He who lives by the score

Elmer Bernstein has written some of the most famous film scores in history, not least those for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. But what exactly is it that makes soundtrack music great? If anyone knows, Elmer will know.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
No, Elmer Bernstein confides, he does not hum the soundtracks to his own movies. The 76-year-old composer is responsible for some of the most catchy melodies in film history. His themes for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape are whistled the world over. He has scored over 200 films, from To Kill A Mockingbird to Cape Fear, but it is not necessarily his own work which gnaws away at him in his private moments. "My bete noir is an album by my daughter, who is a songwriter. I just can't get it out of my head."

Bernstein was in Belgium recently to give a concert at the Flanders Film Festival, "a melange of music from The Age Of Innocence and The Magnificent Seven," he explains. His most recent movie, Twilight, starring Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon, is released this week. Last month, he also recorded an album of film songs with Neil Diamond. Several new features are also pencilled in on the horizon.

New York-born, he is nicknamed Bernstein West - as in West Coast and Hollywood - to distinguish him from his namesake, Leonard Bernstein, who was known as Bernstein East. A former student with Aaron Copland, he was grey-listed in the McCarthy era, which meant that in the early Fifties he was scoring B-movies such as Robot Monster and Cat Women Of The Moon. His music for Otto Preminger's The Man With The Golden Arm (1956) marked him out as the most distinctive film composer of his generation. Since then, he has been Oscar-nominated 13 times.

He won't be drawn on what constitutes the perfect movie score but his views on certain key scores reveals much about what makes a soundtrack.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Dir: John Sturges

Composer: Elmer Bernstein

"Now we get to the question - should the audience notice the music? I really liked the film when I saw it without music. But it was on the slow side. That's alright in a highly personal story, but in an adventure, shoot-'em-up cowboy film, pace is very important. The function of the music was therefore to get on top of the film and to drive it along. Of course, in that kind of case, you do notice the music - and you're meant to. I'm often asked what I consider to be the most important attribute of the film composer. Assuming that the person can write music, which is not in fact always the case these days, what is most important is that he or she is a dramatist."

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Dir: William Dieterle

Composer: Bernard Herrmann

"This isn't one of Herrmann's best-known titles but it had a great effect on my decision to become a film music composer. It was one of the earliest scores in the history of film music that had a peculiarly American voice. Herrmann fell back on a lot of folk music. If you think about who was writing film music in the United States in the Forties, the names that spring to mind are Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin - these are all people who came from middle Europe, with a middle-European, symphonic sensibility. Along comes Bernard with a plaintive, less orchestrated American folk song idiom - an American sensibility that was very different."

The Heiress (1949)

Dir: William Wyler

Composer: Aaron Copland

"This was Wyler's adaptation of the Henry James novel, Washington Square. Aaron's was obviously very much an American voice. Unfortunately, his score, which was brilliant, was operated on a bit surgically, and not to the advantage of the music. When I did The Age Of Innocence for Scorsese, I went the other way - I went back to middle Europe. That score is unashamedly related to Brahms. These jumped-up, up-market people in the States, well, what would they have been listening to in 1870? They'd have been listening to European music."

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Dir: Billy Wilder

Composer: Franz Waxman;

and Spellbound (1945)

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock

Composer: Miklos Rozsa

"There's a tremendous sense of excitement about the Sunset Boulevard score. That was Waxman's thing. It's the kind of music that keeps you on the edge of the seat. He did the same in Rebecca. A Waxman score is very different from, say, a Miklos Rozsa score. Rozsa is comfortable and satisfying, but sometimes inventive when you least expect it. The risk he took in Spellbound, using the theremin (one of the earliest electronic instruments) was brave at that time. He takes your attention. You say, "whoo!"

The Man With The Golden Arm (1956)

Dir: Otto Preminger

Composer: Elmer Bernstein

"The Man With The Golden Arm was the first film to use jazz as the main thrust of the entire score. Originally, I wanted to do the score as a concerto to camera for a small jazz group and a large symphony orchestra. As time went on, I decided a small jazz group wouldn't give me the power I needed. I went to speak to Preminger about it. He was a scary character. I thought that he was simply going to throw me out of the office when I told him that what I had in mind was to do the entire score as a jazz- based score. But what he said was something very uncharacteristic for him. He told me that that was what I had been hired for, and that that is what I should go away and do."

Titanic (1997)

Dir: James Cameron

Composer: James Horner

"There are a lot of my colleagues who, for some reason or another, are James Horner bashers. I'm not among them. He's a good composer and I think he has done some extraordinary things. I think that his score for Field Of Dreams is probably the best electronic score that has ever been written. But I didn't like Titanic. James's score wasn't really allowed to work in the film. Half of the time, you couldn't really hear it properly. It was drowned out. Luckily for him, the song survived, but that whole film feels very wrong-footed to me."

Kundun (1997)

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Composer: Philip Glass

"I was very taken with this score. It's interesting that I should be because I have a relationship with Scorsese and it was a film I had wanted to do myself. The basic effect of this kind of minimalism is mesmeric, and anything mesmeric begins to feel spiritual."

Twilight (1997)

Dir: Robert Benton

Composer: Elmer Bernstein

"The best film music can do something which is maybe implicit in the film but not totally explicit. Twilight was an example of where the music is amplifying something implicit in the film. There is obviously a sexual attraction between the two main characters, Susan Sarandon and Paul Newman. In the score, I try to imbue the entire sense of the film with a kind of sexuality. It's not in your face all the time. It takes the form of the chord structure I use, which is slithery, rather than straightforward. All the sounds tend to be below Middle C in that throaty, sexy area. To me, one of the sexiest sounds in the world is the low end of a flute."