[Article - Elmer Bernstein (1922 - 2004)]

David Koran on Elmer Bernstein:

Less than a month ago, we had lost a master of modern film music, a week ago we lost one of its fathers, and yesterday we lost the most versatile genius of film music, Elmer Bernstein. I write this appreciation of Elmer and his life and work with the associated heavy heart, but with fond memories as well of his music as well as the man himself.

While living in Los Angeles a few years ago, I had the chance to meet Elmer at a presentation of his work with Charles and Ray Eames and the films he collaborated with them on, At that time in his career, with the Eames, he had close to 40 scores to his credit.  By the time I had met him, he had 13 Academy Award nominations (he garnered another one two years later) and over 200 more films under his belt. Not bad for a guy who got started doing industrial and educational films and ended up working for some of the greatest directors in Hollywood and creating widely recognizable and appreciated music.

He broke it big with, of course, Cecil B. DeMille and his work on The Ten Commandments (1956), writing music against an epic backdrop and against type. Rather than write laboriously over-the-top music, he was coached by the director to use music as another character, such as speeding up the exodus from Egypt of the Jews, which could have been played slow and grandiose, but was almost sprightly in its sound when in Bernstein's hands.

Shortly after that initial breakthrough into the 'big time", Elmer presented a breakthrough to Hollywood by introducing "true jazz" into the vernacular of film scoring with his work on Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). However, this led to what became a regular occurrence in Elmer Bernstein's career, which was to succumb to a string of films that either stayed with in a genre either musically, or if given the subject matter, thematically. His success with The Man with the Golden Arm led to two other scoring assignments with a similar sound, and no less wonderful arrangements on Walk on the Wild Side (1962) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

When given a chance to run, Elmer usually redefined a film music genre, so much so that it seemingly became his own. He introduced the world to some of the most memorable movie themes ever, the kind that requires only a few notes to remember. When given a Western (and by his own admission, a slow one at that), Elmer gave us the rousing music that accompanies The Magnificent Seven (1960). When assigned the duties to score a war picture that mostly takes place in a prison camp, we have the jaunty march themes for The Great Escape (1963). Even when handed the chance to write a theme to introduce a series of tele-film "specials" from the world renowned National Geographic Magazine, we received probably the most recognizable five musical notes ever heard on TV. To state that Mr. Bernstein was a genius is by far one of the largest understatements one could say for someone who commanded melody as well as him.

But to just mention these works barely scratch the surface of his career. His "rut" as he described it to me during that meeting in Los Angeles, during the late 1970's and early 1980's, where all anybody seemingly approached him with was comedies provided some of his most memorable music to the contemporary movie going public. Being attached to such comedy classics such as Animal House (1978), Airplane! (1980), Stripes (1981),  Spies Like Us (1985) Ghostbusters (1984), and The Three Amigos (1986) did not truly hurt his career, but introduced him to a new group of listeners and fans. Working on the latter, when asked about working with Randy Newman on the songs for The Three Amigos, Elmer noted that it was one of the most pleasant and fun experiences in his career to that time.  Showing that he was not avoidant of self-deprecation and parody, many of the passages in his scores for the Airplane! series and Spies Like Us  poke fun at his previous work as well as others within the film scoring community. Behind that wry smile always seen on his face in every photo, and even in person, was a nimble musical mind that truly "got it".

Because he "got" it so well, he became the favorite of many directors and other film luminaries in Hollywood. He became the "composer in residence" for most of all John Wayne's major films.  From his hit The Commancheros (1961) all the way till The Duke's last film, The Shootist (1976), the nod and baton was given to Elmer. It was in he same vein for his collaborations with John Sturges, Martin Scorsese, Ivan Reitman, and notably John Landis. He was a consistent and reliable composer with a tried and true range of musicianship from which he could pull from to produce a unique underscore for a diverse set of film challenges.

One of his more experimental pieces for film was for another collaboration with the Eameses, known as "The Powers of Ten"(1977).  The music was not so much as atonal, but was what could be described as modern abstract. Much like the subject matter contained within the concepts of the film, Elmer connected his music to those central themes. The concept introduced by the Eameses has lived on even in some films, where the "zoom factor" has been exploited to set relation of the action to time and space, but also has expanded scientific thinking on both a macro and micro level. Elmer's style for that film was "lifted" by many other composers for other educational and industrial films, leaving much the same legacy of going on and on.

