CD Review: Robin and Marian

By • February 2, 2009

Composer: John Barry
Label: Prometheus
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95
Grade: A

He may have gotten his start with the hep swing of BEAT GIRL, then became a musical sensation for creating the cool jazz action of Agent 007. But for all of the lush stylings that John Barry used to define symphonic scoring as a contemporary “with it” sound, the composer proved he could make his approach sound just as contemporarily moving in the service of such historical dramas as MARY QUEEN OF SCOTTS, THE LION AND THE WINTER and THE LAST VALLEY. For if any music conveyed the feeling of untouched forests, royal intrigue and romantic mythmaking, then it was Barry’s theme-heavy scoring. Sure he’d latch onto a melody and beat you to death with it. But what a way to go, as Barry usually came up with a motif that you wouldn’t mind hearing ad infinitum, especially as his theme took on new life with each variation for strings, brass and winds. This was the kind of melody that helped make legendary figures into breathing, loving people, even when their movie got its kicks from turning such Technicolor heroes as Robin Hood and Maid Marian into characters just about ready for assisted living.

Such was director Richard Lester’s revisionist approach for 1976’s ROBIN AND MARIAN, which saw Sherwood Forest’s most famous bandit in the weary, if no less magnetic presence of Sean Connery. And even if his beloved may have had more wrinkles, few female stars aged with the grace of Audrey Hepburn. But if Lester’s heartfelt film was about merrily taking some of the air out of Robin’s sails by making him over the hill, someone forgot to tell John Barry, whose gorgeous score continued his iconic tradition. Yet these wouldn’t be the kind of swashbuckling hosannas that Erich Wolfgang Korngold gave to THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Instead, Barry’s soaring music was about two lovers trying to keep their passion and vitality going in a cruel, grittier world than audiences had seen before in Robin Hood film.

ROBIN AND MARIAN starts with our favorite archer wearily returning from his pointless time in the Crusades, dark military doings that Barry plays the dissonance and military percussion with “Leading In.” Soon, the brassy Barry sound that audiences know and love comes sweeping in with “Ride to Sherwood,” which introduces his love theme at a rousing, proud gallop. Pastoral beauty arrives in the high flutes of “Marian and Robin Meet,” brings their theme down to a beautifully earthy level. Their motif does a swooning build for “Dawn in Sherwood” as Barry’s brass trumpets with medieval resonance. For whether his theme is taking a sweeping “Ride to Nottingham,” plucking with a harp “By the Stream,” or taking on a melancholy nature for “Do You Love Me,” Barry’s music always has a swooning greatness to it, exactly the kind of hearts aflutter stuff that would fill the more popular romantic epics he scored like OUT OF AFRICA and DANCES WITH WOLVES.

Danger abounds just as much as romance in ROBIN AND MARIAN, from the pounding percussion of “Over the Wall” and “The Escape” to the tense military drums of “In Position.” Yet strings or brass are always in the background to make impending doom into a thing of dark beauty. Indeed the march build of “The Preparation” is exactly the kind of Bond countdown stuff that Barry had Connery saving England to in any number of 007 scores. But it’s exactly Barry’s ability to play action with slow, deliberate suspense that’s completely missing in today’s action scores, an way of luxuriating with the flight of an arrow, or the swings of a broadsword in “The Fight” that displays a real, melodic confidence- a simplicity of scoring when most of today’s composer’s are forced to pour on the notes.

As Robin gets off his final, glissando arrow for “The End,” it’s once again Barry’s lilting theme that truly makes Robin and Marian into the kind of star-crossed lovers who are as much the stuff of cinematic legend as it they are stars of English folklore. It’s unabashedly sentimental scoring that’s done with restraint when need be, and intelligence throughout. His approach has made ROBIN AND MARIAN into a score that’s been popular enough to go through no small amount of re-recordings. While the only way you could get the original tracks was by owning its Pioneer laserdisc (due to its isolated score), Prometheus Records has now done an exceptional job at presenting Barry’s full recording, complete with alternate takes. Though the sound might be in mono, the sound its nevertheless glorious enough to break out the handkerchiefs again. Fans who’ve held this film dear to their hearts won’t be disappointed as the legend of John Barry once again takes its rightful place in the annals of movie romance.

There are only 3000 quivers of ROBIN AND MARIAN available, so be sure to grab one here.

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