Bits & Pieces — Musical Score, “Young Sherlock Holmes”

by Gabriel Valdez

One of the most exquisite and overlooked musical scores in film history belongs to Harry Potter Year Zero– er, I mean Young Sherlock Holmes.

When the 1985 film is thought of, it’s for its Academy Award-nominated special effects: it featured terrific stop-motion animation and brought to life cinema’s first fully CGI character – a stained glass knight. Written by Chris Columbus, its boarding school mystery mechanics would also one day serve as a rough draft for the first two Harry Potter films, which he would write and direct.

The standout for me was its music. I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw Young Sherlock Holmes. It was years after its original release – I was six, maybe seven. I’d encountered music that was beautiful as a child, and I had a particular fondness for classical, but music had always been accompaniment for something else. The score by Bruce Broughton was the first that made me yearn and hope, fear and loathe. The main theme could make me content in a moment, while its assertive suspense themes could rile me into nervous attention in a heartbeat. Listen to the ceremonial chant of “Waxing Elizabeth”:

Housed inside this scene is every fear I had as a child, suffused and purified into a single sound. It was as if every time I listened to it, I matched myself against some magical otherness and came out the other side. Why? Look at how the main theme is used throughout the rest of the film.

It’s often used playfully. Watch this scene from Holmes’ Defense Against the Dark Arts class as Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy look on- I mean watch this scene from his fencing class:

The beauty of the score is how well it backgrounds the main theme to nearly everything else that’s going on. No matter how aggressive or creepy its other themes get, the main theme will find a way through. This is pretty important for a children’s movie (and Young Sherlock Holmes was a pretty dark one).

The main theme is the very first thing a child anchors to in a movie. It doesn’t symbolize a character or a thematic quality to a child, it doesn’t even symbolize hope – to a child, it just means normality, the starting point of a story. Normality is safety. So long as that safety is present, a child can let his or her mind run wild with the darkest and most dangerous possibilities. Listen to how that main theme is factored into the movie’s finale (the clip contains MAJOR SPOILERS):

That musical through line says, “Don’t worry, I’m still here.” It’s a musical trail of breadcrumbs that reminds children their starting point still exists. We forget that, as kids, we make a lot of decisions concerning how scared we allow ourselves to become when we encounter movies, books, and games. Young Sherlock’s musical reminder allows young viewers the room to be open-minded about getting scared. It’s what lets the film get away with a number of horror elements.

The only time that theme doesn’t poke its head out is during “Waxing Elizabeth.” It’s the one time that subconscious safety net is yanked out from under the viewer, but it’s executed with such captivating grandiosity and at such a crucial moment in the film that the viewer has no choice but to remain. It forces children to make the decision: I will go forward without a safety net. Here’s the full soundtrack version (complete with nonsense ancient Egyptian lyrics):

It still sends chills up my spine, even if I’ve seen the movie 20 times, but its impact in the film lies in glancing around, not finding my musical trail of breadcrumbs, and deciding to continue ahead anyway. The score is unique in that way. It asks children to be braver and trusts that they will be. Broughton’s score is a fine accomplishment on its musical merits, but how it interacts with children on a storytelling level by asking them to take an emotional chance – it’s risky and it’s textbook all at once. As far as watching movies goes, it was the most crucial musical moment of my childhood.

Bits & Pieces is a series that highlights overlooked technical and cultural accomplishments in under-seen films:

Fight Choreography as Philosophy, Jackie Chan

Rhythm Editing, Ariana Grande’s “Problem” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”

Fight Choreography as Myth, “Troy” and “Serenity”

Dance Choreography, “Footloose” (1984) and “Footloose” (2011)

Production Design, “Curse of the Golden Flower”

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