Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The subterranean John Barry: the secret life of the James Bond scores

The recently departed John Barry scored a lot of movies, and a surprising number of those without his knowledge or consent. During the first half of the 1960s, the James Bond films -- with their internationalist flavor and emphasis on speed, power, technology, and style -- modeled the ideal of consumerist modernity, and Barry’s soundtracks to those films captured that mood to the extent of becoming an inextricable part of the overall package. Thus it shouldn’t be too surprising that, during that period, commercial filmmakers in developing countries utilized those soundtracks as a shorthand means of hitching their more rickety cinematic wagons to James Bond’s supercharged engine, while at the same time reflecting their own countries’ global aspirations.

Trawling the world pop cinema of the 1960s leads to countless, unexpected encounters with “borrowed” cues from Barry’s scores to the 007 films, especially those from Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. In my three years of writing about these movies, I can’t imagine how many times I’ve typed some variation of the phrase “pilfered bits from John Barry’s score to ____”. In Hong Kong, those bits turn up in both Cantonese films -- such as the “Jane Bond” films of Connie Chan and the Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa films starring Suet Nei -- and Mandarin ones, such as Shaw Brothers spy efforts like The Golden Buddha and Temptress of a Thousand Faces. In India, they were a staple element of B “Stunt” films, accompanying many of the exploits of wrestling star Dara Singh, as well as lending authenticity to cash-poor, sub-Bondian espionage thrillers like Golden Eyes: Secret Agent 077 and Love and Murder. And in Turkey, they provided the musical backdrop to a myriad range of frenetic comic book adaptations along the lines of the Kilink and Iron Claw the Pirate films.

In this age of heightened sensitivity over issues of piracy, such flagrant flaunting of copyrights might seem shocking. But it’s important to remember that it was the below-the-radar status of many of these foreign film industries that allowed them to borrow so freely from other works without permission or fear of reprisal. I doubt that, even if they had known, Barry or his representatives would have seen it as being worth their while to pursue the makers of the Turkish Flash Gordon or those of some no budget Indian Bond imitation. Instead, I’d prefer to see these far flung appropriations of his work as a testament to Barry’s unparalleled mastery of his craft -- a mastery that enabled him to create music that not only served the purpose of enhancing the action on screen, but which also functioned as iconography in itself.

Of course, I wouldn’t be able to report on these unusual uses of Barry’s James Bond scores if I weren’t already keenly attuned to those scores myself, and immediately able to recognize them by even the briefest snippet (which is sometimes all that some of these movies allow you). This I owe to my friend Andrew, who introduced me to the thrill of all things Bond when we were in sixth grade. Not the least of those thrills, for me, came from the movies’ soundtrack albums, and it was not long before I had amassed a complete collection of them. Of course, Barry’s exotic musical stylings were far from an appropriate accompaniment to my sedentary 12 year old lifestyle, but they did provide an alluring avenue of escape.

As a result, during a time when other kids my age were following the top forty, I was absolutely immersed in Bond music, listening to those vinyl albums over and over through headphones, absorbing every note. I think that this experience not only conditioned me as far as the specific tones and moods that I respond to in movies, but also influenced me greatly as a musician, determining the kinds of progressions, melodies and chord styles that I would be drawn to when writing songs. Lately, however, it has mostly been useful for allowing me to identify one of Barry’s compositions even when its nothing more than a looped fragment played under someone singing in Cantonese, or an isolated horn stab buried within an old trip hop track.

Anyway, this longstanding relationship of mine with Barry’s music means that the news of his death brings with it an occasion for more than casual reflection. But, while other tributes rightly focus on the man’s many high profile accomplishments, I thought I would instead laud him for his somewhat more subterranean contributions to international pulp cinema. Even though they are contributions that he very well may not have been aware of making.


memsaab said...

I on the other hand used to think "Wow! [insert Indian music director name here] wrote some great background music for this film!"

I have come to realize that I need to educate myself on so much more than Indian cinema in a vacuum, but it seems overwhelming. Perhaps Barry's work is a good place to start :)

Todd said...

I've yet to see an Indian film whose instrumental score is blanketed entirely with Barry's music, as is the case with some of the old Cantonese movies I've seen. It's usually just a telltale snippet here and there. Which is not to say that the rest of those movies' scores aren't just stolen from other sources that I don't recognize. Anyway, I think if you check out the Goldfinger soundtrack, there will be a couple of themes that you'll find very familiar -- and not because you heard them in Goldfinger.