However, his, in my mind, greatest theme, and best music written for any film in his long career, and possibly the careers of many others was his third outing with director Robert Mulligan, in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962).  I had read the book in school far before I had had a chance to see the movie and hear Elmer's work. However, once I heard the opening theme, I was transported back to those days when I read it, and my own "movie" in my head of the story, which fit perfectly with his music. It was tender music for a tender and through provoking story, given to, especially from the eyes from which the core of the story is viewed through, that of child. The music can almost make you well up in tears upon hearing it, even when taken out of context of the story in just its delicate beauty. This is a piece of music anyone can and should be proud to have produced, even when placed up to those of the past of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Handel, and Brahms as well as to what can and will be produced in the future.

It would be fitting that Elmer Bernstein's last completed film work, the Academy Award nominated music for Far From Heaven (2002) harkened back to the style and work of his past. It was because of Bernstein's longevity and ability to connect with a film in such a manner that brought him to the attention of director Todd Haynes. It is truly a fitting bookend to his film scoring career to return to a time and place from whence he started, and a tribute to his talent for understanding the supporting needs of the music to that film. His last work before the events of this past Wednesday was producing an underscore to accompany a documentary on Cecil B. DeMille, once again cycling back to a period where he began, adding one last bit more to his long and honorable career.

Elmer has left the film music community a lasting legacy, besides his musical work, with that of The Film Music Society which he was a past President of. The goals of the organization have been to preserve the legacy of film music though rescuing printed scores, original recording elements, and other materials so that it may be preserved for other generations to enjoy. As a preservationist, Elmer Bernstein has helped expand appreciation of the art of writing music for film as well as keeping a cultural legacy available for those who are to come after him.

Elmer Bernstein, as a composer, as a person, by any standards was someone to behold and admire. Simply listing credits and lavishing praise on a career that spanned decades barely scratches the surface on his accomplishments and innovations. His passing, and those others of recent, has left a gaping hole within the community of film music fans as well as the filmmaking world that probably will never be filled and heights never to be reached again. Having at least had a chance to meet the man who, admittedly was my favorite composer of all time, left a lasting impression (including his almost childlike excitement of getting to see a laserdisc [The Great Escape] he had forgotten that he recorded a rather lengthy commentary for) on me forever. I would only hope for those who were also inspired by his work and loved his music will mourn this significant moment and be thankful for all the good he has done and the legacy left us.

Thanks Elmer!

Dan Goldwasser on Elmer Bernstein:

Where David above has noted many of the professional gems in Elmer's long and illustrious career, I will add my own comments that are more of a personal nature.  It was The Ten Commandments that introduced me to the musical world of Elmer Bernstein when I was a child, and it aired on television every spring.  From there, it just kept growing.  As a child of the 80s, my exposure was through more of his comedic works as they were written (Ghostbusters, Airplane!, Spies Like Us), and it was only in digging into his past that I discovered his more timely and amazing classics. 

When I started doing composer interviews back in 1998, my first interview (and scoring session) was with composer Michael Kamen (another talent that has left us all too soon).  The not long after the Lethal Weapon 4 scoring session, I was invited to a reception for the Flanders International Film Festival.  Kamen would be there, so I went.  Little did I realize that they were honoring Elmer Bernstein.  Nervously and timidly, I approached him, and proceeded to have a brief albeit memorable discussion with him about his comedy scores, and their lack of proper soundtrack releases.  I must have said something right, because he smiled, and invited me to my second-ever scoring session.  At the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox.

And so it was, the following day, that I went to the famed stage at Fox, where so many great scores have been recorded, and watched in awe as legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein conducted a large orchestra recording The Deep End of the Ocean.  My second scoring session, and it was Elmer!  I couldn't believe it.  He was so gracious, and so very kind.  We stayed in touch over the next two years, casually, until I realized I might as well do an interview with him about his career.  He didn't have any specific project at the time, but I realized it would be something great to do.  We talked for an hour or so at his studio in Santa Monica, and he was just a pleasure to interact with.

Since that time, I've seen Elmer on and off at various events and functions.  The last time I got to see him in person was at the Society of Composers and Lyricists Academy Award reception in 2003.  He was nominated for Far From Heaven, and I was even able to get a nice picture of myself with him and eventual winner Elliot Goldenthal. It's a photo that I look back on today, with gratitude.

Elmer didn't have it easy these past few years - Rat Race was tossed out, as was his highly anticipated score to Gangs of New York.  He had a few soundtrack projects in the works, and I think a fitting tribute would be to get those finalized and released.  He was 82 years old, and had been working for over 52 years in the film industry. He's blessed us all with the gift of his music, and now there is an empty podium where he once conducted that will never be filled.  He was truly one of the greats, and I will miss him dearly.