Academy Award-nominated composer Bruce Broughton is a Hollywood mainstay, with more than a three-decade output of scores for movies such as “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985), “The Presidio” (1988) and “Tombstone” (1993). But in the early 1980s, when he got an invitation to talk with director Lawrence Kasdan about a prospective film titled “Silverado,” Broughton was all but unknown in the film industry.
A common complaint among composers, Broughton said, is that their agent never does anything for them. “Well, in this particular case, my agent did something for me. He said, ‘There is this Western going on over at Columbia that Lawrence Kasdan is producing. It’s a long shot, but [why not]?’” Thanks to his agent’s intervention, Broughton landed a meeting with Kasdan; his brother, co-writer Mark Kasdan, and editor Carol Littleton, and they clicked. What was supposed to be a 30-minute interview lasted 1½ hours, and Kasdan eventually decided to take a chance on Broughton. That decision paid off when the composer received an Academy Award nomination for his evocative, memorable music for “Silverado.”
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the score live on May 6 alongside a screening of the 1985 film, which contains about 75 minutes of music. It will mark the world-premiere presentation of a live orchestra performance of “Silverado.” And it also will be the first time that one of Broughton’s scores has been performed in this fashion. Broughton is thrilled about the debut. “This is a big deal,” he said. “I have several friends who have been doing their film scores in concert, but I haven’t done it. So I’m excited. I love the symphony, I love Chicago, and my wife and I are both really hot to trot for this thing. We think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The presentation is part of the CSO at the Movies series, which began in 2004-05 and has become one of the orchestra’s most popular offerings. Like many of the concerts in the series, it will be led by conductor Richard Kaufman, who joined MGM in 1984 and supervised music for the studio’s television projects for 18 years. The CSO at the Movies series is part of an exploding international trend in which more and more symphony orchestras are presenting movie music, both as sets of excerpts, such as “Pixar in Concert,” and screenings of complete films with the scores performed live.
“Silverado,” which stars Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner and Danny Glover, was released at a time when the Western was in decline. John Wayne had made his final film, “The Shootist,” in 1976, closing a major chapter in the history of the genre. Kasdan sought to reintroduce the Western to audiences, producing a grand take on the form, filming it in the spare desert landscape near Santa Fe, N.M. “If you look at ‘Silverado,’ it’s basically the classical Western,” Broughton said. “It’s got a shoot-out. It’s got the good guy, the bad guy, the ranchers.”
For the music, Kasdan wanted a “big, Hollywood, traditional Western score,” and that’s what Broughton set out to deliver, using Jerome Moross’ score for “The Big Country” (1958) and Elmer Bernstein’s celebrated music for “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) as his guides. The result is a sweeping, exhilarating soundtrack that pulses with classic Western flavor, yet has a distinctive sound all its own. “I just went for it, and he liked it,” Broughton said of Kasdan. It was nominated for an Academy Award — “That was nice,” he said — but he lost to five-time Oscar winner, John Barry, and his score for “Out of Africa,” starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. “How can you beat a romance with those people in a plane over Africa and John Barry’s big melodies?” Broughton said.
A good film score is one that helps advance the story and fills in an emotional dimension beyond what the acting and other elements can convey, Broughton believes. “There are a lot of good film scores that aren’t particularly great music,” he said, “and there are a lot of film scores that have great music in it that aren’t particularly great film scores.” A movie composer has to be able to write music using all kinds of styles and techniques while meeting tight deadlines and exacting demands. “And then,” Broughton said, “waiting to hear the magic words from the director: ‘Yeah, that works,’ and then you move on. No one stands and applauds. No one tells you about your beautiful voicings. It’s very different from doing concert music.”
Among the film scores that Broughton admires most is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Oscar-winning one for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). He also is a fan of 15-time Oscar nominee Alex North, especially his score for “Spartacus” (1960), as well as Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote the music for many classic films, including “Chinatown” (1974) and “Planet of the Apes” (1968). Among John Williams’ many iconic scores, Broughton is fond of the composer’s Academy Award-nominated music for “The Reivers” (1969), starring Steve McQueen. “I have several friends whose music I like,” Broughton said. “John Powell — I think his score for ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is a terrific score.”
Big symphonic scores are not as prevalent as they once were, especially in the so-called golden age of movie music in the 1930s and ’40s. Some of these changes, Broughton said, are due to inevitable shifts in musical tastes and others can be attributed to advances in technology. “Once the film medium got away from film and went digital, everything changed,” he said. “It changed for the editors, directors, cinematographers — everybody, and it really had a huge impact on music.” As a result, today’s scores make increased use of synthesizers and samplers and contain more looped chords and rhythms. “You find that the medium has determined a lot about what the [musical] style is,” he said.
After graduating from the University of Southern California in 1967 with a degree in music composition, Broughton landed a job at CBS as an assistant music supervisor. His grandfather knew someone who had been a well-known radio producer and that friend in turn managed to set him up with a meeting with someone in the music department at CBS. Broughton started out tracking music from music libraries into CBS-produced series such as “Gunsmoke” and “Hawaii Five-O.” Broughton stayed for 10 years and eventually became assistant director of music, learning the nuts and bolts of the industry, like union negotiations and licensing. At the same time, he was exposed to some of the era’s top composers, including Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and Michel Legrand, because CBS began producing feature films. “I’d be sitting there looking at their scores, and it was great,” Broughton said. “That was how I learned,” he said.
On the side, Broughton started to compose for some of the network’s television shows. Such experience eventually allowed him to leave his job at CBS and strike out on his own as a composer, but he stuck with television, at least at first. Among the series he worked on was “Quincy M.E.,” which featured Jack Klugman as a dogged forensic pathologist. Though he didn’t compose the theme for the program, he wrote the music for nearly all of its episodes from 1977 through 1983. “It was great,” he said. “The stories themselves were all completely different, so you were writing different music all the time, as opposed to something like to ‘Dallas,’ which I also did, which was a soap opera and, basically every week, it was the same people.”
The winner of 10 Emmy Awards, Broughton was nominated again last year for “Texas Rising,” a 10-hour mini-series on the History Channel about the Texas fight for independence. He spent three months collaborating on the project with John Debney, another well-known composer. The two split the work, working off each other’s musical themes, and Broughton conducted the final recording sessions.
During his long career, along with composing for film, TV and concert halls, Broughton also has written music for theme-park attractions and video games. His composition for “Heart of Darkness” is said to be the first recorded orchestral score for a video game. At the moment, he is working as an arranger — another first for him — for Seth MacFarlane, who among his many talents is a singer, and is putting together a new album. “I like the challenge,” Broughton said. “I like it because I’m learning things, and I’m doing things specifically because he lays out the way he wants the song done and the way he thinks he can perform it. And I’m working with some great songs.”
In whatever medium he is working, Broughton likes the challenge of fulfilling an assignment and creating a particular kind of emotional effect. “That takes a certain kind of technique,” he said. “It’s not a matter of just sitting down and writing lots of notes and making pretty sounds or making ugly sounds. You have to write something very specific, something that a non-musician, which is mostly whom you are working for, can understand and feel and want and hire you again for.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.