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The Black Hole
  • Composed by John Barry
  • Walt Disney Records / 2011 / 54:52

A live-action Disney science-fiction adventure, The Black Hole was one of a clutch of films released in the aftermath of Star Wars which tried (and of course failed) to repeat its success.  This one did do reasonably well and has gone on to attract a bit of a cult following in the years that followed.  John Barry probably wouldn’t have been the first composer’s name to spring to mind to score a film like this, but he had always alternated the kind of personal dramas he presumably preferred with bigger, more overtly commercial projects (and this followed a year on from his other space-bound adventure film, the rather less successful Starcrash).

For a very long time, the only official release of Barry’s music had been the half-hour vinyl album which was put out at the time of the film.  That remained in print for a long time (and it’s fascinating to read in the liner notes that the initial pressing of it was 400,000 units – in these days where most orchestral soundtracks struggle to pass the 1,000 mark, that just seems extraordinary) but calls for a CD release came and went over the years without being answered – ironic, since this was apparently the first digitally-recorded film score.  Finally, a small offering came from Disney in 2009 to mark the film’s 30th anniversary, with a download-only release of the original album, available only in North America.  Two years on, here it is on CD, the whole thing, almost doubling the running time of the previous album, with superb sound, released by Disney through their new partnership with Intrada.  The story of why it took so long to come out is presented in detail by the album producer Randy Thornton in the liner notes.

John Barry

It may have been the first film score to be recorded digitally, but it was one of the very last to preserve one particular relic of the golden age – the orchestral overture which would play in cinemas before the film began.  For this, Barry wrote a very grand piece, a typically-memorable theme in a noble, stately setting.  It’s big, bold, adventuresome – a perfect introduction to the film (though the composer doesn’t revisit the material in the piece until the action music fairly late in his score).  As an aside, how wonderful it must have been both for film composers and fans of film music to have these overtures – for the composer, a chance to come up with a pure musical introduction to the film; for the fans, a chance to hear it!  These days, there usually aren’t even main title sequences to score, at least not in the traditional sense, and end credits usually have songs over them – opportunities for film composers to really flex their muscles taken away from them.

For the actual main title, Barry presents his main theme, which is a swirling, hypnotic piece which just a hint of Bernard Herrmann about it.  It sets the tone for the majority of what is to follow – the Overture and a handful of other moments aside, this is not expansive space opera music, it’s much more insular, emphasising mystery and danger.  There are certainly comparisons to be made with the composer’s most recent Bond score at the time, Moonraker.  The action music in particular has that Bond sound to it, which is no bad thing of course.

Speaking of action, the highlight there is probably “Durant is Dead”, a fabulous piece dominated by the lowest registers of the orchestra – brass, winds, strings, piano all playing out a very well-constructed, melodic piece in their low ends in a way Barry managed to pull off time after time during his career, but it’s a style which seems a distant memory in film music now, when action music is generally all synth percussion and very small repeated ostinatos which seem to be interchangeable from one film to the next.  It’s followed by the brightest of the cues, “Laser” offering the first appearance of the Overture theme in the main body of the score; this is the closest the composer came to writing anything which sounded like the music in almost all of the other post-Star Wars sci-fi adventures.

The album’s final third is dominated by fantastic action music.  It all leads up to the score’s other main highlight, which is the finale, “Into the Hole”.  Barry uses a frantically-repeating string figure, gradually building layer upon layer of material on top of it, a technique he used in one or two Bond films’ most dramatic moments too.  After all the building, it finally climaxes with a tremendous explosion of brass to end the film.  Finally, the composer offers a lengthy reprise of his swirling main theme for the end titles.

This is a fabulous release – great music, great sound, great notes.  It is something which has become increasingly rare of late – an expanded version of a classic soundtrack album which offers a uniform improvement.  This is no brazen attempt at a cash-in – this is a high-quality product.  Barry’s music is revealed in this edition in all its glory, a mesmerising score without a single dull moment.  I had always liked the score but this has elevated it to a whole new level for me, a reaction I suspect that will be shared by many.  Highly recommended.  **** 1/2

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