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Meeting John Barry

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

I feel like telling the story of when I met John Barry. Please be warned, it is hardly a consequential story. But it happened, so here goes.

When I moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago this month (October 1996), I was a kid in candyland. After a lifetime 3,000 miles away on an island (Martha’s Vineyard) or a small college town (Amherst, MA), I was in the heart of the action—Hollywood! I was invited to a number of scoring sessions, by publicists, agents, composers and the like. So of course I went!

After a few years, I tired of the scoring dates—largely because I was in an immature period of reflexively thinking old scores were good and new scores sucked, and I was an insufferable snob about it.

But, to be fair, many of the new scores did stink—we would get invited to mid-level studio pictures that tended be lame movies with forgettable scores, and it wasn’t fun to stand there and smile and say, “Wow, it’s so great!”

It’s pretty amazing the human capacity to get rapidly bored with anything, but it’s true. (Or, at least, my capacity for it.) Scoring sessions went from being “Awesome! Yes!” to thinking, “Do I really want to take half my day to deal with the traffic and parking and politics of being at some scoring stage?”

Attending the scoring session tended to ruin the movie (if you actually cared about it): they’d be scoring the climactic reveal, you’d see the footage 12 times, and it was like, “Well, I guess I know who the bad guy is.” It also got boring, because you’re not doing anything but sitting on a couch and snacking and maybe talking to somebody on a break—they’re suspicious of you because you’re a journalist, and you’re suspicious of them because—who are they, anyway? Are you about to get yelled at for looking at somebody funny, or making a noise, or touching something you’re not supposed to touch?

I know. Such problems!

Off the top of my head, and in no order whatsoever, I went to: Starship Troopers, Men in Black, Wild Wild West, Alien: Resurrection, George of the Jungle, Turbulence, L.A. Confidential, and a bunch of Family Guy TV sessions. A bunch of Brett Ratner movies, too, as he would always invite us: Money Talks, Rush Hour, X-Men: The Last Stand, Red Dragon. Probably several more.

I think I was at a Free Willy sequel score—the third movie, by Cliff Eidelman?—where all I remember is the director being obsessed about a continuity error having to do with people aboard a boat, and he was hoping the score would cover it up. I was like, “God, get me out of here.”

But when I was invited to a John Barry scoring session in 1998 for a film that was then called Dancing About Architecture or maybe If They Only Knew—it was eventually released as Playing by Heart—I jumped at the chance.

Or possibly I somehow invited myself, and they let me in!

I am a huge John Barry fan. HUGE! In my teenage years, I didn’t get him—I thought, “This is slow and it’s all the same.” But at a certain point, it clicked—WRONG!!! He’s a genius! And he really was.

So this session I was hugely excited to attend. It was the twilight of Barry’s career and he was quite selective about his projects. There were numerous films for which he was announced, which we would breathlessly report in FSM, but they would get messed up somehow or other. Don’t read my speculative, third-hand rambling: Check out Richard Kraft’s essay about being Barry’s agent at this time.

Barry didn’t suffer fools at all. He had a specific, narrow kind of symphonic-melancholy score he liked to write, especially at this late stage of his life and career—and if anybody gave him any lip about it, he just quit.

As a fan, it was beyond frustrating—but he was only in his mid-sixties and we expected him to be around forever.

I arrived at the scoring stage—it was at Sony in Culver City—and very quickly upon stepping into the booth, the most unexpected thing happened. A gentle-looking man came up and asked, “Are you Lukas Kendall?” And he identified himself as the film’s director, Willard Carroll. I was like, “HOLY COW! You just made a movie scored by John Barry and you are introducing yourself to me?!?” I had arrived!

Turns out, Willard is a huge soundtrack collector and recognized me from pictures in Film Score Monthly. He, too, loved John Barry, and had hired him to score what was only his second film as a director. The first, The Runestone (1991), had been scored by David Newman, who had also scored The Brave Little Toaster, which Willard made with his producing partner and life partner Thomas L. Wilhite, along with a number of other projects in the 1980s and ’90s—and now he had taken the opportunity to write and direct a heartfelt, tender, very personal picture about family dynamics.

Willard had managed to put together one of the world’s most incredible casts for his film. It is about 11 people in Los Angeles and their personal relationships, and eventually (spoiler) you learn the ways in which they are part of the same family. Get a load of the 11, this is not a joke: Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Dennis Quaid, Anthony Edwards, Ryan Philippe, Jay Mohr, Jon Stewart and Madeleine Stowe.

Wait, that’s only ten. The eleventh was a young actress with a few credits who we mostly knew as “Jon Voight’s daughter,” whose talent and charisma were so undeniable, she just exploded off the screen—Angelina Jolie.

