John Barry: a giant passes



Master film composer John Barry passed away Sunday. Heart attack.

I was saddened but not surprised, as I hadn’t heard any new work from him in many years. I just figured he was winding down toward the end.

As I read the obits and eulogies, I note that most cite his scores for the early James Bond films, Dances With Wolves and Out Of Africa as career highlights.

I can’t comment on Out Of Africa…never saw it. I loved the Dances With Wolves score immensely, though. (In retrospect, it was the soundtrack that made that movie’s success more than anything.) And, of course, once I got around to viewing the Connery Bond films (having been first exposed to the campier Roger Moore movies), I certainly recognized the excellence of those scores as well.

But I’ll always remember and appreciate John Barry for his score to the 1976 remake of King Kong.

I didn't find this soundtrack LP until the late 1990s.

The film is a dated, campy mess that simply tries too hard to top the original. Jeff Bridges as an impossibly self-righteous hippie type. Charles Grodin as the greedy Big Oil Man. And who can forget Jessica Lange in a debut that barely hinted at the great actress she’d later become?

(There’s a brief scene shortly before the film’s climactic sequence which actually does hint at her talent. But…I digress.)

The music, though? Pure, haunting brilliance.

Of particular note is this three-note motif Barry wrote for the island act (4:45-5:22 or so) of the film. It’s first played earlier in the film as the human characters first approach Kong’s island by motorboat through a dense fog. It’s a beautiful, simple and sad melody that both evokes the mysterious island Kong rules and foreshadows his tragic end far from home.

Barry takes another simple three-note statement later in the movie in a track titled “Incomprehensible Captivity.” Even as a little boy, I noted how well the contrasting nature of the bellicose trombone/tuba section’s part versus the ascending strings actually yet complemented each other in this piece that is marvelously reprised in the climatic climbing scene at the end of the film.

1976 King Kong. I’ll watch it over either the original or the Peter Jackson remake just because of that glorious Barry score. (That, and because the released soundtrack was terribly incomplete, so watching the film is currently the only way to hear all the music.)

R.I.P., John Barry. I hope you made your own final climb to heaven with the help of the One who saves.


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