By Mikko Ojala
The 1980’s was a special era for film music. John Williams had revitalized the orchestral score in the late 1970’s with Star Wars and the next decade saw a rapid demand for big orchestral scores to lend prestige and cinematic magic to a myriad of film genres. In the 1980’s Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment was the production company responsible for a great number of colorful, imaginative and inventive films that came to define the movie going memories of the generation that was growing up at that time. Fantasy, whimsy, children in the lead roles, humour and splashes of spectacular special effects were the mainstay of their metier and even though somewhat less remembered, Young Sherlock Holmes is part of this cinematic legacy along with the likes of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins, The Goonies and Back to the Future, all made within first few years of the company’s founding. Steven Spielberg was often the brainchild and executive producer of these stories and Young Sherlock Holmes was no exception. Directed by an up-and-coming Barry Levinson (hot off the success of sports film The Natural) and written by screenwriter and future director Chris Columbus the project had a very Spielbergian stamp on it with all the above elements included in the film.
The story of the movie is a speculative re-imagining on the early years of Sherlock Holmes, this most famous of fictional sleuths, quite non-canonical in content but infused with the appropriate spirit and period feel of the Victorian England and sporting a strong cast, a fantastical plot and a good dose of wide-eyed innocence and humour so typical of Amblin Entertainment’s classic films. The premise of this new take on the beginnings of the career of the famous consulting detective is that Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and John Watson (Alan Cox) meet each other as children in a boarding school, the Brompton Academy, instead of encountering as adults like the canon states in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The two youngsters are suddenly and by coincidence cast in the middle of a sinister plot of an age old Egyptian death cult and forced to face a cunning and frightening adversary who seems to be somehow related to the very school they attend but in the end the dynamic duo succeeds in saving the day through the combination of old fashioned courage and some skillful deduction.
A noteworthy aspect of Amblin Entertainment’s films was always their strong scores, stemming probably in significant part from Steven Spielberg’s love for old fashioned orchestral soundtracks (and music in films in general) and Young Sherlock Holmes is no exception, featuring a powerful, emotional and colorful score by composer Bruce Broughton. While the film itself might bring to mind other movies of the period like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with its death cults and feel of roller coaster type of adventure and penchant for the fantastical Broughton does not directly ape musically these past role models but forges his own way while still writing in a musical language and idiom that is highly recognizable and relatable. The music undeniably hearkens back to John Williams’ and Jerry Goldsmith’s most popular and whimsical scores from the period in overall stylistic sense but it is entirely Broughton’s own creation, not a mere pastiche or an imitation but a real show piece of a young and talented composer.
1985 was a busy and spectacular year for Broughton. The composer had won his spurs in the world of television in the first decade of his career and was now moving into films and had a special challenge before him. He had just composed the score for Lawrence Kasdan’s highly successful western Silverado, a work that is now lauded as one of his best, and Young Sherlock Holmes followed hot on its heels. Broughton took on YSH right after finishing Silverado and was thus afforded only 4 weeks to complete the score, some 90 minutes of relatively complex orchestral music. But the composer rose up to the challenge and produced what most film music fans consider to be his magnum opus and one of the quintessential adventure film scores of the 1980’s. This film really allowed him to spread his wings and fill it with expansive themes, nuanced and colorful musical storytelling, exquisite orchestrations and infuse it with the spirit and energy that is so emblematic of this period of film making.
The score takes its architectural cue from classics of the genre and is built on several leitmotifs and recurring musical ideas that weave in and out of the score with effortless fluidity and at the same time support and clarify the storytelling. It is one Broughton’s most ambitious works in this regard and the music combines several dramatic impulses needed by the story, the Elgarian evocations of Victorian England, exotic modes and Carl Orff-like choral chants for the Egyptian death cult, advanced 20th century orchestral techniques for numerous sequences of suspense, action and horror but all this is tied together by the composer’s own musical voice, that brings a tremendous amount of wit and warmth to the score.
As mentioned above, this score is highly thematic and Broughton begins to weave his net of musical ideas right from the opening notes. The prologue (‘The First Victim’ and ‘The Old Hat Trick’) features mostly suspenseful and very subtle hints at the villainous themes to come but works rather in instrumental colours and slowly intensifying frightening and wild orchestrational techniques to accompany the hallucinations and death of the first victim that opens the story. Here Broughton draws us in with mysterious ambivalent musical evocations and then proceeds to scare us with raucous aural assault which is tense but done with such skill it never becomes unlistenable.
