John Barry's five Oscars reflect his elegant simplicity
John Barry turns 75 today. The composer of “Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Born Free,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Lion in Winter” — as well as such iconic James Bond themes as “Goldfinger,” “You Only Live Twice” and “Diamonds Are Forever” — is believed to be the sole Brit to have won as many as five Academy Awards.
True, he’s scored only three movies in the last 10 years (the last was “Enigma” in 2001), but he’s still waiting for another great one to come along.
And in the meantime, he’s writing a piece for orchestra that says something about where he is in his life. “It’s about how the seasons of the year affect us,” he says. “It’s not really about nature, it’s more of a personal thing,” he adds, sitting in his comfortable living room in Oyster Bay, N.Y., where he has lived since 1980.
Barry is taking his time with the work, which sounds as if it will follow his three previous concept albums, all of which reflected his observations, memories and sometimes intensely personal point of view: “Americans” (1976), “The Beyondness of Things” (1998) and “Eternal Echoes” (2001).
His trophies — among them the Oscars, four Grammys and the Order of the British Empire — are visible in a glass case near his Bluthner piano, but he doesn’t talk about them. It’s that next musical challenge that he’s thinking about. In fact, asking him to review his nearly 50-year career in films is not something he’s all that eager to do.
“It started off as a pop thing, very simple,” Barry explains, referring to his late-1950s career as leader of a popular British instrumental group, the John Barry Seven. “Then it got more complex. As you grow older, you become more sophisticated. You’re not conscious of it. It’s only when you look back on it that you say, ‘I really changed.’ You almost see the history of your life.”
And what a history. No modern film composer has undergone as radical a musical transformation as Barry. Starting with the twangy guitar, rock ‘n’ roll sound of “Beat Girl” in 1960, he soon shifted into a pop-jazz-orchestral sound for the James Bond movies while simultaneously creating a quiet, brooding ambiance for such low-budget Brit films as “Seance on a Wet Afternoon.”
The period historical dramas of the ’60s and ’70s — “The Lion in Winter,” “The Last Valley,” “Mary, Queen of Scots” — demanded choirs singing texts in Latin, German and French. Eventually, Barry became Hollywood’s go-to composer for richly orchestrated, grandly romantic scores like “Somewhere in Time,” “Out of Africa” and “Dances With Wolves.”
“He has a very simple, elegant way with a melody that is inescapable,” says David Arnold, who succeeded Barry in 1997 as James Bond’s resident composer. “It was such genius, the ease and speed at which he could describe a film to you in music. It seemed to happen within four bars. There is a certain panache, an energy that came from performing in front of people, and knowing what an audience wants. It’s direct and to the point.”
Adds Roger Moore, four of whose 007 outings (as well as Brit TV hit “The Persuaders”) were accompanied by Barry scores: “Any movie that has John Barry music is instantly recognizable, rather like one would recognize Mozart or Chopin, even though his melodies are all very different. His inspiration improves any actor’s performance.”
That specificity has served him well in a variety of contexts, from the smoky, noirish jazz of “Body Heat” to the melancholia of “Chaplin.” With “Body Heat,” says his longtime agent Richard Kraft, “that saxophone theme says everything about the lust of the characters, the obsession and the doomed fate of the lovers. John’s greatest skill is to condense complexity into a thematic notion that defines the movie.”
Yet it also seems that his most powerful scores, while initially inspired by the films, actually emerged from a personal, very private emotional connection: his indelible memories of a wartime tragedy in his northern England hometown of York.
“I went to a convent with my sister,” the composer recalls. “In early 1942, it was bombed. Several of the nuns and many of the children were killed. Nobody explained it to us; we were just told the next morning. York was blitzed that night. They bombed the hell out of the place. I remember my father coming back and taking me out into the street. The sky was red with the reflection of the city burning into the clouds. And I remember him saying to me, ‘You’re never going to forget this night.’ And I didn’t.”
So, Barry adds, “I’m strongly attracted to subjects that deal with loss — ‘Out of Africa,’ ‘Dances With Wolves,’ both of those movies are about loss. ‘Somewhere in Time’ is most certainly about a sense of loss, even ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ A thing like the war leaves its mark. I don’t know how it couldn’t.”
His music has left its mark on millions. And when 5,000 fans filled London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1998 for his first live concert in 23 years, the London Times reviewer marveled at the multiple standing ovations, calling them “the most devoted clappings I’ve ever seen in my life. It looked like praying.”
Asked about that passionate reaction by fans — a scene regularly repeated at Barry’s greatest-hits concerts recently in England, France, Spain and Ireland — he acknowledges that “it must be something that touches everyone’s heart and mind, something deep-rooted in all of us. They don’t know what’s happening, but they know when you’ve tapped it.”
There may be something to that notion of spirituality, suggests Hollywood musician Mike Lang, whose jazz piano has adorned several Barry scores from “Body Heat” to “The Specialist” and “Playing by Heart.”
Lang points to the composer’s unusual style in the recording studio: “The way he conducts, his body language — not only with the baton, but how he moves — shows you exactly what he’s looking for. This is a guy who has a genuine spiritual involvement with what he writes, and everything he writes is based on a feeling.”
As might be expected for someone who has scored more than 100 films, among them the most honored in each of four decades, Barry is understandably choosy about film projects. But, gesturing toward the pages and pages of “The Seasons” sketches that litter his writing area nearby, he says he’ll happily set it aside if the right movie is offered.
Michael Caine, an old friend from Swinging ’60s London whose five films with the composer include “Zulu” and “The Ipcress File,” sums up Barry’s success this way: “You cannot pin him down. He’s great at every sort of movie, from a historical epic to a modern spy story. Each score is different and musically brilliant.”