John Barry, who died Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 77, was along with Bernard Herrmann one of the first film composers I learned to identify by name. He quite simply blew my mind at the tender age of nine or 10 when I went to see my first James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice. In retrospect I can see it’s not a very good movie — certainly the lamest of the Sean Connery era, with a visibly bored star and a script that reflects none of the wit of its scenarist, Roald Dahl — but I couldn’t have cared less back then. All I knew was that the movie had a rocket base hidden inside a volcano, a piranha pool for the disposal of incompetent functionaries, and above all John Barry’s most gleamingly beautiful Bond score. The opening sequence, with a space capsule hijacked right out of orbit by another vehicle, was hot stuff already, but Barry’s music — all silken menace, gradually building to an awesomely scary climax — hit it out of the galaxy. The You Only Live Twice soundtrack was the first music I wanted to buy and own, along with the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Barry’s music defined the early Bond movies the way Bernard Herrmann’s music gave an emotional undertow to Alfred Hitchcock’s thrill rides. Hell, Barry was a bit of a Bond in his own right, giving London a little extra swing and marrying Sixties siren Jane Birkin (with whom he is pictured above). You simply can’t imagine Goldfinger or Thunderball without John Barry’s music. Nor, for that matter, would Midnight Cowboy work half as well without that mournful harmonica theme, and Body Heat would be rather tepid without his touch. His crushingly sad music for Petulia carries the emotional ballast beneath Richard Lester’s bright surfaces and tricky editing.
ADDENDUM: I just watched The Incredibles again with one of the sprouts, and I was reminded of how brilliantly Michael Giacchino’s music works as both a sendup of and homage to John Barry’s early James Bond scores. The scene where Mr. Incredible discovers the Kronos Project is scored along the lines of “Capsule in Space,” and the first sight of Mrs. Incredible piloting a jet is straight out of the Fort Knox aerial sequence in Goldfinger. The story I heard is that Brad Bird originally tried to hire Barry for the film, but the composer didn’t want to retrace his decades-old footsteps.