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THE BLACK HOLE – John Barry

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

MOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

The Black Hole was to be Disney’s effort to take the successful disaster movie genre into outer space. Conceived in 1975 as a “Poseidon Adventure in Space”, the film was never able to germinate until the Star Wars phenomenon served to catalyze a resurgence of the space epic genre. Gary Nelson was hired to direct with Jeb Rosebrook given the task of adapting the earlier disaster in space script to a more epic adventure tale involving a monstrous black hole. The movie had a stellar cast that included Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, Anthony Perkins and Maximillian Schell, as well as Roddy McDowall who provided the voice of the robot VINCENT. Set in the year 2130 C.E. aboard the USS Palomino, the story details the discovery of the lost USS Cygnus, which is seen apparently derelict, orbiting a massive black hole just beyond its event horizon. An investigation into the mystery that was the Cygnus leads to a grim discovery that threatens to end the lives of all involved. Although Disney conceived the film as an epic much in the mold of 2001: A Space Odyssey and provided a story replete with symbolic references to Dante’s Inferno, uninspired directing and a truly poor script resulted in critical failure. The film was nevertheless a commercial success due to its amazing special effects and myriad of robots that won the hearts of the audience.

In the late seventies John Barry was enjoying amazing success in Hollywood. He was fresh coming off two sci-fi efforts, Starcrash and The James Bond thriller Moonraker, when he was tapped to score The Black Hole. He chose to write two primary themes that captured the adventure of the tale as well as the mystery that was the black hole. Barry stated that “the concept of this bottomless three-quarters swirling thing, the black hole, was the film’s central image to me and the thought behind the movement of the main theme.” Significant was the fact that this was that this was to be the first digital recording of a film score, and as such Barry was provided with a 94 piece orchestra to make it memorable. His score was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Music, but did not win. Also noteworthy was the contribution of Craig Huxley’s blaster beam, a unique instrument that consisted of an aluminum beam, strung with metallic wires, mounted horizontally in the manner of a xylophone that is struck, plucked or hammered to create a metallic resonance. Barry used its sound to evoke a sense of other-worldliness in the score.

The “Overture” opens the CD, and features what can only be described as a retrograde inversion of John Williams’ Star Wars main title theme. Of interest is the fact that Williams’ theme arose from George Lucas’ love of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Kings Row main title! I must say that Barry’s approach is a clever twist and perfectly conceived. The music is a classic march that opens with a heroic fanfare stated first in the upper register and then repeated mid-range over militaristic timpani. At 0:29 strings and tubas usher in the B Phrase of the theme that is accented with trilling woodwinds which Barry also repeats and then alternates with the theme’s A Phrase. This is a fun and bravado opening that succeeds on all counts.

The “Main Title” is a stunning piece in that it’s powerful and complex theme animates the entire score. It plays over the opening credits, which are sequentially sucked into the vortex of the black hole. The cue opens with a prelude of ethereal violins that render an up-tempo reference to Holst’s “Saturn” from the “The Planets”. At 0:11 Barry introduces the multi phrase Black Hole Theme, which includes a Gravity Well Motif rendered by synthesizer as a swirling ostinato meant to convey the all consuming vortex currents of the black hole. This motif effect is brilliantly conceived. The A phrase of the theme presents as a dark and portentous march that features trombones playing over timpani in counterpoint to the swirling synthesizer ostinato. As is Barry’s custom, he repeats the A phrase before introducing the B phrase at 0:55. The music continues over the Gravity Well Motif with trombones that gain in intensity as they struggle in their minor mode to break free and emote a sense of heroism. Instead of climaxing they surrender to a closing restatement of the A phrase.

“That’s It” provides the soundscape for the Palomino crew’s first look at the all-consuming black hole. The cue opens ominously with a powerful blaster beam chord over which violins descend in their scale and yield to dark bassoons. A repeat of this line ushers in the A phrase of the Black Hole Theme that plays at a heavy Grave tempo. “Closer Look” underscores the approach of the Palomino as in moves in for a close examination of the Cygnus. The cue opens with the Gravity Well Motif rendered by piano, harp and woodwinds. At 0:20 the Black Hole Theme unfolds as a dirge and continues thematically from the previous cue to evoke a sense of mystery and trepidation. A sharp strike of the blaster beam that is attenuated closes the cue.

“Zero Gravity” is a cue of great complexity and a score highlight, which features a parade of themes that play against the Gravity Well Motif. As we see the Palomino scanning the hull of the Cygnus with searchlights we hear again the Main Title prelude of ethereal violins set against contrabass. At 0:12 a full statement of the Black Hole Theme returns in force and plays over the Gravity Well Motif. At 1:20 a lyrical string line emerges with blaster beam accents and the orchestra rendering the Gravity Well Motif to underscore the embarkation of the crew in zero gravity as they set-off to board the Cygnus. At 2:32 we shift gears again as militaristic timpani and French horns accompany VINCENT as he begins his trek to repair the Palomino’s exterior. After a bridge interlude of the A Phrase of the Black Hole Theme, trumpets at 3:33 signal telepathic contact between the Kate character and the yet-unseen robot aboard the Cygnus. Barry reprises his ethereal string motif to underscore this mind meld. The cue proceeds with an extended passage that features the A phrase of the Black Hole Theme powerfully embellished with portentous horns that sound over low register piano chords and contrabass. After a bridge interlude we segue into the B phrase of the theme playing over the monstrous rendering of the Gravity Well Motif. The cue concludes with a fragment of the A phrase and a sustained horn chord. This is really Barry at his audacious best!

“Cygnus Floating” is a lyrical cue that continues to evoke the uncertainty and mystery that is the Cygnus. Violins play a repeating lyrical line over bass chords until a crescendo sounds as the Cygnus’s lights come on. Portentous string chords and French horns build drama to the moment until 1:04 where mysterioso strings flow over twinkling piano atop ominous low register chords to underscore telepathic contact between Kate and crew on the Cygnus. The cue ends with a dark and ominous coda. In “The Door Opens” we see the crew’s entry into the Cygnus. Contrabass chords set the tone and violins build tension at 0:48 as the crew proceed to explore the ship. An orchestral crescendo at 1:05 highlights the entry of the crew into the massive and cavernous interior of the Cygnus. Barry slowly transitions to a slow march with snare drums and muted trumpets to herald the crew’s first encounter with the disconcerting sentry robots that guard the ship. From here Barry uses sustained bass chords, violins and metallic twinkling to emote trepidation. At 2:16 he evokes both awe and wonder with a grand, majestic and lyrical orchestral statement from which echoes of Moonraker are heard. Contrabass reintroduce and support the dark march of the sentry robots as the cue concludes with a powerful crescendo. This cue is a score highlight, which both unsettles and awes me; it is an amazing moment in the score!

In “Pretty Busy” Barry introduces a flowing string progression motif that he will use throughout the score to emote the mystery of the hooded worker drones that man the ship. With “Six Robots” ominous contrabass set to lyrical celli and violin continue to evoke a sense that all is not well aboard the Cygnus. Dark low register piano chords, contrabass and tolling bells accompany a funeral of one of the drones, which ends with a dramatic horn crescendo. In “Can You Speak?” we continue with mysterioso violins that play atop contrabass as Captain Holland attempts to question one of the drones. Completing this trio of thematic cues is “Poor Creatures” which opens with muted trombone fanfare that ushers in a mysterioso passage of violins, harp, piano and contrabass, which serves as the soundscape for the eerie repair room. With these three cues Barry succeeds in evoking trepidation, mystery and a rising recognition that all is not right on the Cygnus.

In “Ready to Embark” Reinhardt orders the Cygnus into the black hole and Barry introduces a simple, repeating and somber contrabass motif that will animate the following two cues to underscore the disillusionment and tragic end of Dr. Durant’s hero-worship of Dr. Reinhardt. “Start the Countdown” opens ominously with the contrabass motif and features a repeating interplay between it and a counter motif of blaster beam and low register piano. At 1:49 the ethereal string motif leads to a transfer of the contrabass motif to full orchestra, which adds a gravitas to the scene before returning the motif once again to contrabass with woodwind accents. From here we slowly build to a powerful orchestral crescendo that climaxes as Dr. Durant unmasks a drone and is killed instantly by robot Maximillian. We conclude this extended passage with another score highlight, the powerhouse “Durant Is Dead”. As we see the Cygnus proceed towards the black hole, terror is aroused in the Palomino crew as they recognize that Dr. Reinhardt is mad, and seek to flee the doomed ship. The cue begins darkly with powerful repeating low register chords, which proceed into an accelerando to usher in a dark march rendering of the contrabass motif now carried by timpani and horns. The march continues to play as the Cygnus proceeds to her doom in a growing image of the all-devouring vortex of the black hole.

With “Laser” Barry introduces the A phrase of his Hero Theme, a celebratory power anthem which he fashioned into the “Overture” heard at the beginning of the CD at Disney Studio’s request. This rousing, horn laden and major modal theme supports the amazing laser battle that unfolds between the fleeing crew and Maximillian’s corp of robots. In “Kate’s O.K.” we see her rescued from brainwashing, which would have turned her into a drone. The cue opens ominously with deep low register chords and timpani that are soon joined by the horns. We segue into a repeating line by stark contrabass which ushers in at 0:52 a full and resplendent statement of the Hero Theme which heralds Kate’s rescue. These two cues provide a wonderful major modal contrast to what is for the most part a very dark minor mode score. I cannot help but smile whenever I hear this incongruous Barry power anthem. What a treat!

