Midnight Cowboy is one of those movies which leaves a strong impression on its audience. The story is simple yet touching, the background is realistic without being obtrusive, and the characters are three dimensional and superbly portrayed. Throughout the movie is a certain ambience which is difficult to describe, coming in part from the geographical and historical setting (firmly rooted in the late 60s yet strangely timeless) but also due in no small part to the music which seems to permeate its soul. The driving force being this music is none other than John Barry the British composer most famous at that time for his work on the Bond films. This seems like a huge departure from those larger-than-life action movies, and shows another facet to his creativity.
Barry had two roles to fulfil in the creation of this soundtrack. He was the Music Supervisor responsible for choosing the pre-existing music which would be used throughout the movie, and also responsible for composing its original music. Obviously these two components had to complement each other so as to create the complete soundtrack. The main song "Everybody's Talkin'" was first identified by director John Schlesinger, and what a find this was. It was perfect for the movie in every sense. The initial guitar rhythm with its hints of country suggests the cowboy's origins (it has been "sampled" for a current pop song too), the main title lyric conveys the feeling of alienation you can only feel in a city, and the chorus "going where the sun shines" perfectly fits Ratso's ambitions (Ratso being Dustin Hoffman's character) to escape to the warmer climate of Florida. The other songs were selected by Barry and show various facets of typical 60s kitsch. In most cases these were all re-recorded for the film, which is tellingly different from the normal practice of fitting songs to film. Instead of being an afterthought where the songs are cut and faded around dialogue and cuts between scenes, they fit the picture like a glove.
Central to Barry's own music contribution is the achingly beautiful Midnight Cowboy theme which features increasingly in the second half of the movie. Somehow Barry captured a mood that is melancholy without completely losing hope and dignity. Joe Buck (the cowboy himself played by Jon Voight) travelled to New York full of hope that beautiful woman were just waiting to pay for his services. The theme acknowledges this complete naivety, yet accepts its human failings with unreserved sympathy. A recurring device used at several points in the film is the daydream sequence which is part flashback, part reflections of the present and part hopes and fears for the future. Sometimes these daydreams closely resemble nightmares and sometimes they are complete escapist fantasies. Most of the dreams belong to the central cowboy, but Ratso himself too has his "Florida Fantasy" - think of a musical cross between Austin Powers and a TV holiday programme!
A vital aspect of the overall musical feel is provided by the sound of a harmonica. This sound is central to both the Joe Buck Rides Again track and the main midnight cowboy theme, and also provides an interlude in at least one version of the "Everybody's Talkin'" title song (which neatly unifies the two main title themes). The harmonica player on the film's soundtrack was none other than Toots Thielemans, the Belgian born jazz virtuoso who had moved to the US where he worked with many of the Jazz Greats. Midnight Cowboy was one of the first occasions where his unique talents were used on film, but certainly not his last. He also played for John Williams on "Sugarland Express", Jean-Claude Petit on French favourite "Jean de Florette", Quincy Jones on "The Getaway", Thomas Newman on "Fried Green Tomatoes" and James Newton Howard on "French Kiss" to name only a few. Unlike the more familiar harmonica sound used in blues and rock music, Thielemans (sometimes spelt "Thielman") played the chromatic harmonica more associated with classical and jazz music. While "Toots" played on the film soundtrack, the harmonic player you will hear on the album release is the Canadian virtuoso player Tommy Reilly whose skill on this instrument some regard as the best ever. The only other comparable name associated with this instrument is Larry Adler who composed and played the music for "Genevieve" the classic car rally movie.
The overall length of the soundtrack album is quite short at less than 40 minutes, and perhaps for this reason it can usually be picked up very cheaply or as part of a bargain pack. Yet no soundtrack collection can be complete without it, so that it can be played whenever the mood strikes you. You can find this soundtrack CD in a number of places including the dependable online source of: Amazon.co.uk in the UK, or Amazon.com in the US.
For more information about the Chromatic Harmonica and its virtuoso players, see these links on Wikipedia: