John Barry

9 Favorite John Barry Film Scores

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…

The Black Hole soundtrack
Dances With Wolves soundtrack

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.

4. UNTIL SEPTEMBER (1984)

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.

What are your favorite John Barry scores?

  1. Couldn’t ignore this one! Tough to nail it down to just nine, but here goes – in order –

    1. The Lion In Winter
    2. Walkabout
    3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
    4. Boom!
    5. The Chase
    6. Diamonds are Forever
    7. The Last Valley
    8. Mary, Queen of Scots
    9. Follow Me

    1. Can’t argue with your first choice, Steve. :) A friend of mine will be thrilled to see WALKABOUT in there. Don’t know some of the others very well. Will check them out.

  2. Re: the Bonds, if its your first proper listen, try and seek out the expanded versions as they really have some fantastic material on them.

  3. Alphabetical. It’s the only way with Sir John:

    The Black Hole, Body Heat, Frances, From Russia With Love, King Kong, The Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Out of Africa

    “Dances With Wolves” would have rounded out a Top 10. “Body Heat” and “King Kong” are masterworks, plain and simple. And in 1979, those “Black Hole” opening credits were The Shit, until the movie started and you immediately realized it was ANOTHER lousy, pandering, puerile piece of Disney dross .

    1. I think alliteration is the only way to describe the BLACK HOLE that I remember. BODY HEAT came close with me.

  4. Wow. Where is Somewhere In Time? That has got to be about my favorite score in my whole collection, regardless of composer. I liked it a whole lot more than Out Of Africa or Dances With Wolves (the only on there that I know very well).

    1. It was almost there. But I haven’t seen the movie since its release in 1980, and it’s been almost that long since I’ve heard the soundtrack. I listened to it again and it just didn’t move me like it used to. Maybe if I saw the movie again. I tried. Does that count?

  5. Ha! I haven’t ever seen the movie, but that usually doesn’t make too much of a difference. Sometimes, I just watch a movie to sort of expand on the score. Yeah, I know I’m a little weird…

    1. Not at all weird. I have a lot of scores that I like that I’ve never seen the movie. But this is one I DID see and loved back in the day. Just have never really revisited it since.

    1. You’re right, it did not do well with the critics as I remember. And I don’t think it did any box office. But it was a pretty movie, and made me want to visit the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan (which I still haven’t done). I honestly don’t remember the movie that well. Maybe I’ll Netflix it and see how it holds up.

  6. I’ve been a fan of John Barry since I bought the Persuaders LP in 1972, and I bow to no man (or woman) in my admiration for him. However, taking entirety of career into consideration, I tend to view his career in two distinct stylistic halves, the second of which is exemplified by the Dances With Wolves/Out of Africa type of scoring, which, whilst I ADMIRE it, I don’t much respond to it on the same level as I do his work throughout the 60s and early 70s. I find his sheer exuberant variety of styles in that period, simply staggering. The Wrong Box, The Knack, Thunderball, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Born Free, The Chase – all composed in a 24 month period! The Lion in Winter, The Appointment, OHMSS – all in one year. His inventiveness, stylistic touches, melodies (and melodies that didn’t rely on an endlessly repetitive cycle of string lines) were an absolute delight.

    I don’t know quite why his style so drastically. I think it was something to do with the life threatening illness he had, which changed his outlook on life, but to be frank, this “second period” has never really floated my boat. Its not totally black and white – there are exceptions to my unwritten rule – Body heat, The Beyondness of Things, The Specialist – but overall, I like my Young Turk Barry, as opposed to the Elder Statesman variety!

    1. I totally agree with you, Steve, about the two different phases of Barry’s career. And the phrase “Elder Statesman” fits the second phase to a “T”. I think if I’d been exposed to more of his 60s/70s works over the years, I might feel differently about them. As it is, I got to know him through his numerous Oscar nominations in the latter half of his career. It’s the “endless repetitive” quality I could do without. But, then again, that’s part of his career too. I’m looking forward to exploring that whole other segment of his career at some point. :)

  7. Pingback: August Recap | Film Score Click Track
  8. I’m surprised that no one mentioned “Chaplin”. When I first saw the film I thought the score embellished the emotional and dramatic aspects of the script with near perfect precision. My favourite cue was “Discovering the Tramp/ The Wedding Chase” which served the double purpose of adding comedic and sentimental flourish to the film and the movie within the film.

    Also, there’s something about “Charlie Proposes”. I don’t quite have the film music vocabulary as some of my peers, but there’s something about the notes in that cue: it doesn’t quite follow through the way you would expect. It grabs you by the ear and just when you think you know exactly where the progression is going, it sails slightly left to keep you entranced. I’m sure there’s a technical term for this. Maybe someone will enlighten me.

    1. I think CHAPLIN has some lovely moments in it. The melding of the main theme with Chaplin’s “Smile” at the end is wonderful. Other than that, I didn’t really connect with it. The film didn’t help matters much either, outside of Downey’s performance.

  9. Favorite Scores:
    1. Petulia
    2. Mary, Queen of Scots
    3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
    4. Robin and Marian

    As for the film, Petulia, it’s worth a look, although it is terribly dated in style and content. Getting past those components, it is an interesting drama; Christie, Shirley Knight, and George C. Scott (the only performance in which he puts aside his bluster and acting school intoning) are terrific.

    The best contribution is from Barry, however. I have loved this score since I saw the film in theaters when in high school (nearly wore the lp out).

  10. in no particular order…

    Moonraker
    OHMSS
    Walkabout
    Dances With Wolves
    High Road To China
    Out of Africa
    The Living Daylights
    The Black Hole
    The Deep

  11. You could almost do a Barry does Africa list. Zulu, Born Free, Mister Moses, Out of Africa and Cry, The Beloved Country,

  12. I think everyone can enjoy John Barry :) Here’s my top 9:
    1. Out Of Africa
    2. The Last Valley
    3. Dances With Wolves
    4. The Golden Child
    5. Octopussy
    6. Thunderball
    7. Moonraker
    8. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
    9. Diamonds Are Forever

  13. Surprised not to see The Day of the Locust on any of these lists. Especially Fashion and Fantasy is a very fine tune. Or Goldfinger.

    Diamonds are Forever are also a very good score, especially the Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint theme and Slumber Inc. Though the film itself is a mess.

  14. I would have included the haunting “Somewhere in Time.” Honorable mention: “Body Heat” and “Chaplin”, maybe even “Midnight Cowboy.” For awhile, if you wanted a sweeping score with lush strings, Mr Barry was the go-to composer. What a talent!

  15. The Gathering (TV, 1977)
    Frances
    Robin And Marian
    Midnight Cowboy
    The Last Valley
    Walkabout
    King Rat
    The Ipcress File
    Seance On A Wet Afternoon
    You Only Live Twice

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