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 and Martin Scorsese, John Sturges and John Landis, Otto Preminger and Todd Haynes, Anthony Mann and Ivan Reitman, Francis Ford Coppola and Edward 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.
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 Mockingbird and The Shootist to 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 they wanted. 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.
But now, only Bernstein remains--the last of the giants, more towering, and certainly more valuable, than ever. His score for Haynes' Far from Heaven, a wry but moving homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s, ranks among his finest scores; it also ranks among his favorites. The score, driven by piano, provides the sound of a woman's heart slowly breaking when she realizes her picturesque life is a sham, her husband is gay and her true love is a black gardener she can never have; each note underscores Julianne Moore's torment, the unraveling of the perfect existence. As much as Haynes, a filmmaker best known for films independent in funding and feeling, wanted to pay his respects to a bygone era, so, too, did Bernstein. He wanted to make music the way they used to. The way he used to.
"Ab-so-lutely," he says, stressing each syllable like a necessary note. "That's absolutely correct. Everything about the film conjured up to me what I feel was a much happier time for cinema. No question. I definitely want audiences to walk out of the movie feeling that: 'Why don't they make music like this anymore?' But, you know, a lot of reviewers feel that way, too. Here I am obviously in the twilight of my career--I mean, just by age alone--and the reviews I've gotten so far for this are the best reviews I've ever gotten in my entire life. I got a review from The Toronto Sun, I couldn't believe it. I've never gotten a review like this. The last line says, 'As for the score by Elmer Bernstein, surely this is the sound of paradise.' Now, c'mon. I've never gotten a review like that.
"But if you stop to think, a movie reviewer who is 40 years old today has no frame of reference for this kind of film, because they didn't see these kind of films except in film-history classes. And they're looking at violent, cynical films one after another, one after another--films that depend upon some sort of sensationalism, whether it's visual sensationalism or the nature of the story or violence, whatever it is. Then, all of the sudden, here comes Far from Heaven, and to a young reviewer, it seems almost revolutionary." Bernstein, again, laughs.
Far from Heaven holds a doubly special place in the composer's heart: Not only did it afford him the opportunity to work with a respectful young filmmaker who would serve as a true collaborator, but it also came about just as Bernstein was learning that Martin Scorsese was dumping the score he has written for Gangs of New York, the director's long-delayed film set in the violent Lower Manhattan slums of the mid-1800s. Bernstein and Scorsese had worked together since 1991's Cape Fear remake, which was followed by The Age of Innocence two years later (for which Bernstein was nominated for an Oscar) and 1999's Bringing Out the Dead. But after their first meeting about Gangs, Bernstein and his colleague Cynthia Millar feared the worst. Millar told Bernstein, "He doesn't want a score," only a collection of songs.
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She was right: After Bernstein turned in his music last year, Scorsese tossed it aside; now, there is a U2 song on the soundtrack, despite the fact the film is set more than 100 years before Bono was born. When he was fired, Bernstein says, "it was kinda surprising, actually," though he harbors no ill will. It wasn't the first time a filmmaker rejected a Bernstein score: Robert Redford did it with A River Runs Through It, Walter Hill with Last Man Standing and, most bitterly, Roland Joffé with The Scarlet Letter. Bernstein works with a filmmaker, but never for. He is hired to hear what the filmmaker sees, and if those two things do not sync up, fine, he's happy to walk away--especially at this age, when he neither needs nor craves nuisances.
But Bernstein still possesses the fire of the troublemaker: In 1998, he delivered a speech to the Directors Guild of America in which he called for studios to stop using movies to sell pop soundtracks and begged directors to use young composers trained in the art of scoring. His wasn't the screed of the old-timer with Good Old Days Syndrome, but the impassioned plea of an artist who has seen too many colleagues crunched to death by numbers that add up to zero. When The Hollywood Reporter reprinted Bernstein's speech, the headline ran, "Trouble in the Key of Now."
"The movie business doesn't know what to do, and it exists in an atmosphere of fear, which makes everything really unsettled," Bernstein says. "The greatest victim of this fear has been film music, and film music, in my opinion, is in a dire state now. Really dire. It has gone far away, as far as I'm concerned, from what was a great atmosphere in which to be a composer for film. It is a very uncomfortable time now. But I've been lucky, you see, because while all this was going on, I've been working with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and to run into Edward Norton and Todd Haynes. I've been really fortunate. I haven't really suffered a lot from what I am complaining about."
Once more, as always, Elmer Bernstein has the last laugh.