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THE SCARLET LETTER
Stunning romantic masterpiece for a dog of a film
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1995 Cinergi Pictures Entertainment; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall.
John Barry's CV has a few classics of cinema on there - and sadly more than a few which couldn't be further from it. In terms of causing him acute embarrassment by his mere association with the film, I guess you could stare at the list all day and never come close to topping Star Crash, but of the latter part of his career you would do well to find anything worse than The Scarlet Letter, Roland Joffe's ill-advised revisionary adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, starring (infamously) Demi Moore in an attempt to show the cinemagoing public her true value as a serious actress - and one could say she accomplished that really rather well. It's one of the most notorious of cinematic bombs, and I'm sure all concerned must wish they had never been involved.
That said - all the great film composers have at some time or another been called upon to write music for films which lie way beneath them but still provided excellent music, and that's what Barry did here. It's best considered by ignoring the film with which it is associated completely, and simply enjoying the album - and enjoying the album is not a difficult thing to do. Barry was actually the third composer attached to the film - Elmer Bernstein recorded a score which was thrown out (and has now been released by Varese Sarabande) and he was apparently so happy his music wasn't going to be used in a film which turned out not to be exactly what he imagined he was signing up for, he wrote a letter to Demi Moore (who also produced) thanking her for removing his association from it. Then Ennio Morricone (whose spectacular score for Joffe's The Mission is one of film music's towering achievements) was invited to submit some demos - reports differ over exactly what happened next, but in any case his involvement didn't last long.
At its heart the film is still a period romance, and back in 1995 John Barry scoring a period romance was a really enticing prospect. The album opens with some source music composed by Peter Buffett (who also wrote the anachronistic "Fire Dance" in Dances with Wolves) but this soon gives way to Barry's majestic main theme, which is grand and expansive even by his standards. Nobody writes such beautiful long-lined themes for film at the moment, and this is simply a glorious theme, making an excellent companion piece to the same year's Cry, the Beloved Country by Barry.
There are plenty of other themes here too. "Hester Rides to Town" is a delightful little summery, florid piece, joyful and inspiring; and then comes the flip side, in "The Bird", a much darker piece tinged with tragedy - but of course, retaining some innate beauty, as virtually all Barry's music from this period did. The love theme makes its first appearance in "A Very Exhilarating Read" - sensual, erotic, quite unbelievably gorgeous. From this core of themes introduced in the opening four cues, most of the rest of the score is constructed - not through simple restatement of these themes, but development of them.
Best of all is the outstanding seven-minute "Love Scene", built up from little repeating cells in what I guess you could say is Barry doing minimalism - but there's none of the slightly clinical feel usually associated with that technique, this is rapturous music full of passion. Barry has writen a number of beautiful romantic pieces in his time, but you would struggle to find a better one than this - simply wonderful. It ebbs and flows, gradually builds to a satisfying climax - it's not hard to imagine what Barry's thoughts were when composing it.
The score takes on a slightly darker sheen in its second half - a new theme, the score's darkest, is introduced in "She Will Not Speak"; "Dr Rodger Prynne" then brings in some subtle Dances with Wolves-style percussion. Indeed, several of the album's later tracks are really very dark ("An Attempt at Rape" included, as you may expect) which is what makes The Scarlet Letter such a satisfying listening experience - it's not monotone, it's a score that takes the listener on an obvious journey, and hearing overt action music in a John Barry romance score ("The Round-Up", "The Indians Attack") just adds an extra flavour, and the way he keeps it entirely in keeping with the rest of the music is impressive. This wonderful album is Barry at his latter-day best, and comes highly recommended.