|John Barry On The Movies|
[The Guardian, 1999]
YOU can't get a good pork sausage in Oyster Bay. Being in New York state, most of the pleasures that life can afford are never far away. Oysters, to pick just one example, are easily obtained. But when it comes to breakfast, not a sausage. So it's understandable that John Barry, resident of Oyster Bay, but born and bred in the original York, is partial to a pork sausage or two when he visits Britain. That's why our meeting was postponed from two days ago. John Barry, composing colossus and titan of the film world, has been laid low by a plate of dodgy bangers. Felled like a mighty tree, in perhaps his most ignominious episode since he tripped over Winston Churchill's wheelchair at the Savoy more than 30 years ago.
Even in a life full of memorable encounters, that one is bound to stand out. The image is unforgettable: the tall, courteous, imperturbable creator-to-be of a host of classic film scores, rolling around on the deep shag carpet, clutching his mangled shin and cursing the air blue through clenched teeth; only to look up and see the face of his, and England's, greatest hero peering down at him; and to hear that sonorous voice enquire, “Are you alright, young man?” Through the blood, sweat and tears, Barry choked out a humbled assent and scarpered at a brisk hobble.
Some things, and some people, are more important than the movies. But for John Barry, a man who has dedicated himself to the cinema from his earliest days, they must be few in number. Barry fell in love with film as a toddler. “My father had eight theatres in the north of England,” he recounts. “I remember him picking me up, I must have been, God knows, maybe the age of my son now, three and-a-half, four, and taking me through these swing doors to the back of the stalls and holding me up over this barrier at the back. And I remember seeing this mouse, this big black-and-white mouse. You remember the atmosphere, the whole thing is imprinted on your mind: ‘My father has a place that shows black and-white mice on screens.’”
Of course, when you're that age, you see no reason why giant rodents shouldn't bounce around the landscape at will. But Barry was smitten and that was that.
“My favourite movie as a youth was definitely The Adventures Of Robin Hood, the Errol Flynn one. And incidentally a great score by [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold. I always remember things that had great music in them - The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Max Steiner's score. It's funny, but when I remember back, or when I see those films again years later, it seems that I remembered them very much because of the music. You weren't conscious of that at the time because you're young, but many of the memories attach to the music in the movies.”
Born in 1933, Barry spent his childhood years, “Exposed to the fantasy life of Hollywood. The British product wasn't that great, and almost ninety per cent of the product in the theatres at that time was Hollywood produced. Although there was a big regional film industry out of Manchester, a guy called John Blakely used to make comedies with Frank Randall and all the Yorkshire comedians. It wasn't huge, but they were very big box office locally. It was very strong regional stuff. Southern people didn't get it, they didn't even understand the way they were talking.”
Not that the talking was of great importance to him then. “Rather than talkie-talkie movies, I liked films with excitement and adventure, because those were the ones that had the music. I think when I was about nine, I started loving the idea of dramatic music for movies. These names kept coming up, the Max Steiners, Alfred Newmans, Korngolds, Franz Waxmans, Bernard Herrmanns. I always remember listening to stuff and being very selective about what I liked and didn't like.”
It was just before the Festival Of Britain, in 1951, that Barry went down to London for two weeks of lessons with trumpeter George Swift. He stopped in at the Leicester Square Empire to see An American In Paris and found himself besotted with the film, with George Gershwin's score, with the whole notion of musicals - and with the film's star.
“I fell in love with Leslie Caron. I literally went in every night to see that movie. Living in York, and then listening to all that music. . . and Paris, it was so spectacularly different and extraordinary that you just thought, God, I want to be a part of that.”
It was almost, then, as if composing for a film would be a way of putting himself inside the film.
“Absolutely. That's definitely the stimulus, you can actually make movies, you can actually write music for movies and have beautiful women dance to it and sing to it.”
If Britain had produced musicals, Barry would surely have worked on them. “It became a dying art in America. I did one film musical, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland. It's funny,” he muses, “nobody's ever been able to make a good film of Alice in Wonderland.”
By the mid-Sixties, Barry's innovative scores for the Bond films, The Knack, The Ipcress File, Zulu and Born Free had become the definitive sound of a revitalised British film industry. They were big sellers in their own right, and he won two Oscars for the last. His own life began to resemble a role from a contemporary script. As he told his biographer, Eddi Fiegel, “The life I was living was fifty times more fun than anything in The Knack.”
He took a flat in Chelsea's Cadogan Square, where the then unknown Michael Caine bunked down in the spare room for a few months, and divided his time between composing, socialising, and - as he puts it, with an inimitable inflection somewhere between Leslie Phillips and Brian Glover - “The ladies. I don't know how we got any work done. We were having a great time, it was Kings Road, it was Alvaro's Italian restaurant, it was The Pickwick Club. I think it reads a lot better now,” he chuckles. “I pick up some article and read about it, and read about David Bailey and about myself, and I think, ‘Jesus, was it that good?’”
If Barry doubted he was living in a film, he might have been convinced by the sight of his future wife, Jane Birkin, lying across the bonnet of his white E-type Jaguar, crooning sweet nothings at him through the windscreen. Any girl who did that nowadays you'd dismiss as a poser who'd spent too long in the cheap seats watching French movies. But it was a less knowing time. “I don't think we were self-conscious about it at all. It was just her nature, she was kind of crazy that way, delightful.”
