You are hereJames Bond / John Barry
By TOM SOTER
from STARLOG, February 1994
John Barry is nothing if not eclectic. He is, after all, the man who could write a sweeping, sentimental theme for Out of Africa and then turn around and compose the pounding, action tunes for James Bond in The Living Daylights. He is also the man who could write the beautiful choral interludes of The Lion in Winter – and then later pen the synthesizer-based fright music of Jagged Edge.
“I think he occupies a quite unique place in the cinema of today,” notes director Bryan Forbes, who worked with Barry on six movies. “He doesn't swamp you with the of 400 violins, and the idea of using a heavenly choir would make his somewhat cherubic locks turn gray. He makes music for films, and it is something beyond good music for films. It is music that lives outside the celluoid wrapping, music that people buy and listen to for its own sake.” Indeed. Perhaps no other movie compose has created so many catchy, wordless tunes that are so different from each other. Think of Elsa the Lioness and you think of Born Free. Think of Tilly Masterson painted gold and you think of Goldfinger. Or think of John Dunbar on the plains, or Isak Dinensen in the air, and you think of Dances With Wolves and Out of Africa. And all the time, you are thinking of John Barry.
"His music is meant to be heard, not seen," wrote critic Harvey Siders, who points to Barry's "inventiveness for orchestral colors and infectious rhythms, his gift for melody, majestically sweeping or deceptively simple; his ability to paint indelible pictures, conjure up images that run a gamut from the hip to the hippie; and above all, his complete mastery of the orchestra." But for a man who has done so much, Barry in person is remarkably low-key. His voice is deeper than you would expect, still thick with his native Yorkshire accent even after years of exposure in America. His latest score is for Indecent Proposal, in which multi-millionaire Robert Redford buys Woody Harelson's wife, Demi Moore, for a one-night stand. "It was one of my most difficult scores," Barry admits. "The problem was the characters: the balance of how you play them off together, and come out at the end of the movie, feeling good about all of them, writing the music for that, [it was hard] to keep the balance - because if you pushed Redford too much one way, then you're tipping the scale the wrong way. It was like walking on eggshells, on a tightrope. It was unbelievable, keeping that emotional balance of the melodies in control. How does one interplay all those moments? That is the simplest thing I've ever written. But believe me, it was a nightmare getting there."
Composer Nightmares Nightmares are part of a film composer's life – after all, it is music that must work in conjunction with someone else's images, usually timed very precisely – but Barry had always wanted to embrace those images. In fact, the combination comes naturally when you consider his upbringing: the youngest of three siblings, he had a father running a chain of eight cinemas in northern England and a mother who loved to play the piano. By 1942, when he was nine, Barry was studying music. "I took piano lessons, and I started studying harmony, counterpoint, and composition at 12." At 16, after working as a projectionist, he began playing trumpet and then studid with the master of music at York Music. "My first love was classical music," he recalls, adding that he still listens to Stravinsky, Mahler, and Mozart. Although classically trained, he admits he was more interested in film composing than concert conducting, so with an eye towards that, he took a correspondence course in composition, orchestration, and harmony. In the Army, he played trumpet in a band, and afterwards, he formed his own rock-jazz group called the John Barry Seven.
"I didn't love [pop] music, I wasn't passionate about it. But I did want to be a professional musician," he explains. "So we literally listened to all that was coming out of America at that time, whether it was Bill Haley or Freddy Bell and the Bellboys and all that stuff, and the first concerts we did, we just copied all their stuff and did it. Then I started to write things in that vein myself. Within three or four months of forming this group, we were hired professionally and opened at the Palace Theatre at Blackpool with Tommy Steele. So, the plan worked." In more ways than one. Barry began composing ppp tunes by the truckload, and one of them, "What Do You Want?" sung by Adam Faith, entered the BBC radio hit parade three weeks after its release in 1959 to become a No. 1 tune, selling 50,000 copies in a day. By the end of 1960, it had become the year's biggest-selling record.
Yet Barry pined for the movies and would take anything that brought them closer. In 1959, in an effort to learn more about scoring, he took the job of musical director at EMI Records. "In the early days I would write anything," he says. "I was doing commercials for toilet paper. At that point in my career, you were not in a position to be picking and choosing. You were getting the experience, you were getting a pay check, you were starting a career."
Musical Emotions Movie work finally came with Beat Girl, a teenage exploiitatin movie featuring Adam faith. Barry knew Faith and the producers knew the JB7 as a hit instrumental rock group, so the composer got his chance. The music was so impressive, in fact, that EMI took the unusual step of releasing it as an album. Barry did in Beat Girl what he would do in later pictures: compose music that was noteworthy but unobtrusive. The trademark Barry score would contain haunting tunes, menacing music, and evocative melodies that created feelings, enhanced actions, and set mood and texture. "I cannot write without having an emotion [for the characters]. It's mot my nature,"' he observes. "There has to be an emotion."
