An interview with Elmer Bernstein by Roger Hall
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.78/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Roger Hall
This year is the half-century mark for one of Hollywood’s best-known film composers. Elmer Bernstein has been composing film scores longer than any living Hollywood composer. During the past fifty years, he has composed over 230 scores for films and television. So far he has received thirteen Oscar nominations. His nine score nominations range from his first one for THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM in 1955, to his most recent one for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE in 1993. He has also been nominated four times for Best Song: ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ (1962); ‘My Wishing Doll’ (1966); ‘True Grit’ (1969); and ‘Wherever Love Takes Me’ (1974). So far, he has one Oscar for his score adaptation of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE in 1967.
First of all, congratulations on your 50th anniversary in the film scoring world. Could you explain how you got started in film scoring?
A friend, namely Millard Lampell, had written a novel called ‘The Hero’, which was bought for production by Columbia Pictures. Through his friendship with the producer, Sidney Buckman, the company was persuaded to employ me to write the music.
I assume that was your first film score. What was the title and when was it released?
SATURDAY’S HERO in 1951.
Composers often begin by scoring some pretty bad movies. I’ll never forget when I first heard your score for ROBOT MONSTER on late, late night television back in the 1950s. This is considered one of the worst films ever made. Yet you composed a very impressive score for it. Can you tell how that score was put together?
The score to ROBOT MONSTER was originally a result of the economics that had to be practiced, which led me to employ a great deal of electronics long before the time they became really popular.
Any plans to record any of this score or any of your early ‘50s scores for Amber or some other label?
No plans at the present time.
In the mid-1950s, you worked on the monumental epic, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Did you enjoy working on that film?
As far as scoring THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, I would have to say that it was the most interesting and exciting time I ever had working on a film.
You mentioned at an address for the Film Music Society in 1998 that this film score was the “least me and most Cecil B. DeMille.” You further explained – “I mean, it’s very little of me. We’re talking about paying the rent big time.” Was this strictly a money project? How do you feel about the popularity of this epic score and others, like HAWAII?
DeMille knew exactly what he wanted interpretatively, so that I was more directed conceptually in that score more than in any other. But I am proud of what I did as far as that is concerned. I think that both THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and HAWAII, as they are strongly melodic, translate very well to CDs and the fact that they are melodic is probably the reason for their popularity.
Was the score made more difficult by the departure of Victor Young, who had been originally assigned the film score?
Victor Young was still very much alive while I was working on the film. He had chosen not to work on the film as a result of his illness. He passed away almost on the very night that the film previewed in New York City.
At that time you worked on another high profile film project. Your jazz-oriented score for THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM has received much praise. Had you studied jazz techniques?
I didn’t consciously study jazz. My father was a great aficionado of jazz music, and the house was full of those sounds.
Was it helpful to work on that film with such jazz greats as Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne?
There is no question that they both made creative contributions, in the sense that as jazz is an improvisatory art. Part of its feel depends upon the improvisatory abilities of the people that play it. In Shorty and Shelly I had two of the greatest. The nature of the score energized the film and communicated what the film was about in both a practical and emotional way.
Which of your jazz-based scores do you prefer?
Actually, my favorite jazz-based score is SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. Although I do believe that the jazz score for THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM did the most for the film.
If you were to select just one of your many film scores, which one would you say was your best?
This is a very difficult question to answer because I always give my best effort. However, the most successful film score that I have written would be TO KILLA MOCKINGBIRD because the interaction of music and film is most satisfying.
Will you explain how the lovely opening theme for that film was composed?
The main theme of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was a long process. It took about six weeks before I was able to arrive at it, as I was having difficulty determining what the function of the music was to be in the film. It was only when I realized that it was about an adult world seen through the eyes of children, that I began to think of the theme as it is played on the piano and the flute.
Would you say this type of simple thematic material is lacking in today’s film scores?
During the 1960s, you became known especially for western scores. Which of these films would you say was your favorite?
As far as westerns are concerned, there is no question that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is my favorite score of that kind, as I believe it to be the most innovative.
You also became associated with John Wayne westerns, like THE COMANCHEROS, SONS OF KATIE ELDER, and TRUE GRIT. Did you find this association agreeable?
My association with John Wayne was most agreeable and friendly. He enjoyed what I did and never attempted to interfere in the creative process.
In the 1980s, you worked on some big comedies like TRADING PLACES and GHOST BUSTERS. How would you compare writing a comedy score to a dramatic score?
Curiously, one of the reasons that the comedy scores worked is that I made no attempt to differentiate them both from the dramatic scores and believed that “playing it straight” created the comic atmosphere.
Among the hundreds of scores you have written over the past five decades are some overlooked gems. I believe one of these is your score for FIVE DAYS ONE SUMMER from 1982. Can you explain how you achieved the evocative music for that dramatic love story?
The story for FIVE DAYS ONE SUMMER is the instrument. The instrument is the Ondes Martenot that creates a magical and airy atmosphere, which I thought was appropriate to the film.
Yes, I recall you saying that you first used that instrument in your HEAVY METAL score in 1981. One past composer who also used unconventional instruments was Bernard Herrmann. What do you think of his film music and are there any other past film composers you especially admire?
There is no question that in my pantheon of film composers, Bernard Herrmann would occupy the first place. With him would be Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and David Raksin.
How about today’s composers?
Among my contemporaries are the two most obvious ones – Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams – both of whom I admire greatly. Of the younger generation, I certainly admire the work of Thomas Newman and James Newton Howard.
There have been complaints that too many of today’s scores are bland and sound alike. If you were to offer a suggestion how to improve this situation, what would it be?
I can’t think of anything constructive to say about how to improve the film music situation as it exists today. There has been a constant dumbing down of society as a whole, as a result of the state of pop music and television and the fact that entertainment seems to be supported by the twelve-to-twenty population. This has resulted in pandering to the tastes of unformed minds of children. And as the film industry and record industry are devoted solely to money, I don’t see how this situation will be remedied.
Do you think film scores should be considered on their own terms or be included as an area of classical or pop music?
I am totally opposed to any classification of music, and it is particularly ridiculous in pop music, where every quirk gives it a name or classification. Music should succeed on its merit, not its classification.
Rather than list all of the many film scores by Elmer Bernstein available on CD, I have selected a few recommended compilations with complete soundtracks and themes by Bernstein:
Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Collection (Film Score Monthly, 2006, 12 CD Box Set). The soundtracks were conducted by Elmer Bernstein and were recorded between 1974-1979 with these film composers featured: Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Miklós Rózsa, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Franz Waxman. Soundtracks by Elmer Bernstein in this CD Set: TOCCATA FOR TOY TRAINS (1957), THE MIRACLE (1959), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), KINGS OF THE SUN (1963) – First complete recording.
Great Composers: Elmer Bernstein (Varese Sarabande, 1999). These soundtracks conducted by Elmer Bernstein: THE SHOOTIST, THE COMMANCHEROS, TRUE GRIT, WILD WILD WEST, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, MY LEFT FOOT, FRANKIE STARLIGHT, LOST IN YONKERS, A RAGE IN HARLEM, THE GRIFTERS, THE BLACK CAULDRON, BUDDY.
The Essential Elmer Bernstein Film Music Collection (Silva Screen Records Ltd., 2005). This 2 CD set dedicated to the memory of Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004), The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, National Jazz Orchestra, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Conducted by Nic Raine, Paul Bateman, Bill Ashton, James Fitzpatrick. There are 26 soundtrack themes and suites, including premiere recordings of themes from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, AIRPLANE, THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE.