Study Guide

Out of Africa Music (Score)

Music (Score)

John Barry

The movies have produced their share of legendary composers, but you can find John Barry definitely up there with the Bernard Herrmans and John Williamses of the world. Seriously, have you seen his IMDb page? Well over a hundred credits as full-bore composer, and there's hardly a loser in the bunch. The dude composed themes to movies like Somewhere in Time, Dances with Wolves, Midnight Cowboy,and Chaplin.

Even his Howard the Duck score is soaring and marvelous—about the only time you'll hear those two words ever used in association with that film. And sure, we routinely mock the Demi Moore Scarlet Letter here at Shmoop headquarters, but just listen to the string section. This guys didn't let bad movies stop him from making great music.

The big feather in his cap, though, is the James Bond theme music, starting with Dr. No and working all the way up to The Living Daylights. That means that the most famous spy in movie history wouldn't have been nearly so cool without Barry. And though other composers have taken up the slack, they all owe a big debt to him.

Barry got his start way back in the 1950s, and he did it the way a lot of more modern composers did: by playing in a band. The John Barry Seven was an up-and-coming pop groupm which he formed after a stint in the military. They soon earned a gig on a BBC series called Drumbeat, and from there, Hollywood beckoned.

James Bond came along shortly thereafter and his career took off after that. Dr. No hit in 1962 and Barry won his first Oscar just four years later for Born Free in 1966. Out of Africa was actually his fourth Oscar for Best Original Score, with a fifth and final Oscar coming five years later with Dances with Wolves. This was a case of a guy shooting to the top very quickly—and pretty much staying there until he died.

As with all great composers, he had his own style. You can spot it pretty quickly. He works in what we call "epic minor" keys, composing scores that are grand and sad and speak to tragedies. Even his Bond stuff, which is pretty upbeat, always has a little sad tossed into the mix (which actually works pretty well for the character, who should always have some tragedy in there).

Take a listen.

Bond was pretty brass heavy, but Barry also loved his strings, which you hear a lot in his quieter scores. Which brings us to Out of Africa. The music here needs to bridge the gap between the characters (who don't always tell us how they're feeling) and the landscape surrounding them (with all the grand vistas and flocks of flamingos).

He sticks with the minor keys, but he makes them big, bold, larger than life. He wants you to feel Karen's sadness and loss, but also to link them to this big bold world she finds herself in, and to understand that Africa goes on regardless of what happens to the people in it.

It's gorgeous. More importantly, it helps the movie find its emotional center, so we can key in to what's going on with its heroine without getting pounded over the head with it. Out of Africa depends on subtlety: letting us figure things out slowly as we watch.

Pollack couldn't have done that without Barry working his magic.

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