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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Movie composer still knows the score after half-century

Associated Press

BERNSTEIN: More than 180 film score credits
Elmer Bernstein has written scores and scores of film scores:

The brawny, big-sky theme from "The Magnificent Seven" — probably the best-known movie theme ever (especially to people old enough to remember Marlboro commercials). The violent, nerve-jangling jazz in "The Man With The Golden Arm." The heart-rending grace notes in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Even the music for such comedies as "Animal House" and "Airplane!"

The 79-year-old composer, who's written more than 180 film scores, is celebrating a half century as a movie music maker, and Turner Classic Movies is marking the anniversary with a 31-film festival throughout May, airing three to four each Wednesday and Friday. (Most air in the afternoons, Hawai'i time; "To Kill a Mockingbird" will be seen at 2 p.m. today on TCM. Check listings for other Bernstein-scored classics.)

Bernstein will be an occasional co-host with TCM's Robert Osborne, adding his personal insight on the films and his scores.

"Film music, properly done, should give the film a kind of emotional rail on which to ride," Bernstein said in a telephone interview from his Woodstock, N.Y., vacation home before heading to Atlanta to tape the TCM segments.

"It shouldn't be music heard in the sense of music heard in a concert hall, because the great thing about what it could do in a film is subtle. In other words, without even realizing that you're listening to music that's doing something to your emotions, you will have an emotional experience, which is really the best function of film music."

In recent years, though, Bernstein believes that corporate greed has inflicted "inappropriate" music on the moviegoing public.

Look at the credits at the end of almost any film today, he suggests, and you'll see a list of songs constituting a CD the studios hope to sell.

"The only reason those things are there is not to heighten the emotional experience of the film; they're there with the hope of making a soundtrack that will make some money," said the 13-time Academy Award nominee, whose one Oscar came for his "Thoroughly Modern Millie" score in 1968.

"Every once in a while it works gangbusters," he said, citing last year's Coen brothers movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "That score was just great, because it was appropriate."

And there's the rare instance of a score that doesn't seem appropriate but works, like 1967's "The Graduate."

"That score is full of great songs. Great songs! But they're great songs that didn't necessarily have to do with the action of the film," Bernstein observed.

He realizes that the modern effort to stuff films with songs to make a soundtrack that will sell comes is partially because many moviegoers are young. "If you have to attract 14-year-old kids, you're gonna tend to want to give them the kind of music that they live with."

Undaunted by box-office demographics, the protean and prolific Bernstein says: "Music can have very many different uses."

When he approaches a film, he first thinks: "Why are we having music?"

Besides the essential emotional element, there's the "atmospheric" aspect. That came into play when he wrote "The Man With the Golden Arm" score, which was seen as a historic contribution to screen music.

"Until now jazz has been used as a specialty or a culmination of a plot point," the Hollywood Reporter's Jack Moffitt wrote in his review of the 1955 film that starred Frank Sinatra as a junkie jazzman. "It remained for Bernstein to prove that it can be used as a sustained and continuous storytelling element in underscoring the mood elements of the picture."

In "The Magnificent Seven," the music does something different: energize. Next time you watch it, notice that the music is swelling while not much is going on.

And if it seems evocative of Aaron Copland, there's a good reason. "He was, in effect, my first teacher," said Bernstein, who was considered a musical genius as age 12.

TCM's tribute to Bernstein kicks off today with "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Hud" and "Some Came Running."

The movies will be presented in themed evenings, such as "Early Elmer" on Friday, featuring his first film, 1951's "Saturday's Hero," and "The Man With the Golden Arm." Then there's "Elmer and the Duke" on May 11, featuring two movies starring John Wayne. May 16 will be "Magnificent Seven" night, and "The Great Escape" will be a part of "War Movies" night on May 25.

"I feel very honored by their interest in doing this," said Bernstein, who is also a five-time Grammy and two-time Tony nominee.

Along the way, Bernstein faced two major obstacles: typecasting (yes, he says, it happens to composers, too) and "gray-listing" during the McCarthy era.

He hurdled the first problem himself. After successful periods scoring Westerns and comedies, he purposely did movies with varied styles and subjects.

And he credits a Hollywood legend for helping him break out of the professional limbo he found himself in during the '50s, when he was accused of being a fellow traveler of the Communist Party. He was stuck working on such movies as "Robot Monster," "Cat Women of the Moon" and "Miss Robin Crusoe" when Cecil B. DeMille hired him for "The Ten Commandments."

Nearly 50 years later, Bernstein is starting to work on the score of Martin Scorsese's next movie, "Gangs of New York." The mere fact that he's still working, he laughs, is "a sort of Guinness World Book of Records situation."