Home > Reviews > WATERSHIP DOWN – Federico Jusid

WATERSHIP DOWN – Federico Jusid

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 1972 novel Watership Down by Richard Adams is a classic of British literature. Note that I said literature and not children’s literature, because although the story is about a group of anthropomorphized rabbits, the story is very much an adult one. Following the destruction of their warren, a group of rabbits led by the brave Hazel, the sensitive Fiver, and the strong Bigwig make their way across the English countryside in search of a new home, and must fight against all manner of dangers – both natural and man-made – as they do so. What’s so brilliant about Adams’s novel is the way in which it creates an entire culture for the rabbits, with a creation myth, gods and spirits, a unique language with specialized vocabulary, and even a hierarchical society – the latter of which comes into play when Hazel and his friends encounter rabbits from an authoritarian rival warren overseen by the tyrannical General Woundwort. When you combine this with themes that mirror classical epics about life and death, environmentalism, and politics, the result is one of the great English books of the last fifty years. The story was made into a much-loved animated film in 1978 – again, not for kids – and is now a three-part mini-series jointly produced by the BBC and Netflix, directed by Noam Murro, which features an astonishing voice cast including James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega, Ben Kingsley, Tom Wilkinson, Gemma Arterton, Olivia Colman, Daniel Kaluuya, Taron Egerton, and many many others.

There are some flaws with this new version. For starters, some of the animation is at times quite terrible, coming across as something akin to an early-2000s video game cut scene, complete with herky-jerky movement, and fur which does not seem to react with the physical environment around it. Some of the backgrounds are quite lovely, but only the whole it seems to have been badly-rendered. The screenwriters also seem to have taken some rather peculiar liberties with the characters; they made wholesale changes to the personalities of Hazel and Bigwig which make their motivations poorly-defined, they significantly increased the role of Clover by shoehorning her into a romance with Hazel at the expense of some of Fiver’s more important scenes of fraternal love, and they changed the gender of Strawberry from male to female, thereby negating the entire reason why the rabbits leave the down in the first place (because they have no does). They have also significantly toned down the horror of Fiver’s visions of death, which for me was a mistake because it makes his haunted, skittish personality seem like an exaggeration.

The score for this new version of Watership Down is by composer Federico Jusid, who wrote a full score for director Murro’s 2014 film 300: Rise of an Empire before the film was taken over in post-production by Zack Snyder and the music was thrown out. Jusid – for those who don’t know – is one of the best young film composers in the world. Born in Argentina, he splits his time now between Los Angeles and Spain, and is especially known for his absolutely stellar work on a number of Spanish-language historical epic TV series including Hispania, Isabel, Carlos Rey Emperador, La Corona Partida, and Tiempos de Guerra. On Watership Down, Jusid had some mighty big shoes to fill; the score for the 1978 film was by the late great Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson, the latter of whom was Master of the Queen’s Music at the time (a post previously held by Edward Elgar). That score was a gorgeous, idyllic depiction of the English countryside, and the soundtrack also featured the unforgettable song “Bright Eyes” written by Mike Batt and performed by Art Garfunkel, which was the biggest-selling single in the UK in 1979. Fortunately, Jusid’s talent is such that the new score is quite superb in its own right.

As one would expect, Jusid soaked his score in the tradition of the most well-known English classical music, from Elgar to Vaughan-Williams to Gustav Holst, and beyond. For inspiration, Jusid walked around the actual Watership Down – a hill in Hampshire in southern England – absorbing the nature, the sounds, and the feel of the place, as a way to inform the music. The resultant score is quite traditional in that it is performed mainly by a standard symphony orchestra (actually three of them, recorded in Budapest and Bratislava and Sofia), but Jusid augments it with a decent-sized array of synths too, mostly in the action sequences, and also did some post-production processing of the live instruments to give them an unusual timbre in the darker and more sinister scenes. Jusid also explains that he used “traditional instruments in non-traditional ways … I would knock on the inside of my piano, or have a string performer play with a knife which produces a harshness that mirrors what the rabbits feel when they get close to the human environment.”

