Sydney Pollack's 1985 weepie swooped low over the Kenyan grasslands to eventually scoop seven Oscars, including one for the director himself, one for Best Picture and one for lead Meryl Streep. Taking on yet another intimidating accent (Danish in this case), Streep stars as Karen Blixen, on whose memoirs the film is based. Blixen, a baroness, entered into a passionless marriage of convenience in 20th century Africa but found her soul kindled by a big-game hunter (English in real life; all-American Robert Redford in the film). Klaus Maria Brandauer (as Blixen's legal husband, Bror), Michael Kitchen and others round out the support cast but truly it's a bit of a stodgy affair, crippled by over length and overuse of Streep's voice over.
What can't be disputed though are the film's awesome technical credits. If nothing else, the film is a paean to the majesty of Africa in a way few others are, David Watkin's cinematography capturing every facet of waving grassland and hazy plain beneath the scorching Kenyan sun. But while the cinematography alone guarantees the film's status as a breath-taking travelogue, there's a far more fundamental reason why it has stuck in the hearts of viewers since release. And it's nothing to do with Streep's accent. There's something else in the film that really makes us care about what's going on. And that is John Barry's score.
Famously, when first faced with the print of the film, Barry rejected director Pollack's notion that it be scored with indigenous melodies. Instead, he hit on the far more elemental (and far more powerful) notion that the music should score the emotion of the characters at the centre of the film. The landscape meanwhile could always speak for itself. A skeptical Pollack hesitantly agreed but the gamble paid off: Barry's approach to Out of Africa proved to be one of the most astute dramatic decisions of his career, resulting in a score that punctuated the turgid, navel-gazing gloom of the film to evoke real compassion and emotion for the characters.
The composer, ever self-deprecating, expressed surprise when he won the Oscar for Best Original Score, citing there was no more than 35 minutes of it in the two and a half hour film. But it's the sparing use of the music itself that guarantees it such heart-wrenching success. It's a brilliantly spotted film, and Barry's capacity for sheer, old-fashioned beauty cuts right to the centre of Blixen's heartbreak. Much of the score's success can be credited to its magnificent central theme, I Had a Farm in Africa, one that's clad in Barry's familiar style (high strings, low horns) but which takes on a spectacularly rich vein of melancholy when placed in the context of the film. Barry's understanding that human emotion in and of itself can be represented in an expansive, melodramatic fashion was a massively insightful notion, one that guaranteed the theme's status as one of the most glorious ever to grace the silver screen.
Positioned alongside the main theme is the lesser known but breathlessly intimate one for Karen herself. Split into three movements across the album (I'm Better at Hello/I Had a Compass from Denys/If I Know a Song of Africa), it's truly lovely, with particular emphasis going on woodwind and piano. Barry effectively pits the quiet intimacy of Karen's theme against the broader expanse of the Farm theme to create a dramatic contrast in scale. By choosing to score the emotional landscape as opposed to the physical one, Barry underpins both album and film with a genuine aura of sincerity.
There is one brief concession to local sounds at the end of the moodier Karen's Journey/Siyawe, which deploys ethnic voices to authentic effect. By contrast, Safari plays up the expansive joy of Karen's venture into the landscape, another example of the multitude of nuances enriching an admittedly brief score. The most memorable moments however are those that put the main theme at the forefront, chiefly the astonishing Flying Over Africa which builds from a low choral/orchestral combination to a majestic, thrilling variation on I Had a Farm. It's one of the most heavenly moments in Barry's lengthy career, and in the film, when combined with David Watkin's jaw-dropping aerial photography, it's simply remarkable.
It's also incredibly moving. By the time one reaches the heart-breaking End Title movement (You Are Karen), Barry's sense of musical compassion is overwhelming, the full orchestra performing the difficult trick of seeming uplifting and deeply melancholy at the same time. This is Barry's greatest achievement with the score, painting human heartbreak as a symphony and with that graceful, deft touch that only the very best film composers attain. In a career packed with highlights, Out of Africa stakes a claim as one of John Barry's most resonant and successful works, achieving a level of heart and soul that all scores aim for but which few achieve.
A popular soundtrack, Out of Africa is available both on the original MCA Records release (from these links at Amazon.co.uk in the UK, or Amazon.com in the US) and on Joel McNeely's re-recording with The Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Varese Sarabande, which adds a little more music to the original CD (from these alternative links at Amazon.co.uk in the UK, or Amazon.com in the US).
The start of 2011 has already proven especially tragic with the loss of actors Pete Postlethwaite and Susannah York. But the death of veteran film composer John Barry hits closer to home for me. Truly one of the titans of film music has passed on; I'm a firm advocate of orchestral film scores - but rarely were they composed with the finesse and grace that Barry brought to the table. Unfairly pigeonholed in later years as a composer of weepy epics, he was in fact one of the most astute and dynamic musicians in Hollywood, one who spread himself across a variety of genres. He was both a tremendous melodist and a pioneer of 60s musical sounds; a man frequently dismissed as repetitious and samey but who possessed the most vital of gifts: an understanding of the orchestra. While probably best known for his eleven Bond scores, I'm here to cherish his memory through his Oscar-winning 1985 masterpiece, Out of Africa.
Rest in peace John. Your passing marks the end of an era.