OUT OF AFRICA – John Barry
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The winner of seven Academy Awards – including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography – Out of Africa is generally considered one of the greatest romantic dramas in cinema history. Directed by Sydney Pollack, it is based on the semi-autobiographical writings of aristocratic Danish author Karen Dinesen, specifically the period in the 1910s when she moved to live on a coffee plantation in colonial Kenya with her then-husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, and had an affair with a rugged and handsome big game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. The film is a sumptuous, visually magnificent love letter to the unspoiled African savannah, reveling in the majestic vistas of the country, and using them as a backdrop to the affair Karen engages in, as her husband becomes increasingly distant and neglectful. Anchored by the three central performances of Meryl Streep as Karen, Robert Redford as Denys, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer as Bror, the film explores such challenging themes as marital fidelity, the expectations and conventions of aristocratic society, the role of women in the 1910s, and the differences between European and African tribal cultures, as well as the threat of World War I that loomed over everything.
The score for Out of Africa was written by the great English composer John Barry, and is generally considered to be one of the greatest scores ever written. Having established himself as a jazz musician in the 1950s, Barry defined the sound of the espionage genre in the 1960s through his James Bond scores, but throughout his career had always found a way to write sumptuous romantic themes for many of his scores; works like Born Free (1966), Walkabout (1971), The Dove (1974), Somewhere in Time (1980), and High Road to China (1983) were especially notable for their poignant, emotional love themes, and many of them also expressed a broad, sweeping element related to the visually spectacular landscapes in which the films took place. Out of Africa is arguably the pinnacle of this aspect of Barry’s career, combining the deep and passionate romance in the relationship between Karen and Denys with the majesty of the African landscape. No wonder that, amongst all his great works, this score is often listed as one of the finest.
The score’s legendary main theme anchors the score, receiving a full performance in the opening cue, “Main Title – I Had a Farm in Africa”. After a few moments of stately build-up, combining regal brass fanfares with slow, refined string and woodwind accents, the theme emerges into life, and it’s utterly glorious. Searching, emotional strings combine with a deep, sonorous brass countermelody, and a lilting, lyrical variation for flutes. It’s one of the most beloved, most-recorded film themes in history, and it’s not difficult to see why. This is the John Barry music that many people fell in love with, and fell in love to, and which in many ways defined the final two decades of his life. A large number of his subsequent scores, including things like Dances With Wolves and The Scarlet Letter, are drenched in this sound, and I adore it. It’s the reason why John Barry remains one of my favorite composers.
The main theme receives two further recapitulations, in “Flying Over Africa,” and in the conclusive “End Title – You Are Karen”, both of which are equally gorgeous. The “Flying Over Africa” sequence is probably the film’s most iconic scene, in which Karen soars over the Kenyan landscape in Denys’s biplane, accompanied by Barry’s staggeringly beautiful music, but this is not the only thing the score has to offer.
The theme for Karen herself is a little more restrained, with a gentle, thoughtful air. It appears three times in the score, initially in “I’m Better at Hello” when it is anchored by a wistful flute solo accompanied by rich string chords, and later in “I Had a Compass from Denys,” and “If I Know a Song for Africa”. “I Had a Compass from Denys” is more upbeat and positive, with the melody being performed at a slightly faster tempo and with the flutes accompanied by a fuller string section, while “If I Know a Song for Africa” is tinged with regret.
Other cues of note include “Have You Got a Story for Me,” a more reflective and slightly downbeat piece for solo piano and soft strings which seems to speak to the unhappiness in Karen’s life, but remains unspeakably beautiful; “Safari,” a warm and engaging theme for strings and brass which seems to convey images of a brilliant sunrise casting long shadows from the Serengeti’s iconic savanna trees; “Karen’s Journey,” a slightly more tense piece for rattling percussion and flutter-tongued flutes that eventually emerges into a glorious brass theme full of scope and grandeur; “Siyawe,”, a piece of traditional African tribal music; and “Alone in the Farm,” a poignant string theme accompanied by harp accents and a brass countermelody that touches on the sense of isolation Karen feels, and the disappointment that neither her marriage to Bror nor her relationship with Denys will be as fulfilling as she desires.
The entire score for Out of Africa is only around 40 minutes long – in a film that runs for more than 2 and a half hours! – and that includes a performance of Mozart’s “Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A,” and a period source music piece, “Let the Rest of the World Go By”. However, despite its brevity, the listening experience is still a rewarding one. The score has been released and re-released by MCA many times over the years, on LP, CD and cassette; some of them contain one additional cue, “Under the Sun,” while others contain a vocal version of the main theme performed by Al Jarreau and Melissa Manchester called “The Music of Goodbye,” which has dated badly and can easily be ignored. A re-recording conducted by Joel McNeely and performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was released in 1997 by Varèse Sarabande, and features eighteen tracks of score at a running time just under thirty-nine minutes. Some may prefer this recording due to its re-structured running order and better sound quality, but I have personally always preferred the immediacy of Barry’s original recording.
It’s impossible to overstate just how iconic John Barry’s score for Out of Africa is. It was a deserved Best Score winner at the 1985 Academy Awards, and with its unbridled romance and passion, is one of the most engaging and beautiful scores ever written for a love story of this type. It’s one of those scores which may have had its impact diminished over the years, purely because the main theme is so famous, but this is one of the scores where the fame and acclaim is entirely justified. Out of Africa should be an integral part of any serious film music fan’s collection.
Buy the Out of Africa soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- ORIGINAL 1985 MCA RELEASE
- Main Title – I Had a Farm in Africa (3:14)
- I’m Better at Hello (Karen’s Theme) (1:18)
- Have You Got a Story for Me (1:14)
- Safari (2:44)
- Karen’s Journey/Siyawe (4:50)
- Flying Over Africa (3:25)
- I Had a Compass from Denys (Karen’s Theme) (2:31)
- Alone in the Farm (1:56)
- Let the Rest of the World Go By (written by Ernest R. Bali and J. Keim Brennan) (3:17)
- If I Know a Song for Africa (Karen’s Theme) (2:12)
- End Title – You Are Karen (4:01)
- Under the Sun (4:21) – BONUS
- The Music of Goodbye (performed by Al Jarreau and Melissa Manchester) (3:54) – BONUS
- 1997 VARÈSE SARABANDE RE-RECORDING
- I Had a Farm (3:12)
- Alone on the Farm (1:00)
- Karen & Denys (0:48)
- Have You Got a Story for Me (1:21)
- I’m Better at Hello (1:24)
- Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A, K.622 (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) (7:39)
- Karen’s Journey Starts (3:41)
- Karen’s Journey Ends (1:00)
- Karen’s Return from Border (1:33)
- Karen Builds a School (1:19)
- Harvest (2:02)
- Safari (2:35)
- Flight Over Africa (2:41)
- Beach at Night (0:58)
- You’ll Keep Me Then (0:58)
- If I Knew a Song of Africa (2:23)
- You are Karen M’Sabu (1:17)
- Out of Africa (2:49)
Running Time: 42 minutes 46 seconds (Original MCA release, including the two bonus cues)
Running Time: 38 minutes 40 seconds (Varese re-recording)
MCA Records MCAD-6158 (1985)
Varèse Sarabande VSD-5816 (1985/1997)
Music composed and conducted by John Barry. Orchestrations by John Barry. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Cliff Kohlweck. Album produced by John Barry.