The obituaries for composer John Barry — who died in New York City last night at the age of 77 from a sudden heart attack — have emphasized the 11 scores he wrote for the James Bond series.
Barry did indeed create the sound of Bond which then became one of the great sounds of the 1960s — sexy, romantic, exciting music — but his scores for the 007 series are just the tip of the iceberg for this incredibly prolific and versatile composer.
In addition to the lush and stirring themes that powered two best picture Oscar winners — “Dances with Wolves” and “Out of Africa” — Barry also exceled in darker, moodier themes that were perfect for 1980s neo-noir thrillers such as “Body Heat” and “Mike’s Murder.”
The son of a movie theater operator who loved jazz, Barry was steeped in both art forms from childhood, so it’s no wonder he knew exactly how to augment the visuals in a wide variety of films, with perfect movie music.
As much as I love listening to Barry’s most popular scores, I’m fondest of the music he did for lesser known films such as “Petulia” and “Playing By Heart.”
Julie Christie (above, in the final shot) and George C. Scott are a classic mismatch — she’s married to a handsome millionaire (Richard Chamberlain) who physically abuses her and he’s recovering from a long marriage to the mother (Shirley Knight) of his two children.
A story that mixes elements of screwball comedy with pointed social commentary received a powerful score from Barry that is both beautiful and disturbing — just like the title character.
“Playing by Heart” is a 1998 Los Angeles-set ensemble drama — revolving around an anniversary celebration being planned for a couple played by Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery — that gets an added level of emotion from one of Barry’s best scores, a mix of his own compositions with vintage recordings by the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.
The composer gave a big boost to Chris Botti’s career — he was then an up-and-coming trumpet player — by choosing him to play most of the new Barry themes (which, in effect, anointed Botti as the heir to Baker).
Barry’s ability to underscore romantic scenes made some rather mediocre films seem much better — foremost among these, the early 1990s hit “Indecent Proposal,” which would have seemed much tawdrier without Barry’s gorgeous music.
The composer gave a big boost to what is probably the least-seen Bond picture — the 1969 “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (below) which featured the sole appearance of the much-maligned George Lazenby as 007.
“Secret Service” is the only picture in the series with genuinely tragic elements — Bond marries a smart and funny beauty played by Diana Rigg only to see her murdered in the closing scene.
Barry wrote a haunting and ironic ballad (“We Have All the Time in the World”) that ranks among his finest pieces of movie music. If Sean Connery had starred in the film, the combination of Rigg’s death and the Barry music would have been one of the high points in Bond history.