After last month’s “9 on the 9th” discussion of my favorite John Williams scores, I received an email asking when I was going to do a list of the scores of John Barry. Always one to heed my reader’s requests, here you go.
Whether it’s his James Bond scores, jazz-tinged films from the swinging 60’s, or the slow, string-heavy Oscar-bait later in his career, there’s no denying the Barry sound. But this post was a tough one to pull together.
Arguably, Barry writes more beautiful melodies than any other composer I can think of. But after awhile his lush orchestrations, adagio tempi, and two-measure chord progressions have a sameness to them that lulls me into numbness. On the other hand, those are the characteristics that make a Barry score so recognizable and have made him a legend.
Before you start combing the list, you won’t find a single James Bond score. I’m not a big fan of the series and I’ve somehow managed to miss nearly every Barry-scored Bond film. When/if I ever see them, I might have to revise this list (or not). Until then…
9. THE BLACK HOLE (1979)
Even at age 17, I think I knew this Disney entry into the post-STAR WARS sci-fi game was pretty lame. I haven’t seen the film since then so I don’t know how it holds up 30 years later. For me, the score begins and ends with that sweeping triplet accompaniment under the main title theme. And while I may not ever be able to sit through the film again, this score instantly transports me to the early years as a post-pubescent film score geek in which I soaked up all film music like a sponge. If there is such a thing as a John Barry holy grail, this is it. Disney released the original LP tracks on iTunes a while back, but fans have been clamoring for a proper release (preferably expanded) of this title for years. If it ever happens, expect it to show up on Intrada.
8. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)
To modern audiences, it may seem hard to believe that Kevin Costner once had a career. And in 1990, Costner was on top with his Oscar-winning film. That audiences were willing to sit through a 3-hour Western, half of which was in the Lakota Indian dialect, says much about Costner’s power at the time. The extended running time and long, languid shots of the fruited plain gave Barry a chance to score the long, languid themes for which he is so famous. It is frustrating that the best track—Dunbar arriving at the Indian camp—has not been included on the many releases of the score. My only complaint about the score is that it is too much of a good thing. A bit more thematic development, or at least a different key here and there, would have helped.
7. KING KONG (1976)
Yes, this film is just as awful as critics said at the time. It took Jessica Lange six years and an Oscar for TOOTSIE to live down the embarrassment of her performance. The visual effects for the ape are still impressive, but the film is horribly dated. The best element of the film is Barry’s music. Barry’s style seems at odds with the mid-70’s sensibilities of the story. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the score holds up as well as it does all these years later.
6. MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS (1971)
Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth. Anything—anything more that needs to be said is said quite well by Barry. Vanessa’s song in French, a typically beautiful love theme, and an exciting oboe and trumpet eighth note clarion call for the royal court are some of the highlights. Intrada released the original LP tracks last year while the DVD has an isolated score track. No matter the version, Barry’s gorgeous score is a stunner.
5. PETULIA (1968)
I had never heard of this film when Film Score Monthly released the score (on a double bill with Barry’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND) a few years ago. I’ve still never seen the film but the oscillating saxophones and oboes underneath the main cello theme haunted me when I first heard them. Even though I love Julie Christie, I’ve been afraid to watch the film ever since for fear that it won’t match the level of Barry’s music.
This was a true revelation when I first heard it earlier this year. I’ve never seen the film but Barry’s beautiful main theme caught my ear the first time I heard it and wouldn’t let go. Having a stressful day? This is one score that will lower your blood pressure and ground you.
3. BORN FREE (1966)
My personal choice for the Oscar this year would have been Elmer Bernstein’s HAWAII. But Barry’s Oscar-winning song and score enrich the African vistas. Marimbas and other percussion give the score that African feel, and Barry’s famous tune was given a theme-and-variations treatment that its Muzak versions over the years cannot taint. Though I’m usually an original soundtrack purist, God bless Barry for ditching the mistakes in the original scoring sessions and re-recording the score for the album. Without Barry’s music, the film would be insufferable, animal lover or not.
2. OUT OF AFRICA (1985)
I’m not a big Meryl Streep fan so the thought of sitting through 2-1/2 hours of another Streep accent did not thrill me. Imagine my surprise when I not only loved the film but thought she was great as well. It didn’t hurt that Sydney Pollack’s direction was effortless, the cinematography gorgeous. Barry returned to Africa and scored another winner. Those tremolo strings under Karen Blixen’s memory—”I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”—that haunting French horn countermelody and the beautiful main theme on the strings swept me away into another time and place. Barry has returned to this style of scoring time and time again, but nothing quite equals this perfect combination of music, film, and star.
1. THE LION IN WINTER (1968)
Barry’s Oscar-winning music blends dramatic underscoring, Gregorian chant, and medieval plainsong for a rich and varied score that must have been quite a departure for late-1960s audiences expecting James Bond. I freely admit that a great deal of fondness that I have for the score comes from the film it’s attached to, one of my favorites, featuring two of my favorite actresses at the pinnacles of their careers. But I also appreciate the fact that the score has different levels to it and isn’t one big wash of strings. I’ve owned this score from my early days of film music and it continues to bring me great joy. Eleanor’s arrival at Chinon is worth the price of admission alone.