Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hollywood Composition: Two Guys Named John

Sadly last week, we lost one of Hollywood's great film composers, John Barry.  He passed away at his home in New York from a heart attack at the age of 77.  And today happens to be another great Hollywood composer's birthday.  John Williams turns 79 today.  So what better time than today to talk about my love of these two great gentlemen's music?

Now, I'm pretty sure all of you know the name John Williams.  He is THE film composer, the king of all themes.  He created the music for all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, the first three Harry Potter films, the first two Jurassic Park films, "Superman," "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T."...need I go on?  There are just so many to name.  He even wrote the theme for the Olympics, that fanfare we hear constantly every two years!  He has been nominated 45 times for Academy Awards.  45!!  Tied with composer Alfred Newman, he is the second most nominated individual in Oscar history.  (Walt Disney is #1 with 59 nominations, 22 of those winners.)  Williams has only won five out of his 45 nominations, but he's also won four Golden Globes, seven BAFTAs, and 21 Grammys.  I got to see him conduct at the Hollywood Bowl once.  My brother gave me tickets for my birthday one year.  It was so amazing to hear many of his famous themes conducted by the man himself in those historic and iconic hills of Hollywood.

John Barry, on the other hand, you may not recognize the name as well, but I'm sure you know his music.  His list includes Oscar-winners "Dances with Wolves," "Out of Africa," "Born Free," "The Lion in Winter," as well as "Somewhere in Time," "Chaplin," and eleven James Bond films.  In fact, though he didn't receive screen credit for it, he created the famous Bond theme music...or at least arranged it.  "Dr. No" composer Monty Norman was having such a difficult time creating a satisfying theme for Bond that the producers turned to then-lesser-known Barry for help.  He came in and, using some of Norman's already-written elements, arranged the Bond theme we know so well today.  Norman received all the credit and residuals for the piece but many people have made it no secret that Barry came in to help.  Norman has won two class action lawsuits against others claiming that Barry was the actual composer.  Most likely he did just arrange it better, adding some jazz riffs and motifs here and there.  Yet, when producers had trouble with their next composer on "From Russia with Love," they remembered Barry and hired him full out as the film's composer, a relationship that lasted for ten more films.  The other famous Bond theme titled "007" is all Barry's.

The two Johns are both so iconic that it difficult to rank them on my favorites list.  John Williams is of course on a level all his own.  And Barry's scores are so beautiful that they just don't fit with my actual list.  (Yes, I have an actual favorite film composer list.  Geeks, here I am.)  My favorites of Williams' scores are, of course, all of the Star Wars music.  It is like a true symphony, story through music and themes.  My first ever trip to the Hollywood Bowl was to see the LA Philharmonic perform AFI's 25 Greatest Film Scores (a list only performed there that night).  "Star Wars" was voted the #1 film score of all time, and rightly so.  It was another beautiful night to hear them build to that last song performed.  (Williams also received #6 and #14 on the list, for "Jaws" and "E.T." respectively.)  As for Barry, he is my romantic composer.  If you wanted to make a film that was a love letter to anything, Barry was your man.  My favs are "Chaplin" (a letter to Chaplin and the original Hollywood era), "Dances with Wolves" (a letter to the Old West), and "Somewhere in Time" (a letter to...well, love itself).

These two men had very different starts, though jazz played a big part in both.  Barry grew up in England, spending his childhood at the eight cinemas his father owned.  Loving the action-adventure films the most because of the music, Barry learned to play the piano and trumpet in order to one day compose music himself.  When he was 25, he formed his own jazz band called The John Barry Seven, which brought him to the attention of the BBC show "Drumbeat."  On that, he met singer Adam Faith who hired Barry for his first film-composing job for Faith's first movie as well, "Beat Girl."  This led to three more films and a job at EMI record company arranging orchestral music for the company's artists.  These achievements are what caught the attention of the Bond producers and the rest is, as they say, Hollywood history.

Williams, though, grew up with music in his family.  Born in Queens, New York, his love of music came from his father, a jazz drummer.  He moved to North Hollywood with his family when he was 16 and attended UCLA for awhile after high school.  He was drafted by the Air Force, however, when he was 20 and spent the next three years arranging and conducting music for the Air Force Band.  After his service, he moved back to New York and attended the famous Juilliard School, working as a jazz pianist on the side, earning the name "Little Johnny Love."  After Juilliard, he moved back to LA and worked as a studio pianist, getting to work with composer greats like Henry Mancini and Alfred Newman.  That's actually him playing the opening riff to Mancini's famous "Peter Gunn Theme."  His first film-composing job was for the B-movie "Daddy-O" in 1958, and his career just grew from there, with films and television alike.  (Some of his TV themes include "Lost in Space" and the pilot episode of "Gilligan's Island.")

So, get your music fix and listen to some greats this week, to honor both a man on his birthday and a man at his death.  May your lives all be beautifully scored this week, just like in the movies.  :)  See you Friday!

(Post-tidbit:  Williams has scored every one of Steven Spielberg's directorial films since they started working together in 1974 with "The Sugarland Express"...except two - "The Color Purple" and "Twilight Zone: The Movie," in which Spielberg only directed a section of the film.)


  1. Just discovered this blog last night, and am really loving it!

  2. Yay, that's so nice to hear! Thank you! I'm also on Facebook and Twitter, so be sure to follow me there too. :)

  3. There are way too many of these movies listed that I've never seen but still need to! :D Thank god for netflix.