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THE WITCHES – Alan Silvestri

November 3, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Roald Dahl’s The Witches has become one of the world’s most beloved fantasy/horror stories for children in the years since it was first published in 1983. The story takes place in a reality where secret covens of child-hating witches exist all over the world; the witches are governed by the evil and powerful Grand High Witch, who has just arrived at a luxurious hotel in England to organize her final plan to eradicate all the children in the country by turning them into mice. However, the plot is uncovered by an unnamed ‘hero boy’ and his grandmother, a former witch hunter, who are coincidentally staying in the same hotel, and the two of them resolve to stop the witches’ plan – and end the Grand High Witch’s reign of terror for good. The story was turned into a well-loved film in 1990 by director Nicolas Roeg, which saw Anjelica Huston playing the Grand High Witch. This newer version, directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Zemeckis, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón, relocates the action from England to 1960s Alabama, and casts Anne Hathaway as the beautiful but evil Grand High Witch, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno as the Hero Boy, Octavia Spencer as his grandmother, and Stanley Tucci as the downtrodden hotel manager.

The 1990 film had a terrific but sadly unreleased score by the late great Stanley Myers, but as this new film is directed by Robert Zemeckis the scoring duties of course fell to Alan Silvestri. This is the 18th film in the Zemeckis-Silvestri collaboration that began in 1984 with Romancing the Stone and has since encompassed three Back to the Future films, as well as classic titles such as Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact, The Polar Express, and so many more. The relationship they share is by far the most fruitful of either men’s career, and it’s wonderful to find them back on top form here. The Witches is an absolute delight, a fun, spooky, playful standout that feels like how an Alan Silvestri Harry Potter score would sound. But it’s also awash in many of Silvestri’s personal stylistics; the action music comes straight from Back to the Future and Predator via the Avengers, and the moments of playful whimsy reflect his other rodent-based works like Mousehunt and Stuart Little, while the music for the witches themselves recall the spooky prettiness of scores like Practical Magic, Death Becomes Her, and even parts of The Polar Express. Silvestri’s writing style is so recognizable, from the way he phrases his brass to the percussion patterns he places underneath the orchestra, and it’s absolutely wonderful to hear him being able to continue this style after more than thirty years on the job.

The score’s main theme, introduced in the opening cue “Witches Are Real,” is just superb, a quintessential Silvestri piece. It builds out of some lovely magical textures – synths, chimes, dancing strings – before the horns take over and it all becomes quite powerful, dramatic and imposing, but with a lovely lightness in the strings underneath the commanding strength of the brass. The second cue, “My First Witch,” presents the main theme with a very different attitude; after some light horror in the opening thirty seconds or so, Silvestri dusts off his Forrest Gump and Contact arrangements and allows the melody to melt into a bed of woodwinds, warm strings, piano chords, and soft guitars which is just lovely. Subsequent statements of this theme later in the score, in “It Can Be Very Dangerous” and “Let’s Make a Potion,” are equally gorgeous.

The theme for the witches themselves really shines in “Enter the Witches,” a grand and flamboyant piece that gradually builds and builds through a series of menacingly magical textures –harp glissandi, chimes, and so on – and eventually comes to fruition as a showcase for immense horns, accompanied by darkly-hued waltzing strings that swirl and churn with a wonderful, colorful sense of malevolence. This theme for the witches continues to dominate cues like “Grand High Witch” and “Witches,” the latter of which has some light choral embellishments, and an excellent danse macabre-esque sound in its strings that Alfred Hitchcock would definitely have approved of. There are also a couple of moments in the latter cue which contain brief snippets of world music – Arabic inflections for example – which appear to convey the idea that the witch convention features delegates from all over the world.

However, for my money, the best parts of the score are the action moments, which are plentiful and essentially dominate the entire second half of the score. Once the nature of the witches has been revealed, and their scheme for a child-rodent apocalypse uncovered, Silvestri goes big, scoring the actions of the newly-murine Hero Boy and his friends to thwart the plans with a sense of carefree energy and wholesome adventure that is just superb. There are some action moments early in the score – at the end of “My First Witch,” during the sinister “What You Saw,” in parts of “Chickenafied,” and all through the striking “Instant Mouse” with its tick-tock countdown – but it really kicks into gear in “A Narrow Escape,” which is up there with selections from Avengers and Ready Player One as one of the best Silvestri action cues of recent years. Both the main theme and the theme for the witches themselves are present in this cue, and in most of the subsequent action pieces, but it’s what Silvestri does with them that’s most impressive. Throughout the entire work Silvestri allows the themes to assert themselves in a pseudo-leitmotif style, peeking through all the complex orchestrations and rampant rhythmic ideas to tremendous effect.

