Of all the main film composers, Elmer Bernstein’s music is one of the most diverse. He could do westerns, epics, dramas and comedies all extremely well. His output is truly astounding with more than 200 films in his career.
Elmer Bernstein was born in 1922 in New York City. He started piano in his teens and showed immense talent. He took lessons from Henriette Michelson, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions and studied at the Juilliard School. He possibly would have become a concert pianist, but instead was enlisted into the services for World War II. He arranged songs for the United States Army Air Force Band and wrote music for the Armed Forces Radio programs. After the war ended, Bernstein composed for a United Nations Radio show. This led to his invitation to Hollywood by Columbia vice-president Sidney Buchman in 1950 and Bernstein’s first film score in 1951.
During the 50s, Bernstein worked on the dance music on several projects, including the film adaptation of Oklahoma! and Peter Pan for Broadway/television. As it was the McCarthy era, Bernstein’s political views landed him second rate movies for many years. It wasn’t until 1955 when Bernstein got his biggest scores, one being Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Bernstein was planned to do the dance arrangements, but since DeMille’s go-to composer Victor Young was sick, DeMille asked Bernstein to take over the whole score. The score is indeed as epic in scope as the film is. Featuring horns and strings, the music is lush and melodic and triumphant. At the same time as The Ten Commandments, Bernstein worked on his other big score – The Man with the Golden Arm. For this tale of drug addicted jazz musician, Bernstein used a non-traditional jazz score. He got his first Oscar nomination for it. He used jazz again in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success.
Bernstein had numerous films in the 1960s, each changing styles and genres. The Magnificent Seven (1960) is perhaps the most quoted western theme. He received another Oscar nomination for the score; the theme was used in Marlboro commercials and made the AFI top 10 scores. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is an example of Bernstein’s variety as a composer. The Oscar nominated score features another non-traditional orchestra, with the main titles being played by piano, flute and strings. The score has some aspects of Americana, similar to music by Aaron Copland. Other notable scores in the 60s include Hud (1963), The Great Escape (1963), The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and True Grit (1969). Bernstein continued writing westerns and scoring many of the John Wayne films. His only Oscar win came from Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Another turn in his career came when he scored Animal House (1978). Instead of a usual lighthearted comedy score, he became the straight man and scored it like a drama. This is most obvious in the motivational speech scene. This style of score in a comedy became standard, and Bernstein worked on films like Meatballs (1979), Airplane! (1980), Stripes (1981), Trading Places (1983) and Ghostbusters (1984).
To avoid being a typecast composer, Bernstein turned to more dramas and other styles, scoring films like My Left Foot (1989). Bernstein began collaboration with Martin Scorsese for the remake Cape Fear (1991). Bernstein used Bernard Herrmann’s original themes and incorporated themes from Herrmann’s rejected score to Torn Curtain. Bernstein also composed the score to Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) which landed him another Oscar nomination. He also did Bringing out the Dead for Scorsese in 1999, but his Gangs of New York score was rejected and replaced by Howard Shore. Like many other film composers, he wrote for the concert stage. He also ventured into composing for Broadway – with shows like How Now Dow Jones (1967) and Merlin (1983) and got Tony nominated for both. He continued to find original sounds for his film scores even as he scored his final film Far from Heaven in 2002. Bernstein died in 2004, a giant loss to the film community.
During his lengthy career, Elmer Bernstein earned 14 Oscar nominations, 3 Golden Globe nominations, 2 Tony nominations, and several Grammy nominations. He was also on the board and vice-president of the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and president of many other organizations. Bernstein’s scores sound as fresh and innovative as when he composed them. The variety and material in his scores is what makes him one of the best film composers.