Variations on a Theme, No. 8: Midnight Cowboy (1969)


John Barry – Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir. John Schlesinger)

Winner at the 1970 Academy Awards: Burt Bacharach, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, dir. George Roy Hill)

John Barry received onscreen credit for “music supervision” in Midnight Cowboy, but for some reason, no credit was given to him for his original score compositions. Even so, every viewer of Midnight Cowboy recognizes his contribution, most of all in the “Midnight Cowboy” (1) theme featuring harmonica performed by Toots Thielemans, an iconic melody for a groundbreaking film. “Science Fiction” (2) plays during the Times Square theater scene between Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and the nervous college student (Bob Balaban), a dark and moody piece that plays while Joe watches a sci-fi film and makes a similar trek into unknown and confusing territory as a male prostitute serviced by a man. And, of course, the upbeat “Florida Fantasy” (3) is heard while Joe and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), freezing in their apartment which doesn’t get heat (it’s in an abandoned building), try to stay warm by shuffling around the floor and dreaming of being in Miami’s sunnier climes. I don’t suppose any of these tracks is more famous than Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” (originally written and recorded by Fred Neil three years earlier) since Nilsson’s cover plays many times throughout Midnight Cowboy, but I can’t imagine any better representation of Joe Buck’s odyssey than John Barry’s main theme; it is equal parts optimistic and sad, the former for the beginning of the film and the latter for the end. All three selections from the score have that duality, a brightness tinged with poignancy.


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