summary by Jasper McCutcheon
A film composer whose career spanned from the 1950s to the first part of the 21st Century, Elmer Bernstein was born in New York City in 1922.
Though his score for the film musical Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews in 1967 won Bernstein his only Oscar, his music for films ranged from Biblical spectacles to westerns to war sagas to poignant dramas.
My focus will be on his film scores, but Bernstein also penned music for television (National Geographic theme), the Broadway stage (1954's Peter Pan with Mary Martin), and even some music videos (orchestral background for Michael Jackson's Thriller video).
Most people have seen at one time or another The Ten Commandments on television each spring during the Passover/Easter holidays, and it is sometimes Bernstein's melodies that remain in the viewer's mind. As themes for Moses, played by Charlton Heston, and Nefritiri, portrayed by Ann Baxter, Bernstein presents melodies erotic and sensual when the two are together on screen. This, of course, is a love that cannot last, for once Moses learns he is Hebrew and not Egyptian, his only ambition is to satisfy his god and lead his people out of their bondage from Egypt. Bernstein introduces a new theme for the new Moses, with melodies and atmospheres to evoke strength, faith and reverence. The triumphal march Bernstein wrote for when Moses and his followers begin their long journey to the promised land is one of the most-recognized film themes of all time, as is the visual scene itself.
Remember the theme for the Marlboro Man? That came from Bernstein's score for the film The Magnificent Seven, a western with Yul Brynner and Steve Mcqueen released in 1960. Again, it is one of the most memorable and hummable film melodies every written.
Bernstein uses gritty jazz styles in two flims: Walk on the Wild Side 1962, and Man with the Golden Arm 1955. Both movies depict the seedier sides of life, the former about prostitution in New Orleans with hints of lesbianism between Capucine and Barbara Stanwyck, and the latter about the power of heroin addiction destroying the life of a former card dealer, now musician (drummer) played by Frank Sinatra. Both scores offer some harsh dissonance of notes to give a feel for society's underbelly and to evoke moods of sex and sleaze. For this, Bernstein's music makes good use of the sexually-enticing saxophone.
For a complete contrast of moods, Bernstein's score for the memorable To Kill a Mockingbird starts with a child humming during the credits, and then the composer expertly and softly introduces a countermelody with orchestra bells, followed by the main theme with woodwinds, until finally the full orchestra of strings and brass set the stage for drama to come. The music is poignantly subtle, as the innocence of wide-eyed youth envelopes the viewer. The youths represented are Jem and Scout, the two children of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a small Southern town who must defend a black man accused of attacking a white woman. This theme will be used throughout the film, sometimes with tenderness, other times with sweeping drama of full orchestra, but each time this melody is heard emotions must be felt. It is as powerful as the story itself. Only a person with no soul can watch this film and not be moved, and the music provided by Elmer Bernstein is every bit equal to the movie itself.
I personally cannot hear the music Bernstein wrote for this movie without choking up, and I even mentioned this in one of my recordings about a secret family. It is easy to understand why Jasper can't control himself. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest collaborations of artistry ever put to film. The story, adapted from the book by Harper Lee of same title; all actors, especially Gregory Peck as Atticus, Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, Mary Badham as Scout, Philip Alford as Jem, and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley; the direction of Robert Mulligan; the screenplay of Horton Foote, and every other contributor to this project all combine to make an American film classic. Elmer Bernstein's score is very much a part of the effect. Set in the 1930s, the movie was released Christmas Day 1962 and will always be powerful and relevant, today and beyond.