The following three underscore cues are kindred in that they feature repeating motifs instead of thematic statements. In “Hot and Heavy” Pfizer deputizes Booth to aid in the effort to rescue the crew. We hear dark and suspenseful music return in the form of a non-descript repeating line motif of low register piano, pizzicato strings and harp. “Meteorites” is classic underscore, which features a repeating line of violins supported with a percussive cadence that plays as the Cygnus is being struck by meteorites. “Hotter and Heavier” provides the soundscape for Maximillian in hot pursuit of VINCENT. Barry opens the cue dramatically with a orchestral burst which he repeats four times before segueing at 0:45 into the repeating line motif of low register piano, pizzicato strings and harp first heard in “Hot and Heavy”.

We now move to the final three cues of the film. The sad and poignant “Bob and VINCENT” is an elegy for the death of the robot Bob. One should note that despite the comic appearance of these two little robots, Barry scores this moving scene with a classic and sincere reverence. “Into the Hole” is the climatic scene of everyone’s descent into the black hole. We first see Reinhardt and Maximillian fused into a single entity condemned forever to a fiery inferno. This imagery is juxtaposed to the Palomino crew’s journey through a bright cathedral like passage of light replete with angels as they safely pass through and exit the black hole. The cue is just sensational and in my view another score highlight. We open with a repeating seven-note string line that plays as the crew inside the Palomino probe and the Cygnus descend into the vortex of the singularity. At 0:38 powerful horns and dissonant strings sound in a tortured melodic line that is buffeted by eerie synthesizer as we see Reinhardt condemned to a terrible fate as he is fused with Maximillian. At 1:31 Barry imparts a distinctly ethereal tenor to the passage that provides a potent synergy to the film’s imagery. Violins with contrabass counter play against ethereal synthesizer as the Palomino crew in the probe ship journey to an uncertain fate. Carried by strings and synthesizer we flow in a lyrical current infused with trumpet calls. At 2:59 violins usher in a new melodic line underpinned by contrabass and replete with harp glissandi. As the crew experiences a wondrous passage to a new life, the orchestra ascends gloriously to a grand climax and concludes with a joyous flourish. This cue is just breath taking, bravo! In the “End Title” Barry concludes his score as he began it with an extended full statement of his Black Hole Theme.

The bonus track “In, Through… and Beyond!” is a concept track where several layers of analog synthesizers were used to augment the Black Hole Theme. My counsel is to listen to indulge your curiosity since I find the final product inferior to the End Title track.

Until his final days Barry was vexed by his inability to get a commercial release on CD of this score. All I can say is that it is about damn time Disney came to their senses! This is a triumph for film score collectors and I offer my heartfelt thanks to Douglass Fake for pulling off this coup! This is an amazing reissue that offers every note of Barry’s score that includes over 20 minutes of never-before released material, all newly mastered in true digital audio, and playing in picture sequence! Frankly, I find Barry’s approach to this score audacious and a refreshing and authentic contrast to the classical approach employed by John Williams in Star Wars. His soundscape and two main themes are perfectly conceived and applied. The creative use of synthesizer and the legendary blaster beam complimented the orchestra and provided a potent synergy to the score. I highly recommend this long sought after score to both Barry enthusiasts as well as general collectors.

Rating: ****

Buy the Black Hole soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (2:28)
  • Main Title (1:49)
  • That’s It (1:43)
  • Closer Look (2:02)
  • Zero Gravity (5:48)
  • Cygnus Floating (2:06)
  • The Door Opens (4:09)
  • Pretty Busy (0:48)
  • Six Robots (1:57)
  • Can You Speak? (1:19)
  • Poor Creatures (1:41)
  • Ready to Embark (0:44)
  • Start the Countdown (3:47)
  • Durant Is Dead (2:31)
  • Laser (1:01)
  • Kate’s O.K. (2:49)
  • Hot and Heavy (2:43)
  • Meteorites (1:31)
  • Raging Inferno (0:54)
  • Hotter and Heavier (1:59)
  • Bob and VINCENT (0:54)
  • Into the Hole (4:56)
  • End Title (2:34)
  • In, Through… and Beyond! [BONUS] (2:47)

Running Time: 55 minutes 05 seconds

Walt Disney Records/Intrada INTD001383402 (1979/2011)

Music composed and conducted by John Barry. Orchestrations by John Barry and Al Woodbury. Special musical performances by Craig Huxley. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Evelyn Kennedy. Album produced by Randy Thornton and Douglass Fake.

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  1. Mark Nicholas
    August 3, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    I was 10 years old when I first saw this movie and the haunting soundtrack has stayed with me ever since. Excellent review and couldn’t agree more concerning the need for Disney to re-release a proper digitally remastered recording.

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