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Leslie Bricusse Retrospective

Leslie Bricusse was one of the great songwriters in the history of show business. In a career that lasted over half a century, Bricusse created memorable songs for stage and screen and collaborated with Hollywood’s great film composers. Leslie Bricusse died in October 2021 at age 90. Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at Bricusse’s career, focusing on his work for motion pictures.

Leslie Bricusse was born in London in 1931. According to The Guardian, Bricusse’s only connection to the theater while he was growing up was through his grandmother who used to clean the front steps of the Apollo theatre in the West End. While studying modern and medieval languages at Cambridge, Bricusse connected with future novelist Frederic Raphael and they produced the musical The Lady at the Wheel. Bricusse came to the attention of Beatrice Lillie, an internationally renowned comedian and entertainer. Lillie took Bricusse under her wing and he worked alongside her on stage and behind the scenes.

Leslie Bricusse then came into contact with Anthony Newley and the two of them had a fruitful working relationship, jointing writing the musical shows Stop the World – I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Bricusse and Newley would co-create many of the most significant works of their careers.

Having established himself, Bricusse went on to write songs for musical theater and motion pictures. Bricusse’s work was featured in movies including Goldfinger, 1967’s Doctor Dolittle, Scrooge, Home Alone, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. His songs were recorded by artists including Sammy Davis Jr. and Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra.

Charley Moon

Leslie Bricusse’s first motion picture was 1956’s Charley Moon. The film was directed by Guy Hamilton and Bricusse is credited with the lyrics to many of the songs as well as the screenplay. Charley Moon is the story of a British military veteran trying to break into show business. The film included the song “Out of Town” which was performed in the film by Max Bygraves. The song became a radio hit.   

James Bond

Throughout his career, Leslie Bricusse contributed songs to many films and franchises that continue to be popular to this day. The James Bond series is known for its elaborate opening credit sequences and catchy songs. Bricusse collaborated with Anthony Newley and John Barry to create the title song for 1964’s Goldfinger. This was the third film in the James Bond series and it is often cited as the movie in which the 007 franchise truly arrived. Adjusted for inflation, Goldfinger is still one of the highest grossing Bond films and the title song is one of the best in the series. Barry and Bricusse would return to the James Bond series to create the title song for You Only Live Twice.

Stop the World – I Want to Get Off

Stop the World – I Want to Get Off was originally a 1961 stage musical that Leslie Bricusse co-created with Anthony Newley. It was an unusual story of a man confronting the disappoints of his life and taking stock of his legacy. A film version was released in 1966 although the source material was changed significantly. A television adaptation was produced in 1996. Stop the World – I Want to Get Off included the song “What Kind of Fool I Am.” The tune won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1963 and it has been frequently covered by pop artists including Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennet, Andy Williams, Shirley Bassey, Perry Como, and Clay Aiken.

The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd

One of Bricusse’s early musicals was The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, which he cowrote with Anthony Newley. So far, this production has not been adapted to film. However, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd includes the song “Feeling Good” which has been covered by numerous artists, most notably Nina Simone. The Simone version of “Feeling Good” has appeared in lots of movies and television shows including Point of No Return, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 2012’s Sparkle, and 2021’s Cruella.

Doctor Dolittle

1967’s Doctor Dolittle was the story of a man who could hear animals speak. Directed by Richard Fleischer and produced by Arthur P. Jacobs, Doctor Dolittle was originally developed with Alan Jay Lerner tasked with creating the music. Lerner was fired and replaced by Leslie Bricusse who is credited with writing the screenplay and composing the music. Doctor Dolittle was a financial failure at the time but Bricusse won an Academy Award for the song “Talk to the Animals” which is performed in the film by Rex Harrison.

