I know, I know: Howard the Duck was pretty much laughed off theater screens when it premiered in the summer of 1986. Over time, many of us have mellowed in our view of the film, which has a weird charm and a wonderful performance by Lea Thompson (fresh off her Back to the Future success). But what you may not know is that composer John Barry (who had just won his fourth Academy Award for Out of Africa) wrote a spectacular score, much of which was dropped during post-production. The Intrada label has just released a 3-disc set containing more than 100 minutes of John Barry’s original music — variously noirish, romantic and action-filled — plus the songs by Thomas Dolby and the replacement score by Sylvester Levay. I wrote a lengthy essay for the colorful booklet, and director Willard Huyck was kind enough to grant me an interview talking about the music.
As many of you know, one of my special interests over the years has been the music of composer John Barry. He scored just four Westerns during his career. I first met him while interviewing him about one of those, his eventual Oscar winner Dances With Wolves, for Premiere magazine. But in the early 1980s he scored another one, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and it was a pleasure to write the liner notes for this first-ever CD release of the 1982 LP. Country legend Merle Haggard sings the ballad, “The Man in the Mask,” and lyricist Dean Pitchford contributed some eye-opening reminiscences in a new interview for my essay.
Each year at this time I rummage through 12 months of CDs to chronicle the best of the year in “classic film music” — that is, the expanded reissues, the newly recorded scores, and in some special cases the first releases of great old scores that always deserved an album but never got one. There are 20 entries, all listed here, but this year there were so many excellent releases that I added an “honorable mention” section at the bottom with more of my favorites that didn’t quite make the main list. Intrada and La-La Land were this year’s top labels (that is, with the most entries) but there are worthy contributions here from Kritzerland, Quartet, Varese Sarabande, Play-Time, Universal France and Dragon’s Domain. Check them out.
One of composer John Barry’s most prestigious assignments was the 1975 adaptation of Nathanael West’s nightmarish vision of 1930s Hollywood, The Day of the Locust, by the Midnight Cowboy team of director John Schlesinger, writer Waldo Salt and producer Jerome Hellman. I was delighted to write a 3,000-word essay on the film and its terrific score. One of the highlights of this album (considerably expanded from the original LP) is the addition of newly discovered recordings of a song based on Barry’s nostalgic theme, with three different Don Black lyrics, that went unused in the original film. I did new interviews with Hellman and Black for the essay.