The score opens with “Another Day in Sandleford,” which is just about as perfect a depiction of the idyllic countryside as one could imagine. Sun-dappled strings, an elegant lilting virtuoso solo violin, and dreamy woodwinds all combine to create the sound of rural perfection. Of course, anyone who knows the story knows that this tranquil haze does not last for long, and soon the rabbits are fleeing for their lives, their warren having fallen victim to the unyielding tractors and bulldozers of men. “Fiver’s Vision” predicts the demise with a dark, slightly twisted version of the main Sandleford theme, while in “Everyone Run” Jusid introduces his ferocious action style with frantic Herrmannesque strings, staccato stabs on the piano, metallic percussion, and a series of terrified-sounding woodwind shrieks. The staggered, slurred phrases that crop up after the 1:10 mark are fascinating, as they seem to create a sense of desperate struggle which is quite palpable.

Much of the score afterwards moves between these styles: rich depictions of English rural life via the Sandleford Theme as the depleted warren searches for a new home, punctuated with moments of tension, action, and occasional frantic horror as the rabbits fight off innumerable dangers. What Jusid does with the Sandleford Theme is actually very impressive; in “That’s Our Home,” for example, a clearly broken version of the theme is played, accompanied by bitter string phrases and stark French horns. Conversely, its performance in “Frith in a Basket” is just delightful, joyous and optimistic, and sees the melody augmented by dancing flute lines, as well as some deep and sonorous cello and horn writing, the phrasing of which reminds me of The Lord of the Rings at times, especially after 1:50.

The action music is really very impressive indeed. The first major action set piece is “Birds,” for a scene where the rabbits are attacked by a murder of crows. Here, Jusid uses abstract orchestral textures to create a sense of panic and disorientation; there are unusual sliding woodwinds, choral chants, flutter-tongued brasses, and thumping timpanis. The writing actually reminds me of something Bernard Herrmann or Jerry Goldsmith might have done in these circumstances – there is something about the phrasing and the chord progressions and the instrumental combinations which recalls the work of these two greats. The Goldsmith similarities continue in “Saving Bigwig,” for the scene where a rabbit is caught in a farmer’s snare and almost chokes to death. Jusid’s helter-skelter string runs combine with off-kilter woodwind accents, staccato explosions of drama, and a terrific action setting of the Sandleford theme. For some reason the action music from Basic Instinct keeps popping into my head as a comparison, and believe me this is a good thing. The finale of the Bigwig rescue sequence is “Well Done, Hazel-Rah,” which introduces a new theme for both the rabbit Hazel and their new home on Watership Down, as he establishes himself as the warren leader. Hazel’s theme sounds like a long lost piece by Holst, arranged like one of his great British patriotic hymns, and in this cue it builds to a rousing finale with soaring strings, bold brass, and timpani rolls.

Yet another new musical identity emerges in “Leave One Alive For Questioning,” and this is all to do with General Woundwort, the draconian overlord of the sinister Efrafa warren that threatens the safety of Hazel and the Sandleford rabbits. The music surrounding General Woundwart and Efrafa is martial, militaristic, and war-like, with dark, ominous drums and horns, while the theme for Woundwort himself is bulbous and threatening. An unusual elongated trumpet chord augmented by electronic pulses emerges in “Back to Efrafa” as a sort of recurring secondary leitmotif for the place, and this crops up frequently, especially in some of the action material later in the score.

Speaking of action music, several more cues stand out as being especially excellent. “The Escape” bursts into life around the 1:40 mark with strangely-phrased slurred strings overlaying a pulse of pianos and brass; Jusid’s writing here reminds me occasionally of James Horner’s The Pelican Brief crossed with the Hoth sequence from the The Empire Strikes Back, and is fantastically complicated in terms of rhythm and its creative orchestrations. “Black Branches That Fire” is mournful, with elegiac strings and an elegant but dark liturgical choir which appears to be singing Lapine, author Adams’s rabbit-language. “Don’t Look Up” bubbles over with energy, combining synth pulses with slicing strings, metallic percussion, and prepared piano. Both “I’m Going To Take Great Pleasure In Killing You” and “Kehaar to the Rescue” are unexpectedly modern-sounding, and quite epic, with hints of the Sandleford theme offset by the Efrefa motif, and some terrific passages featuring church organ, electronic pulses, choir, and whooping brass.

