September 2004 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings / September /

Born Free  
Music composed and conducted by John Barry
Lyrics by Don Black
'Born Free' sung by Matt Munro
  Available on Film Score Monthly FSM Vol 7, No.10
Running time: 39.55
Purchase from: FSM Vol 7, No.10
Film Score Monthly, 8503 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA90232; Tel: 1-888-345-6335; overseas: 310-253-9595; fax: 310-253-9588 e-mail:

born free

See also:
Born Free (2000 re-recording)

Born Free is based on the eponymous, bestselling memoir by Joy Adamson that recounted her life as a senior game warden's wife in Kenya and the adoptive parent of an orphaned lion cub. The book alone was already a worldwide phenomenon during its first five years in print, and in 1966, the movie made it an instant, all-time, family film classic... but not without the aid of John Barry's score.

Barry had already scored a very different African adventure in Zulu, something which in part helped him secure the assignment on Born Free. The film's genesis was really a chain of happenstance rather than deliberate development; with pre-production troubles, debates over the nature of the score, Hollywood hiring/firings, mishaps galore, and chance boons. The movie begot international fame and glory, winning Academy Awards for Best Score and Song, a collaboration between Barry and lyricist Don Black which resulted in one of the most memorable hits of the decade for vocalist Matt Munro. Having been performed and recorded by thousands of artists, including with particular success by American pianist Roger Williams, that golden song is now more familiar to many than the film or book which inspired it. At one point it gained so much popularity that in a 1979 interview, Barry stated "...a certain country in Africa even wanted to use the song as their national anthem."

Film Score Monthly (FSM)'s version of Born Free does not feature Barry's near hour-long original score for the ninety-five minute film (the tapes having long been lost), but it is still a worthwhile acquisition. The original recording for the score was rushed, but at Barry's insistence, it was re-recorded for the LP album release; this 2004 FSM release presents the very same programme, re-mastered for CD. Approximately forty minutes long, it is rewarding for newcomers and hardcore collectors alike.

As usual for Film Score Monthly there is an excellent booklet laden with colour photos, as well as much gossipy text in regards to the film's origins, production history, original LP liner notes, and a brief track-by-track analysis of the music by Jon Burlingame.

A battle of interpretations ensued in post-production when the film's director, James Hill, disagreed with Barry about the film's nature. The dramatic portions of Born Free are little more than segues to the next lion scene, and certain inconsistently shot and colored scenes are cut to as if they are in direct view of one another to create the illusion of interaction. (This could be in part due to the fact that two different directors worked on this film – Tom McGowan working uncredited.) The protagonist's narrative voice over—combined with straightforward acting, functional dialogue, cinematography, and awkward editing, also make the film seem more like a confused documentary piece than an actual movie. According to Barry, the director had a conceited and too serious vision of the film; however, when Hill disappeared from the scene, he adhered to his original choice to emphasize the sentimentality of the milieu à la "Disney-esque pastiche". Despite the dichotomous look and feel, the various incarnations of the theme bind the film as a traditional score should.

On the whole, the work is optimistic, and listeners can expect to encounter convivial motifs and jovial passages that bear reference to Barry's roots in jazz; African percussion is also added to the orchestration to underscore uncertainty, danger or augment the saccharine moments. In the notes, the composer admits that the score is even a textbook example of "...theme-and-variation taken to the nth degree". Unlike his work in Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa, the cues in Born Free do not fully portray the purity, beauty, and vastness of wild, open land, nor do they highlight the exotic feel of Africa. Since the focus is mostly on the journey of the lion cub, the music (at times) acts almost as a first personal raconteur for the lioness, Elsa; cues simply capture the moments of interplay between Elsa and surrogate parents or Elsa and others. The sweeping themes of strings and brass oft associated with Barry are not apparent all throughout the film, but trademark style aside, this is ultimately one of Barry's more blithe and thematically strong compositions.

Born Free is worth its weight in silver as a standalone soundtrack. With glossies, a look at Hollywood filmmaking politics, interviews, and an informative mini-album review, this quality release from FSM is a must-have for collectors of John Barry.

Tina Huang

In Film ***** 5
On Album *** 3

Track listing:

  1. Main Title -- Born Free 2:39
  2. The Hunt 3:13
  3. Elsa at Play 4:36
  4. The Death of Pati 3:34
  5. Waiting for Joy 1:57
  6. Killing at Kiunga 2:35
  7. Born Free (vocal) -- Matt Monro 2:48
  8. Holiday With Elsa 2:47
  9. Flirtation 4:07
  10. Warthog Hunt 2:20
  11. Fight of the Lioness 2:37
  12. Reunion/Born Free 5:51

Film Score Monthly Press Release

Born Free (1966) was a hugely successful wildlife film about Elsa, an orphaned lion cub in Africa who is nursed to adulthood by a husband-and-wife team of nature enthusiasts (Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers). Based on the true-life account by Joy Adamson (whose husband George was a game warden), the film was the rare family adventure that was adored by audiences and critics alike, and has maintained a sterling reputation over the years.

Key to the film's success is its famous score by John Barry. Barry was red-hot from his work on James Bond films and Zulu (1964), and Born Free would cement his reputation as one of the most vibrant composers of the 1960s -- if not of all time. Barry's main theme -- given lyrics by Don Black and sung by Matt Munro -- became a pop sensation and one of the world's most recognizable movie songs, a veritable cultural landmark.

The song "Born Free" has been so successful that it has overshadowed the rest of the score, which is a thoroughly satisfying, romantic and dramatic work. Barry maintains the predominant tone of Disneyesque charm but ranges from dark, suspenseful passages (for the hunting of a man-eating lion) to buoyant setpieces for Elsa's development, and a heartbreaking finale as Elsa is returned to the wild. The sound is symphonic, but with ethnic African touches (in Barry's inimitable style); the score is a far more serious and diverse work than most people realize.

Barry was rushed in his film recording of Born Free and at his insistence performed it again for album release (on MGM Records). This premiere CD release presents the 39:55 LP program, remastered from 1/4" stereo tapes. New, authoritative liner notes by Jon Burlingame tell the heretofore unknown story of the film's development and production, and feature new interview material with Barry and Black.

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