A short guide to the incomparable Elmer Bernstein, ahead of his 95th birthday show in June.

For more than 50 years, the incomparable Elmer Bernstein made movies better. His scores could slot seamlessly into nightmarish noirs, give Western heroes a blast of bombast, or counterpoint subversive, groundbreaking comedy – like when he began his fruitful collaboration with John Landis by giving Animal House’s loutish fratboys serious, idolatrous themes.

He infused the sweaty, staggeringly-cynical Sweet Smell of Success with an ineffable jazzy cool. He soundtracked that dazzling slice of pungent Americana, Hud, with the stripped-down sound of deftly sparring Western guitars. And with The Great Escape, he wrote an indelible score that worked just as well accompanying Steve McQueen jumping a fence on a motorbike and Steve McClaren jumping the shark as England manager.

Like many of the greatest artists, his work was utterly distinctive but remarkably diverse. He soundtracked Oscar-winning performances by John Wayne and Gregory Peck, but also Landis’s incredible run of Hollywood comedies – including The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places – and worked with everyone from Martin Scorsese and Michael Jackson to groundbreaking gay director Todd Haynes and delightfully eccentric indie film outsider, William Richert.

This June, we’re delighted to be joined by Elmer’s son Peter Bernstein – a fine composer and conductor in his own right – and host John Landis for the European Premiere of an unmissable new show celebrating Elmer’s life and legacy.

We asked for fans’ favourite scores, and got some great responses:

Here are six of Bernstein’s best:

The Man with the Golden Arm

Otto Preminger, 1955

The trendsetting addiction drama features arguably Frank Sinatra’s greatest performance, a villain of moustache-twirling silliness, and one of the finest jazz scores of all time: the cymbal a hammering heart, the trumpets squealing, cascading, and then calming, as the music mirrors the pulsating panic and cathartic clarity of its hero’s pitiful descent into chemical dependence. Bernstein showed his versatility by scoring Cecil B. De Mille’s mammoth Ten Commandments the following year!

Sweet Smell of Success

Alexander Mackendrick, 1957

A brilliantly horrible late-noir about gorgeous, amoral press agent Tony Curtis sliming his way around a vividly-realised, nocturnal NY, trying to mollify all-powerful Broadway columnist, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). To fully succeed, this snarling satire has to be seductive, this trawl through the seething, rancid underbelly of urban America needs a sharp-suited, sharper-tongued after-hours atmosphere. It gets it thanks to James Wong Howe’s rich location photography, blistering dialogue from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and the textures and timbres of Bernstein’s dangerous, ominous and irresistible score.

The Magnificent Seven

John Sturges, 1960

This is the sound of Hollywood’s Old West, and guaranteed to plaster a big grin all over your face.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Robert Mulligan, 1962

If you need an example of Bernstein’s adaptability and genius, here it is. Given the task of soundtracking this prestige adaptation of Harper Lee’s astonishing novel (then just two years old), he zones in on its rapturous nostalgia, its haunting terror and the crucial fact that it’s shot through the eyes of a child. The result, with its unforgettable music box motif, enhanced by woodwind and ghostly choral voices, plants you vividly – and immediately – in 1930s’ Alabama, where six-year-old Scout is about to receive a lesson in compassion and courage from her crusading attorney father, Atticus Finch.

The Great Escape

John Sturges, 1963

When John Sturges again called on Bernstein to score a big-budget crowd-pleaser – this time the true story of Allied soldiers planning to vacate a Nazi PoW camp – the composer didn’t disappoint, crafting one of the neatest and catchiest movie themes ever written. Not even its inevitable association with yet another laboured England performance against Andorra has dimmed its lustre, and the chance to hear it performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra in June should whet the appetite of any movie music fan.

Far from Heaven

Todd Haynes, 2002

This expert pastiche of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas – particularly All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life – saw Haynes dealing with themes that were resolutely off-limits for moviemakers during the Eisenhower era, including homosexuality and inter-racial relationships. The film is lent unbearable poignancy and beauty by Bernstein’s backwards-looking score, the last and arguably greatest of his career, which draws on the style of classic-era ‘women’s pictures’ but is so far removed from mere homage that it makes your jaw drop, even as the tears well in your eyes.


ELMER BERNSTEIN: 50 YEARS OF FILM MUSIC
To mark what would have been his 95th birthday, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra present the European premiere of a very special concert celebrating Elmer Bernstein’s life through stories and music, narrated and conducted by his son, Peter Bernstein.
Book now