The Second Disc

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Review: John Barry, “The Black Hole: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”

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When John Barry won two 1967 Academy Awards for his work on Born Free, the trophies were a vindication.  Over the initial objections of his director, Barry envisioned his score to reflect a “Disneyesque kind of movie, lovely family entertainment” and fought for the dramatic integrity of that sound.  Twelve years later, Barry actually got his chance to score a Walt Disney Productions motion picture.  One of many science-fiction epics produced in the wake of Star Wars, Disney’s The Black Hole was unusual in any number of respects.  Among them, it explored new avenues not only in special effects but also in music recording.  The score by John Barry was the first in motion picture history to be digitally recorded.  Now, thirty-two years after that auspicious breakthrough, the music of The Black Hole has been restored and released as an expanded, special edition soundtrack that exceeds all expectations (Walt Disney Records/Intrada D001383402, 2011).

Though John Barry hadn’t previously been associated with the genre, he found himself scoring two major science fiction epics in 1979 after a “test run” with 1978’s low-budget Italian Star Wars knockoff entitled Starcrash.  The first of these two high profile assignments was the eleventh James Bond film, Moonraker.  It premiered in June 1979, bringing Bond to a space station and even featuring a laser battle (!) and zero gravity sequences.  For Moonraker, Barry had largely turned his back on the brassy big-band jazz that was the series’ musical signature.  His style was in a period of transition, becoming more and more reliant on slower, mood-setting passages with lush string writing.  His next score would take that style even further.  He was announced for The Black Hole in March 1979, recording it eight months later at The Burbank Studios, now the Eastwood Scoring Stage.  It was his first Disney film.

Under the leadership of producer Ron Miller, Walt Disney Productions was thinking big with The Black Hole.  The stakes were high in the suitably dramatic story.  The spaceship Palamino’s crew (portrayed by Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux and Joseph Bottoms) plus journalist Ernest Borgnine and the Roddy McDowall-voiced robot named V.I.N.C.E.N.T. enter the gravitational field of a giant “black hole.”  They soon find the lost ship Cygnus and its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, as well as his odd robot assistants.  Will the crew of the Palamino survive his plans to take the Cygnus to the black hole’s event horizon?  Or will they forever remain prisoners of the black hole? 

Robert T. McCall, artist of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s space station poster, was tapped to provide preproduction art including designs for the Palamino, the Cygnus and V.I.N.C.E.N.T., while the Oscar-winning Disney legend Peter Ellenshaw signed on as production designer.  Gary Nelson directed the screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day (after a story by Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard Landau).  Disney committed to push the envelope of special-effects, developing its own camera and effects system to seamlessly blend visual effects and animation with Ellenshaw’s matte paintings.  John Barry brought further luster to the cutting-edge film, making it clear from the first note of his score that he was on the same page as his collaborators.  He employed a 94-piece orchestra and judiciously used the “blaster beam” invented by Craig Huxley to add some cosmic color.  Hit the jump to enter The Black Hole!

A stately, majestic Overture opens the new soundtrack album; this overture was a remnant from the days of the widescreen roadshow “event” movie.  The Main Title, which follows the overture, starts off more hesitantly and then introduces the most spellbinding theme crafted by Barry for The Black Hole, an off-kilter, spellbinding waltz anchored by a distinct synthesizer ostinato.  It’s a masterful blending of orchestra with synth for a subtly modern and altogether eerie edge.  This dizzying, swirling waltz-meets-march Main Title throbs with urgency, and the use of the waltz form is a most unexpected stylistic choice that pays off.

Barry’s work on The Black Hole is among the most unique of his career.   “That’s It” ominously restates the waltz theme, employed most heavily in the early part of the score.  “Zero Gravity” is a stirringly beautiful cue, introducing new musical ideas against the central ostinato, with strong string writing (soon to become as much a trademark as his sixties brass was) and a march theme for the horns.  One of the expanded CD’s previously unreleased cues, “Cygnus Floating,” has an air of unease that epitomizes the sense of a grand mystery woven throughout the score.  (In addition to the first-time release of certain cues, others such as “Closer Look” and “Into the Hole” offer some musical material not actually in the film.)

There’s not much relief in the tense, atmospheric score.  As with his work on Born Free, Barry refused to condescend to his audience.  Hence, there are no cloying or comic bits, even for the loveable, heroic robot character.

Listening on a purely musical level to “Durant is Dead,” it’s clear that the action picks up with this cue.  It begins the film’s climactic sequence, and the subsequent “Laser” and “Kate’s O.K.” are the tracks that sound most like what one would expect from a sci-fi epic.  Or do they simply sound the most John Williams-esque, as that composer redefined the sound of science fiction with his work on Star Wars? Whatever your feelings, they’re still unmistakably Barry.  Without sinister overtones, his march theme is perfectly, succinctly heroic.  “Into the Hole,” the last cue before the End Title, simply shimmers as the film heads to its head-trippy, somewhat subversive finale.

On first listen, it’s clear why The Black Hole was among the most requested film score titles.  On second listen, it’s affirmed that it has been worth the wait in this format, and may be one of John Barry’s most hidden masterworks.  The Walt Disney Records/Intrada edition gives the soundtrack the first class treatment in absolutely every respect.  Film score historian Jeff Bond expertly uses his notes to explain each cue in relation to its placement in the film, and also offers background on the film’s making.  The lavishly-illustrated, full-color 20-page booklet also presents film stills, Peter Ellenshaw’s artwork, concept sketches and even a photograph of Barry conducting his score.  Album producer Randy Thornton contributes a lengthy essay supplementing Bond’s, in which he delineates the many challenges that delayed past reissues of this soundtrack.  In total, over 20 minutes of “new” music has been added for this disc to the original Disneyland Records LP presentation of the score.  There’s one additional bonus track, too, showcasing the forward-thinking use of synthesizers in the film’s score.  The CD’s striking cover art is based on the album original, which is also included inside the booklet.

Collectors will no doubt be drawn to this release; it was high on my own list of Disney holy grails.  But The Black Hole succeeds on many levels.  A purchase of Barry’s soundtrack may be essential if you remember the film from your youth and are hoping to rekindle some fond memories.  But a fondness for the motion picture isn’t important to enjoy what’s a stirring hour of pure movie music at its finest and most truly “visual.”  All it takes is imagination and a CD player to bring John Barry’s The Black Hole to life!

Written by Joe Marchese

September 6, 2011 at 13:31

Posted in Features, John Barry, News, Reviews, Soundtracks

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2 Responses

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  1. All round incredibly written post…

    computer training

    October 31, 2011 at 19:55

    • Thank you!!

      Joe Marchese

      October 31, 2011 at 20:23


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