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Where does John Barry fit in modern cinema?

Stephen Woolston - Jan 5, 2002

John Barry was probably once the biggest name in film music. Bigger than Goldsmith. Bigger than Williams. Today he is appreciated massively but mostly in retrospect and out of affection for his first thirty years in the medium. He doesn't appear to have been the directors' choice of this or the last decade, and a rapidly decreasing body of film music listeners understands his music.

Many of the new detractors choose to disfavourably compare John Barry's scores with the grandeur and energy of such epic scores as Ben Hur, or modern actioners from Star Wars to Total Recall. They cite the excitement of the big sound and the energy of driving action cues. It's a flawed comparison. It assumes all film music aspires to the same sensibilities and all composers to the same films. Despite the Bond movies and Dances With Wolves, John Barry is not a composer of epic action and adventure scores. He never has been.

John Barry developed his style in a reactionary phase in films: the sixties. Golden age classics and old fashioned direction values were subsiding. The new generation had been disaffected by war but enjoyed their young adulthood amidst the excitement of new social and sexual values. Culture had revolutionised. There was new economic growth, new eras in world politics, new world anxieties and new cultural icons. The new directors admired the cinematic new wave of Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Production line cinema had gone out of vogue in favour of films stamped with personal style and authorship. Directors wanted to express their political views and became more interested in what they could say on a smaller, more intimate scale about the human condition.

The result was a wave of films interested in pseudo-ordinary people, intimate and rich in expressionism and stylistic freedom. The list of such films in Barry's CV are endless: The Knack, although an anarchic comedy, is still a close study of people heavily influenced by new individual expression. Bryan Forbes' films became a standard bearers of the new plain cinema in England. The list includes Petulia, The Chase, Midnight Cowboy, Follow Me, Walkabout, Dutchman, The Appointment. None of them were plain films stylistically but all favoured these pseduo-real people to the glamour icons that had gone before.

petulia
Petulia ... an archetype of the sixties character film in which John Barry established himself.

John Barry had a perfect European sensibility suited to these films. He was the English Nino Rota, not the English Rosza. By establishing and insisting on memorable melodic themes in intimate arrangements, his music brilliantly observed the humour, tears and drama of the people that had been filmed, their unusual bonds and their very different journeys through this life. It was a perfect marriage of film and music and John Barry was its undisputed master.

In 1977, one film changed the industry forever. Star Wars revived interest in fantasy in an irrevocable way. Society was emerging from its post war optimism with a new drudge of industrialism. It brought a new need for escapism. Cinema as art subsided towards cinema as the easy story telling medium, and character studies became out of vogue. The world community's taste in films shifted increasingly towards the low brow. As we stand today, by consensus and box office vote, we like our entertainment dumb, fantastic, unreal and very, very noisy. Intimacy in films has almost died, at least in America.

It would be an oversimplification to box Barry in as simply the composer who scored innovatively styled character films. After all, his music often swelled beyond character themes. I'm thinking of the defection scenes of The Tamarind Seed, and the fight music of The Ipcress File. But these cues extended out from a score whose central point was nonetheless a theme for a character or place. Bond was a form of escapism too, and he had mastered that art. Yet Bond is a remarkable exception. These worked mostly because of the scores were derivation from a song, and songwriting is a superb springboard for a melodist such as Barry. But even here Barry did not compose as for the classical epics. Bond music was hot, but that heat came from the exploration of combined jazz and Bacharachian easy listening, with mellow strings and cracking high notes in brass. Not from the jagged rhythms voiced by today's action composers.

The wonderful strokes of John Barry's intimate melodies is an intimate poetry undiscovered and unachieved by the modern purveyors of action music such as Zimmer and Elfman. Sadly, there's a declining demand for that in the modern American film. Not the mainstream film at least. There are some. American Beauty would have been an ideal Barry vehicle. Playing By Heart was another ideal vehicle that Barry did score. I rather fancy that Barry might have come up with something very interesting for Pulp Fiction too.

swept
Amy Foster ... was a character film but arguably too steeped in classical motifs. John Barry is a modernist.

In fact, it's too sad to reflect on some of the wonderful films that Barry could have really gone to town with. Imagine the wondrous score he might have written to 2001. Imagine the dark wonder he might have written in Apocalypse Now.

So where does Barry go from here? He can also fish for those few films like American Beauty that do call for a composer who can observe bittersweet humanity in music. But that's if the directors rediscover him. Could he go back into Bond to re-establish his popularity to get those assignments? A possibility, but only likely to work if he can have that song springboard back. Numb action films are not the solution. Neither The Specialist nor Mercury Rising could light the right fires, though in each case his music was strongest looking at the strange bonds of the characters again.

If Barry can't relate to something delicately emotional or explore the jazz idiom he has no place to go. It's not that Barry can't score humanly empty films with professionalism and craft. The Black Hole and Game of Death proved that. But then these scores have no special relevance in his career.

The modern trends simply do not suit Barry. Conversely, Barry does not suit them. Films like Hollow Man, Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes and Harry Potter are truly more suited to names like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.

Perhaps the best way to tap in to what Barry does truly well is to do what Herrmann did when his career ceased to flourish in Hollywood. Herrmann went to Europe. Not for long, but long enough to be rediscovered in a major way. Herrmann had become unpopular in Hollywood for his lack of pop scores, but he found a new vehicle for himself in films like The Bride Wore Black. Europe is still the predominant home of films about humanity made in creative styles. If John Barry could have scored Cinema Paradiso or even the difficult French film Beau Travail, he might have written something remarkable.

beau
Beau Travail ... perhaps European cinema is where Barry would flourish most.


