The James Bond films were my first exposure to the art of John Barry.
My father bought my brother and me the soundtrack to THUNDERBALL. For days on end we would chase each other around the house scoring our escapades to Barry’s brash music.
We felt excited. But, more importantly, we felt cool. (Or as cool as two scrawny pre-pubescent boys could be flinging ourselves over tattered furniture in a tract house in Bakersfield.)
Looking back at his contribution, one realizes that he wasn’t really scoring the action on the screen. He was commenting on the attitude of the character of Bond.
Back in those days, the James Bond films were reissued on double and triple bills on a regular basis. My quest to catch up on the Bond saga was quickly satisfied as I became a young authority on the series and their scores.
I hadn’t met John Barry. He was just a cool looking guy on the back of his albums dripping with London mod swagger.
Those albums were from a wide range of films including great ones (MIDNIGHT COWBOY, THE LION IN WINTER, BODY HEAT) and stinkers (HOWARD THE DUCK, THE BLACK HOLE, THE GOLDEN CHILD). But regardless of the quality of the movies, the music was always expressive and strong.
PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED was my first opportunity to work directly with John. I was releasing that score for Varese Sarabande which I was running at the time.
When he called me to discuss the sequence, I found myself trembling.
I had now worked with lots of big composers. But none were John Barry. None were the guy who scored Bond. None were the guy who understood with his music what I was feeling when I was feeling melancholy.
There was a cue on that album that still destroys me, “Peggy Sue’s Homecoming.” A perfect example of aching with a sadness that was both tragic and oddly optimistic.
A while later I left Varese to become a full-time agent where one of my biggest efforts was to land Basil Poledouris the plum job of scoring DANCES WITH WOLVES. Eventually, Basil quit the film and John Barry replaced him.
I remember going to the opening night of the film with such mixed feelings. I really loved Basil and secretly wanted this score to be a disaster. On the other hand, it was John Barry.
Any thoughts I had of dissing the music melted away as soon as Barry’s score swept over me like a warm, comforting blanket. Instead of getting caught up in the various details of the film, he applied a few bold, straight, and direct melodies that served as a quilt transcending the differences between the cultures of the characters. Barry’s music was about an idea. A big, noble idea that was about much more than one man’s journey or even one tribe’s experience. He dug within himself and found something much more profound and universal to bring to his score.
A while after DANCES I started talking with John and his wife who were impressed with the success I was having with some of my clients. This eventually lead to the opportunity to represent him. For my whole life he was the elusive idol and now he was a client.
The best way to describe my working relationship with John Barry is to picture the film MY FAVORITE YEAR with me as the young, idealistic, self-appointed caregiver chasing behind his idol (played by Peter O’Toole), the older, passionate, suave British charmer who was wrestling with his own demons.
It certainly was a colorful time. And a very challenging one, too.
John Barry already had a reputation of quitting films THE BODYGUARD and THE PRINCE OF TIDES. But I was going to fix all that!
I remember trying forever to get John on the Paul Newman film, TWILIGHT for producer Scott Rudin. After visiting the set and pounding away, Rudin finally called to hire him.
“Um, I’m so sorry,” I squirmed. “But I just signed him for another film for Roland Joffe last week.”
Rudin was not pleased.
“If you don’t deliver John Barry by tomorrow, I’m going to kill you, sue you and make all of your clients leave you.”
I simply replied, “If you do it in that order I won’t notice the last two.”
“Very funny,” he retorted before slamming down the phone.
Rudin carried out none of his three threats and a month or so later, John Barry found himself clashing with and being removed from Joffe’s GOODBYE LOVER.
Sheepishly, I called Rudin to inform him Barry was now suddenly available for his film.
“I’d rather whistle the score myself.”
“You’ve got to give me credit for asking” I responded.
“True,” conceded Rudin. “Who else you got?”
“How about Elmer Bernstein?”
While it was great for Elmer, I still craved bringing something special to Barry.