This atmospheric scoring also becomes a musical signature in its own right as the strange hallucination sequences throughout the film are treated in similar way in terms of orcherstration and style. Later tracks like ‘The Glass Soldier’ (keep your ears peeled for Broughton’s small homage to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho here), ‘Cold Revenge’ (note the wonderfully manic blaring stopped brass and off-kilter woodwind figures) and ‘Pastries and Crypts’ (moaning and eerily whispering choral accompaniment for Sherlock Holmes’ nightmarish visions of failure, another small but deft musical touch), ‘The Explanation’ and ‘Cragwitch Goes Again’ (the two latter containing a very effective building screaming woodwind figure depicting growing madness and danger of strangulation at the same time) all feature similar elements which further intensify the proceedings and wild visions of the main characters to fever pitch.
As for the more melodic musical material, this score has a treasure trove of it. The composer opens ‘Main Title’ with a melody he calls the Investigation Theme, which is a mischievous and infectious composition for Holmes’ powers of deduction and for solving of the mysteries in the film. It is a curious, searching and mysterious melody that, as the name suggests, drives Holmes’ and Watson’s investigations throughout the story. The sharp clear tones of piccolo flute carry the whimsical melodic idea in its initial appearance while strings and brass intone the soaring emotional secondary section of theme. Flute and strings are usually employed throughout as the main instrumental colours for the Investigation Theme, the clear sounds winding ever on like Holmes on the trail of the mysteries. There is a hint of darkness to it which functions not only as the “Game is afoot” signal for the lead characters but seems to hint at the dangers inherent in unmasking these secrets.
Broughton’s variations of this idea are delightful and he always finds new orchestrational and compositional ways to either combine it with other themes or vary the idea itself. For example ‘Getting the Point’ features a subtle but effective woodwind interpolation of this music as the trio of children delve deeper into the mystery of the Egyptian cult and discover an underground pyramid at the heart of London and Discovered by Rathe contains pensive but lyrical flute variations on it before going to some vintage suspense material that while not thematic always remains strongly melodic and engaging.
The main title opens with a recurring unique musical effect, the string section tapping the strings of their instruments with their bows, achieving a disturbing and singular sound reminiscent of flapping of hundreds of wings. This sound is utilized several times in the score in semi-leitmotific fashion to announce the appearance of the villains, here a musical hint of things to come and a very nice inventive touch from Broughton.
The main idea for the friendship and heroism of Holmes and Watson is titled by the composer as The Adventure Theme that forms the heart of the score, not only trailing after our heroes on their adventure but underscoring their camaraderie and ebullient spirit throughout as well. It is highly memorable and tuneful and actually serves as the main theme of the score. It is introduced formally in noble Elgarian fashion on warm strings and woodwinds in Watson’s Arrival with very proper English tones and developed extensively through the first disc in varying guises often containing an element of humour to it. ‘Solving the Crime’ opens with the Investigation Theme that dances whimsically on its signature flute as the protagonists are put to the test by a fellow pupil but then the cue proceeds to a playful and thoroughly delightful set piece variation of the Adventure Theme material where woodwinds and strings carry the melody through the track to a resouding brass finale as his powers of deduction win Holmes the day. It is a textbook case of both thoughtful and at the same time infectuous and musically fluid scoring of a montage and easily one of the highlights of the first disc. Through the story the theme grows in heroism and both main themes reach their apex during the last third of the film where they climb to soaring brassy heights during the final rescue operation and finale on tracks ‘It’s You’, ‘Temple Fire’, ‘Ehtar’s Escape’ and ‘Duel and Final Farewell’. In these cues Broughton’s fine writing combines all of his main thematic ideas and puts them through good doses of old fashioned Hollywood swashbuckle development in the tradition of Korngold, Goldsmith and Williams as the heroes and the villain do their ultimate battle. Exciting stuff to say the least and all done with such panache!
Broughton’s Love Theme for Holmes and his love interested Elisabeth (Sophie Ward) is in essence just a more tender variation on the Adventure Theme stemming from the fact that Broughton saw Elisabeth’s character as the perfect companion to Holmes as she shares many of the same qualities of ingenuity, deduction and heart. While it is woven throughout the score the more prominent renditions of this love music are heard in ‘Library Love’, ‘The Hat’ and the concertized version ‘Holmes and Elisabeth – Love Theme’ and ‘Duel and Final Farewell’ that all showcase this side of the main character with gentle warm orchestral colours, illustrating deftly a budding teenage romance, Broughton’s music in turn suitably bashful, yearning and romantic.
