See, Hear

Without Elmer Bernstein, scores of movies wouldn't have sounded the same

The best thing about turning 80, insists the maestro who has been making music for movies for half of the medium's lifetime, is that you no longer have to lie about anything to anyone. It's too late for lies; the clock will no longer forgive deception. So you may feel free to ask of this man anything you like, because he will tell you everything you want to know. He will share volumes of tales about grand achievements and bitter disappointments, and he will do so with tremendous warmth and wit, punctuating his sentences with fits of deep, nasal, resonant laughter. "I don't mind giving you this," is how he begins those tales that do not have the happiest of endings, and he does not mind, because for every anecdote lousy with displeasure, there are a dozen more containing what Hollywood loves best, the happiest of endings.

When Elmer Bernstein--composer of music for more than 250 films, so many of which remain among the finest or most beloved ever made--is asked if he ever believed he would never work again, if he felt as though he had been rendered obsolete by pop songs, his laughter will build like a spring shower that blossoms suddenly into a torrential downpour. "The reason I'm laughing is, yeah, I feel like that about every other day," Bernstein answers. And he keeps on laughing.

By now, no one should have to explain to anyone else who Elmer Bernstein is. You shouldn't have to give his biography, shouldn't have to list his credits, shouldn't have to explain why he's a giant in a field crowded with midgets. Surely, you have seen his name crawl through the credits dozens of times. You've heard his unforgettable music, whistled his scores while exiting the movie theater, maybe even bought his soundtrack albums, or at least the scant handful that remain in print. He has worked with veteran and novice: Cecil B. DeMille andMartin Scorsese, John Sturges and John Landis, Otto Preminger andTodd Haynes, Anthony Mann andIvan Reitman, Francis Ford Coppola andEdward Norton. His is a body of work that transcends generations and genres, that has been glowingly honored and lovingly parodied in equal measure. Elmer Bernstein is as much a part of cinema history as celluloid itself.

The magnificent two: Elmer Bernstein and Todd Haynes, director of Far from Heaven, were collaborators on one of the best soundtracks of the composer's estimable career.
The magnificent two: Elmer Bernstein and Todd Haynes, director of Far from Heaven, were collaborators on one of the best soundtracks of the composer's estimable career.

This is the man who marched Steve McQueen through The Great Escape, who led Chuck Heston out of Egypt and into the Promised Land carrying The Ten Commandments, who provided the bebop beat for junkie Frank Sinatra's Man with the Golden Arm, who celebrated the gathering of cowboys as they banded together as The Magnificent Seven, who ushered Otter and Pinto through frat-house rituals in Animal House and who now mends Julianne Moore's broken heart as she moves Far from Heaven. And he links John Wayne to Adam Sandler, To Kill a Mockingbirdand The Shootistto Stripes and Ghostbusters.

Bernstein was the first composer to build an entire score out of jazz, redefined the way we listened to Westerns and military movies, imbued epic films with rare intimacy, gave class to the crass and made even the highest-calorie junk food (Spies Like Us, say, or Bulletproof) taste the slightest bit nutritional. For these reasons, among so many more, where most movie music lives or dies on the screen, Bernstein's best work plays as well on the home stereo as it does in the cineplex. You need not see to hear, feel or know Elmer Bernstein, among the greatest American composers of the 20th century--and, with his work on Haynes' Far from Heaven, the 21st--who just happens to work in the movies.

"A couple of years after The Man with the Golden Arm, I got a postal card that I treasured," Bernstein says from his home in Santa Barbara, California. "It was a simple card that said, 'If you ever wonder what your life has been about, just know there are at least two people in a bar in San Francisco that you've made happy.' That really got my mind going. It started to make me think that what I did had an effect on other people. I've come to the conclusion 52 years later"--he laughs--"that one of the things I've done that touches people is I've always been completely honest about my work. My work is really an extrapolation of my own feelings. I've never approached a film with the idea of, well, 'I'm gonna write a score that's commercial, that's gonna sell 9 million records.' By honest I mean I've only been concerned with what's best for the film. I write from my own heart, not trying to be another person, and I think that has communicated."

Bernstein, once a prodigy urged on by no less than renowned composer Aaron Copland, began scoring films during the Golden Age of movie music, long before producers used films to sell lousy pop stars and soundtracks to push phony hit singles. They were the days, in the 1950s and '60s, when soundstages were cluttered with the likes of Alfred and Lionel Newman, Bernard Hermann, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Henry Mancini or Dmitri Tiompkin brandishing their batons in front of enormous orchestras. They were the immortals of movie music, men who used someone else's pictures and words to say what theywanted. Somehow, from within the enormous and frosty confines of studio-system filmmaking, they found room enough for the personal, the inspired and, ultimately, the influential.

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