One of my personal goals was to reunite John Barry into the James Bond series.
There was a lot of old history between Barry and the Bond folks and I felt I might be helpful in bringing a fresh approach into it without being burdened by all the prior baggage.
After a lot of back and forth they ended up offering him TOMORROW NEVER DIES. I could not have been more thrilled.
However, things got really wonky during the negotiations with neither side agreeing over his fee with the difference being relatively minor. Both sides dug in their heels.
MGM said they were moving on without him.
I felt like I was the worst agent in the history of show biz. I was fumbling having John Barry score another James Bond film. This was unacceptable. As John’s agent I couldn’t let that happen. As a Bond music fan, I would kill me if I didn’t find a way to pull this off.
On Christmas Eve, with holiday music playing in the background (including Barry’s “Do You Know How Christmas Trees are Grown”) I decided something had to be done to fix it all and give it a perfect holiday ending.
So, I left word with the producer saying how important it was to me, as a fan, to have John score the film. I realized that the amount separating John and MGM was exactly the same amount as my commission would have been on this film. In the spirit of Christmas and of wanting this to happen so badly, I offered to give my commission over to the studio so they could then use it to make John the offer he wanted.
The only condition was that they could never tell him. I needed him to think the extra money had come from them.
After leaving that message I sent to bed with dreams of The Great Barry/Bond Reunion dancing in my head.
The day after Christmas I got the call from the studio’s music department.
“Are you trying to bribe us with kickbacks?”
I was stunned. I quickly explained my sincere intentions to do right by everyone.
She said they refused to pay John any more under any conditions and they were moving on.
I had clearly stepped into a vast quagmire of issues and people and history and personalities that predated me by decades.
I had failed.
Though he acted dismissive and a bit resigned to these setbacks, I couldn’t help but think how deeply they must have stung.
Before ever meeting me, John Barry had won five Oscars. When I would visit him in his gorgeous home in Oyster Bay, N.Y. I would stare at those five statues determined to win him a sixth. I decided Robert Redford’s THE HORSE WHISPER was going to be it.
Hired before they even started shooting, Barry took it upon himself to start composing themes.
He recorded them and sent them off to Redford who had just commenced remote location photography.
Every day Barry would check in to inquire about Redford’s response.
I kept explaining that Redford was shooting up in the mountains and just hadn’t had a chance to listen.
Barry was a very sensitive man. With each passing day he grew more and more hurt and frustrated.
I felt impotent in fixing the situation.
By the time Redford could attend to the music, Barry was too raw to take his input. Much to my horror, it all fell apart.
John and I did do a few films together such as MERCURY RISING and PLAYING BY HEART. But, even on those he did not completely cross the finish line as other composers were brought in to replace some of his cues.
My last attempt at Barry glory came with a call from Brad Bird about his new film, THE INCREDIBLES.
Bird wanted a classic Barry/Bond score. The two of us nerded out imagining how cool it would be if Barry wanted to really tap back into that side of himself.
We talked about tracking down the same mics, amps and guitars Barry had used back in the 60s.
Barry and Bird hit it off and John was onboard for a huge Pixar animated film.
John and I flew to San Francisco for his first presentation of themes. I begged to hear them. John pulled out his Walkman and hit play.
It was one slow, melancholy piece after another.
“Where’s the Bond action music?”
Barry said he could write that in his sleep, that the real nut to crack was capturing the midlife angst of the superhero dad.
I wasn’t too convinced.
The next day I got the call from Brad Bird.
“Well, that was interesting. But I sure would like to hear some action music.”
To encourage that he sent Barry a storyboarded sequence of the the character of Dash being frantically chased.
Barry had never worked in animation. He was accustomed to working on final footage, not pencil tests and CGI roughs. The process grew frustrating for him and he wanted to quit the film. I begged him not to.
Brad was determined to make the best of the situation.
He suggested using Barry just to write some key themes and he would hire this young kid Michael Giacchino to adapt them into a score.
