Elmer Bernstein’s life could have been set to music, and for many, it was. Affable, fearless and genuine, the man behind the music that has already surpassed the test of time was a man with a golden touch. His contribution to film music is celebrated. His contribution to new generations of aspiring musicians continues. His exuberance for life is still felt.
In the history of film music, Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) is among the iconic and the legendary. With a career that spanned an unparalleled 5 decades, he composed more than 150 original movie scores and nearly 80 for television, creating some of the most recognizable and memorable themes in Hollywood history: the driving jazz of The Man With the Golden Arm, the rousing Western anthem of The Magnificent Seven, the lyrical and quietly moving music of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the jaunty, thumb-nosing march of The Great Escape. His impact is still felt, and his presence still missed, by moviemakers and moviegoers alike.
Bernstein wound up working as a rehearsal pianist for the ballet sequences in the film version of Oklahoma! and working with Danny Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, jotting down her tunes for The Court Jester at Paramount. A studio music executive, taking pity on Bernstein, introduced him to Cecil B. De Mille, who was then shooting The Ten Commandments and who needed ancient-sounding music for dances in the film. Eventually, Victor Young—who had originally been signed to write the dramatic music—dropped out due to health reasons, and DeMille replaced the ailing composer with Bernstein.
During the year and a half that he was working on The Ten Commandments, he also composed the groundbreaking jazz score for The Man With the Golden Arm for director Otto Preminger.
The soundtrack album for Man With the Golden Arm shot to No. 2 on the Billboard album charts in 1956, becoming one of the first hit movie soundtracks. These scores catapulted Bernstein onto the “A” list of Hollywood composers and wiped out any more talk of “graylisting.” Golden Arm won him his first Oscar nomination and launched a series of jazz-oriented Bernstein scores, including Sweet Smell of Success, The Rat Race, TV’s Staccato and Walk on the Wild Side.
The jazz scores, plus the spate of Westerns and dramas that would dominate the composer’s work throughout the ’60s, helped to solidify his reputation as a master of musical Americana. The robust, exciting music of The Magnificent Seven brought another Oscar nomination and offers to do Westerns of all kinds, including seven John Wayne films, among them The Comancheros (1961), True Grit (1969) and The Shootist (1976).
I really loved the Westerns,” said Bernstein. “They were fun to do, because they addressed themselves to a particular kind of Americana which started with Aaron [Copland]. Also, in my early years, I spent a lot of time with American folk music. It was like discovering a magic world. I think a lot of that stuck with me; it was part of my musical heritage.”
Meanwhile, Bernstein’s close relationship with producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan led to one of his most memorable scores, and for one of the finest American movies ever made: To Kill a Mockingbird. The familiar classic about racial prejudice, set in a small town in the depression-ridden South, won Oscars for Gregory Peck and screenwriter Horton Foote in 1962, and a nomination for Bernstein. His understated music, composed for a chamber-sized ensemble rather than the more traditional full orchestra, quickly became a new model for film composers.
Bernstein’s versatility as a composer was again demonstrated when, the very next year, he created another classic with the theme for The Great Escape, a fact-based World War II adventure film about Allied soldiers who plan an elaborate escape from a prisoner-of-war camp.
Bernstein’s career took a surprising turn in 1978, thanks to a call from his son Peter’s old school chum, John Landis. Landis, then 27 and a film director, asked Bernstein to score his raucous college comedy Animal House starring John Belushi.
Almost overnight, Bernstein became Hollywood’s go-to composer for funny movies, and for the next decade he was largely typecast in that role. Airplane! came in 1980, followed over the next four years by the Saturday Night Live alumni movies, The Blues Brothers (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), Stripes (Bill Murray), and Ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray). For his 1983 comedy, Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, Landis talked Bernstein into crafting a classical score from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, for which he would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adaptation Score.
n Landis’ ¡Three Amigos!, with Steve Martin and Chevy Chase, Bernstein was encouraged to send up his own classic Western style. He eventually tired of comedies, however, and shifted back to smaller, more finely crafted dramas, such as Noel Pearson’s critically acclaimed My Left Foot (1989), starring Daniel Day Lewis.
The Grifters marked Bernstein’s first work with celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese, whose role was that of producer on the con-artist film starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening. In part, Bernstein was hired for his legendary jazz scores of the ’50s and early ’60s. Director Stephen Frears, however, failed to apply Bernstein’s score in the way the composer intended:
For Scorsese as director, Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann’s original Cape Fear score for the 1991 remake; provided the musical atmosphere for Bringing Out the Dead; and wrote a stunning score, although ultimately unused, for Gangs of New York. He received a 1993 Oscar nomination for the elegant music of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
person, Bernstein was warm and approachable, thoughtful and fun-loving; and despite 50 years of being “in the biz,” he was surprisingly optimistic. Actor Edward Norton, who hired Bernstein for his first film as a director (Keeping the Faith, 2000), said: “He is one of the most vibrant people I’ve worked with. It’s his very youthful enthusiasm that makes it so invigorating to work with him. He brings the full depth of his classical training and classic Hollywood experience to the table—but he brings with it the energy of a 28-year-old.”
The energy Edward Norton referred to had few limitations, if any, and Bernstein eagerly embraced different genres and applications of music-making: of note, his scores for the many short films of husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames, beginning in the early 1950s.
Bernstein’s last major film score was for the critically praised, Todd Haynes-directed drama, Far From Heaven, starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert. It earned him his final Academy Award nomination in 2002.
