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CD Review

Elmer Bernstein by Elmer Bernstein

Excerpts from Film Scores

  • The Magnificent Seven
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • The Man With The Golden Arm
  • The Grifters
  • Walk On The Wild Side
  • Hawaii
  • The Great Escape
  • Ghostbusters
  • Hollywood And The Stars
  • Rambling Rose
  • Heavy Metal
  • My Left Foot
  • The Ten Commandments
Royal Philharmonic Pops Orchestra/Elmer Bernstein
Denon CO-75288
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This album features excerpts from such film scores as "The Magnificent Seven," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "The Man with the Golden Arm." I must admit I prefer whole scores or suite-like chunks to excerpts, but excerpts are better than nothing. A student of Stefan Wolpe, Bernstein (no relation to Lenny) has worked at least 40 years in films. Most know him, if at all, probably by his score to "The Magnificent Seven," due mainly to its use as a Marlboro cigarette commercial. Bernstein began when the old studio system was dying as one of the young Turks of film music, usually working a Copland-esque vein. Like those of most Hollywood composers, his scores have frequently been better than the pictures they dramatize. Occasionally, however, score and drama click. This has happened at least once to Bernstein with his score for "To Kill a Mockingbird," which not only enhances the drama but is a marvelous score in its own right.

Bernstein has also been instrumental in bringing the work of other film composers to public attention, most notably with his Filmusic project. Usually with the help of the late Christopher Palmer, he stitched together and recorded full-length performances of Rózsa's "Thief of Bagdad," "Madame Bovary," and "Young Bess," Waxman's "Silver Chalice," and Herrmann's "Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "Torn Curtain," among others.

As a film composer, Bernstein walks a fine line between innovation and comfort. Less innovative than Amram, Copland, Glass, or Herrmann, nevertheless he helped take film music out of the Steiner-Korngold mold and put it firmly in the 20th century. We hear this immediately in the opening to "The Magnificent Seven." Before Bernstein (and, it should be mentioned, André Previn with his landmark score to "The Outriders"), Western music meant, for some reason, Stephen Foster and a banjo within the basic language of Strauss or Tchaikovsky. Bernstein's main theme both takes from and extends Copland's "Rodeo" and spawns dozens of knock-offs, down to John Barry's "Dances with Wolves."

Bernstein shares a difficulty with other very gifted film composers: Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, for example. His music, while memorable and often very powerful, lacks a distinctive profile, which may be due to the chameleon nature of film work. I have difficulty thinking of a concert composer with the descriptive range of a film composer. After all, Bernstein scored both "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Animal House." At any rate, I find him very difficult to separate from others working the same genres. He just works them better than most. Very rarely do you get a unique voice like Bernard Herrmann or Miklós Rózsa.

The music to "The Man with the Golden Arm" has been called a "landmark jazz score," but Bernstein, out of respect for jazz, takes care in the liner notes to distance himself from the label. It has about as much to do with jazz as David Rosen's "The Stripper" and probably comes from Leonard Bernstein's brilliant music for "On the Waterfront" the year before (and in turn probably goes back, at least in part, to Weill's "Gold" sequence from "Lost in the Stars"). At any rate, it still marks an advance, avoiding the usual pseudo-Gershwin in something like Waxman's "Philadelphia Story." There's more of this in the absolutely over-the-top music to "Walk on the Wild Side," which at any rate was an absolutely over-the-top movie. At least you remember the themes, even though it's a bit like remembering the details of your last car wreck. I'm very fond of "Walk on the Wild Side" (the a cappella group The Persuasions did a great R & B version), but I feel guilty about it. Anyway, the music reminded me that root of "gaudy" is the word for "rejoice."

My two favorite tracks consist of snippets from "Ghostbusters" and the main theme to the television series "Hollywood and the Stars." "Ghostbusters" (large portions of which the studio dumped for replays of the well-known theme song, not by Bernstein) bubbles along like pea soup on a low simmer – mordant, like Herrmann's "Trouble with Harry" – but it retains its own identity. It's music that might accompany a vaudeville of ghosts and ghouls. "Hollywood and the Stars" is simply a great tune, with a tip of the hat to Korngold's Nora's Theme from "Of Human Bondage" – lush and super-Romantic.

Even if you have no knowledge of the films or the scores in question, you owe it to yourself to make their acquaintance. Much wonderful music came out of Hollywood, and Bernstein contributed more than his share.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz