Elmer Bernstein

By: Franklin Bruno
April 4, 2010

Though late-career encomia praised his “identifiable and unmistakable” voice, in the case of film composer ELMER BERNSTEIN (1922-2004), such boilerplate misses the point. Yes, 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm pioneered small-group jazz as an alternative to the Germanic expressionism of 1940s film music, but his own vast orchestrations for The Ten Commandments were heard a year later. (That film rescued the composer from the HUAC graylist, and assignments like Robot Monster.) And yes, his themes to The Magnificent Seven (which also sold untold Marlboros) and The Great Escape (now a UK football anthem) share a certain jaunty brawn, but their echoes of early mentor Aaron Copland constitute just a few moments out of over 200 feature-length scores. In the 1980s, his stylistic mastery made him the go-to guy for comedic pastiches of movie music conventions (Animal House, Airplane!), but after turning down Ghostbusters II, he concentrated on meatier projects, including eight films with Martin Scorsese (notably, the perfectly paced Americana of The Age of Innocence). If a career that began with DeMille and ended with Haynes (Far From Heaven) doesn’t bespeak Bernstein’s range, consider: who else would have scored both stop-motion shorts for Charles and Ray Eames (Toccata for Toy Trains) and the wraparounds for the long-form video for “Thriller”?


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