whole in a radiant emotional integrity. Notions of identity would become increasingly meaningful in his later years, as he continued to explore themes of renewal and redefined purpose in moments of transformative loss.

Next time

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We’ll be concluding our Barry retrospective by looking at some of Barry’s later works, including the scores for Peggy Sue Got Married and Dances With Wolves.

Honorable mentions

Frances (1982)

Finding a copy of Graeme Clifford’s movie about troubled actress Frances Farmer (played by Jessica Lange) is as easy as an impossible pie. But the score is a haunting reflection on the latter-day butterfly crushed by the wheels of convention; unexpected descending notes tear through violins, screaming for release, while a harmonica shivers over wounded symphonic progressions. Barry’s stirring arrangements add elegance to internal fractures, with help from Mozart’s Sonata in A Major K331.

The Cotton Club (1984)

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Possibly the sort of music Gershwin would have written if he’d been approached by Frances Ford Coppola to score a movie about a speakeasy overrun with gangsters. Barry wanted to pursue an orchestral score to counter the jazz set pieces, but in the end only two of his compositions (Dixie Kidnaps Vera and The Depression Hits/Best Beats Sandman) made the cut. He still picked up a Grammy. Elsewhere, Bob Wilbur created the Ellington-style sound and Richard Gere played his own cornet solos.

Jagged Edge (1985)

Barry stripped everything down to the bone for Richard Marquand’s courtroom drama starring Glenn Close, Peter Coyote and Jeff Bridges. This pretty melody, layering a sparse synthesizer arrangement with piano and flute, is unsettling enough to shred your last nerve. Such delicate scores would service a glut of gratuitous thrillers during the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Fatal Attraction and Presumed Innocent, but this was a fine early example: a single serving of deliciously chilled intent.

Other highlights

The Little Prince And The Aviator (1981)

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Barry was not above recycling his material, perhaps because he was loath for good music to wallow in the landfill of obscurity; such was the fate of several songs he composed for Jerry Adler’s musical adaptation of the classic book, in which an airman (Michael York) is forced to make an emergency landing in the Sahara Desert and befriends a refugee from Asteroid B6-12. The show closed after sixteen previews, but several tracks would resurface as source music for Bob Swaim’s Masquerade.

Svengali (1983)

In Anthony Harvey’s retelling of the classic story, Barry and Don Black wrote songs for a pop singer (Jodie Foster) who falls for her vocal coach (Peter O’Toole). Foster’s initial rote-soul vocal stylings are gutsy, but muffled, like an Aretha Franklin imposter being sucked out of a plane at 30,000 feet, but Barry’s melodies at least bring out a touching candour in her performance. Elsewhere, the cues are appropriately mournful, and we get a brief early sighting of Holly Hunter selling herself short.

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