Although best known for his Bond music (Federico Fellini said that Goldfinger was his favourite music for film), he wrote almost one hundred film scores, and some of his best music wasn’t for the Bond series at all. He won Oscars for 1969’s The Lion in Winter, 1985’s Out of Africa and 1991’s Dancing with Wolves. His song Born Free won him another Oscar for best song, and the score for the film won best score. Midnight Cowboy showed his skill at choosing the right mood and orchestration for each film; no big orchestral sweeps here but a chamber score with a memorable mouthorgan theme.
My personal favourite is the sexy, jazzy score for Body Heat, the music matching Kathleen Turner’s husky voice and sensual lines. Hot!
As a composer,” John Barry once told me, “you’ve got to see a scene and fall in love with it, laugh when you should do, cry when you should do. The music is what you use, but the main thing is to have the ear and the eye to map it out dramatically.”
Drama was just one of the things that Barry – who died this week at the age of 77 – did better than any other film composer of recent decades. His scores – particularly, though by no means exclusively, those for the Bond movies – are always steeped in the mood and the moments of the film, cranking up the impact without ever resorting to musical button-pushing. From the adrenalin-shot of the title track to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to the serene nostalgia Out of Africa, the languorous sensuality of Body Heat to the slinky-but-deadbeat Sixties twang of The Ipcress File, what you hear with a John Barry-scored movie tends to blend inextricably with what you are seeing, to such an extent that many of those pictures he wrote for (especially those dozen-or-so 007 outings) are entirely unimaginable without his contribution.
But, unlike many in his trade, Barry also firmly believed that film music should also be able to stand up in its own right – on disc, even in the concert hall – without the support of flickering images on a screen. And his did, magnificently so.