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Obscure Barry thriller score gets unexpected CD release after 25 years
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1984 Warner Bros.; review copyright (c) 2009 James Southall.
One of the more obscure entries in the John Barry filmography, Mike's Murder was a 1984 vehicle for Debra Winger in the wake of her success in An Officer and a Gentleman, but disastrous previews led to the film being completely re-edited and the original score, by Joe Jackson, being replaced by Barry. But Jackson's music had already been released on LP by the time Barry came along - and so none of his music saw the light of day. Anything's possible in soundtrack releasing these days, and this title was surprisingly unleashed by Prometheus Records after months of teasing in 2009.
Winger plays a woman in love with a shady character by the name of Mike. It doesn't take too much detective work from the viewer to begin to suspect that Mike might not last the length of the film, and in fact (BIG SPOILER!) he is murdered early on. Winger spends the rest of the film trying to find out what happened to him. It did very little business at the box office (though reviews were actually not bad) - and so even though it's only 25 years old, many fans of Barry will never have heard a note of the music, even in the context of the film.
Barry's score begins in a most unexpected way, with simple repeating piano scales. Having never seen the film, I don't have a clue what the significance is - but after a minute or so, the lush main theme begins. It's not typical of this particular score (indeed, it doesn't appear again until the end) but is very typical of Barry - a beautiful melody for strings, then the introduction of a sax. It's a very different animal from the composer's seminal Body Heat, but in its more understated way is very pleasant.
The score proper begins in "Cautious", with an endlessly-repeating motif for strings and flutes forming the backbone of much which follows. Its insistent nature is highly effective - it's not the kind of beautiful music so often associated with this composer, but of course that would have been very wrong for this film - instead Barry painting a portrait of impending doom. As with many devices he has used over the year, it is so simple from a musical perspective - and yet does its dramatic job far better than most others would have managed with more complex composition. Barry has always been an expert at that - sometimes the simple ideas are by far the most effective.
An accusation sometimes unfairly levelled against Barry is that he spreads his material too thinly, repeating themes and motifs with little variation throughout a score - but in fact Mike's Murders is one of the few where that accusation would not be unfair. This is not an album which features a great deal of variation - in terms of the music's primary function, supporting the film, it's probably not a problem at all (and indeed the incessant repetition is probably the whole point of it) - but on an album, it is. Fortunately, the score is punctuated by a few individual set-pieces (such as the explosive "Coke") which mean it isn't a huge problem, but if the album has a drawback, it's that.
This is not a major Barry score by any means, and especially considering the unusually high price-tag of the album, that means its appeal is likely to be limited to his die-hard fans - and it certainly contains more than enough quality to satisfy that audience.