The Black Hole (John Barry)

Cover

After the monumental success of Fox’s Star Wars in 1977, other Hollywood studios rushed their own space operas into production. Disney’s entry also was its first PG-rated film, The Black Hole. Despite a strong marketing push, the film failed to find an audience, with ponderous pacing, ridiculous scientific impossibilities such as humans breathing in space, and a nonsensical ending overwhelming the picture’s excellent special effects and decent cast. It’s a mostly-forgotten curiosity today, though occasional rumblings of a remake surface every now and again.

For the score, Disney chose John Barry, clearly hoping to create a best-selling score album to match John Williams’ Star Wars and Barry’s own James Bond works. While few soundtrack fans would automatically associate Barry with sci-fi, the composer had experience in the field, with Starcrash (an earlier Star Wars wannabe) and Howard the Duck (which saw Barry teaming with George Lucas) to his credit over the years. With his languid and often somnambulant 1980s romance pictures still ahead of him, Barry was as often thought of as an action composer as anything else.

There was clearly a push for Barry to write in the Star Wars mode for The Black Hole, and he responded by writing an overture consisting of a heroic, major-key march. It’s very clearly derivative of Williams’ work, and is completely unsuited to the film’s dark tone, but the overture is still listenable and enjoyable. It’s not the strongest post-Star Wars sci-fi bombast, but by no means the worst, and Barry minimizes its inclusion in the score proper, with only a single up-tempo reprise in “Laser.” Incidentally, The Black Hole, along with the concurrent Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was the last major American film to include an overture before the film during its roadshow release. Barry’s overture only resurfaces again during the combat scenes in the film’s endgame, accompanying the most triumphant parts of laser battles in which maintenance robots inexplicably outmaneuver and blast military models.

The score’s true main theme is presented in the “Main Title,” and is a delight–menacing, pulsating, and dark. It captures the swirling, implacable nature of the titular black hole perfectly, and is a superb match to the computer-generated effects shots overlaying the title (incidentally, another industry first). This theme is reprised and given an extended performance in “Zero Gravity,” the “End Title,” and is worked into the rest of the underscore, often rather subtly.

Those parts of the score that don’t feature either theme are reminiscent of Barry’s work on the James Bond series, with percussion and brass overlaid on a bed of swirling strings. There’s little of Barry’s trademark lush romanticism save for a burst near the end of “Into the Hole,” where it accompanies what passes for the film’s ending, a series of increasingly abstract images that tried (and failed) to approximate the thought-provoking coda of 2001.

Barry gives the entire score a further sci-fi feel by incorporating electronics in performances of the main title and the action music in “Laser.” This takes the form of a synthetic whooshing effect and the distinctive metallic clang of the Blaster Beam instrument that punctuates portions of the main title and provides a strong, propulsive opening to the “Laser” track. In the frantic closing portions of the score’s action music, “Hot and Heavy” and “Hotter and Heavier,” the Bond-style music and Blaster Beam are layered together in a dark motif that perfectly compliments the scenes of devastation in a spacecraft torn apart by meteors and a black hole (if one can ignore the humans breathing comfortably in the decompressed craft’s hull!).

For many years, The Black Hole had one major flaw: lack of availability on CD. It was only issued as an LP with 30 minutes of highlights in conjunction with the film, was not legitimately released on CD as many of the Disney properties eventually were. LP-to-CD rips proliferated before a belated digital release of the LP program to iTunes, but it wasn’t until 2011 when Intrada finally came to the rescue, issuing the complete score in theoretically unlimited lumbers as part of their Disney-branded line. Hopefully, this will allow the music to connect with a new generation of fans, as The Black Hole has many qualities that distinguish it from standard Barry fare–the main title theme in particular is like nothing else the man has ever written, and it remains the very best of Barry’s limited space opera music available in any form. Highly recommended, if you think you’d enjoy hearing John Barry’s take on the post-Star Wars space opera genre, complete with a bold if derivitive main title march and ominous, pulsating underscore.

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