Barry: Theme from Out of Africa

By the time John Barry (1933-2011) left us, he had long been acknowledged as one of the most ubiquitous and influential of all film composers. His profession seemed practically fated. His mother had been trained as a classical pianist, and his father was a silent-movie projectionist who moved up the ladder until he owned a chain of cinemas in northern England. Barry claimed that as a child he already aspired to be a film composer, and on the way to fulfilling his ambitions he became an adept pianist and trumpeter.

Some of his earliest professional work was as an arranger for popular dance bands, and this soon led him to the world of the film studios. Over the course of fifty years he would produce approximately a hundred film scores, as well as the music for twenty-five television themes. Some of the most instantly identifiable of Barry’s scores are the fifteen he composed for James Bond movies, scores that deeply influenced the “movie sound” of their era. He received five Academy Awards: two for Born Free (for Best Song and Best Original Score), and one each for The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves.

Sydney Pollack’s 1985 adventure drama Out of Africa, loosely based on Isak Dinesen’s autobiography of that name, was an epic story that unrolled in Kenya in the years 1914-31. Barry’s title music conveys the vastness of the subject, unrolling at a leisurely pace that suggests a vista of the Happy Valley or the Serengeti as enjoyed from a hot-air balloon.

—James M. Keller

(September 2018)