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In Memoriam: Composer John Barry

By Kathryn Kalinak


The world of film lost one of the greats on Sunday:  composer John Barry.  British by birth, he carved a place for himself in Hollywood, winning five Oscars over the course of his career.  He cut his teeth on James Bond films – Dr. No, (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) – and went on to compose seven more.  There was something both elegant and hip about these scores, a kind of jazzy sophistication that connoted fast cars, beautiful women, and martinis, shaken not stirred, that is.  A jack of all musical trades, he turned to Born Free (1966) and gave it a lush symphonic score and hit song.  By 1966, when he won his first Academy Awards (and he won two that year:  Best Song and Best Score for Born Free), he became one of the most high profile film composers in the world.  He was only 33.

He had an eclectic taste when it came to choosing films – small independent films, huge studio epics, and everything in between – coupled with wide-ranging and versatile compositional skill that could produce a twangy country and western-inspired score for Midnight Cowboy (1969), a jazz-infused score for The Cotton Club (1984), an anxiety-filled score for The Ipcress File (1965), a sensual score for Body Heat (1981), a synthesized score for The Jagged Edge (1985), and a symphonic sound for Out of Africa (1985).  He will largely be remembered, though, for those Bond scores – as well he should.  They musically define the texture of those films, their time and place, and above all Bond himself with the electric guitar riff that Barry brought to the 007 theme.

But it is the score for Dances With Wolves (1990) that I will remember him for.  Like Out of Africa, it is lush, symphonic, melody-laden.  But like no other western score that I know of, it manages to avoid the stereotypes for Indians that riddle many of Hollywood’s best western film scores.  And I am certainly not the first or the only one to notice this:  no tom-tom rhythms, no modal harmonies, no use of fourths and fifths, no dissonance to represent the Sioux.  When it seemed the only way to avoid using such musical stereotypes was to avoid symphonic writing altogether (Neil Young’s score for Dead Man comes to mind), Barry boldly composes for the Indians, providing the same lush Romantic harmonies and sweeping melodies that Kevin Costner gets as the white protagonist.  Bravo, Mr. Barry.

Kathryn Kalinak is Professor of English and Film Studies at Rhode Island College. Her extensive writing on film music includes numerous articles and several books, the most recent of which is Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. She is our correspondent for all things film + music, and is a recurring guest on WNYC’s Soundcheck.

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