Saturday, April 19, 2014

‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ the ‘Harry Potter’ of its day

The setting is a Victorian Era English boarding school where strange and sinister events are abound. It is the classic hero’s journey featuring a young man with extraordinary abilities who must face down a powerful enemy and battle dark, mystical forces. There are magical special effects, memorable characters, beautifully understated performances, and a great musical score.

The above could easily be a logline for “Harry Potter”, but the movie being described is “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985), a neglected and criminally underrated fantasy adventure that features an equally underrated soundtrack by and underappreciated master composer.  You get the picture.

“Young Sherlock Holmes” came to market boasting impeccable credentials; produced by Amblin Entertainment—executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy—directed by Barry Levinson, and written by the red-hot young scribe of the day, Chris Columbus who was hot off of “Gremlins” (1984) and would go on to direct the first two “Harry Potter” films.

The casting is superb— Anthony Higgins, Sophie Ward, Alan Cox, and especially Nicholas Rowe as the title character. Barry Levinson’s spot-on understated direction and superb pacing make the most of Chris Columbus’s intelligent, character-driven screenplay. The special effects are outstanding—and by that I mean they still look amazing today—especially a jaw-dropping sequence where the image of a knight on stained glass window jumps to life and makes cinematic history as the first CGI character ever.

This a movie that had everything going for it and yet premiered on December 4th, 1985 to vindictive reviews and empty theaters. So what happened? To understand this you have to go back to late 1985 and understand the political environment around the movie industry. There was a huge Spielberg backlash underway—one that unjustly resulted in the bearded one being snubbed by the Academy for “The Color Purple”.

“Young Sherlock Holmes” was the third film of the year to bear the “Steven Spielberg Presents” moniker, following “Back to the Future” and “The Goonies”. “Back to the Future” was an instant classic but “The Goonies” was not held in the high regard it is today. Almost anyone over the age of eight found the film grating (the preview audience I saw it with booed) and a few bold critics decided to take on Spielberg by blaming him for attaching his name to such a sloppy film.

On top of all of this “Amazing Stories”—the innovative anthology television series—debuted on NBC in September of 1985 amid a swarm of hype beyond anything you can imagine today. Remember this was pre-internet, pre-AMC, pre-everything—there were three major networks and that was it. When the first episode of Amazing Stories aired—“Ghost Train” directed by Spielberg himself—it and he were savagely attacked by critics. Television reviewers had broken the seal by trying to belittle the movie god. This opened up the door for film critics and the entertainment elite, who were seething that Spielberg was adapting “The Color Purple”, to take him on. After that, every reporter, critic, or jealous Hollywood contemporary who had bitterly sat back and watched the rise of the phenom who had taken the world by storm ten years earlier with “Jaws”, let loose their wrath and attacked.

These were the circumstances surrounding the opening of “Young Sherlock Holmes”. Add to that the fact Paramount Pictures had no idea how to market the film (so they simply did not bother), and the result is a forgotten movie, barely seen—and a fantastic film score, rarely heard. Actually never heard outside of the film. At least not in a proper commercial release—not until now.

One of the true Holy Grails of soundtracks—Bruce Broughton’s superb, majestic musical score for “Young Sherlock Holmes” is at long last available in a dynamically produced and packaged two-disc soundtrack presentation.

Featuring a knockout, heroic, soaring main theme that is so flexible, fluid, energetic, and emotionally resonating, it is expertly employed throughout the score with a variety of tempos and orchestration choices and used for action, suspense, and even romantic moments.

There are so many highlights and so many magical moments in this soundtrack, it would take a book full of essays to do it justice. Bruce Broughton does so many things—gestures and choices no composer working on the “A” list today would ever even think of outside of John Williams and maybe Howard Shore. The way brass is featured and how crisp and alive and organic the instrumentation sounds—how the orchestrations are clear and uncluttered—how there is vertical movement in the music, as opposed to the linear droning dominating almost every score you hear today.

Broughton can write action music too—thunderous brassy cues that rock with urgency and adrenaline. Disc one opens with back to back exciting cues with “The First Victim” and “Old Hat Trick” before introducing the instantly memorable main theme in “Main Title”.

Track 6, “Library Love/Waxflatter’s First Flight”,  gives us a sneak peek into the score’s moving love theme and a touch of soaring flight music to be used later in this soundtrack and developed further in another Broughton masterwork he would go on to do in 1986, “The Boy Who Could Fly”.

Track 7, “Fencing With Rathe”, is one minute and seven seconds of pure heroic joy and track 9, “Solving The Crime”, is a vertical, energetic, emotionally vibrant, super-strong statement of the main theme with a wondrous euphoric afterglow. In the final track of disc one, “Holmes And Elizabeth”. Broughton gives us the full version of his love theme hinted at earlier—and it will break your heart.

Disc two is jam-packed with so much excitement, melodic wonder, scary suspense, and furious action music—it simply must be heard to be believed. This is a rare talent, a star composer in command of the orchestra operating at a creative peak. “Young Sherlock Holmes” is such a confident score. Broughton is never afraid to push it and go for the big emotions and big scares. “Waxing Elizabeth”, “Temple Fire”, and “Ethar’s Escape” are the most exciting action adventure cues not composed by someone named Williams.

