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CHAPLIN – John Barry

January 26, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Considering that he was one of the most important and transformative figures in the history of cinema, it’s somewhat surprising that there wasn’t a biopic of Charlie Chaplin until 1992. The film was a labor of love for director Richard Attenborough; it was written by a trio of literature greats – William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, and William Goldman – and starred the then 27-year old Robert Downey Jr. in the role that marked his transition from youthful movies to serious adult cinema. The film charts Chaplin’s entire life and career, from his impoverished childhood growing up in Victorian London, to his first brushes with showbusiness via Fred Karno’s vaudeville theatre, his move to the United States in 1914, and his gradual rise to fame via his iconic ‘tramp’ character in silent films such as The Kid, The Gold Rush, and City Lights. It also reveals his tempestuous private life – various love affairs and failed marriages – as well as his political conflicts with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, which eventually led to him fleeing America for Europe at the height of his fame amid accusations of communist sympathies. The film climaxes with Chaplin’s glorious return to Hollywood in 1972 after decades in exile, when he received an honorary Oscar for ‘the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century’.

Unfortunately, despite the impeccable creative talent behind the camera and the stellar supporting cast (which included Dan Aykroyd, Anthony Hopkins, Milla Jovovich, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller, John Thaw, Marisa Tomei, James Woods, and his daughter Geraldine Chaplin playing her own grandmother Hannah), Chaplin was released to a surprisingly lukewarm reception, and was a dud at the box office, grossing just $9 million in the United States. It eventually went on to receive a scant three Oscar nominations – one for Downey as Best Actor, one for Best Art Direction, and one for its score, which was written by John Barry.

Considering that Richard Attenborough and John Barry had moved in similar social circles for decades, it’s surprising to note that this was only the second time they worked together: Barry scored the 1962 romantic drama The L-Shaped Room, which Attenborough produced. Chaplin came to Barry in the aftermath of one of his greatest critical successes, Dances With Wolves, and in many ways those scores are stylistic cousins. During the last decade of his career Barry had very much settled into a singular composing style, built around a series of slow, elegant, deeply romantic themes for strings and piano that carried from movie to movie. Chaplin was built on the shoulders of scores like Somewhere in Time, Out of Africa, and Dances With Wolves, and anyone who loved the effortless beauty of those works will find Chaplin to be very much the same.

The “Chaplin Main Theme” is the cornerstone of the score; a slow, delicate, almost fragile piano theme backed by strings, it almost acts as a lament for Charlie, giving an real emotional weight to the life and career of a man who, despite all his success and fame, remained almost pathologically unfulfilled in his private life, and was desperately worried that he would leave no legacy. The theme romanticizes the inner turmoil in Chaplin’s life with tenderness juxtaposed against sorrow, and it’s one of my favorite pieces from this period in Barry’s career. The theme comes back with appropriate frequency throughout the score, in cues like “Charlie Proposes,” “News of Hetty’s Death,” “From London to L.A.,” and “Remembering Hetty,” all of which make for extremely satisfying listening.

However, what’s interesting about Chaplin is how much ‘other stuff’ there is in the score too. To capture all the different facets of Chaplin’s life, Barry adapted his style into a variety of interesting settings, including some optimistic pieces that underscore his relocation from London to California at the outset of the movies, rousing fanfares that accompany his cinematic triumphs, and some appropriately colorful period jazz, as well as interpolations of themes that Chaplin himself wrote for his own movies.

“Early Days in London” is warmly nostalgic, but also contains some more vibrant brass-led writing that captures the hustle and bustle of Chaplin’s first experiences of show business on the vaudeville stage; some of this writing contains some callbacks to the classic Barry 1960s sound, and the use of the harpsichord/cimbalom brings back especially fond memories of scores like The Quiller Memorandum. The piece also contains an excerpt from the song “The Honeysuckle and the Bee” by William Penn and Albert H. Fitz, which was originally written for a 1901 stage play called ‘Bluebell in Fairyland’, and which you can hear beginning at the 2:43 mark.

There’s a sense of scope and adventure in the wide open chords of “To California,” which shares some musical DNA with the ‘traveling across the plains’ music from Dances With Wolves, and which of course I adore. Then, in “The Cutting Room,” you get a sense of the wondrous joy that Chaplin felt, following his dreams and making the movies that would ultimately entertain millions.

The same sense of lyrical magic is inherent in “Discovering the Tramp,” which revisits some of the same ideas heard in “To California” in marking the turning point in Chaplin’s life, which launched him on the path to cinematic immortality. This is interspersed with some whimsically upbeat comedy music in “The Wedding Chase,” a fun and pompous little march for oompah brasses and dancing woodwinds that captures Chaplin’s sense of humor. Then, “Chaplin’s Studio Opening” offers a moment of glory and professional triumph for Chaplin, rich brass fanfares, rhapsodic pianos, and emotional string passages accompanying the dedication of the building from which he would produce all his classic films. Fans of the climactic sequence of Barry’s 1980 score Raise the Titanic will especially appreciate this brief 2-minute piece.

“The Salt Lake City Episode” features re-recorded music from Chaplin’s classic 1931 film City Lights – boisterous comedy chase music of the highest order – while the “Smile” cues feature the gorgeous theme that Chaplin originally wrote for his 1936 film Modern Times, and which was eventually turned into a classic song for Nat King Cole in 1954. In film context the “Smile” theme represents the oft-repeated concept of ‘the show must go on,’ and how Chaplin repeatedly turned out comedic cinematic masterpieces despite the turmoil and heartbreak in his private life. The choice to use it like this was a brilliant one, and I especially love its waltz-time arrangement in the second of the main statements.