There are so many brilliant touches in the action writing that it would be redundant to list them all, but a few stand out above the others. The sequence beginning at 4:02 in “A Narrow Escape” is just phenomenal, a rousing flashback to Judge Dredd underpinned with rampant snare drum rhythms and howling trombones. The fanfare flashes that run throughout “Fourth Floor “ are wonderful, as is the whirligig pacing towards the end of the cue that sounds like the best thing Carl Stalling never wrote. The magical textures in “The Potion,” which eventually give way to another militaristic statement of the main theme, feel like an anticipatory montage, filled with energy and nervous expectation.

The entire sequence from “The Mission” through to the end of “Let Me Out” is essentially one long 15-minute action extravaganza, in which both the main themes compete with a series of enormous, thrilling action rhythms filled with pulsating brasses, strong and vibrant string runs, complicated percussion patterns, and spooky orchestral touches courtesy of pianos, chimes, glockenspiel, harps, and so much more. “Pigtails” is staggeringly good, especially when Silvestri increases the pace of the internal rhythms from plain old ‘fast’ to something approaching ‘ludicrous speed,’ while the quick flash of the 1812 Overture is a bizarrely brilliant touch. The tick-tock countdown idea reappears in “A Stolen Key,” a cue which feels like a knife-edge with its low brass clusters and oddly threatening harp passages, before exploding into life in its second half.

“I Didn’t Hear A Thing” is an enormous, emotional statement of the main theme that really goes for the expressive jugular and will absolutely appeal to anyone who adores Silvestri’s mid-1990s writing, especially around the Forrest Gump era; when the bright, major key horns came in during the final ninety seconds or so, my heart just soared with nostalgic sentiment. “Pea Soup” underscores the demise of the Grand High Witch with an appropriate amount of dramatic grandeur, jumping back through several of the action ideas, and peppering them with allusions to the Witches theme, the main theme, and the large-scale writing that so dominated Back to the Future, Predator, Judge Dredd, and others. Finally, the “End Credits” offer sparkling takes on all the main themes, a six-minute summary of the score’s most important ideas that end things on the highest possible note.

While some may criticize The Witches for being little more than an Alan Silvestri greatest hits compilation, my personal feeling is that the score succeeds because it is exactly that. The Witches is a score that allows Alan Silvestri to play in his most comfortable sandbox, and gives the opportunity for him to revisit all the things that have made him one of the most popular and successful composers of the last 35 years or so. Yes, there are echoes of all his greatest and most popular works, but as I wrote in my review of Ready Player One a couple of years ago, what’s wrong with that? Is wallowing in the golden glow of one’s own youth such a bad thing, spending an hour basking in the sights and sounds and feelings that informed your taste and dominated your formative years? The Witches is a perfect illustration of what made Alan Silvestri great, and why at the age of 70 he continues to be one of the most in-demand and brilliant composers working in Hollywood today.

Buy the Witches soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Witches Are Real (2:25)
  • My First Witch (3:45)
  • What You Saw (3:07)
  • Chickenafied (2:45)
  • Enter the Witches (3:57)
  • Grand High Witch (3:21)
  • Witches (3:31)
  • Instant Mouse (4:07)
  • A Narrow Escape (4:40)
  • Fourth Floor (3:13)
  • It Can Be Very Dangerous (3:11)
  • The Potion (3:57)
  • Let’s Make A Potion (3:58)
  • The Mission (2:33)
  • Soup Is On (2:45)
  • Pigtails (3:29)
  • A Stolen Key (3:27)
  • Let Me Out (2:34)
  • I Didn’t Hear A Thing (3:08)
  • Pea Soup (2:23)
  • End Credits (The Witches) (5:54)

Running Time: 72 minutes 19 seconds

Watertower Music (2020)

Music composed by Alan Silvestri. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway and Cliff Masterson. Orchestrations by Mark Graham. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin, Kirsty Whalley and Dennis Sands. Edited by Jeff Carson and Alice Wood. Album produced by Alan Silvestri and David Bifano.

  1. November 3, 2020 at 1:11 pm

    Your review has made me buy the album and I’m looking forward to listening to it.

  1. January 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

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