At this point it’s also worth mentioning the handful of quite unique cues Jusid wrote to illustrate some of the more unusual aspects of rabbit society and mythology. “El-Ahrairah” is actually the very first cue heard in the series, and is all about the legend of the mythical rabbit prince from whom all rabbits are descended; his music has an oddly distorted, old fashioned sound featuring a prepared piano. “The Black Rabbit of Inlé” is the rabbit version of the grim reaper – a spectral figure who carries dying rabbits away to be with Lord Frith, their deity – and that concept features high searching strings and woodwinds, which sound magical, almost ephemeral. “Clover in the Mist” is a moody, mysterious piece featuring the Sandleford theme on soft enticing horns, and a beautiful solo violin, while the subsequent “Super 8 Memories” (the General Woundwort flashback scene/origin story) and parts of “My Leader, My Brother, My Friend” arrange the Sandleford theme like the theme for El-Ahrairah, as if it is being heard on an old film reel, nostalgic and wistful. This is very creative stuff indeed.

A period of calm and idyllic happiness follows the initial defeat of Woundwort and the Efrafa warren, and the eventual establishment of a new Sandleford warren on Watership Down. “My Name Is Hazel” is one of the best cues on the album, featuring a determined, forthright, proud performance of the Sandleford theme, which then transitions superbly to Hazel’s theme, and features tolling bells, fluttering flutes, gorgeous string cascades, and builds to glorious finale. “Good Times in Watership Down” sees another version of the Sandleford theme, playful and charming, and the first half of “By Frith I Will Defend It” is strong and emotional – but the cue’s second half strings is interrupted by the return of the Efrefa ideas, aggressive and insidious, as the final battle for the fate of Watership Down begins.

The 18-minute finale, from “War” through to “Fiver is Alive,” is simply sensational, combining the Sandleford theme, the Efrafa motif, and Hazel’s theme amid some truly outstanding action writing. “War” features the most vicious exploration of the Efrafa ideas, a mass of electronic shrieks, heavy percussion, throbbing strings, and bold horn calls. “Goodbye, Captain Holly” opens with an anguished version of the Sandleford theme, underscoring the tragic-heroic death Holly, one of Hazel’s most trusted lieutenants. The iridescent overlapping string writing after the 4:00 mark reminds me of the finale of Jerry Goldsmith’s Powder, with all the emotional content that implies.

“Your Plan Is Dangerous Hazel” sees Hazel’s theme arranged as an exciting action motif, surrounded by almost Zimmer-esque percussion ideas, and a complementary rendition of the Efrafa motif at its most ballsy and dynamic; listen especially for the John Williams-style xylophones in the action percussion section, illustrating the rabbit relay race across the fields that Hazel’s plan entails. The subsequent “I Fear Nothing” plays almost like a slow motion reflection of Jusid’s action style, and seems to contain a palpable sense of destiny. The chanting choir and church organ add a layer of importance, the solo female vocalist gives it a further sense of scale, and the overall rich classical sound builds to a truly massive finale that fans of Jusid’s Spanish mini series scores will especially enjoy. The final cue of this sequence, “Fiver Is Alive,” is filled with relief, and a notable performance of the Sandleford theme covered in harp glissandi and twittering woodwinds.

The epilogue cue is “Join My Owsla” – ‘owsla’ being the rabbit-language word for the concept of rabbit police, which Hazel and Bigwig did for the Sandleford warren – and sees an aged Hazel-Rah finally lying down to sleep and becoming one with The Black Rabbit of Inlé, joining that great owsla in the sky. The music adopts a style similar to the one heard in the earlier Black Rabbit cue, but with a soft, welcoming sound. The whole thing ends with a gorgeous, religioso, hymnal blending of Hazel’s theme and the Black Rabbit motif which is powerfully emotional.