The two “Roll Dance” cues are fun pieces of old-time original dance hall source music, featuring classic big band brasses and honkytonk pianos backed by lightly tapped snares and woodblock percussion. A lot of this music harks back to some of the saloon music that Barry wrote for westerns in the 1960s, perhaps crossed with some of Rachel Portman’s more jaunty ideas.

“Joan Barry Trouble/Oona Arrives” offers one of the score’s few concessions to darkness and melodrama, a mass of stark strings that eventually melt away into a new piece for a quiet, haunted piano; in context, this music represents Chaplin’s lawsuit with Barry, a bit part actress who successfully sued Chaplin in a paternity suit in 1943, despite him not actually being the father of her daughter. The score ends with a 5-minute final recapitulation of both main themes in “Chaplin (Main Theme)/Smile,” although the overall effect is somewhat ruined by the last track on the album, a weird 1990s dance version of “Smile” performed by Downey that, thankfully, was not heard in the film, and I’m really not sure what it’s doing here either.

The original album for Chaplin contained a reasonably generous 45-minute presentation of the score’s main ideas, and for many years has been a well-respected entry into Barry’s late-career filmography. In early 2023, to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary, La-La Land Records teamed up with Studio Canal and Sony Classical to release a remastered, deluxe 3000-unit limited edition presentation of the score, expanded to more than an hour. The album was produced by Neil S. Bulk and features exclusive liner notes by Jon Burlingame, all presented in a handsome package. The album is available now, and is highly recommended to fans who want to enjoy more of Barry’s sophisticated work.

Chaplin is a lovely score that fans of John Barry’s late-career sound will adore. At the time Barry was often criticized for writing within the same musical parameters in score after score – Chaplin would, of course, be followed by scores like My Life, Indecent Proposal, The Scarlet Letter, and Swept from the Sea, all of which existed in mostly the same tonal world – but now, looking back on it thirty years later, and more than a decade after Barry’s death, I can now see how lucky we were to have so many scores like this. The grace, elegance, tenderness, and romantic emotion that comes from scores like Chaplin just isn’t heard in contemporary film music, and listening to it now is like a warm embrace. As a musical representation of one of cinema’s most groundbreaking and important voices, it hits every spot perfectly.

Buy the Chaplin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Chaplin (Main Theme) (3:07)
  • Early Days in London (4:17)
  • Charlie Proposes (3:01)
  • To California/The Cutting Room (3:45)
  • Discovering the Tramp/The Wedding Chase (4:01)
  • Chaplin’s Studio Opening (1:58)
  • Salt Lake City Episode (2:11)
  • The Roll Dance (2:34)
  • News of Hetty’s Death/Smile (3:42)
  • From London to L.A. (3:21)
  • Joan Barry Trouble/Oona Arrives (2:14)
  • Remembering Hetty (2:57)
  • Smile (2:05)
  • The Roll Dance (Alternate Version) (1:47)
  • Chaplin (Main Theme)/Smile (4:48)
  • Smile (written by Charlie Chaplin, Geoffrey Parsons, and John Turner, performed by Robert Downey Jr.) (3:46)
  • Chaplin – Main Theme (3:08)
  • Hannah’s Hope/Workhouse Chase/Mudflats (3:00)
  • To the Asylum (0:57)
  • Charlie on Riverbank (1:10)
  • Charlie Proposes (3:01)
  • Charlie Goes to the U.S. (2:57)
  • In the Cutting Room (2:15)
  • Discovering the Tramp/The Wedding Chase (4:03)
  • Funny With A Hose/This Is My Work (1:26)
  • News of Hetty (1:01)
  • Chaplin’s Studio Opening (1:58)
  • The Roll Dance (2:34)
  • To Salt Lake City (1:07)
  • Salt Lake City Episode (2:11)
  • Tea for Four (1:14)
  • Hetty’s Dead/Smile (2:43)
  • Remembering Hetty (2:58)
  • I Had No Home (0:31)
  • From London to L.A. (3:21)
  • The Hungry People/Smile (1:50)
  • Farewell Sweet Prince (1:25)
  • Joan Out of Control (0:58)
  • Joan Barry Trouble/Oona Arrives (2:15)
  • Premiere Fanfare (0:43)
  • It’s All Over/Guilty (1:20)
  • Theme From “Limelight” (0:48)
  • They’ve Thrown You Out (1:14)
  • Madness, Charlie? (1:00)
  • Smile (2:05)
  • The Roll Dance (1:48)
  • Chaplin – Main Theme/Smile (4:47)
  • Smile (written by Charlie Chaplin, Geoffrey Parsons, and John Turner, performed by Robert Downey Jr.) (3:37)
  • Early Days in London (4:18) Album Suite
  • To California/The Cutting Room (3:44) Album Suite
  • News of Hetty’s Death/Smile (3:43) Album Suite

Running Time: 49 minutes 25 seconds – Original
Running Time: 77 minutes 10 seconds – Expanded

Epic Soundtrax EK 52986 (1992) – Original
La-La Land Records LLLCD1614 (1992/2023) – Expanded

Music composed and conducted by John Barry. Performed by The English Chamber Orchestra. Orchestrations by Nic Raine. ‘Smile’ theme written by Charlie Chaplin. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Andrew Glen. Album produced by John Barry. Expanded album produced by Neil S. Bulk

  1. January 26, 2023 at 9:37 am

    A very fair appraisal, thanks! I would only mention that JB didn’t really ‘score’ The L-Shaped Room, but he *did* score Seance on a Wet Afternoon, which Dickie not only produced but also co-starred. 🙂

  2. scorelover92
    March 14, 2023 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for the good review!
    I really love Barry’s lush romantic themes, but I’ve never had this soundtrack. I think it’s time to fix this.

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