Watching John Barry conduct was a great experience. They were doing the end credits piece, with a jazzy trumpet solo by Chris Botti, and did a lot of takes to get it just right—I couldn’t hear the subtleties of what Barry was trying to perfect, but he obviously knew exactly what he wanted, and didn’t stop until he had it.

I remember looking through the booth window at Barry conducting and he was wearing his usual outfit that you see in publicity photos post-Dances With Wolves: the white dress shirt with dark vest. You know, this one:

I don’t want his widow Laurie Barry (who was there, of course) to read this and get all pissed off with me, but John was super skinny—he had almost died in the late 1980s from a ruptured esophagus caused by a health food drink—and when the light shined through his sleeves as he was conducting, you could see the outline of his arms. So I thought, what does this remind me of...?

And the answer: Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

I know, I’m sorry! But it was quite striking to me—this incredibly gifted, legendary artist, and how physically frail he seemed to be underneath his sharp clothes. And yet he would conduct and conduct, seemingly with endless stamina. I am not a romantic about these things, but you can see how people would imagine there would be some kind of spiritual or life force that inhabits the great artists and works through their mortal bodies.

What else can you do but be awestruck by the whole Amadeus thing—that this transcendent music came from a mere human being?

At a “ten” (-minute break) I was introduced to the great man and I was immediately taken by his affable, animated demeanor. He looked just like his publicity photos, in which you would think he was carved out of granite, with his Zeus-like stare:

So I felt like I was about to meet John Houseman from The Paper Chase, and just wither under his gaze and intimidating questions.

But in person, he was the polar opposite. He was charged with life, witty, easy-going and expressive, often smiling. As he was standing to chat with me, he put his foot up on the coffee table, and he was so vivacious as to be almost fidgety.

I remember nothing of the conversation except that I told him we either were releasing or had released a CD of Monte Walsh, an old Lee Marvin western of his, which he sort of politely acknowledged. And that was it.

I told you, it was not much of a story!

I remember taking his pre-school age son Jonpatrick to use the men’s room, and lifting him in the air so he could pee. I hope I am not spilling any Barry state secrets. Aren’t you glad you’re reading this blog?

Some time after this—maybe only a few weeks?—Jeff Bond and I went to a party at Richard Kraft’s house off of Mulholland and Barry was there. I remember Barry stuck his nose out onto the deck where a bunch of us were talking and asked, “Have you seen my wife? She’s short and fat.” True story! (Laurie is somewhat short but not fat. It was a joke!)

He also signed some posters for us. I think he signed a reprint poster of From Russia With Love which we gave to Jeff. I don’t remember if this was at the scoring session or Richard’s house.

Playing by Heart was well reviewed but didn’t do a lot of business, and part of that was, I suspect, because this was the movie where Harvey Weinstein tried to sexually assault Angelina Jolie. She was able to avoid the worst outcome, but I would not be surprised if he took his rage out on the movie. He fussed with the title and even hired Christopher Young to replace some of Barry’s score. I am glad Harvey Weinstein is in prison, and I am sure I am not alone.

John Barry scored only one more movie after Playing by Heart, Enigma in 2001. He died in 2011, at 77.

Willard Carroll became a friend and an invaluable aid when we were releasing CDs of scores previously released on LP. He had a beautiful house up in Nichols Canyon with a huge (and I mean huge) vinyl collection—probably one of the most comprehensive in the world. Unlike a lot of collectors, he was unusually generous and casual about loaning out his records so I could use them for reference and scan their covers for the CD booklets. Pretty much any scan of a vinyl album you see in one of our latter-day FSM CDs (like the Colpix titles) came from Willard’s collection.

I would go up to his house and we’d sit and chat about out favorite vintage scores and trivia from earlier ages of cinema—Willard had seemingly seen everything ever made, and knew so much about Hollywood history. He later moved to Maine and I haven’t seen him for many years—but Willard, if you are reading this, thank you for everything!

Willard is also, by the way, the world’s foremost Wizard of Oz collector—check out this amazing book.

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Amer Zahid
Amer Zahid

Thanks for this great story. Barry’s PLAYING BY HEART was on my constant playback via my iPod when I was visiting New York City in 2010 just a year prior to his death. As well as ACROSS THE SEA OF TIME. Both became my official NYC soundtracks. The beautiful yet overwhelming skycrappers and the glittering lights of the city were the perfect landscape to experience and listen to Barry’s music. (Oh, on one occasion I introduced Barry’s PLAYING BY HEART to Doreen Ringer Ross-BMI ) And by the way wasn’t that RED DRAGON that was directed by Brett Ratner and not HANNIBAL which was directed by Ridley Scott? I remember there was a For Your Consideration DVD mailed out to…

Lukas Kendall
Lukas Kendall

You're right about Red Dragon! Fixed!

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