Another thing Broughton does so well is bring his score to a crescendo, interweaving all of the various motifs, themes, and melodies into a carefully crafted sequence of final cues that moves us and allows the film—and the listener—to reach an emotionally satisfying place.

Bottom line: Bruce Broughton’s “Young Sherlock Holmes” soundtrack is a bold, melodic, exciting, wondrous score that takes the listener on a musical journey. It is a classic that stands right alongside Broughton’s other ‘80s masterworks such as “Silverado” (1985), “The Boy Who Could Fly” (1986), and “Harry and the Hendersons” (1987).

Monday, April 14, 2014

My top ten favorite things right now

Eliza Dushka

This picture from the recent Emerald City Comicon in Seattle says it all.

“Years of Living Dangerously”

Executive produced by James Cameron and Arnold for Showtime this beautifully produced series is the most intelligent and thought provoking and important program you will ever see on television. Watch Don Cheadle visit a drought-stricken Texas where an evangelical scientist (yes you heard me right) speaks to the people about climate change. See Harrison Ford take on the corrupt Indonesia Forestry Service where deforestation is causing more carbon emission than all the cars in LA put together.


I finally got on board and went on an “Arrow” binge to catch up and am loving it! What really got me hooked was the “Birds of Prey” episode—outstanding.  The brooding tone and well written and acted character drama are reminiscent of the short-lived 1990 CBS incarnation “The Flash” starring John Wesley Shipp.

Lea Michelle’s new album

The best pure singing voice on the planet right now takes a crack at pop music and the result is an irresistible album jam-packed with catchy hooks and heartfelt melodies. The feel good album of the year.

“The Walking Dead” season four finale

I am still recovering! This last batch of episodes was the best since season one with some of the best acting—and action—seen on television anywhere.

“Captain America”

The best comic book movie since the “The Dark Knight”—and the most irreverent. Here is my full review.

Lana Del Rey

She will probably be on every best ten list I ever make.

Neve Campbell’s appearance in the “Mad Men” final season opener

I just love Neve Campbell and have had a thing for her going back to “Party of Five”. Okay I admit that thing really took hold after “Wild Things”. 

Paramore and Haley Williams

It has been a year since their latest self-titled album was released and it still plays in my daily rotation.

The “Guardians of the Galaxy” trailer

Because I’m hooked on a feeling….

Sunday, April 6, 2014

'Captain America' sequel, smart, subversive

The new “Captain America” movie—officially titled “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”—is Disney/Marvel’s version of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”—a relentlessly entertaining epic action comic book opera that is not afraid to present complex ideas and question the powers that be, not only in the Marvel movie universe, but in our current real-life contemporary society. It is also arguably the best comic book movie since 2008’s groundbreaking “The Dark Knight”.

The movie efficiently introduces into Captain America’s world by showing him meeting a new friend (Sam Wilson / Falcon played by Anthony Mackie) during a high speed run. It is a wonderful scene done with just the right touch of humor while reminding us Steve Rogers/Captain America is a man struggling with the adjustment of being thrown seventy years into a future. Chris Evans just is Captain America and this time out he goes beyond just nailing the character and adds more pathos and a new layer of complexity.
All of the characters presented in this film have depth and an emotional arc that makes us care about them and at the same time each action they take moves the intricate plot forward at a break-neck speed. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the fastest moving two hour and sixteen minute movie you will ever see.
The cast is simply outstanding. Not only do we get Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Anthony Mackie blazing across the screen with their rock star charisma and electric chemistry, but we also have Emily VanCamp, an appearance by Haley Atwell, the beautiful Jenny Agutter from the 1976 “Logan’s Run”, Samuel L. Jackson bringing a new heavyweight complexity to Nick Fury, and the legendary Robert Redford who nearly steals the whole show as politician with an agenda that unleashes chaos—literally.

A word about Scarlett Johansson. There has been talk about “Black Widow” getting her on own spin off movie. Any doubts about whether that would work are eviscerated by this movie and the fierce and emotionally resonant performance Scarlett gives. Natasha, like all of the characters in the movie, deepen as scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely weave their character-oriented action plot.
Oh yeah, there is action too; lots of action expertly choreographed and flawlessly executed. This movie has more stunts than a dozen James Bond movies, smash mouth fight scenes rivaling those in “Fast and Furious 6”, and political intrigue on a par with shows such as “24” and “Nikita”. This sequel is superior to the original in every way except two technical ones. Henry Jackman’s serviceable score will not leave you wanting to jump online and buy the soundtrack as Alan Silvestri’s rousing music did. But Jackman wisely keeps Silvestri’s glorious, heroic main theme. Also, “The Winter Soldier” does not look as good as the first film, but that is to be expected since the original was a period piece directed by former ILM art director Joe Johnston.
Bottom line: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a smashing sequel—a bold, socially relevant, exciting, politically savvy film with a stellar cast and a deeper, superior story. It is a blast.