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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“Goldfinger” live

I think I might have mentioned here before that, after much struggle, I finally got my Blu-Ray/Home theater set-up working a couple of days ago. However, as of earlier today I had yet to actually watch a Blu-Ray video on it. My Bullz-Eye and Premium Hollywood compatriot, Ross Ruediger, suggested to me I inaugurate it by checking out the “Goldfinger” Blu-Ray. Even though that movie — which truly started the sixties spy craze and became the model for the modern action film (with a gigantic nod to “North by Northwest“) — isn’t his favorite of the series, he loved how the disc looked and it sold him on the format. Well, having looked at just a bit of “Raging Bull,” which I happened to snag a free copy, I’m almost frightened of the the resolution. “Goldfinger” might kill me.

You see, “Goldfinger” actually is my favorite Bond film, I’ll try to make a special and hopefully shaken vodka martini-soaked occasion of watching it on Blu-Ray, and I certainly think its theme song can’t be topped.

And so, below are two great live versions. Starting with Dame Shirley Bassey. I don’t know when this particular rendition was recorded but I never quite realized how sexy she is. Wow.

And here’s the man himself, composer, arranger, and conductor John Barry, in 2001 conducting an orchestral version of “Goldfinger,” that almost comes across like a lament or a torch song. Also he reclaims the Bond theme from that scalawag, Monty Norman. Nicely done, Sir Barry.

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