It is as good an introduction to this review as any to mention what prompted its conception, as the score is neither new nor a classic. A reader recently posed a question to me, knowing that I am regular admirer of John Williams' work: "Which of his recent 'darker' scores would you recommend most?" I immediately thought of "Nixon" and "Rosewood," and certainly "Schindler's List" if we allow 'recent' to stretch back that far, but surprised myself that upon further reflection I could not dismiss "Sleepers," a gritty score about unsettling subjects. The surprise came because my initial review of the score from 1997 was one of admiration, but also extreme puzzlement about the distinct lack of what many of us associate with "the bodacious Williams style."
The film came from a book detailing the supposedly true story (a controversial claim given that no documented evidence apart from the book exists to support it) of four young friends sent to a juvenile correctional facility for a prank involving a hot dog cart. The episode turned nearly fatal when they stole the cart and lost it down a flight of stairs leading to a subway, an element crucial to Williams' score, and took a sickening turn following the boys' conviction with the revelation that their prison guards were also child molesters, sadists and murderers (the film also expends the effort to show us that the guards did not play fair in American football). Once the protagonists are free, the story leaps ahead to their adulthood where they participate in an equally queasy revenge plot against their tormentors that involves homicide, judicial conflicts of interest, and perjury. Williams reportedly scored the film as a favor to Barry Levinson... watching the film, one sees that it was a very, very large favor.
I wrote in my original critique, "It is the kind of score you would get if Jarre, Mancina, Goldenthal, Young, Doyle, and Goldsmith all did the score together. John Williams fans may notice, however, that there is a severe lack of Williams! Of the three tracks that do bear his signature polyphony (tracks 2, 3, and 13), two of them still manage to add a hint of Patrick Doyle, while the other utilizes those synth dronings we have all come to know, perhaps against our will." There is a miscalculation in that paragraph. Though the soundtrack takes on stylistic traits of many of the aforementioned composers, hindsight makes it difficult for me to see why I ever felt Williams betrayed his technique. Most of the tracks... Nay, all of the tracks demonstrate a creative tenacity denotative of their creator. Longueurs of synthesized clicks, whistles and moods are not standard in his repertoire, but they do have precedents and are skillfully interpolated, even as they do occasionally take on the sleazy tones of his son's, Joseph Williams', music for soft-core erotic films (if you ask how I know about that, I shall deny everything). The orchestral center of the score sounds reminiscent of many things, yet the implementation overall almost jolts the listener with its imaginative stride.
The music is unmistakably urban, with a main theme developed on the darker side of "The River." No commentary of this score is complete without mentioning that Williams uses an orchestra to emulate the sounds of a moving subway train and, later, a siren, with mere support via electronic means. We hear original 20th century choral music twist darkly around slow, steady beats from a drum machine. We hear a surge of triumphant orchestral lyricism interrupted by dissonance before fading to a bittersweet end. When I dubbed the effort "a hotbed of cinematic ideas transferred to music," I meant it absolutely.
Does the score function on both the cinematic and listening levels? Yes. It gains from repeat listens. It is not upbeat, it is not exhilarating, it is certainly not cuddly, but it is a palimpsest of remarkable dramatic & musical ideas. There really is a wealth of innovation. And it is all Williams'.