The villains of the story the mysterious revenge bent Ethar (Anthony Higgins) Cult of Rame Tep are in turn portrayed by an exotic choral chant and the ritualistic rhythm that accompanies it. Broughton’s work has by the composer’s own admission hints of Carl Orff’s famous ‘O Fortuna’ in it but the steadily paced rhythm and inexorable orchestral pulse he weaves beneath the choral voices is quite impressive and provides a lot of drive and drama to the sacrificial ritual sequences where it is featured. It is first hinted softly by the orchestra at the end of ‘Getting the Point’ as the pyramid is revealed and returns in full choral form on the following track ‘Rame Tep’. ‘Pastries and Crypts’ sees the theme developed in purely orchestral guise as the cult gives chase to our heroes, the aggressive rhythms and furiously seesawing strings adding to the sense of urgency of the frantic escape. ‘Cragwitch Goes Again’ reveals a subtly ominous woodwind reading of it but the theme’s ultimate development full of fiery orchestral and choral fury comes in the set piece of ‘Waxing Elisabeth’ that churns forth unstoppably full of manic ritualistic grandeur and menace.
To complement these central themes Broughton comes up with supporting material like the small thematic idea is assigned to Holmes’ fencing skills. It is introduced in ‘Fencing with Rathe’, where it appears in a suitably balletic and sprightly string setting depicting agility with deft sophistication and shades of this material are woven into the final sword fighting music in ‘Duel and Final Farewell’. Broughton also conjures up a slightly quirky and optimistically leaping melody for professor Waxflatter, Elisabeth’s slightly eccentric uncle with whom she lives in the academy and who is fond of flying contraptions. This piece is heard prominently in busy and comedic guise in ‘Library Love/Waxflatter’s First Flight’ and ‘Second Attempt’ where it through woodwinds and brass leaps to lopsided flight and finally presages the soaring glory of the Adventure Theme in ‘It’s You’ where it provides giddy anticipation to the gravity defying exhilaration and sheer joy of flight as Waxflatter’s invention finally takes to the skies.
Not only the score communicates its narrative with clarity through its themes, varying idioms and orchestrations but it also forms a highly strong narrative arc on its own. The 90 minute score rushes past in no time and the musical programme of the new release works splendidly. The opening disc contains roughly 30 minutes of music, where the composer introduces his musical ideas and the second disc sees them put through all kind of variations and permutations leading to the aforementioned rousing and thoroughly satisfying finale that is rounded out by end credits of the classic kind (‘The Riddles Solved/End Credits’), where Broughton presents all his themes in a terrific and well developed suite full of sense of nostalgia, accomplishment and optimism reminding this reviewer of the fine closing credit cues penned by the maestros Williams, Horner and Goldsmith.
The release’s second disc offers a few extras after the actual film score, these being pieces of diegetic source music (Broughton’s original composition, a Middle Eastern woodwind number ‘Belly Dancer’ and the traditional carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’) and an interesting collection of alternate cues from the recording sessions that illustrate slight changes made in the scoring process (original ‘Ethar’s Escape’ and shorter ‘Main Title (Film Version)’) and two other pieces showing off Broughton’s orchestrational and compositional skills (‘Waxing Elisabeth (orchestra only)’ and ‘Waxing Elisabeth (choir only)’) and offer an interesting glimpse to the scoring processes where the vocals and orchestra are often recorded separately and mixed later together but in this case both work extremely well on their own.
The score was afforded an LP release with some 35 minutes of music compiled on the album in 1985 and the soundtrack garnered positive critical reviews but it never made transition to CD format depriving the following generations the opportunity to experience this beautiful score in all its glory. In the intervening years it became highly sought after item with countless fans clamoring for its release and now 29 years later Intrada has finally rectified the situation and in collaboration with the composer produced a complete 2 disc presentation of the music. This truly is the definitive release of this marvellous work presented in a lavish set with liner notes by John Takis and a lengthy and interesting interview between Intrada’s producer Douglas Fake and Bruce Broughton discussing the score, his working methods and his career. I consider Young Sherlock Holmes to be a gem that has been hidden for far too long and Intrada should be applauded loudly for their efforts to release this score, which is not only one of the composer’s best but of the genre and the period.
So I can’t recommend this score enough to any true fan of film music and especially to those who have fallen in love the big, melodic and spirited orchestral film scores of the 1980s as this is a prime example of first rate film scoring from that period. And surely this music might have been as famous, widely known and celebrated as those of Williams’ or Goldsmith’s had it been attached to a more successful film. Hopefully hearing this music will spark people’s interest in exploring further the versatile and always exciting music of Bruce Broughton, this often unsung but tremendously talented composer. Heartily recommended and dare I say a worthy addition to any film music collection.
Young Sherlock Holmes is out now from Intrada Records