The death of John Barry at the outset of 2011 stands as one of the most devastating losses to cinema in recent years. It's prompted a re-assessment of the composer's work, particularly with regard to his trendsetting 60s scores such as Goldfinger (actually any of his Bond works), Born Free, The Lion In Winter, Midnight Cowboy and others. For a musician unfairly pigeonholed as the go-to guy for romantic epics, the astonishing body of work he amassed from the 60s through to the early 80s in fact earmarks him as one of the most dramatically astute composers ever to set foot on a scoring stage. Barry was able to use melody, diverse musical styles, rhythms and ground-breaking instruments to capture the mood of the film in question but he was also able to reinvent himself continually. From the chanting choirs of The Lion in Winter to the Moog synthesiser in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, he was in fact far more innovative than many gave him credit for.
It can't be denied however that the latter half of Barry's career saw him focus almost exclusively on a more lushly romantic sound. Many have argued this was to Barry's detriment, resulting in scores that sounded identical to each other. But nonetheless it was an approach which resulted in numerous lushly melodramatic masterpieces. And undoubtedly it was at this stage that Barry proved his worth as possibly Hollywood's finest composer of grand romantic scores (alongside Ennio Morricone and Georges Delerue). His use of high strings against low brass in the likes of Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves became legendary, seeming to pull the listener in two directions between melancholy and uplift.
It therefore makes sense to look back at one of the scores which helped initiate the change in Barry's style. When Moonraker was released in 1979, it marked Barry's most moodily romantic Bond score to date, and was to prove a massive influence on the romantic material to follow in the later films. Of course, all the Bond scores had featured haunting romantic pieces mixed in with Barry's brassy bravado (Goodnight Goodnight from The Man with the Golden Gun springs to mind) but Moonraker was, and still is, a brazenly laid back score for what is one of the silliest 007 films to date.
Coasting on the back of Star Wars, the filmmakers clearly decided to capitalise on the sci-fi boom by sending unflappable Roger Moore into space to battle megalomaniac Michael Lonsdale on his space station. Even for a Bond film, Moonraker pushes the boundaries of silliness but it's not without a degree of charm and certain set-pieces are excellent. Of course, it's given a huge boost by Barry's return to the franchise (Marvin Hamlisch scored the previous entry, The Spy Who Loved Me) – his richly ethereal, string-dominated score adds a real touch of class.
Of course, any great Bond score has to start with a great song (or theme at least) and Moonraker comes up trumps. Oddly, few people seem to cite Shirley Bassey's Moonraker in the pantheon of great Bond songs. Her sturdier efforts on Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever get more attention but Moonraker is arguably her finest work on a Bond film, her resonant vocal performance, Hal David's striking lyrics ("Where are you? Why do you hide? Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?") and Barry's blend of tinkling triangle and rippling strings adding up to a mysterious, intoxicating title song.
Barry's underscore draws on many of the same ideas. Listening to the score again, 32 years after it was released, one realises just how much of a bold achievement it is. Truly, no composer other than Barry would have dared to score a generic spy film in such lethargic fashion, but such was his confidence in his own abilities that it worked like a dream, changing the direction of the Bond scores forever and acting as a massive influence on all composers to follow. As proof, Space Lazer Battle, underscoring the lavishly staged outer-space showdown, is scored in almost defiantly slow fashion, muted moody brass, choir and fluid strings kept in time by an insistent timpani rhythm.
Later on, Cable Car and Snake Fight, Boat Chase and Centrifuge also underplay in much the same fashion, almost working counter-intuitively to the events on-screen. Somehow though, Barry was able to pull it off. Boat Chase is significant for the fact it marks the last appearance of the secondary 007 theme in the entire series, although in deference to the tone of the score, Barry slows it right down, playing it in more grandiose fashion.
Miss Goodhead Meets Bond is lovely, a clear precursor to later emotionally direct scores such as Out of Africa. Such pieces demonstrate Barry's commitment to a new kind of romantic maturity, where the orchestra, particularly the strings, is used to convey a warm, heartfelt atmosphere. Bond Lured to Pyramid meanwhile conjures up the sort of ravishingly exotic atmosphere that is pure Barry, pitting soft choir against "calls" from the orchestra, giving a sense of the jungly atmosphere in which Bond finds himself before heading into space.
Flight into Space is the score's centrepiece and highlights Barry's oft-neglected ability to construct intelligent, engaging music over several minutes. The choral work is especially beautiful, especially when one considers how rare it is for Barry to use a choir. Over six minutes, it builds in minimalist fashion but never losing the sense of gorgeous beauty that is a hallmark of its composer. Bond Arrives in Rio deploys more vocals but to different effect, conjuring up a vibrant sense of exoticism and adding yet another facet to Bond's journey in the film.
Corinne Put Down is a standout moment and one of the most haunting pieces of music to appear in any of the films: a tragic, repetitious theme builds to encompass a desperate string section and harsh brass calls as Corrine Clery is hunted down and killed by Lonsdale's dogs in a shocking sequence. Bond Smells a Rat ends the album on a similarly uncomfortable note, rumbling piano and anguished strings hinting at the darkness of the main villain's scheme.
It would make for a more satisfying album situation to have the tracks presented in order and to have all the music present. However, Barry recorded the score in Paris for tax purposes, and the original master sessions have apparently been lost for good. What we're left with is less a complete score and more a presentation of excellent music, Barry at his romantic best. Moonraker is perhaps unheralded in the composer's canon but it's a hugely influential and important work, and was to mark a crossroads in his career, leading him down the road towards Somewhere in Time, The Scarlet Letter and others. It's part of a rich legacy of music left behind by one of the greatest composers cinema has ever seen. Rest in peace, John Barry. Scores such as Moonraker will live on forever.