Monday, January 31, 2011

More Thoughts on John Barry, As Promised

I once described John Barry as the British Ennio Morricone. I was joking at the time – it was really just another way of saying that he was awesome – but in some senses the comparison now strikes me as apt. Morricone and Barry both made music that often lived on a different sphere than the films they accompanied. Think of all the unforgettable Morricone scores to films that are themselves completely forgettable; even those of us who adore the Spaghetti Western genre have to admit that a lot of those movies are pretty stupid. But the music. Dear god, the music. That was heaven.

So, too, with John Barry, though he didn’t often have to contend with as much Z-grade material as Morricone. (Nor did he have to be as prolific.) But his music also existed on a different sphere. Sometimes this asymmetry worked wonders, with the grandeur of his work often adding another dimension to the film at hand – Tony Dayoub correctly notes that for the Bond films Barry “brought a lush romanticism at odds with the violence depicted onscreen which helped shape 007.” In some senses, this made him an ideal epic composer, and it’s hard to imagine films like The Lion in Winter and Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves without their evocative scores. 

But I was always fascinated by those Barry scores that didn’t quite fit the films: That unusually expressive and unforgettable score to the gratuitously awful (aw-ful) Sly Stallone-Sharon Stone vehicle The Specialist. The musical opulence that the kitschy sleaze of Indecent Proposal could never live up to. The bizarre expansiveness of his score for The Black Hole, which hinted at the surreal weirdness to come in that film. The lilting melancholy of The Deep (admittedly, a total guilty pleasure for me).

In a way, the score for Chaplin, my fondness for which I noted in my earlier post, is also one of these: I think the film is actually pretty good, but the sad, stately sweep of the music is completely at odds with our jaunty image of Chaplin himself.  That tension also speaks to Richard Attenborough’s much-derided inability to not turn everything he touches into some kind of epic. Still, while there was probably a better way to make a movie about the life and times of Charlie Chaplin, Attenborough’s film, helped along by Barry’s swooping orchestrations, is a deliciously odd duck, compelling in its tonal strangeness.


  1. Fully agreed. Both Morricone and Barry (and, of course, Delerue) managed to elevate the good, the bad and the ugly movies to a higher and memorable plane. Their "value added" was highly positive--unlike the trite and invasive scores written by the lesser creatures who seem to have been paid by the length of the scores and the number of crescendos.

  2. I think Barry had something that Morricone lacks. Mr. Barry didn't think of himself as a great underestimated author of "noble" music (Nuova Consonanza) who has to make a living as a soundtrack scorer, as Mr. Morricone does.
    Anyway, they both are on a different level, unreachable by musicians like Hans Zimmer and his noisy scores for orchestra and explosions.