Bottom line? It is an empty comparison to put Barry head to head with Rosza on accomplishment in biblical epics, or with Williams on accomplishment in summer blockbusters. It's like saying Steve Martin is funnier than Gregory Peck. So what? Answer this. How would Rosza do in a head to head on accomplishments in melody and intimacy?

Stephen Woolston

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John Barry related Events or Concerts


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A lot more James Bond concerts collected on the link below, I have put them all in this news item. So check it out from there!

http://www.moviesinconcert.nl/index.php?page=concertlist


Q The Music Show
James Bond Concert Spectacular

Saturday 14th March 2020
7:30pm

Wycombe Swan
St Mary St,
High Wycombe HP11 2XE,
United Kingdom

Website

Guest Compere: Caroline Munro – The Spy Who Loved Me


Q The Music Show
James Bond Concert Spectacular

Friday 1st May 2020
7:30pm

Watford Colosseum
Rickmansworth Road
Watford
Hertfordshire
WD17 3JN

Website

Guest Compere: Madeline Smith - Live And Let Die


Q The Music Show
James Bond Concert Spectacular

Sunday 3rd May 2020
7:30pm

The Spa Pavilion
Undercliff Road West
Felixstowe
Suffolk
IP11 2DX

Website

Guest Compare: Madeline Smith – Live And Let Die


Q The Music Show
James Bond Concert Spectacular

Friday 22nd May 2020
7:30pm

Chelmsford City Theatres
Fairfield Road
Chelmsford
Essex
CM1 1JG

https://www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres/whats-on/music/james-bond-concert-spectacular/

Guest Compere: Caroline Bliss – The Living Daylights, License to Kill


Q The Music Show
James Bond Concert Spectacular

Sunday 7th June 2020
7:30pm

White Rock Theatre
White Rock
Hastings
East Sussex
TN34 1JX

Website

Guest Compare : Caroline Bliss – The Living Daylights & License to Kill


Q The Music Show
James Bond Concert Spectacular

Saturday June 20th
7:30pm

Hull City Hall
Queen Victoria Square
Carr Lane
Hull

HU1 3RQ

https://www.hulltheatres.co.uk/events/james-bond-concert-spectacular

Guest Compere: Caroline Munro – The Spy Who Loved Me


Q The Music Show
James Bond Concert Spectacular

Sunday 21st June 2020
7:30pm

New Theatre Peterborough
46 Broadway
Peterborough
PE1 1RS

https://www.newtheatre-peterborough.com/events/q-the-music-show/

Guest Compere: Caroline Bliss – The Living Daylights, License To Kill


Monday 13 July 2020
7.30pm

New Victoria Theatre, 
The Ambassadors, 
The Peacocks Centre, 
Woking GU21

https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-james-bond-concert-spectacular/new-victoria-theatre/

With Madeline Smith (Live and Let Die)


Friday 17 July 2020
7.30pm

The Beck Theatre, 
Grange Road, Hayes, 
Middlesex UB3 2UE

https://becktheatre.org.uk/Online/tickets-james-bond-concert-hayes-2020

With Madeline Smith (Live and Let Die)


Saturday 25 July 2020
7.30pm

Longfield Suite, 3 Longfield Centre, 
Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AY

https://bury-mbc.ticketlight.co.uk/order/gateway/13350925

With Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me)


Sunday 2 August 2020
7.30pm

Cheltenham Town Hall, Imperial Square, 
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1QA

http://www.cheltenhamtownhall.org.uk/event/the-james-bond-spectacular-2020-315557/

With Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me)


Sunday 9 August 2020
7.30pm

Weston Winter Gardens, Royal Parade, 
Weston-super-Mare, BS23 1AJ

http://www.westonwintergardens.co.uk/events/james-bond-concert-comes-to-weston-super-mare/

With Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me)


Sunday 16 August 2020
7.30pm

Buxton Opera House, Water Street, 
Buxton, Derbyshire, SK17 6XN

https://buxtonoperahouse.org.uk/boxoffice/ticket/469191

With Caroline Bliss (The Living Daylights & Licence To Kill)


Sunday 30 August 2020
7.30pm

West Cliff Theatre, Clacton-On-Sea, 
Tower Road, Clacton CO15 1LE

http://www.westcliffclacton.co.uk/livemusic/james-bond-concert-spectacular/

With Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me)


Friday 25 September 2020
7.30pm

Kings Theatre, 24 Albert Road, 
Portsmouth, Southsea PO5 2QJ

https://www.kingsportsmouth.co.uk/whatson-event/the-james-bond-concert-spectacular/

With Caroline Bliss (The Living Daylights & Licence To Kill)


Sunday 11 October 2020
7.30pm

Leas Cliff Hall, The Leas, 
Folkestone CT20 2DZ

https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-james-bond-concert-spectacular/leas-cliff-hall/

With Caroline Bliss (The Living Daylights & Licence To Kill)


Friday 16 October 2020
7.30pm

St. George's Hall, Bridge St, 
Bradford BD1 1JT

https://www.bradford-theatres.co.uk/whats-on/the-james-bond-concert-spectacular-178147#scr-booking

With Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me)


Sunday 18 October 2020
5pm

Adelphi Theatre, Strand, London WC2R 0NS

https://tickets.lwtheatres.co.uk/en-GB/events/the%20james%20bond%20concert%20spectacular/2020-10-18_17.00/adelphi%20theatre/2?hallmap

With Caroline Munro, Madeline Smith, Caroline Bliss


Thursday 12 November 2020
7.30pm

The Princess Royal Theatre, Civic Centre, 
Port Talbot SA13 1PJ

https://npttheatres.co.uk/princessroyal/events/james-bond-concert-prt/

With Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me)