Monday, January 31, 2011

John Barry (1933-2011)

With the death of John Barry yesterday the film world has lost one of its true greats. In an era of fine composers Barry's unique versitility and class stood out, from low-budget cool to Hollywood pizazz, he could do it all, usually better than anyone else. So here, in tribute, are five of my favourite pieces of Barry magic.

His first soundtrack and what a way to start, the opening of Beat Girl (1956) sees him capture the heady excitment of teen rebellion way better than the film does. Music so cool it makes you wish you were in that packed cellar club for real, dancing like a hipster loon.

His most famous work will always be the main James Bond theme, but he composed many fabulous pieces for all the Bond films. The one I keep returning to is Piz Gloria Escape/Ski Chase from possibly my favourite Bond film On Her Majesty's Secet Service. It's sinuous, atmospheric and thrilling all at once. Try listening to it while doing the washing up and even that mundane task will suddenly be infused with all the glamour of international espionage. Honest.

His main theme for the British epic Zulu (1964) showed he could do blockbuster bombast with the best of them, producing a rousing piece suitable for tales of heroic sacrifice, bloody battles and the wide open spaces of the African veldt.

And then he could do this, practically the polar opposite, the main theme for Midnight Cowboy (1969), music so wistful and feather-light it sends the listener into a reverie, evokes complex feelings of melancholy and somehow expresses all the burning hope and disappointment of the American Dream while making you want to gaze out windows and contemplate the passing world.

And just for good measure, he proved he could master the TV theme tune and inspire a generation of electronica musicians in the process, with this classic for The Peruaders, music so unique and innovative, moog-moody and exotic it should really have been soundtracking something far greater than this larky, lightweight vehicle for Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. Honestly, it's like Beethoven doing the theme music for bloody Spooks. He was just so ahead of the field by then, could compress so much into a few minutes of music, few filmmakers could match him. Genius.

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