On his Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves, for instance, he read the script and immediately thought of a melody for the iconoclastic hero John Dunbar. "You have to get involved with Dunbar and this guy after the Civil War, this merchant man getting up, saddling his horse and riding out there. He wanted to see what it was. And that's why that theme is almost like a last post, you know, it's like a death wish. It has a lyrical quality, a tentative quality,and that was the start. That's the way I felt. I sat down and wrote that once I had read the script. I didn't even see the movie. I wrote that single thought and then everything grew from that. I wasn't trying to be Aaron Copland, which I think would have been totally wrong. That's where all the other western scores came from."
It's a technique that harks back to 1962, when Barry received a frantic phone call from Noel Rodgers, head of music at United Artists. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the producers of Dr. No, the first James Bond film, were unhappy with the work of the film's composer, Monty Norman. They needed some catchy instrumental music for Bond, so Barry, without seeing the movie or knowing much bout 007, whipped up "The James Bond Theme" by reworking some of Beat Girl's chords ("It's that same accent guitar riff," he notes). The tune became a hit, on screen and off, reaching No. 13 on the British music charts. More significantly, it led to Barry's association with the superspy James Bond, his cinematic alter ego. He scored From Russia With Love masterully, but it was on Goldfinger that everything clicked.
"The star came together on the Bond thing," he notes. "From everybody's point of view. I mean, I love From Rusia With Love, but Goldfinger was it." It was the first Bond for which he was asked to co-write the title song, the quintessential Bond theme (ironically, although it became a million-seller, co-producer Saltzman hated the tune and wanted to remove it). Barry collaborated with Leslie Bricuse and Anthony Newley on the lyrics. "I went to Tony because we had the same divorce lawyer," the composer says. "Tony said, 'Well, what the hell is this about? So I said, 'It's Mack the Knife. It's a song about a villain. So, that seemed to be a good opening line. Then, they wrote the lyrics."
Collaboration soon became the key to Barry's approach – not necessarily between people but between image and idea, music and action. He admits to looking at the story and characters first, working out initial themes on the piano. He can then take three to four weeks to write a score (although key parts of Thunderball were composed in two days, and the entire score for The Man with the Golden Gun took two weeks). "Whether it's a horror movie, an action movie, a love story, a historic piece, it can be any one of those. It's how good the writing is, essentially. How good that script hits you, and then who is the director. Then you go through the whole thing of who's doing it, who's going to be casting, so you come out at the end and you make those choices. And as I say sometimes they could be terribly right and sometimes they could be disastrous."
He remembers 1986's Howard the Duck with a shudder and a chuckle. "I had just finished Out of Africa with the same company, which wound up a hugely successful movie; it won all the Academy Awards. I got this mad phone call [from the film company, Universal Pictures] and they said, 'It;s George Lucas's movie,' and I thought, ''Well, a cartoon death wizard, a ridiculous thing; it just might be fantastic.' So, I said, 'OK.'" Barry scored sequences without seeing the special effects, recalling that "I went blindly, with confidence, and I thought that [Lucas] was going to be taking care of all that. That never worked out. I still don't know what happened. It was such an unbelievable disaster. And I never met George Lucas."
Film Collaborations Barry believes the director is key to a proper marriage of picture and score. He has worked with some of the best: John Schlesinger, Arthur Penn, Nicholas Roeg, George Cukor, Richard Attenborough, and Sydney Pollack, and admits to being most impressed by Schlesinger's musical knowledge. He notes that directors often have preconceived ideas about music -- "their choices are too obvious" -- which the composer must change with a fresh concept. "Good directors listen," he notes. Sometimes they don't, however, and that can lead to clashes, as it did when he left the Barbra Streisand movie, Prince of Tides. "Sometimes you just don't get on with somebody," he says. "It's a collaborative system. You listen, if the director starts thinking that they can actually compose music, then I pass."
Sometimes the directors know about music, which helps. "When I started working on Indecent Proposal, the initial things I wrote were wrong. Adrian [Lyne, the director] was very observant in saying, 'If this was Mastrianni and John Barrow, these themes would be terrific, but they're too European and they're too mature.' So I had to de-Europeanize myself and demature myself, if there's such a word, and come down to an easier form of American romanticism. That's why I like working with Adrian, because he was at least able to articulate what was wrong." By the late '60s, Barry had begun branching out, becoming bored with what he was calling the "Million-Dollar Mickey Mouse Music" of the Bonds.
