It’s fortunate that John Barry had only a modest career as a British pop star with his band, the John Barry Seven, in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Otherwise, he might never have become one of the most successful film composers in the history of cinema (read his biography here).
Despite writing some of the screen’s most memorable scores, Barry won only five Oscars: Best Song for Born Free and Best Original Score for Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves (he also received nominations for Mary, Queen of Scots and Chaplin). Today, I rank my picks for the five best John Barry scores:
1. Body Heat — Barry’s haunting, sax-infused music sets the perfect tone for Lawrence Kasdan’s stylish 1981 film noir. In his book Neo-Noir, Ronald Schwartz calls Barry’s score “ravishing…it belongs in the canon of great noir and neo-noir film music. Barry’s score punctuated the visuals with lyrical sensuality.” Interestingly, the initial soundtrack album was remixed without Barry’s approval. His original soundtrack recording was unavailable until Film Score Monthly released a deluxe two-disc set in 2012.
2. Out of Africa — John Barry took home the fourth of his five Oscars with the sweeping, romantic score to 1985’s Best Picture winner. The American Film Institute ranked it No. 15 on its 2005 ranking of the top 25 film scores (AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores). Incredibly, it’s the only Barry soundtrack on the AFI list, although all five scores on this list were included as AFI nominees. As a stand-alone musical composition, Out of Africa may be my favorite among Barry’s works.
3. Somewhere in Time — I’ve been a fan of this time travel romance since I saw it theatrically in 1980. Although it was neither a critical nor boxoffice hit in the U.S., Somewhere in Time has become a cult favorite (and a huge success in Japan). Much of the film’s impact can be attributed to Barry’s score which incorporates the 18th variation of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” performed as a piano solo by Chet Swiatkowski with a string accompaniment. Barry’s enchanting title theme is equally beautiful. In fact, the only reasonable explanation for this score being ignored at the Oscars is that perhaps it wasn’t deemed “original” based on Barry’s use of the Rachmaninoff piece.
4. Born Free — The title song won a 1966 Oscar (beating out, among others, “Alfie” and “Georgy Girl”) and pianist Roger Williams’ recording went to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That makes it John Barry’s most successful song. However, the lovely title tune (with lyrics by Don Black) was part of a superb soundtrack that’s alternately playful and majestic. Like Body Heat, the music plays an integral role in this fact-based tale of a couple in Africa who raised a lion cub and later set her free.
5. Goldfinger – – Shirley Bassey’s bold, brassy live rendition of “Goldfinger” was the highlight of the 2013 Oscars, which is a tribute to both the song and Ms. Bassey. It was the biggest hit from a Sean Connery 007 film, peaking at No. 8 in Billboard in 1964. Along with writing that memorable melody, Barry arranged the theme for the first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962), and composed the scores for 11 subsequent series entries, from 1963’s From Russia with Love to The Living Daylights (1987). In 1997, the Sunday Times published an article alleging that Barry also composed the famous “James Bond Theme,” which is credited to Monty Norman in the closing credits of each film. Norman subsequently won a libel suit against the Times.