Also included on the album is the song “10,000 Enemies,” written and performed by Emeli Sandé for a scene in which the does of Efrafa sing in defiance of Woundwort’s law, but honestly I would stop the album after the final cue because really it’s not a very good song, and its placement on the soundtrack ruins the emotional mood of the final cue. It’s also worth noting that the other original song associated with this version of Watership Down, “Fire on Fire” by Sam Smith which plays over the end credits of each episode, is not included on the commercial soundtrack.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned whether Federico Jusid’s score for Watership Down could match the quality of Angela Morley’s score for the original; that work is so iconic, and so well-loved. But here’s the thing – and this may be an unpopular opinion – I actually think that Jusid’s score is better. It successfully captures the beauty and pastoral charm of the original, but in my opinion the action music is superior, the variety of the orchestrations is superior, the thematic depth is superior, and the way in which the score weaves its themes together across a longer period is excellent. The emotional content is high, especially from Hazel’s Theme. Really, the only way this score pales in comparison is the song, but that has nothing to do with Jusid, and what can be superior to “Bright Eyes” anyway? All this does is confirm to me what an outstanding talent Federico Jusid is; this is one of the scores of the year.

Buy the Watership Down soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Another Day in Sandleford (1:39)
  • Fiver’s Vision (1:21)
  • Everyone, Run! (2:32)
  • That’s Our Home (2:05)
  • Birds (2:00)
  • Allow Me To Take You To The Great Burrow (3:12)
  • Frith in a Basket (2:36)
  • Saving Bigwig (3:13)
  • Well Done, Hazel-Rah (2:37)
  • Leave One Alive For Questioning (1:14)
  • El-Ahrairah (2:19)
  • General Woundwort (2:10)
  • Back to Efrafa (2:34)
  • The Escape (3:52)
  • Black Branches That Fire (2:51)
  • The Black Rabbit of Inlé (1:21)
  • Clover in the Mist (4:01)
  • From Hutch Rabbit to King Rabbit (1:47)
  • Don’t Look Up! (3:08)
  • I’m Going To Take Great Pleasure In Killing You (2:46)
  • Super 8 Memories (1:56)
  • Keehar to the Rescue! (2:12)
  • Farewell (1:18)
  • Those of You Not Loyal To Me… (2:01)
  • My Name is Hazel (2:37)
  • Good Times in Watership Down (1:39)
  • By Frith I Will Defend It (1:50)
  • War (2:00)
  • Goodbye, Captain Holly (5:08)
  • They’re Coming In From Above! (1:40)
  • Your Plan Is Dangerous Hazel (3:29)
  • I Fear Nothing (3:37)
  • Fiver Is Alive! (2:46)
  • My Leader, My Brother, My Friend (1:13)
  • Join My Owsla (2:33)
  • 10,000 Enemies (written by Emeli Sandé and Ioana Udriou, performed by Emeli Sandé) (3:41)

Running Time: 88 minutes 59 seconds

Decca Classics (2018)

Music composed by Federico Jusid. Conducted by Federico Jusid and Peter Pejtsik. Orchestrations by Fernando Furones, Gustavo Gini and Tomas Piere. Recorded and mixed by Martin Roller, Vladislav Boyadiev and Jose Visnader. Edited by Arabella Winter. Album produced by Federico Jusid and Maria Ulled.

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  1. Fabien L.
    January 8, 2019 at 11:09 am

    I agree with absolutely everything in your detailed review. Jusid’s score rocketed to the top of my best 2018 scores list… Problem is, it came very late and totally unexpected, thus I fear it won’t get the recognition it truly deserves because of that (and because of Morley’s score iconic status).

  2. Miles B.
    January 10, 2019 at 8:20 am

    Nice review! Regarding one of your criticisms: I don’t think that changing Strawberry’s gender “invalidates” the need to find does for Watership Down. If anything, it exacerbates the original problem–far more strife could be caused by fighting over a single female than by a lack of females. I do agree that the animation looks a little janky at times, though.

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