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23. March 2013 10:26
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License to Score

23. March 2013 10:26 by m | 0 Comments

This interview with the late, great, James Bond composer, John Barry is from a 1994 issue of Starlog Magazine.

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License to Score

By Tom Soter

Composer John Barry delights in all the movie music he makes.

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 DaylightsThe Living Daylights. He's also the composer who could create 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 quite a unique place in today's cinema." notes director Bryan Forbes, who worked with Bam' on six films. "He doesn't swamp you with the sog of 400 violins, and the idea of using a heavenly choir would make his somewhat cherubic locks turn grey. He makes music that lives outside the celluloid wrapping, music that people buy and listen to for its own sake." Indeed. Perhaps no other movie composer has created so many catchy, wordless tunes that are so different from each other, yet so appropriate for each story, and so memorable in their own right. Think of Elsa the Lioness and you remember Born Free. Think of Tilly Masterson painted gold and you remember GoldfingerGoldfinger. Or think of John Dunbar on the plains, or Isak Dinesen in the air. and you remember Dances With Wolves and Out of Africa. And all the time, you are thinking of John Barry.

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 to America. His latest score is for Indecent Proposal, in which multi-millionaire Robert Redford buys Woody Harrelson'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 movie's end 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, keeping the emotional balance of the melodies in control. How does one interplay all these moments? 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 studied 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 the first concerts we did. we just copied all their stuff. 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 pop 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 a day. By the end of 1960. it had become the year's biggest-selling record.

Yet Barry pined for 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—anything that moved on celluloid. At that point in my career. I wasn't in a position to pick and choose. I was getting the experience, I was getting a paycheck. I was starting a career."

Musical Emotions

Movie work finally came with Beat Girl (1960), a teenage exploitation 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 yet 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 not 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, this man getting up. saddling his horse and riding out there. And that's why that theme is almost like a last post, like a death wish. It has a lyrical, 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, then everything grew from that."

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, producers of the first James Bond movie, Dr. NoDr. No, 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 about 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 superspy James Bond, his cinematic alter-ego (which he discussed in STARLOG #94). He scored From Russia With LoveFrom Russia With Love masterfully, but it was on GoldfingerGoldfinger that everything clicked. "The star came together on the Bond thing," he notes. "From everybody's point-of-view. I mean. I love From Russia With LoveFrom Russia With Love, but Goldfmger was it."

It was also 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, coproducer Saltzman hated the tune and wanted to remove it). Barry collaborated with Leslie Bricusse 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? I can't understand—it's a terribly abstract title.' 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 Thunderhall were composed in two days, and the entire score for The Man With The Golden GunThe Man With The Golden Gun took two weeks).

"Whether it's a horror movie, an action movie, a love story, or a historic piece, it's how good the [script]writing is," he explains. "And sometimes they could be terribly right and sometimes 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' 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 FX. 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."
Barry believes the director is key to a proper marriage of picture and score. He has worked with some of the best: John Schles-inger (Midnight Cowboy), Arthur Penn {The Chase), Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout). George Cukor {Love Among the Ruins). Richard Attenborough {Chaplin) and Sydney Pollack {Out of Africa), 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 Barry left the Barbra Streisand movie Prince of Tides. "Sometimes you just don't get on with somebody." he says. "It's a collaborative system. If the director starts thinking that e can actually compose music. I pass."

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 DieLive And Let Die, The Spy Who Loved MeThe Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes OnlyFor Your Eyes Only—and his distinctive melodic action music was greatly missed, replaced by. respectively, George Martin. Marvin Hamlisch and Bill Conti.

"I always treated the Bonds very seriously," Barry 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 that they have any dramatic thrust, other than pure energy and noise. There doesn't seem to be any linear motif. They don't stretch it dramatically, and 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 KillLicence To Kill's Michael Kamen score ("They ripped off the opening bars of Goldfingerhe 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

Barry 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 SF scoring, first with You Only Live TwiceYou 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 MoonrakerMoonraker. However, instead of using the expected sounds of SF—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.''

Barry rarely looks back at the past. He's dismissive about plans to release his older work on CD. as well as the recently released rarities from ThunderballThunderball included on The 30th Anniversary James Bond Collection. "I don't want any part of it," Barry says brusquely. "It's past. It's done. It's all over. Move on. If some fan 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 everv movie I do, I'm a ham that way.

Like Raise the Titanic [a box-office flop]. 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 CD collection (also a PBS TV special), 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 would 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 on 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 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 10. that are really the finest people, and do a real free-form kind of jazz-inspired album. It's my roots. From my mid-teens onward, I became a huge jazz fan. I would just like to put it into a slightly more sophisticated harmonic setting. I could have a lot of fun doing that."

influential Notes

Married, with three grown children, the composer is anticipating the future, although he almost didn't have one when a health-food 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 other composers' autographed scores. "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—recently. I finished work on a movie 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 have 24 hours in the day that are totally yours, to deal with as you wish. You think about it. You're getting it set in your mind.

"I have millions of influences," John Barry adds. "But when I sit down and write. I hope I'm my own best influence.

"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're going to do it. You go through this mental process, and then you sit down and 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."

TOM SOTER. NY-hased writer, is the author of Bond & Beyond: 007 & Other Special Agents [Image). He profiled Roald Dahl in STARLOG #159.

Photo: In his album Moviola, composer John Barry examines the scores of his life.
Photo: His stirring music for Kevin Costner's directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, won Barry an Oscar.
Photo: The Black Hole (1979) featured the first digitally recorded motion picture score.
Photo: Only the composer, Barry isn't responsible when projects—like Raise the Titanic— go wrong.
Photo: When King Kong manhandled Jessica Lange, Barry provided music for human adventure and apish romance.
Photo: With Roger Moore clowning about as Bond, Barry skipped some missions. He did score The Man With The Golden GunThe Man With The Golden Gun, MoonrakerMoonraker, OctopussyOctopussy and A View To A KillA View To A Kill.
Photo: Going into action with Timothy Dalton, Barry composed The Living DaylightsThe Living Daylights.
Photo: In 1969, everybody was talkin' about Midnight Cowboy. Barry scored that controversial, X-rated Oscar-winning Best Picture.
Photo: Dabbling in SF, Barry's music for Starcrash won a special prize at a film festival.

[Source: Starlog #199 February 1994 p41-45]

 
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