THE BOY WHO COULD FLY – Bruce Broughton
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Boy Who Could Fly was a popular family drama, written and directed by Nick Castle, about a friendship that helps two children overcome deep emotional wounds. Lucy Deakins stars as Millie, a 14-year old girl who makes friends with Eric (Jay Underwood), the similarly-aged boy next door, after the suicide of her terminally ill father. Eric has autism, and lives with his alcoholic uncle (Fred Gwynne), because both his parents were killed in a plane crash when he was much younger. Despite Eric’s verbal inability to communicate, the two teenagers nevertheless seem to help each other deal with their personal issues, but before long a series of unusual events lead Millie to think that, somehow, Eric has the ability to fly. The film was both a critical and popular success at the box office in the late summer of 1986 (it subsequently won the prestigious Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film); it co-starred Bonnie Bedelia, Fred Savage, and Colleen Dewhurst, and had its sense of magic enhanced immeasurably by Bruce Broughton’s gorgeous score.
The second half of the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s was, in my opinion, the golden period of Bruce Broughton’s film music career. Having received an Oscar nomination for Silverado in 1985, he followed up that success by writing not only this score, but works like Young Sherlock Holmes, Harry and the Hendersons, The Monster Squad, The Rescuers Down Under, and Tombstone, all of which are essential and vital scores. The Boy Who Could Fly is, in my opinion, one of Bruce Broughton’s ‘sweetest’ scores, and I don’t mean for anything negative to be read into that at all. It’s a pretty, lyrical, charming exploration of childhood friendship, all-American wholesomeness, and hesitant romance, spiced up with a dash of playful fantasy. It’s a fully orchestral, lyrical delight, a masterclass of woodwind writing, which dwells in the lighter higher-register world of strings, pianos, and twinkling chimes, and cannot fail to delight anyone whose inner child has not yet grown up.
The score is built entirely around a single main theme, one of Broughton’s best. It first appears in the “Main Title,” gentle, sweet, beguiling, and is initially heard as a duet for piano and cimbalom, before moving around the orchestra, encompassing statements for recorder, oboe, and guitar, all augmented by strings. Despite being a one-theme score, Broughton nevertheless finds a number of ways to change it, mostly through varying tempos and different orchestrations, but also with skilful deconstructions which take either the theme’s A-phrase or B-phrase, and puts them through a number of permutations to keep the score interesting.
In “Millie’s Science Project,” for example, Broughton introduces a lovely syncopated piano version augmented by light metallic percussion accents, inquisitive and enthusiastic. Later, “Family” presents hints of the theme on flutes in a quieter, more intimate fashion, and surrounds it with soft and thoughtful piano and harp textures and subtle electronic keyboard ambiences, commenting on the sadly broken familial relationships the two protagonists share. Elsewhere, “Eric on the Roof” is a little mischievous, with more dexterous woodwind writing, pizzicato strings, and a magical sounding variation of the theme for oboe punctuated by unusual piano riffs.
When the theme is not readily present Broughton paints a warm, Americana-tinged picture of suburban idyll, the sort of neighborhood any child would want to grow up in. “New Starts,” for example, is inviting and pastoral, again with plucked pizzicato textures prancing underneath lighthearted woodwind colors. Even when Broughton briefly embraces music that is darker or more threatening, as he does at the end of “New Starts”, in “Eric Agitated/Louis Defeated,” and “Millie and Eric Flee,” the music retains a sense of child like innocence. Slightly militaristic snare drum riffs act as a little motif for Louis, the neighborhood bully whom Millie and Eric must outsmart. “Eric Agitated” showcases a cascading harp/piano combination alongside stark string chords and a restless version of the main theme on horns, and is very impressive as a depiction of the young boy’s genuinely severe mental health problems. “Millie and Eric” has more than a touch of John Williams in the action writing, and more than a touch of E.T. in the temp track, with scampering and darting strings, energetic xylophones, little brass and woodwind textures, and a re-worked version of the main theme as part of the action material, which grows faster and denser as it progresses through the cue.
