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The Betsy
  • Composed by John Barry
  • Prometheus / 2014 / 47m

Everything I know about the late novelist Harold Robbins, whose books sold in incredible volumes, was learned from Basil Fawlty, who said he wrote “the most awful American tripe, a kind of pornographic muzak.”  Many of his works were adapted for film and television and virtually all of them received critical pans; 1978’s The Betsy was no exception.  Director Daniel Petrie somehow managed to assemble a very strong cast (Laurence Olivier, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall headlining) for this tale of family infighting (and incest) against a motor-racing backdrop and the film did OK at the box office.

Before this movie, Petrie’s career had been spent largely in television, and two of his most recent projects at the time were the tv miniseries Eleanor and Franklin and its sequel, both of which were scored by the great John Barry, remarkably prolific in the late 1970s, mixing big blockbusters with smaller movies and tv projects and sometimes scoring things that seemed a long way from being worthy of his talents.  But it didn’t need to be a great movie to get a great score and The Betsy is ample proof of that; many have been unaware of that because the music had never been released before 2014, when it finally arrived in the form of a re-recording produced by James Fitzpatrick, with Nic Raine – as several times before – reconstructing the score by ear and conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic.

John Barry

John Barry

Dramatic and romantic, at times exciting, it’s a terrific John Barry score bolstered by one of his trademark gorgeous main themes, this time a waltz, showcased in the opening titles piece.  For all its beauty, it’s tinged by a forlorn sadness, plus a sense of longing that Barry captured so well so often during his career.  It’s just heartmelting – and it forms the backbone of the whole score, appearing in various forms throughout its running time.

There’s a great love theme, too, harmonically close to the main theme but with a different melody, heard most fully as “Angelo’s Theme”; tender and unironic despite the pretty tasteless “love” it accompanies in the film, in this piece it is introduced on alto sax, with dancing piano accompaniment, before being taken up by the strings, and it’s a piece of vintage Barry.  A solo violin arrangement in the following cue, “Win One, Lose One”, is simply exquisite.

The music generally gets sadder as the score progresses – it’s tear-jerking stuff, with no shortage of melancholy – but it does take a couple of unexpected turns, particularly a trio of action tracks late on (“In Bed”, “Angelo is Beaten” and “Samson Gets It”) where there’s more than a hint of James Bond – and my ears at first thought I was hearing electronics in the latter two, but the liner notes explain the effect comes from a marimba with considerable added reverb.  (Somehow Barry makes the appearance of these cues feel very natural in the music’s dramatic flow despite their being seemingly at odds with the rest of the score.)

The Betsy is a very fine piece of music, consistently displaying its composer’s extraordinary gift for melody; and there’s no shortage of depth, unsurprising given it’s by John Barry but perhaps far more than the film warranted.  The Prometheus release is very welcome – Raine’s familiarity with the music of Barry (having worked as his orchestrator for so many years and having conducted so much of his music over the years for Silva Screen and more recently in concert) gives it a real air of authenticity.  Frank K. DeWald’s liner notes are well done, the Prague musicians’ performance is flawless and this album is a genuinely unexpected treat for Barry fans.

Rating: **** | |

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