I negotiated a new deal, and Barry turned in a new batch of themes… all of them slow and none of them Bondian.
I was sure Bird was going to fire him. But Brad desperately wanted John to succeed and so did I. We were two fanboys who wanted our hero to soar again.
So we brainstormed and hatched a plan.
Brad had temp tracked the teaser for THE INCREDIBLES using Barry’s score to ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. We approached John to score the trailer knowing it was less abstract since it contained finalized footage. And the music was pure Bond.
John reluctantly played me his demo.
It was really good!
My only comment was that for about four measures it veered off into something that somehow sounded like it was from some Western. An easy fix.
John sent it off as it was.
Brad Bird called me all excited. We were finally getting somewhere.
He called John to rave and to give him a single note, to change a few seconds that sounded like cowboy music.
With that, John quit the film.
I felt like a complete failure. I wanted to wrangle the unwranglable.
Here was the man who had written so much of my favorite music and I wasn’t able to help him across the finish lines.
Despite all of this, he was always very kind and supportive of me in our conversations. He wasn’t putting on horrible pressure to pull rabbits out of the hat. He never pointed a finger of blame in my direction.
But it still hurt.
I will never really know what John made of the string of clashes, quittings, firings and setbacks that had started defining many of his experiences even before we were working together.
Outwardly, at least to me, he seemed more resigned and disappointed than angry.
Part of me thinks he had soared so high early in his career followed by such a glorious rebirth with OUT OF AFRICA and DANCES WITH WOLVES that his resilience to conflict was greatly reduced. It was almost like he had started to accept and maybe expect things not to work out.
Towards the end of his life I continued getting offers from fans of Barry’s work, including director Matthew Vaughn who wanted John to contribute something for X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. By then John was too ill to consider it.
I was in the middle of a parade at Hong Kong Disneyland with Danny Elfman and my son when I got a text message that John Barry had died.
Surrounded by families enjoying the magic of the park, I felt numb.
There wasn’t going to be another conversation between us. There wasn’t going to be another John Barry score. There wasn’t going to be another chance for me to wave my magic wand and somehow make everything work out just right.
Fittingly, his final score was for a film titled, ENIGMA.
I had once posed the question to composing giant Jerry Goldsmith: If he were a film director, whom he would hire (other than himself) to score his films. Without pause he offered the name, “John Barry.”
Goldsmith, perhaps the most compositionally complex composer for film, he of the never-settling time signature and unexpected and unsettling harmonics, suggested a composer noted for his straight and seemingly simply melodies. I had to inquire why. “No one nails a film with a theme better than Barry,” he said.
Goldsmith was right. Without a lot of compositional filigree, John Barry would aim straight for the heart of a film’s emotional core. He possessed an uncanny ability to take in the complexities of a film’s characters and narrative, distill it into a pure form, and then express that as straight and direct melodies.
It is deceptive to think that the creation of something that is simple is actually simple to do.
Gene Kelly’s carefree dance in a down-pouring rain celebrates wistful self-expression, but one can only imagine the lifetime of experiences and hard work Mr. Kelly must have brought to bear to create that moment. Al Hirschfield used just a few sweeping lines to capture the essence of a celebrity’s entire personality. The lines may have been simple; the artistry to execute it was not. The same can be said for the music of John Barry.
We can try to dissect exactly what made a Barry tune a Barry tune, or why his seemingly unsophisticated countermelodies wrench us in our gut, but that would be like trying to pull apart the majesty of a rainbow. At the end of the day, it works because it works.
His scores often explored how profound love can be, and how it can also be not quite within our grasp. I felt the same about my relationship with John. It was intimate, yet remote. Playful, yet sad. Simple, yet maddeningly complex.
It isn’t surprising that when given the opportunity to name an album of his original compositions, Barry chose to title it “THE BEYONDNESS OF THINGS.”
That beyondness perfectly captures my experience of John Barry.