In Like Flint

Leslie Bricusse collaborated with Jerry Goldsmith on the film In Like Flint. This picture was a sequel to 1966’s Our Man Flint. It starred James Coburn as a spy who must foil a plot by a group of women to overthrow the American government and replace it with a matriarchy. The Flint films were a major influence on the Austin Powers movies and In Like Flint is referenced in The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Leslie Bricusse created a lot of memorable songs and worked on many beloved films but the standout project of his career is the music to 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Adapted from a book by Roald Dahl, the film was a fantasy about a group of children who are admitted to a behind-the-scenes tour of a confectionary run by an eccentric candy man played by Gene Wilder. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a movie where everything comes together but the music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley is key to its success and longevity. Bicusse and Newley created a number of memorable songs that have reappeared in other media including “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination” and the various Oompa Loompa songs.

Scrooge

There have been many adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol and Leslie Bricusse took a pass at the story with 1970’s Scrooge. Bricusse wrote the screenplay as well as the music and Albert Finney was cast in the title role as Ebenezer Scrooge. The soundtrack to Scrooge was released on vinyl but it still hasn’t been released on CD or digital formats. However, the film Scrooge was subsequently adapted to the stage and the soundtrack for the London cast is available.

Henry Mancini

One of Leslie Bricusse’s most frequent collaborators was Henry Mancini. Their first project together was 1967’s Two for the Road. The film was written by Frederic Raphael, who Bricusse had known at the start of his career, and starred Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. Two for the Road was an unusual film at the time because of its nonlinear storytelling.

Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse created the song “Life in a Looking Glass” for 1986’s That’s Life. This song is performed in the film by Tony Bennett. “Life in a Looking Glass” has the unique distinction of being nominated for both an Academy Award for Best Song and a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Song. It was awarded at neither ceremony and “Life in a Looking Glass” has all but disappeared.  

The signature film composition of Henry Mancini’s career was his score to 1963’s The Pink Panther. Mancini collaborated with Leslie Bricusse on the sixth installment, 1978’s Revenge of the Pink Panther, cowriting the song “Move ‘em Out” performed by Lon Satton.

Among Leslie Bricusse and Henry Mancini’s most celebrated collaborations was 1982’s Victor Victoria. This film was a remake of a 1933 German film and it starred Julie Andrews and James Garner in a story about a struggling female singer who finds success when she poses as a man. The film was very well received and Bicusse and Mancini won an Academy Award for the music. Victor Victoria was then adapted to the stage with additional music composed by Frank Wildhorn.

John Williams

Another of Leslie Bricusse’s frequent collaborators was John Williams. They first worked together on 1966’s How to Steal a Million with Bricusse providing the lyrics to the love theme. Bricusse and Williams reteamed a few years later on the 1969 version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Bricusse writing the songs and Williams composing the underscore. Goodbye, Mr. Chips starred Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark in the story of a school teacher who finds meaning through his vocation. 1969’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips was later adapted into a stage musical that featured Bricusse’s songs.  

Leslie Bricusse worked with John Williams again on 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Bricusse’s involvement was limited but important. In addition to the Superman March, Williams also composed a love theme for the movie which is featured prominently during the flying sequence in which Superman woos Lois Lane with a nighttime flight around Metropolis. Bricusse wrote the lyrics spoken by Margot Kidder. The song, titled “Can You Read My Mind?” was covered by Maureen McGovern. Bricusse would return to the series for Superman III and co-write the song “They Won’t Get Me.”

Leslie Bricusse and John Williams worked together again on 1990’s Home Alone which was one of the biggest box office hits of the 1990s. Written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, Home Alone was the story of a boy who is accidentally left behind when his family travels to Europe for the holidays. Leslie Bricusse contributed two songs for Home Alone: “Star of Bethlehem,” which is performed in the film by a children’s choir during the church scene, and “Somewhere in My Memory” which is the theme for the longing for family.

One of the interesting what-ifs in filmmaking history is 1991’s Hook. The film was a spinoff of the Peter Pan story, imagining that Peter has grown up and has his own children who are kidnapped by Captain Hook. The movie was originally conceived to be a full-blown musical and John Williams and Leslie Bricusse worked on the music. The musical plans were scrapped quite late into preproduction and the musical roots of Hook are obvious in the set design, costumes, and a few of the set pieces. Nevertheless, a few of the songs Bricusse wrote made it into the final film. We’re left to speculate what full-on musical version of Hook could have been.

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