Even odder was a recording session with Sophia Loren, who had specifically requested him for a TV special. “She was charming to work with. She thought she was ugly when she sang. She said, 'When I sing I contort my face so strangely, I don't want anybody to see me.' I said, 'There's nobody else here, Sophia.'” Aside, that is, from Loren's husband, the producer Carlo Ponti, clearly no stranger to the situation. He produced a sack, whose previous incumbents might easily have been half a hundredweight of Maris Pipers, and stuck it over Sophia's head. “But that's the way she wanted to do it. Weird.”
WHILE writing his scores for thrillers, adventures and epics, Barry was also involved in a number of what would today be called arthouse movies - low key, low budget films, favouring atmosphere over action. What drew him to those productions?
“Being asked,” he explains, succinctly. “I met Bryan Forbes, who was making a movie, the L-Shaped Room, with Leslie Caron. . .”
And was that a factor?
“Er - well, yes,” he replies, seemingly puzzled I should need to ask. “He needed a couple of jazz pieces. After that, he said, 'I'm in the middle of writing a script called Seance On A Wet Afternoon, and when I've finished it, I will call you, because I want a really strange score, I don't want it to sound like anything else.'” Barry designed a small, eccentric orchestra, full of flutes, cellos and vibraphones, which more than met Forbes's specifications. He went on to score four further movies for Forbes, as well as Tony Harvey's Dutchman, which led to one of his favourite soundtracks and another Oscar winner, The Lion In Winter, for the same director.
“It was nice to have the very commercial Bondian thing, and The Ipcress File, which became hugely international, and then at the same time have these smaller movies which were artistically more interesting to do. I know professionally that more serious directors were affected by the scores that I did for Seance On A Wet Afternoon and The Whisperers, as opposed to looking at a Bond movie and seeing all that action stuff. I actually got more genuine footing in the real art of movie writing off those movies than I did off the Bond movies.”
Nonetheless, it was gratifying for Barry when Federico Fellini told a highbrow film publication, much to their chagrin, that his favourite score was Goldfinger. “I'd have loved to score a film for Fellini. He had the most extraordinary relationship with Nino Rota, who was one of my favourite movie composers, so that was never an option.
“The only film that I ever actually went after over here was 2001. Stanley Kubrick had hired Alex North, but then decided to change his approach, to all the classical stuff, which I think worked fantastically.” Instead, Barry optioned the rights to Antoine de Saint Exupéry's cosmic children's fable, The Little Prince, and asked Kubrick to direct it as a musical. Kubrick regretfully declined, saying, “Yes, it's a most charming book. I can see why you're asking me.”
After the Sixties, Barry became, understandably, less prolific. “One year I did eight movies. In one year. I think it's getting very thin on the ground now as to things I want to do. Since I've been in America, I've been lucky in getting some of the better pictures to score. Even before I lived in America, I did Midnight Cowboy in New York, which was a terrific movie. There's this big fad now of the use of song scores. Midnight Cowboy is still played at UCLA as the example of how you really do use songs in a movie. We actually scored the movie with songs, we didn't buy songs. Even the Harry Nilsson song, Everybody's Talkin', we re-recorded it all to picture, so it was very, very tight.”
Reservoir Dogs and Trainspotting may have revived the trend, harnessing pop soundtracks with far greater agility then their slipshod successors, but for John Barry it goes much further back. “I think the whole fad started with Mike Nichols and The Graduate, and Mrs Robinson. I always remember [Midnight Cowboy director] John Schlesinger saying, 'I love the idea of that song, but there comes a point where the song separates from the movie, and we feel like we're just putting images to it.' That was his observation that early on. There were no musical videos then, but that's what he was saying, that he didn't want to have to do a musical video. Today you'll sit in a movie and you'll get three minutes of some montage sequence, doesn't take the story any further, and you're sitting there listening to this goddam song. It's got a little - well, not a little out of hand, it's got a lot out of hand.”
For someone as meticulous as Barry, a soundtrack writer who has always been, as he says, “part of the process”,, this must be infuriating. When he won Academy Awards for Out Of Africa and Dances With Wolves, he was working almost as a method composer: “You have to careful in those cases that you don't wind up playing the scenery, so you have to get inside the characters and figure out what it was like for them to be in that place. I had to dramatically put myself in John Dunbar's shoes, if you like, or on that horse.”
John Barry's latest soundtrack, Playing By Heart, is a return to one of his youthful loves, the sublime music of West Coast jazz pioneer Chet Baker. He has placed his own compositions around three Baker originals so adroitly that the whole blends into one haunting piece. “It's more or less framed as a jazz album,” he says. “Chet Baker was like the James Dean of the jazz age. When he went to Italy to do some dates, they used a pick-up group of Italian musicians, including Mussolini's son, who was a jazz pianist, a very good one. 'Man,' Chet Baker said to him. ‘What a drag about your dad.’”
Maybe it's time for someone to make a film about John Barry. After all, as he could tell you himself, good ideas don't come along all that often these days.
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