This Jazz On Film release, celebrates the Jazzier side of Bernstein's work, featuring such classics and groundbreaking films such as...
The Man With The Golden Arm, The Sweet Smell of Success, Walk on The Wildside... his iconic score to TV Detective Staccatto,
as well as,
Some Came Running
Kings Go Forth
The Rat Race
The Story On Page One
One of the shortest soundtrack albums associated with a major movie of the 1960s, The Caretakers is also something of a throwback to Elmer Bernstein's work of the previous decade. The album itself is a bit schizophrenic, in that the first side is steeped in a highly accessible light jazz sound, reminiscent at times of the composer's music for pictures such as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). It is a bit smoother in places, however, with the obvious aim at pop appeal on numbers such as "Take Care," "Blues for a 4-String Guitar," and, most of all, the highly danceable "Birdito." And this part of the album marks a fun interlude between more substantial and flavorful Bernstein scores before and after, and obviously didn't require much heavy lifting by anyone concerned at the time -- and it's clear that the musicians are having a great time here. Side two, in contrast, is much more dramatic programmatic music, aimed at highlighting specific harrowing incidents in the picture, and is a lot less accessible -- but it is also a lot more interesting, especially a slow, string- and reed-driven interlude called "The Cage." "Electrotherapy" is effect music that makes excellent use of tuned percussion. It's all first-rate music, the light and "heavy" sides of the album alike, and the only flaw is that there isn't a little bit more of it, and the musicians themselves aren't credited.
Some Came Running (1958)
was a prestigious adaptation of James Jones's second novel, a gargantuan tome about a serviceman (Frank Sinatra) who returns to his rural Indiana hometown following World War II. While struggling to find his purpose in life, he is torn romantically between a luckless floozie (Shirley MacLaine) and an intellectual schoolteacher (Martha Hyer) who appreciates his ambitions as a writer but spurns him romantically. The film features first-rate performances—including Dean Martin as a laconic gambler—and masterful direction by M-G-M's Vincente Minnelli.
Some Came Running was scored by a composer ideally suited to capturing all of the film's aspects: Elmer Bernstein. This was Bernstein's most glorious period, in which he was writing landmark scores for everything from biblical epics (The Ten Commandments) to westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird)—with jazz scores like The Man With the Golden Arm especially capturing the public's attention. Some Came Running continued his association with Frank Sinatra—for whom he scored The Man With the Golden Arm and Kings Go Forth—and offered another opportunity for his brand of big band "film jazz" that had become one of the most dominant and effective sounds in cinema.
Some Came Running required from Bernstein not only a jazz score, but moments of musical Americana for high-minded drama involving life in small-town America. The film practically uses his music as a narrative device to illustrate the two "worlds" in which Sinatra walks: a "legit" orchestral sound for polite society, measured yet evocative, with a love theme for the schoolteacher; and a bluesy, jazzy sound world for the nightlife, with questing woodwinds, ominous bass lines and madcap piano climaxing in a furious chase sequence that leads to the film's tragic conclusion.
Bernstein also interpolates a song by regular Sinatra collaborators Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen, "To Love and Be Loved," making it his own through the orchestration, and provides several original big band source cues. "To Love and Be Loved" is sung on-screen during a nightclub sequence, which is included on the CD. (Neither Sinatra nor Dean Martin sing in the film or on the CD, however.)
Some Came Running is an Elmer Bernstein masterpiece that would have been released on CD by Rhino or FSM years ago but for an odd defect in the stereo master tapes (still not fully understood) that resulted in missing instrumentation in some cues. Fortunately, between the surviving stereo masters in the Warner Bros. vaults, a monaural tape kept by the composer, and acetates stored at the University of Southern California, the complete score has been reconstructed, almost entirely in stereo, with exemplary sound quality. This is cause for celebration, as this is one of Bernstein's—and the era's—very best.
The Man With The Golden Arm
One of the finest jazz soundtracks to come out of the '50s, The Man with the Golden Arm is taken from the Otto Preminger film of the same name. Preminger was always very jazz influenced, and on this film he took his chances with Elmer Bernstein. Although the entire film is not strictly jazz, the awesome dynamics and oddball structure of the music is very based in the genre. Admittedly, the soundtrack works a little better with knowledge of the film, but on its own it still shines as an excellent example of how good film music can get. Bernstein's control over the smallest details of the music is what gives it the energy it contains; his blustery horns and deep percussion are only the front while some gorgeous orchestration happens almost unnoticed behind the music. Fans of Bernstein should definitely give this a listen, as should any fans of mainstream musicians' reaction to the post-bop era of jazz. This is on par with Henry Mancini's brilliant Touch of Evil score and Duke Ellington's strikingly similar Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack.
Sweet Smell of Success
was backed up by an exciting Elmer Bernstein jazz score with dark overtones that underlined the black feeling of the film, intensifying the tension.
These are the sounds of a small section of New York. The section lies between Columbus Circle and Times Square, said Elmer Bernstein. In this tiny empire lives are made and destroyed by the public, critics and columnists. The music reflects the tempo, anguish and frustration in a contemporary, popular idiom. The kind of musical sound which could be coming from any of the many night spots such people frequent.
The Chico Hamilton Quintetwhich appears in several scenesfurnished an integral section of the soundtrack of the film, accenting the pulsating Broadway-by-night setting of the story.
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