In the '70s, he was at work on a stage musical, Billy (based on the film Billy Liar), a film musical of Alice in Wonderland, an album of original compositions, Americans, beautiful historical drama scores (Robin and Marian, The Last Valley, Mary Queen of Scots), and TV-movies (Eleanor and Franklin, The Corn is Green). He began alternating on 007 epics – skipping Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, and For Your Eyes Only – and his distinctive melodic action music was greatly missed, replaced by the hollow sounds of George Martin in LALD or the disco beats of Bill Conti in FYEO.
"I always treated the Bonds very seriously," he observes. "I never treated them fliply. Even those action sequences were -what shall I say – relatively clean compared with the mixes that go on today. I just don't find they have any dramatic thrust other than pure energy and noise. There didn't seem to be any linear motif. They don't stretch it dramatically. It's very unstructured. It's just not good dramatic writing." There are no more Bonds in Barry's future, however -- even though his presence was felt in Licence to Kill's Michael Kamen score ("They ripped off the opening bars of Goldfinger," he laughs). "If they make the [next] movie fresh, that would be something, but the way they're going I don't know, I can't believe that it's going to be a sparkling new concept."
Past Scores He himself stays fresh by keeping true to his ideas of good music, irrespective of the ideas associated with a particular genre. His fantasy films include Somewhere in Time and Peggy Sue Got Married, and he has dabbled in sci-fi scoring, first with You Only Live Twice, then with The Black Hole (the first digitally recorded motion picture), Starcrash (the score won a special prize at the Festival du Cinema Fantastique in France), and Moonraker. However, instead of using the expected sounds of scifi – synthesizers and electronic instruments – he went for "kind of strange, spacey, harmonic progressions. Before I think of melodies or anything, I think of harmonic progressions that have a strange, almost transparent, translucent spacey feeling about them, then I go and stretch things over that."
He rarely looks back at the past. He is dismissive about plans to release his older work on CD, as well as the recently released rarities from Thunderball included on The 30th Anniversary James Bond Collection. "I don't want to be any part of it," he says brusquely. "It's past. It's done. It's all over. Move on. If some fan or fanatic wants to dig through all those files that's fine. That's their pleasure."
Yet he does think fondly of his scores. "I bleed on every movie I do and I'm very faithful to every movie I do, I'm a ham in that way. Like Raise the Titanic. I worked my butt off, but I am the composer. I'm not the overseer of every other thing. I like what I've done." So much so that he has dipped into his musical history for a new CD collection, Moviola, which features some of his greatest hits (as well as the tune "Moviola," the original theme for Prince of Tides). "I went back over the whole repertoire, and thought, 'Well, I'd love to do almost a lyrical album.' I've done enough work over this period of time to put together, I think, a really terrific lyrical album."
With the past intruding in the present, Barry is still searching for something new, still yearning for the eclectic and the unusual. "I would very much like to do a jazz album – a moody jazz album. I love orchestral settings, and I am in initial talks at the moment with the people at Sony [because] they have some terrific jazz artists. I would love to put together a group of their people, maybe ten, that are really the finest people, and do a real free form kind of jazz-inspired album, if you like. It's my roots. From my mid-teens onward, I became a huge jazz fan. I would just like to put it into slightly more sophisticated harmonic setting. I could have a lot of fun doing that."
Influential Notes Married, with three grown children, the composer is looking to the future, although he almost never had one when a healthfood beverage caused a ruptured esophagus in 1988. He nearly died, but after four major operations in 14 months, he recovered. He now jokes that every artist in his 50s should take an enforced sabbatical -- just not the way he did. Barry's ideal work situation is to be alone at his home in Oyster Bay, New York, creating tunes in his office lined with photographs and autographed scores of Prokofiev, Bartok, Mahler, and other composers.
"I love the isolation," he says. "I have a beautiful studio that overlooks the lawn right down into the sea. Total peace. I can work under other conditions -- the week before last I finished a movie up in a hotel room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire -- but the ideal thing is real concentration. I don't have any social life when I start to work, it's just that kind of intensity I like: to write, to go for a walk on the beach, come back, reflect on what you've written, and you've got 24 hours in the day that are totally yours, to deal with as you wish. You think about it. You're getting it in your mind mentally.
"I have millions of influences," he adds. "But when I sit down and write, I hope I'm my own best influence. I hope, as a dramatist, I sit down in the loneliness of my room and my house and my beach and my dogs and my cats and my wife – I should put my wife first – but that's the presence where you start. You figure out your own individual way of how am I going to do this? What's this going to be? In terms of my appreciation of other - composers, I could talk for three hours on that, but when you're actually doing the job at hand, it's your own self. You have to come down to your own self and how you figure it out, how you're going to do it. You go through all this process, mental process and then you sit down and you do it. It's what you're not going to do that matters, it's what you throw out. And then you're left with the bare bone. You work with the bare bone."