On August 18, 2004, the film music world experienced its third major loss. When Elmer Bernstein passed away, I felt numb. I’m not even sure I could compute the loss, as I was still trying to process the deaths of Jerry Goldsmith and David Raksin. The fact that film music lost three giants in less than a month’s time was–and still is–inconceivable.
How did Bernstein sustain a successful career for over 50 years? What were the elements of his music that glued together such a lengthy career? As I type this post, I plugged in the external hard drive and put my 70 Bernstein albums on shuffle in search of answers.
There’s no way I can compete with someone who can write rap or rock and roll. Nor do I wish to. But I’ve always kept up to date with music changes. I worked very hard not to type myself.
Very few film composers have the ability to adapt their style to a number of genres. And arguably no one found more success in more genres than Bernstein–from intimate dramas to Westerns, from epic films to comedies.
In his early films, Bernstein used jazz to convey the anguish of heroin addict Frankie Machine (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM) and the sleazy world of big-city columnists (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS). Rhythm (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), expansive melodies (TRUE GRIT), and energy (THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL) characterized his Westerns.
Every now and then, Bernstein was hired to score an epic. His compositional style may have seemed a stretch for huge cinematic canvases like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, though the music itself is still wonderful. But his elongated main theme and sense of drama perfectly captured the volcanic passions of the missionaries on the islands of HAWAII.
Though Bernstein never stopped working, in the 1980s he saw a resurgence in his career with his comedy scores for such films as AIRPLANE!, STRIPES, and GHOSTBUSTERS. Bernstein’s music played the comedy straight, seldom Mickey-Mousing the actions onscreen, and allowed the music to become another character with its own distinctive comedic elements.
I did 10 years of comedies and 10 years of Westerns. I really like to stay away from car chases. I prefer the more intimate film. You have a much more direct association with the emotions.
Few composers could write as delicately as Bernstein. You’d have to look at the music of Georges Delerue or Alexandre Desplat (and they’re French!) to come close to the transparency of Bernstein’s writing. The vulnerable woodwind voicings in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the swirling strings underlying the unexpressed passion in SUMMER AND SMOKE, or the tender piano giving voice to the “perfect” world behind the white picket fence in FAR FROM HEAVEN.
Bernstein was nominated for the Academy Award 14 times, winning for his pastiche score for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (1967). While the score is a personal favorite, for most people it is overshadowed by the musical numbers and the farcical slapstick onscreen. Like Jerry Goldsmith, the fact Bernstein never received a second Oscar is a shame.
But as great as Bernstein’s talent was, he also seemed to have more of his scores replaced than nearly any other composers. With no disrespect to Howard Shore of Mark Isham, one can only wonder how films like GANGS OF NEW YORK and A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT would have sounded with a Bernstein score attached.
So what was the glue that kept Bernstein’s career flourishing for over 50 years? Was it because he “kept up to date with music changes”? Because he “worked very hard not to type” himself? I think Bernstein said it best:
I thought in terms of the enthusiasm of doing it. I didn’t think about whether I was ready.
In the blog world, a sticky post is one that remains on the front page while others around it change, containing information that is critical or of ongoing value. The glue that kept Bernstein’s career in constant motion–the enthusiasm that shines through his music–will live and breathe as film music continues to change and evolve.
The scores of Elmer Bernstein remain at the very pinnacle of film music, forever “sticky.”