By Terry walstrom
08 June 2003
If we regard a film such as King Kong as an exception because it was shot while he was scoring it, we find he has a preferred approach. He likes to read the script FIRST before accepting an assignment. Why? It might be a strong tip-off that crap is on the way!
Barry likes to know what the decision-maker on the film wants for the background score. Why? He has been chainsawed from disagreements between a director and producer before (i.e. Born Free).
Barry likes to have - at least - a rough cut of the film to work from. Why? He is stimulated in the right direction by the Je ne sais quoi that emanates from the screen which no script can divulge in advance. Barry is attracted to the emotional core of a film. Is love, passion, revenge, loss, pathos the pivot point? If so, Barry can identify with that and his muse awakens.
Sometimes he is merely attracted by a genre or a director or a writer attached to a film's ethos. The Bruce Lee film Game Of Death lured him because of the worldwide magic of Lee's cult following. The Tamarind Seed had Blake Edwards at the helm and two fine actors at the center of the spy genre which was different in every way from his previous Bond forays into that oeuvre. Dances With Wolves was scenic, panoramic but personal--with one man at the center of the drama. All these considerations aside.... John Barry watches the key scenes over and over on his little viewing screen Moviola. He sits at his piano and plays chords while watching the flow of the images. The chords, the mood, the marriage of image and sound trigger that primal wellspring of dramatic affinity within his musical soul.
When an idea catches fire he fleshes it out. No electronic keyboards and software for this veteran gentleman! The sharpened pencil and staff paper are his companions as he, as Beethoven and Prokofiev before him, dots in the bass notes, the harmonic progression and the all-important topline of melody - glorious melody! In a jazz oriented score such as The Knack, Barry primarily uses the core idea of a strong melody which can sustain variation upon variation as the unifying element around which the score is built.
John Barry has an extraordinary gift for arranging. What instruments will play, in what combinations and how they will nip and tuck together and separately are the lifeblood of his special "sound". From his unique experience as a musician who has played ensemble with a group in front of a live audience Barry has one phenomenal advantage over conservatory trained composers. Barry knows that the flesh and blood lips and fingers of the person blowing, plucking and strumming are the center of gravity, the science and the magic of what the audience will hear and, especially - FEEL when the music is heard at last.
How much freedom will JB pencil in for the musicians? It goes like this. Barry has the central terra firma on paper; the chord progressions, the harmony, the punctuations of rhythm and cadence and the skeleton of form and function. But, he knows personally that there must be room for an improvising musician to let loose and *feel* their way through a moment in time. On The Knack, for example, Alan Haven is improvising his way through 99% of the score which imparts a looseness which would otherwise be missing. Often the muted trumpet part is ad lib. A coda to a piece can suddenly erupt with improvisation and madcap mayhem lending a New Orleans smoky cafe atmosphere to an otherwise conventional play through. The essential concept stitching together the various parts is the byplay and movement of the musical activity between groups and individuals. No stiffness allowed!
Do musicians enjoy working under his baton? The man is a legend! He knows his stuff. He understands his own music as a musician first and as a listener. There is little that is "old school" in his approach. He has played gigs as a trumpeter and bandleader. Fun, but no nonsense - that's our man. In the recording studio with the film running on the big screen at a session Barry often finds a last minute remedy for a scene that isn't working.
At the Goldfinger recording session, for example, he realised something was missing upfront. He had not composed the trumpet fanfare at the outset of Goldfinger, only the chords. Instinctively, on the spot, he wrote the now famous brass intro - and the rest is -well, an amazing moment in musical history.
He can change a line, add a harmony, excise a pattern that isn't working or create a miracle on the spot while the musicians warm their chairs. No mean feat - but, one of the major reasons he lasted so long in an industry that sweeps up yesterday’s heroes and dumps them in the dustbin with nary a blink of an eye.
The above is a loose accounting of the manner and method of a man alone. Once the contract is signed and millions of dollars invested in a fragile medium that can sink into oblivion if the audience is indifferent - Barry goes to work much as a surgeon with dying patient's heart in his hand. It is all up to him! His success and our collective enthusiasm testify to his expertise as a miracle worker par excellence!
Vive la Barry!