Elvis Mitchell on John Barry's Overlooked Gems -- and Enduring Influence
I was stranded on the West Coast when news of composer John Barry's death broke last week -- away from my music collection, which I wanted to get to and remind myself of his vast contribution to movies.
While it was touching to hear and read the tributes to his work, I didn't want to be subjected to his scores for Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves, pieces that succeeded as music for the movies that Barry probably saw in his head -- Byronic exertions of will that transcended the obeisance that those productions simply paid to their stars. Especially since parts of Africa were repurposed from Barry's score for the late '70s sci-fi catastrophe Starcrash -- a score worth hearing, since it's probably the best score ever composed for a movie the composer may never have seen, a fact he was convinced applied to audiences as well. (It's why he recycled Starcrash.) In short, there was so much underappreciated, great music he was responsible for I wanted to be able to hear before repetitions of his Greatest Hits drowned them out.
His biggest accomplishment was that he elevated so many projects with the music he created. The gripping and doomy pop he made for the opening credits sequence of the mostly forgettable '70 series The Persuaders!, with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore, was a gorgeous example of Barry's power to build dynamism through contrasts, with harpsichord both complementing and combating synthesizer, and a romantic fusillade of percussion bridging the gap between the two opposing forces. Whenever I heard that theme song, I was always reminded of the unfulfilled promise of that awful series -- and Curtis' matching suede jackets-and-driving gloves ensembles, which were the only other memorable things about it.
Barry's music represented the dying cultural imperative of the Continental Man -- straining for an ideal of manhood that exists primarily in the protagonists' heads. A perfect example is his Midnight Cowboy score, whose harmonica, strings and pop drumming rival Ennio Morricone's work. That score is reminiscent of Ray Charles' country-and-western period. (I was lucky enough to have met Barry -- he was close to my friend, producer/drummer Bobby Columby -- and when I asked him about Charles' influence, he smiled and nodded.)
I recently ordered John Scott's North Dallas Forty, because the way Scott employed the tensions between string arrangements and pop to comment on contemporary (which is to say fading) definitions of masculinity that Nick Nolte's Phil Elliott desperately clings to reminded me of Barry's pioneering work in this area. Even in Barry's Wolves music, he doesn't simply romanticize Kevin Costner's Vision/Quest, the cinematic version of a dreamcatcher hanging on a pick-up truck's rearview mirror. Rather, the Wolves score invokes a white-knuckled (I know -- a redundancy in Costner's case) grab for a world that's dissipating before Costner's eyes.
It's that etude for the brawny Old World that works for so many of Barry's guy's-guy scores, such as the muscularly seductive opening credits music for The Ipcress File. Barry staked an unusual claim for himself. In addition for laying out velvet and flannel for 007 -- he wrote for every Bond except the last two, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, starting with Dr. No until The Living Daylights -- he also provided accompaniment for the '60s films that served as a dirt-under-the-nails response to the soi-disant mani-pedis found in Bond. Barry's art figured in the dark hallway Cold War thrillers like The Ipcress Files starring Michael Caine and his National Health eyeglasses as Harry Palmer, and The Quiller Memorandum with George Segal. On the other hand, Barry did so many Bonds that he eventually got to press his tongue firmly into cheek by the end. His amused complicity with Duran Duran in the hilarious theme song for A View to a Kill is a slap that keeps at least the movie awake as Roger Moore patiently waited for his AARP membership to kick in, and for Jar Jar Binks to replace him as the most laughable figure in an iconic film series.
Barry's elegiac songwriting made him the leading proponent of the dimming-of-the-light subgenre: They Might Be Giants, The Last Valley Monte Walsh and Robin and Marian all belonged to the self-conscious passing of masculinity into myth niche. Barry's playful, yet mournful Robin and Marian -- in which Sean Connery is a spiritually exhausted Robin Hood the same age as Russell Crowe's in last year's Robin Hood -- has a knowing beauty.
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