However, the undoubted highlights of the score are the actual flying sequences, all of which give Broughton ample chance to express the exhilaration and freedom of flight with rousing, effortless performances of the main theme. In “Flying,” after a slow build-up of darker textures and more earthy string and woodwind combinations, the music eventually emerges into a lovely full statement of the main theme for strings, augmented by light and airy woodwinds and rousing horn triplets, accentuating balletic movement and magic. “In the Air” is another glorious expansion of the main theme, faster-paced, with the feeling of the wind rushing through your hair, which eventually moves into a lyrical, romantic version of the theme for oboe towards the end. The conclusive piece, “The Boy Who Could Fly,” is basically a concert suite of several different instrumental settings of the theme, moving from cimbalom and piano to recorder, to strings, and eventually into an astonishing lush fully orchestral statement, filled with bright, boisterous brass triplets and magnificent woodwind writing – the flute countermelody at 1:45 is a pre-cursor to the same dancing, effervescent lines he would write for the space flying sequences in Lost in Space 15 years later.
The score for The Boy Who Could Fly was one of the first compact discs ever released by Varese Sarabande under the auspices of producer Richard Kraft, but was only 30 minutes long and was actually a re-recording of the score’s highlights, rather than the actual film tracks. An expanded version of the score was released by Percepto Records in 2002, and the original Varese program was re-released in 2012 as part of their CD Club limited series, before Intrada Records released the actual 60-minute in-the-film score for the first time in 2015, in chronological order, and with additional bonus tracks including Stephen Bishop’s popular “Walkin’ On Air” end credits song. Although I have always been a fan of the original release, Intrada’s exquisite complete version is stunning, and really drives home the beauty and range of Broughton’s work. It mostly just builds on what the shorter album presents – it sounds dismissive to say ‘more of the same’ but you know what I mean – but remains utterly delightful, and never outstays its welcome.
It’s still greatly disappointing to me that Bruce Broughton, despite his obvious mastery of the orchestra, thematic brilliance, and emotional sensitivity, hasn’t written a score for a mainstream theatrical film since 1998. He has been working steadily on television projects, most notably for a slew of acclaimed TV movies and mini series which garnered him a hatful of Emmy wins and nominations between 2002 and 2015, but I can’t help but miss his voice on the big screen, and I lament when I hear some of the scores that do get written for mainstream studio movies, and I think how much better they would be if Broughton was asked to score them. But that’s all wishful thinking, and we still have scores like The Boy Who Could Fly to remind us just what sort of brilliant music he was writing when he was still in demand by the studios. This should be an essential purchase for anyone interested in Bruce Broughton’s career; for me, it’s one of the half dozen best scores he ever wrote.
Buy the Boy Who Could Fly soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- 1986 VARESE SARABANDE ALBUM
- Main Title (2:36)
- New Starts (3:51)
- Millie’s Science Project (3:09)
- Family (2:57)
- Flying (4:29)
- Eric On The Roof (2:23)
- Eric Agitated/Louis Defeated (3:55)
- Millie And Eric Flee (3:45)
- In The Air (4:31)
- The Boy Who Could Fly (2:45)
- 2015 INTRADA ALBUM
- Main Title (4:45)
- Louis Meets Hitler (1:00)
- Louis’ Retreat (1:14)
- Late! (1:04)
- Eric on the Sill (0:28)
- On Milly’s Sill (1:24)
- Eric on the Roof (2:25)
- Milly’s Science Project (3:34)
- First Triumph (1:40)
- Family (3:09)
- The Rose/Flying (9:35)
- Eric’s Gone (4:00)
- Eric Agitated (4:17)
- Louis Gives Up (3:24)
- The Ring (3:22)
- Milly and Eric Flee/He Really Flies (9:01)
- New Starts (4:15)
- Milly Reflects/End Credits Instrumental (5:03)
- Walkin’ On Air (written and performed by Stephen Bishop) (3:28)
- First Hint (1:04) – BONUS
- Fireworks (from To Catch a Thief) (written by Lyn Murray, conducted by Bruce Broughton) (1:40) – BONUS
- Back of the Bus (written by Bruce Broughton and Nick Castle, performed by The Coupe de Villes) (0:59) – BONUS
- Car Radio Source Music (2:16) – BONUS
Running Time: 34 minutes 48 seconds (Varese)
Running Time: 73 minutes 52 seconds (Intrada)
Varese Sarabande VCD-47279 (1986)
Intrada ISC-295 (1986/2015)
Music composed and conducted by Bruce Broughton. Orchestrations by Bruce Broughton and Mark McKenzie. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Patricia Peck and Laura Perlman. Score produced by Bruce Broughton. Varese album produced by Bruce Broughton and Richard Kraft. Intrada album produced by Bruce Broughton, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.