Bruce Broughton evokes the sound of classic Westerns for ‘Silverado’

CSO Sounds and Stories

By Kyle MacMillan

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.”

Read more.