Monday, January 31, 2011

The Man with the Golden Tunes

John Barry cameos in The Living Daylights, his final Bond film

John Barry, musical composer for the James Bond films From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and The Living Daylights, died yesterday at the age of 77. I won't wax poetic about the man's life, which I honestly don't know that much about, and I'll leave it to all the other news sites and movie blogs to go "but of course, Bond was only the tip of the iceberg that was Barry's musical career" and expound on his other credits, but as a lifelong Bond fanatic it's his work with 007 that has continually dazzled and will stick with me forever. The bold, brassy style he created is still emulated by new composer David Arnold and continues to set the series apart half a century later.

Of course, everyone knows (and most websites will be content with only mentioning) the iconic James Bond theme which Barry created along with Monty Norman, almost certainly the greatest theme song for a single character ever conceived in the history of cinema. The style, the energy, and the sheer, unrivaled sense of cool that pulsates from it is singular; unequalled. When the main hook kicks in at forty seconds, just for a moment, everything in the world seems badass. The way Barry weaves it into the larger tapestry of specific film scores is also sublime, such as the way it announces "JAMES BOND IS HERE, ASSHOLE!" in this cue from Goldfinger before taking on a more subdued tone befitting a secret mission.

But the work Barry did for the Bond films goes way beyond just that one tune. The music that accompanies the Moonraker fleet's ascension to Drax's space fortress proves that strong orchestration can render onscreen images sweeping, captivating, and larger than life. Barry could make a trip to the casino scream elegance from the highest rafters (particularly once the piano kicks in) or make spying in Turkey feel like the coolest job in the world. He incorporates an eastern influence without missing a beat in You Only Live Twice and makes Bond scoping for snipers at the beginning of The Living Daylights tense and atmospheric in a way other filmmakers would kill to have in the climactic scenes of their movies.

Hell, he was able to make a movie that's basically entitled Eight Vaginas seem ritzy and stylish with a few horns and strings and flutes. That's like someone upending a dumpster onto your kitchen counter and you making a gourmet meal from it.

This may sound weird to people who go by the prepackaged Bond "knowledge" of critics and mainstream collective thought, but one of Barry's best Bond scores is for his next-to-last and Roger Moore's last Bond film, A View to a Kill. It's generally regarded as one of the silliest movies of the franchise (and even I won't dispute that it probably has the worst Bond girl ever, even over The World Is Not Enough's Dr. Christmas Jones), but god damn does Barry bring it in the musical department. Some of cinema's most atmospheric creepiness ever in "Bond Underwater," while tunes like the brass-heavy "Airship to Silicon Valley" and especially "He's Dangerous" make Max Zorin into one hell of a villain. When the instruments drop out about 25 seconds into "He's Dangerous," that's exactly what it should sound like when a megalomaniacal Bond villain is coming to kill you.

But for my money(penny) the most impressive accomplishment of A View to a Kill's soundtrack may be the way Barry takes his and Duran Duran's rockin' intro song and, changing very little except the tempo and instruments it's played with, remixes it into the movie's supremely classy love theme. I mean, god damn, that is one elegant tune.

However, as is often the case with the Bond franchise, 1964's Goldfinger reigns supreme. Anyone who knows anything about movies knows the scene where Bond finds Jill Masterson's golden corpse in his hotel room, but I do wonder if that moment would be quite so legendary if our first glimpse of her body weren't synchronized with the alarming notes 49 seconds into this song. What Barry does with strings toward the middle and end of the scene where Bond is about to be sliced lengthwise with Goldfinger's laser is incredible, the way he incorporates Shirley Bassey's opening title theme as Oddjob goes about his business is brilliant, he somehow manages against all odds to make Miami seem classy and appealing, and Auric Goldfinger's raid on Fort Knox is aurally overwhelming (especially past the one-minute mark).

So I guess all I have to say is a massive thank you to John Barry for the hours upon hours of music he composed for the James Bond series between 1962 and 1987. Much of my love of movies stems from James Bond and much of my love of James Bond stems from John Barry, so however little I may know about the actual man behind the brass, his work has meant a lot to me, and I'm glad it'll live forever through the Bond films' constant reissues on Blu-ray and DVD and airings on television and his style being incorporated into new Bond films, Bond 23 and beyond, as we embark on the sixth decade of 007's cinematic career.

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