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Collaborators reflect on John Barry

Composer's scores continue to move filmmakers

When Sydney Pollack started editing “Out of Africa,” he assembled a temporary score that consisted entirely of excerpts from earlier scores by John Barry: “Somewhere in Time,” “Robin and Marian,” even “Mary, Queen of Scots.”

“Barry’s scores were so clearly movie scores,” the late director told Variety in 2001. “His music was always very evocative. ‘The Last Valley’ (a Barry score from 1971) had a piece that gave me an idea how to put together the whole flying sequence, when Denys takes Karen out over Africa. It had a somber feeling that was achieved by using a chorus of male bass voices humming. It gave it a religious, liturgical feeling.”

Both Pollack and Barry won Oscars for their work on the film.

Pollack’s experience was not unique. Barry’s many collaborators over the years have talked about his dramatic instincts and his melodic sense.

“With any great artist,” says lyricist Don Black, “there is a signature to their work. You only have to hear a bar of Sinatra and you know it’s him, instantly. It’s the same with John Barry. Listen to ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ or ‘You Only Live Twice’ or ‘Goldfinger’ and you know from the first notes.”

Black and Barry won Oscars for “Born Free” and have collaborated on dozens of songs since then, including the title tracks from “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Thunderball” plus the songs in the film musical “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the London stage smash “Billy.”

“What I like is the inevitability of the melodies,” says Black. “I don’t mean that in a cheap way. When he writes a tune, it seems to be effortless outpouring. But when he plays me something, I know that he has wrestled with it for a long time. It becomes more of an unveiling,” he says with a laugh, “and you know it’s gone through the Barry wringer. He hasn’t just thought of it; he’s lived with it.”

Barry’s scores for Bryan Forbes’ 1960s films (“Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” “King Rat”) provided a critical balance in the composer’s career, for while he was enjoying huge commercial success with the James Bond films, Forbes’ intimate dramas offered completely different dramatic possibilities.

Forbes — anticipating today’s composer-director collaborations, which usually involve early demos of themes and even synthesizer mockups of entire scores — brought Barry in early.

“I always felt that composers got a rough deal in that they were brought in very late in post-production and then given limited time to come up with a complete score that the director seldom heard until the recording session,” says Forbes. “I devised a scheme with John so that he was involved from day one. I included an extra sum in the budget, which enabled him to come up with some simple themes. I would lay them into the rough cut, and between us we would decide which worked and which didn’t.”

The result was, in Forbes’ words, “a savage sound” for the prisoner-of-war drama “King Rat,” a delicate use of harp and harpsichord for Edith Evans as a lonely old woman in “The Whisperers,” even a 15-minute guitar concerto intercut with an elaborate house robbery in “Deadfall.” “I was lucky to have found John, for he made an enormous contribution to all the films we did together.”

Forbes’ editor, Anthony Harvey, hired Barry for his directorial debut in “Dutchman” and followed it up with “The Lion in Winter,” a powerful choral score that won the 1968 Oscar.

“His score helped the film tremendously,” Harvey says. “The voices gave it a haunting quality. Also, when something doesn’t work, he will sit down and redo it in five minutes.” Two of their three subsequent films were for TV, including a delicate solo-piano score for “The Glass Menagerie.”

Director Jeannot Szwarc already had Mahler in mind for temp music when he hired Barry to score the Jane Seymour/Christopher Reeve time-travel romance “Somewhere in Time.” But the Mahler seemed “too big,” so Barry suggested Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for one scene and then wrote a poignant original score that captured the mood for the rest of the film.

“There is no doubt that John Barry’s music is one of the reasons the film has transcended time,” says Szwarc. “That film touched something in people, and I think the music is a major reason.”

Bond producer Barbara Broccoli points out that when Sean Connery quit the 007 role and had to be replaced for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” it was Barry’s job to remind filmgoers via an especially strong score that this new actor (George Lazenby) was really James Bond — and at the same time write a love song for Bond and his doomed bride Tracy (Diana Rigg).

Barry and Hal David wrote “We Have All the Time in the World” and hired Louis Armstrong to sing it. “Armstrong was very ill at the time,” Broccoli says. “You can just feel the emotion in his voice. It’s a tragic song, but it’s filled with so much hope because it’s about love, and love surviving even death. To this day I cannot fail to cry when I hear it.”

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