Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes is uncomfortably wedged in his filmography between hits like The Natural and Good Morning Vietnam. Sherlockian purists were horrified by the notion that Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty had met in an 1860s boarding school rather than as adults. Audiences were turned off by a bizarre plot (involving Egyptian cults, hidden temples, and mind-altering poisons) that seemed more Temple of Doom than Red-Headed League. As a result, the film was a major box office disappointment, barely recouping its budget, and it is primarily remembered today for a brief sequence involving a hallucinated stained glass knight that was created by John Lasseter and what would eventually become Pixar.
Levinson has regularly swapped composers throughout his career, and for Young Sherlock Holmes he approached Bruce Broughton, who was at the time finishing work on his breakout score, the Oscar-nominated Silverado. Broughton had worked in television scoring early in his career, but the well-received scores for his twin 1985 projects would usher in his most prolific period of scoring for major feature films. Armed with an impressive musical budget, Broughton was able to assemble the Sinfonia of London and a large choir for the endeavor.
Broughton’s signature from the film is, of course, his theme for Holmes. It’s an innocent woodwind-led and flighty piece of music, suggesting the detective’s youth and analytical mind. If anything, it sounds like a more youthful version of the same Sherlockian sound Henry Mancini would unleash a year later in The Great Mouse Detective. After its introduction in “Main Title,” Holmes’ theme is hinted in “Fencing With Rathe” before receiving a proper variation in “Solving the Crime,” but oddly the theme is not employed as often as one would think. Broughton chooses to give his love theme a much more prominent place in the score than Holmes’ own; the latter doesn’t take flight until the closing parts of the score when it’s given a furious adaptation into the Williams-esque “Ehtar’s Escape” and “Duel.”
It was for the character of Elizabeth, Holmes’ love interest, that Broughton fashioned his classically-inclined love theme. First heard (somewhat oddly) in “Watson’s Arrival,” the theme is heard in places like “Library Love” and “Fencing With Rathe” before being given a brief concert performance in “Holmes And Elizabeth – Love Theme.” A few final performances litter the second disc, generally fragmented and tragic. The relative shortchanging of Holmes’ theme is a bit of a mystery: it’s a wonderful thematic idea and has influenced its share of other composers, but for whatever reason Broughton prefers his love theme. The latter is simply not as memorable or intricate, and yet it occupies a much more prominent place in the score.
The most powerful theme Broughton created for the film was associated with its most ridiculous aspect: the scenes involving a hidden Egyptian cult in London. For these scenes and the villainous character of Eh-Tar, the composer wrote an impressive choral theme that is equal parts Carmina Burana and Temple of Doom, thundering through “Rame Tep” and “Waxing Elizabeth.” Broughton also gives the theme instrumental outings with the full symphony in “Pastries And Crypts” and the latter part of “Waxing Elizabeth” among other places; whether associated with the ludicrous temple or the only slightly less ludicrous figure of Eh-Tar, it is by far the strongest material written for the film and has been rerecorded numerous times by other ensembles.
It’s clear that, whether due to temp track influence or the producer, John Williams was a large influence on Broughton’s work on Young Sherlock Holmes; many of the cues employ quirk of orchestration that are highly reminiscent of the maestro, with Broughton adapting them with gusto. But one area in which he fails is in the mass of underscore devoted to mystery and suspense. These tracks, from the opening “The First Victim” to the later “Cold Revenge” or “Craigwich Goes Again” simply aren’t terribly interesting: they tend to be dour (and almost atonal at times of violence and murder) and are precisely the sort of filler that was often cut from albums at the time. And Broughton, for whatever reason, generally fails to adapt his basket of good-to-great themes into the underscore proper in many places, leaving dry stretches with little other than dry, Williams-esque 1980s suspense and horror to sustain listeners.
Young Sherlock Holmes became something of a cause célèbre among film music fans for many years due to its lack of availability on CD. Broughton arranged 40 minutes of highlights for an album that appeared on LP and cassette in 1985 but, perhaps due to the film’s failure, the only digital source for many years were rare promotional albums issued by the composer himself through the Intrada label. In 2014, the label finally released the complete 90-minute score, plus alternates, in an unlimited-quantity 2-CD set. Somewhat ironically, though, the original LP/cassette program contains nearly all the highlights from the complete score; by presenting them together, absent the much less interesting suspense tracks, that album proves much more satisfying than the complete set (though it can easily be reassembled from the content’s of Intrada’s loving presentation).
Alongside that stained glass knight, Bruce Broughton’s score for Young Sherlock Holmes has been one of the only anchors to keep that forgotten film in memory. Listeners’ reactions to it will ultimately be colored by how they respond to the lengthy periods of quieter, less ambitious music between its highlights, and whether the score’s hyperbolic praise from collectors is something that this (or any) music can live up to. Even so, despite its weaknesses, the album is an essential purchase for fans of Broughton and loopy 1980s fantasy films.