Directed by the late Marc Rosso, Murder in the First is an inspiring, if oddly fictionalized, account of the horrific treatment of prisoners on Alcatraz. Centering on the plight of criminal Henry Young (played by Kevin Bacon), the tagline would have us believe it's "the trial that brought down Alcatraz" ... except it wasn't. Nevertheless there are moments of considerable power and excellent performances from Bacon, Christian Slater as his fledgling lawyer and Gary Oldman as a sadistic warden. Appreciate it as a piece of historical fiction and you'll be fine. Sitting in reverential, hymnal counterpoint to the frequently dark and disturbing story is the score by Christopher Young, a man whose wonderfully lavish and Gothic horror efforts like Hellraiser frequently make the listener stand to attention. Here he does the opposite in moving them to tears through sheer, old fashioned orchestral beauty.
Young is an interesting composer in that there are several distinct sides to his musical personality. His most famous and apparent are of course his grandiose horror efforts, of which he is arguably the finest in Hollywood at the moment. Then there are his funky jazzy scores, Rounders, The Big Kahuna et al, where he just wants to let his hair down. And finally there are the considered, moving efforts for more prestige pictures like The Hurricane and The Shipping News, which is probably the most untapped side of the composer, a crying shame when he can do it so well.
Murder in the First falls firmly into the latter camp. The swooning, searching string-based main theme dominating the early stretches ("Murder in the First" and "Solitary Confinement") is heavenly, a musical portrait of humanity in the face of indecency. When a female choir is added to the mix, it simply soars ("The Truth Be Known") and when the melody is handed over to the cellos and basses, it wrenches the heart strings.
However, Young is also a keen dramatist and, recognising the problems inherent in frontloading a score with an overload of serious, sombre material, intersperses it with some more creative interludes. "Movietone News" and "Suitcase Sally" are unexpectedly light-hearted jazzy interludes that speak of the film's period setting and the wider world surrounding Henry Young’s trial. "Adoramus Dei" is the one track that perhaps most closely resembles his horror/thriller efforts with a gloomy choir intoning a sense of despondency.
As that same sense of despondency threatens to overtake the score proper, the final quartet of tracks from "All Things Visible" through to "Redemption" builds a series of tremendously moving orchestral moments, as Young's trial reaches its conclusion. Again with emphasis on the string section, it's a beautiful round-off, highlights being the cello solo in "Back to the Rock" and the, yes, redemptive, qualities inherent in "Redemption" courtesy of the magnificent choral work. The latter is one of the most glorious moments in Young's musical career.
The same could be said about the whole score in fact. Where the composer derives most praise is in being able to scare the pants off us (justifiably so – he does it brilliantly), on occasions such as this, he also shows us what a delicate, humane touch he has. An excellent, overlooked score from an excellent, overlooked composer. This highly recommended soundtrack can be found at these links on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.