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Elmer Bernstein Centennary

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of Elmer Bernstein's birth. Admittedly, I am from the generation that came after some of the composer’s greatest scores. It would be quite a while before I even connected that great main title from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) to a composer who for me was the person more known for some now iconic comedies. Consider this then more then a possible guide for discovery of this significant film composer.

For my, it was Bernstein who provided the soundtrack for those final John Wayne movies that were all part of my young theater-going experience. The touching music and themes of THE SHOOTIST (1976) were balanced by the funkier music of MCQ (1974) which today holds both a nostalgic and guilty pleasure status. Alongside with this were the perennial TV showings of TRUE GRIT (1969) and, of course, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), both watched with the family. So, while my youth certainly exposed me to Bernstein’s music these were not scores that registered in the same way as the science fiction and fantasy films I tended to see.

Some of Bernstein’s finest work in that genre was often for films Rated R, and not really on my radar. A few years would have to pass before I could sneak a peak at AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) or HEAVY METAL (1981) which are both excellent scores for these films. With that said, AIRPLANE! (1980) was probably my first real realization of Bernstein’s gift in scoring. Here comedic timing is set aside a bit to play everything straight and it works very well with its parodies of the Alfred Newman and John Cacavas AIRPORT scores. (It also helped that there was a little John Williams quote in the opening.) The appearance of GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) was perhaps the first time that I did take more notice of the score and the iconic theme from this film remains a personal favorite. Any doubt at Bernstein’s personal sound can still be easily heard drifting in and out of the more recent film in this franchise, GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE, where his music and the style of that approach stands out from many other recent film score styles still. Oddly, it was the host of comedies from the 1970s and 1980s that would be among personal favorites whose scores no doubt further enhanced their effect with their marches or effective comedic timing.

Fast forwarding to my growing appreciation of film music, something guided by Roger’s own website highlighting important works, I was able to finally go back and listen to some of Bernstein’s music and his masterful TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), one of the best film scores of all time. The opening sequence of this film is masterful in its combination of images and the way it helps us view things through the innocence of children. In his last score, the equally masterful FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002), there is a new quality to the way that sense of innocence becomes darkened and for me these two scores are still connected in my memory.

Those two scores are where I think one should perhaps begin as I think of what four or five works would be places to start. To that, one must also add 1963’s THE GREAT ESCAPE whose march is a personal favorite. In this score, one can also get a sense of the orchestral writing that runs through Bernstein’s later comedy scores. Memorable thematic writing is the other hallmark which finds its way into this score. Sometimes one can even hear little touches reminiscent of Alfred Newman’s style. What is also worth tracking down is THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955). This earlier score reveals Bernstein’s quite capable integration of jazz. His music could also reach a great richness and color that would inform his gorgeous work on 1993’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

The most telling thing about Bernstein’s music though is that one can easily forget just how many great scores to films that to this day are well-remembered. From his excellent dramatic and western scores of the 1950s-1960s, to the redefining contemporary sounds of the 1970s which would open the door to a flood of comedy scoring into the 1980s, Bernstein’s music has entered the consciousness of film music lovers. His unique orchestral style stood apart from the resurgence of Korngold-esque romanticism and always has a sort of Americana style that blends jazz with the likes of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Jerome Moross. To that extent, one final recommendation for listeners is to seek out the beautiful Guitar Concerto which he wrote for Christopher Parkening. This gives us a chance to more fully appreciate both Bernstein’s melodic creation as well as fine rhythmic sense. While all these merely scratch the surface, they can be great entry points into one of the great voices of American Film Music who celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday.


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