You are hereEssays on Life / Barry. John Barry. 1933-2011. R.I.P.

Barry. John Barry. 1933-2011. R.I.P.

By tomsoterwriting - Posted on 02 February 2011


I have vivid memories of lying in a dark room and listening to the music playing on my record player. It was the soundtrack to Diamonds Are Forever, and it was multi-layered, melodic, and complex. As I stretched out on the floor with my eyes closed, I would pick out the different musical lines and/or instruments and then form images in my head of actions to accompany the tunes. It was, as my college music professor would later explain to my class, "programmatic music," i.e. music meant to depict actions in a program or story. The man who composed the music to which I was listening, John Barry, called it something else again: "million-dollar Mickey Mouse music."

Barry, who died on January 31 at age 77, was most famously the composer of 11 James Bond movie soundtracks. In one of the great ironies of the film world, he never won an Oscar for his Bond scores –  in fact, he was never even nominated for any of them, although other Bond composers, such as  Paul McCartney and  Marvin Hamlisch were (as though "Live and Let Die" or "Nobody Does It Better" could hold a candle to "Goldfinger" or "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"). Barry did win five Oscars in recognition of his more sentimental, melodic side, for Born Free (song and score), Out of AfricaDances With Wolves, and the slightly more harsh The Lion in Winter (and he was nominated for two more, also on the lushly romantic side, Mary, Queen of Scots and Chaplin). 

To me, Barry was a composer without peer – a man whose scores were ever-present in my youth. He was, as I observed in 1994, the year I interviewed him, "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...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 pointed 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."

R.I.P, music man. You were truly "the man with the Midas touch."

February 2, 2011