RIP John Barry

Good film music enhances movie scenes. Great film music takes a good, bad or indifferent scene and lifts it into the stratosphere. Really great film music does that and is also enchanting to listen to in any context. By that measure, John Barry is one of the best film composers ever.

He might have lacked some of their complexity, but in emotional and melodic terms he is very much on a par with the greatest film composers of all time, including Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, and Bernard Herrmann — and their music charted much less frequently. John Barry could write a complex, soaring pop hit that might make Burt Bacharach jealous. He wasn’t afraid to be over-the-top when the job called for and embraced a certain level of kitsch where appropriate. He didn’t over-value subtlety.

Mr. Barry died yesterday in New York from a heart attack at age 77, not super young but another twenty or thirty years of his presence on the planet would have been nice, too. Even today, when many young film viewers are only barely aware that some guy named Sean Connery once played James Bond, if I ask almost anyone to think of “spy music,” they’re probably going to think of either the actual music from the early James Bond films or music heavily influenced by it. That’s just scratching the surface.

Barry evoked beauty, longing and mystery for all kinds of films. His 111 composing credits included Oscar-winning scores for “Out of Africa,” “Born Free,” the colonial war classic “Zulu,” his groundbreaking combination of scoring and music supervision on “Midnight Cowboy,” the cult fantasy-romance, “Somewhere in Time,” a now very obscure 1972 live-action musical version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and Richard Lester’s masterpiece, “The Knack and How to Get It.” Other scores include “Dances With Wolves,” “The Lion in Winter,” and the three movies that starred Michael Caine as anti-Bond workaday spook, Harry Palmer. Barry had the spy market cornered, and he was one very cool cat.

If you’ve never heard his fascinating and funny 2004 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross where he discusses “million dollar Mickey Mouse music,” now’s a good time. As you can always bet on, there’s much more at MUBI and be sure to check out this anecdote from Sir Michael about being present at the creation of a pop masterpiece. After the flip, just a few somewhat random clips of some of Barry’s best.

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Go ask “Alice” about weekend box office

Alice in Wonderland

Jolly Carl Diorio is saying it could make $75 million or so. Indeed, there’s no particular reason to doubt that the combination of the name recognition of director Tim Burton, star Johnny Depp, and the enduring, if eternally semi-culty, appeal of Lewis Carroll’s subversive not-at-all-just-for-children literary classic will mean some degree of big dollars at the Oscar weekend box office.

At the same time, I wouldn’t expect “Alice in Wonderland” to haven gigantic lasting power. With a few notable exceptions, weak stories have been the otherwise brilliant Burton’s Achilles heel throughout his career. Moreover, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have never really broken through in film versions in a huge way because of their chaotic, episodic structure. It took the advent of marijuana, LSD, and the Jefferson Airplane to make Disney’s “Alice” a theatrical hit in 1974, 23 years after it’s original release. 3-D is the closest thing our more abstemious age has.

Of course, the new film as written by Linda Woolverton is technically a sequel to original stories and attempts to lay a more coherent structure over Charles Dodgson’s chaotic classics but, judging from the reaction of our own David Medsker and critics overall, the results are mixed. Audiences will come for Burton’s visuals, Depp’s appeal, and the 3-D, but what will they stay for on the second weekend? Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter as dramatic queens won’t hurt, but still.

Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes are not rural in The fiscal prospect of the week’s other new major release, “Brooklyn’s Finest” seems considerably more modest, though with Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes and Ethan Hawke in the cast it has its share of big name stars. Reportedly filled to overflowing with cop-movie cliches, the R-rated film from director Antoine Fuqua of “Training Day” has left critics unimpressed and jovial Mr. DiOrio doesn’t expect it to break double-digit millions, noting it “tracks best in urban demos” — which I guess either means that African-American filmgoers are somewhat more kindly disposed towards it than, say, Armenian-American filmgoers, or that filmgoers in farming communities aren’t up for it.

  

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